La Seu rises above the tree canopy
La Seu rises above the tree canopy

Palma, Mallorca: A quiet slice of heaven, a stone's throw from Magaluf

While her compatriots may be drinking themselves into a stupor elsewhere on the island, Grace Dent immerses herself in a more serene setting and soon falls in love with this Balearic beauty

Grace Dent@gracedent
Friday 23 October 2015 10:24

It was implied in the Howard Marks biopic, Mr Nice, that Palma's idyllic, but snoozy, ambience left him no option but to recommence his career as a drugs baron, simply to shake life up. All those delightful, winding alleys behind the cathedral, La Seu, cluttered with olive-wood souvenir kiosks and spots to sup sherry. The tapas, the tiny yet meaningful art gallery, and the marina filled with multimillion-pound yachts spilling with glorious, tanned retinue. Apparently this all gets old after a while.

It didn't for me, but then, utterly foolishly, I booked a whip-fast four-day break, swiftly to find myself in the return taxi to Palma airport in a highly sombre mood. It was 8am as my other half and I swept along Palma's seafront prom, the indomitable Mallorcan sunshine was scorching joggers and the fervent dog-walking community. Small, no-frills sea-view cortado spots were gearing up for another day of tourist trade, but this time without us. Howard Marks, I thought – and not for the first time – you seem like a bit of a berk.

But I'd misunderstood Palma, seeing it as little more than a pit-stop for Britain's most skilful vomiters, shaggers and fried-breakfast guzzlers en route to Magaluf. Before I came here, I somehow surmised it would be a little like Ibiza's San Antonio: built-up, boozy and, after closing time, slightly belligerent. But at 2am as we wandered back from a cocktail bar near the Palau de l'Almudaina, Palma's old town streets had emptied and only stray cats and the odd tipsy pair of octogenarians crossed our path.

Sant Francesc Hotel Singular

It was time for a cool, clear look at the actually rather elegant Palma – only two hours by air from the UK, completely do-able for a Friday night dash to the sunshine. The sumptuous new five-star Sant Francesc Hotel Singular – situated in one of Palma's oldest quarters, which dates back to the Arabian Madina Mayurqa settlement – is gorgeously sedate. This restored, capacious, 19th-century mansion is a calming blend of French oak-beamed spaces and cool Mallorcan stone. The building once belonged to the Alomar Femenia family and is a Spanish landmark, built in Neoclassical style.

And with only 40 or so rooms, it's almost possible to avoid your fellow guests entirely. In fact, I adopted the air of a sun-drenched Spanish monarch tootling around her town residence, enjoying downtime for my entire stay. Sweeping down the vast glamorous staircase into the lobby area, reading on the candle-lit cocktail patio with a Hemingway daiquiri, or sprawling about by the decidedly chic rooftop pool overlooking the secluded square, sipping a gin and tonic that could stun an elephant. Occasionally a car might pull up outside the very impressive Sant Francesc basilica and monastery, delivering some of Palma's elderly worshippers to late-afternoon mass, but aside from this, Palma felt like my glorious secret.

Quadrat, the hotel's restaurant, located in a converted stable block, offers fine dining by chef Simon Petutschnig. Yet I can't help but feel the star of the culinary show is breakfast, when the terrace is set for informal al fresco grazing with a buffet of warm baguette, iberican cold cuts and diet-destroying carrot cake.

Birds chirp and carouse, industriously weaving around the terrace's decidedly high- maintenance greenery wall. Once you have watched the episode of Keeping up with the Kardashians where Kim and Kanye decide they want an 80ft living greenery wall in their home, and its ensuing, unending hassle, you will never sniff at a decorative bank of succulents again.

Courteous staff appear to bring freshly made crêpes with red berries and chocolate sauce. It's not the done thing to declare breakfast one of the pinnacles of any mini-break, but I so frequently do. Particularly if they hear my accent and fetch me an ironed broadsheet on a wooden pole.

In the middle of our holiday we skipped the day's opening meal and headed to the Michelin-starred Simply Fosh for the set menu – amicably priced at €26 for three courses. Marc Fosh began his culinary career at London's Greenhouse restaurant, then the Chelsea Room at the Carlton Tower Hotel. He's the first and only British chef to be awarded a Michelin star in Spain. If you treat yourself, expect delicate dishes that may be challenging to the more traditional diner. A yellow gazpacho is mildly titivated with fragments of Soller prawns, cous cous, mango and mint. A minute portion of “paella” is in actual fact bomba rice with herb chlorophyll, smoked eel and young almonds.

We walked from here to the Es Baluard Museum of Contemporary Art for a look at pieces by Miro and Picasso, accompanied by a requisite amount of befuddling “modern” work. But if this all sounds rather serious, ignore me and head for tapas and wine-tasting at the rather daftly named Wineing. Around 50 Balearic Islands' wines are available on a serve-yourself basis, from machines dotted about the restaurant, including Vega Sicilia, Flor de Pingus, a range from Torres, plus great European options such as Château Belair or Sassicaia. Collect a card from the waitress when you arrive and try a small snifter, a half glass or a full one. Not just boozing, but educational boozing.

On our final afternoon we ambled around the spellbinding Catedral de Santa María de Palma, known as Le Seu, which was begun by James I of Aragon in 1229, with building work dragging on – as it tends to – until 1601. Antoni Gaudí stepped in at the turn of the 20th century, hoping to renovate the cathedral, although by 1914 he'd flounced off the project after a square-up with the contractor. This was a pleasant sight-seeing jaunt, but more than this, it made me feel a lot better about the mess that the last gang of builders made of my bathroom tiling.

That night we dined, as nudged to by everyone we spoke to, at Duke Restaurant on Calle Soller, in the Santa Catalina area; a sort of Palma/Shoreditch hybrid full of arty, studenty types, surfers who'd fallen off yachts five months previously, wandered into a bar and never quite left, and a big, bustling food market.

Duke's is something of an institution, it is noisy – all languages are being spoken at once – and the cuisine is decidedly international. Okay, I'm being polite, Duke's is a wild hotch-potch of koftas, ceviche, cous cous and curries cooked by someone spinning a lot of plates at once – and it absolutely feels like it. In fact, like many great vacation dinners, I'm still trying to work out whether I enjoyed my lamb tagine or, after a Mai Tai and one other lurid cocktail advertised in neon chalk on a blackboard, I was simply enjoying “being alive” and not being on the sofa in London sipping a glass of weak lemon squash.

I've pined for Palma ever since leaving, exalting its virtues to anyone who'd listen. Yes, I'm aware somewhere up the coast in Mallorca our fellow countrymen are hitting each other over the heads with inflatable penises and troubling emergency rooms with fresh body art gone septic. But there's also a place on the island for the pristine and peaceful Brit, and for us, Palma is a small, highly civilised slice of heaven.

Getting there

Palma is served from the UK by easyJet (0843 104 5000;, Ryanair (0871 246 0000;, Jet2 (0800 408 1350;, British Airways (0844 493 0787;, Norwegian (0330 828 0854; and Monarch (0333 003 0700;

Staying there

Sant Francesc Hotel Singular, Plaza Sant Francesc 5, Palma de Mallorca (00 34 971 495 131; Double rooms start at €212, including breakfast.

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