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These Spanish isles are popular with Europeans but not yet with Americans, who are missing out on a Mediterranean paradise.
Mention that you’re going to the Balearic Islands and you might get a quizzical look, as the archipelago’s four largest islands are better known by their individual names. Most famous is Mallorca (or Majorca, if you choose the Spanish rather than the Catalan spelling). The others are Ibiza, Menorca and Formentera. They are all part of Spain and lie in the Mediterranean Sea, between the Spanish mainland and Africa.
Tourism sparks the economy and the Balearics rank as popular summertime vacations spots for Spaniards and other Europeans. About two million tourists from the UK visit annually, but relatively few Americans. They’re missing something, because the Balearics offer white sandy beaches, intrinsic beauty, rural retreats and A-list eateries.
Here’s a look at each island and the most memorable attractions you’ll find there.
Culturally Rich Mallorca
Mallorca, the largest isle of the group, offers a wider range of scenery and activities than any other European island. It boasts pine-forested mountains (up to 4,000 feet high), dramatic sloping coastlines, lively fishing ports, ancient monasteries and the historic and continental city of Palma.
An unusual and fun way to sightsee Palma is by Segway. After a quick lesson, you’ll scoot by signs of sprawling wealth in the yacht-filled harbor and take in the famous, grand Gothic Cathedral, La Seu. The cathedral stands on the foundation of the Moorish mosque that was built after the Christian reconquest in 1299. Return later to explore the interior splendor and enjoy a nighttime illuminated view that emphasizes the cathedral’s vast scale and Gothic elegance. At the harbor’s opposite end stand the white, circular battlements of the 14th century Bellver Castle.
My tour proceeded up tree-lined avenues past the Almudaina Palace to the central paseo known as Es Born. The elongated plaza once hosted jousting tournaments and now acts as the hub of Palma’s social life. Residents and visitors dine late into the night in the cafés or sit with a coffee and people watch. Try an ensaimada, a local favorite that consists of a spiral of pastry dusted with sugar. Shoppers enjoy the sleek, sophisticated boutiques at the top of Es Born while art lovers appreciate the world-class Pilar and Joan Miró Fundacion museums.
The village of Valldemossa, in the Tramuntana foothills, holds allure with its 13th century Carthusian monastery, Real Cartuja. It was at this royal sanctuary that scandal-prone French author George Sand and her Polish love Frederic Chopin spent the winter of 1838. Sand wrote the book A Winter in Majorca (an unflattering tome), and Chopin turned out one of his better compositions, “Raindrop” Prelude. The cloisters contain famous works by Miró and Picasso.
A wander through Valldemossa’s tiny lanes and blonde-hued stone houses and shops introduces you to picture-postcard-worthy scenes. Greenery and flowers line each doorway and street, making the town one of the most beautiful in Spain. Look for the traditional symbol of Mallorca’s patron saint, Catalina Thomàs, near the homes’ entrances, placed there to protect them from harm.
One of Mallorca’s most unusual diversions is riding the old-time train from Palma to Sóller. You can sit in a wooden car aboard a narrow-gauge train straight from the pages of an Agatha Christie novel and chug through the mountains. The train stops amid orange and almond groves and allows time to visit antique shops, boutiques and the historic sites. Afterward, take a tram to Sóller’s port and spend some minutes lazing on the little in-town beach.
If you rent a car, a drive to Deià is a must, though you’ll find the hamlet hard to leave. Imagine sitting at the edge of high mountains veering sharply down to the sea and browsing around weathered stone cottages and cobbled lanes. The clay-roofed town has been a haunt of writers and artists ever since the late English poet and author Robert Graves adopted it as his permanent home in the 1930s.
Mallorca also offers some of Europe’s finest golf courses, along with tennis, cycling, horseback riding and water pursuits. And you’ll have plenty of opportunities for such activities, because the island enjoys more than 300 days of sunshine per year. As Gertrude Stein summed up the place, “It’s paradise—if you can stand it.”
Ibiza attracts those looking for lively nightlife and laid-back attitudes. The Moors gave it the distinctive character that led to its name—the White Island. When you look down on the harbor from the top of Ibiza’s ancient fortress, you can see white adobe cube architecture similar to what you’d find in the Greek Isles. And wearing all-white clothing is a chic look called Adlib or Ibiza fashion. The style utilizes natural, gauzy fabrics in harmony with the body’s natural movement.
In the 1960s, hordes of hippies established themselves on Ibiza and their free-spirited attitude remains firmly entrenched. Carefree Bohemian artists, musicians and nonconformists are called to this isle. Boating and water sports remain popular, as is sunbathing. (The island’s southern tip features nudist beaches.)
The old harbor district, Calle de la Virgen, draws a parade of flamboyant characters and tourists who party from dusk till dawn. By day, however, the plaza, marketplace and boutiques are stylish and calm.
Make time to meander through Dalt Vila, the capital city in the upper town of Evissa, a UNESCO World Heritage Site—one of four on the island. A citadel guards the tight corridors and medieval streets that crowd together over the almost circular bay.
Hip beach clubs, like Blue Marlin, lie farther from the city, and are currently the rage. They pull a steady stream of private yachters who drop by to sip champagne on white daybeds or watch one of the regular fashion shows. When evening arrives, the jet set dine on grilled prawn and mango salad, then party into the wee hours with world-renowned DJs and other celebrities.
Es Vedra, the mysterious rock island, famous as Bali Hai in the film South Pacific, stands off the southwestern coast. Some say this rock was the island of the sirens in the Homer epics or is the sunken tip of Atlantis. New-age visitors find the rock empowering due to its magnetic energy and call it a place for transformation.
A hilltop overlook near Es Vedra sums up the ubiquitous glamour that is Ibiza: glistening water, small beaches, big boats and beautiful people.Unspoiled Formentera
An hour’s ferry ride from Ibiza’s harbor brings you to Formentera, with gin-clear turquoise water and a much slower way of life. Formentera’s topography lies flat, except for a small plateau on the eastern end where you can visit the lighthouse. The island’s beauty and charm radiate from its simplicity, tranquility and undeveloped beaches. Economic expansion is not likely, as laws protect more than 60 percent of the island’s natural landscape.
Flee to Formentera for a summer day trip. Ferry over, rent a Vespa and stroll barefoot along unforgettable white sandy strands. Feast on a Mediterranean slipper lobster and seafood paella before leaving the isle.
Menorca calls to those seeking a genuine retreat. While the majority of tourists are Brits on package holidays, the island extends itself to individuals wishing to create their own itinerary.
Menorca lies strewn with mysterious ruins from its prehistoric past—primarily stone remains that litter much of the countryside. Visiting these rock mounds and giant t-shaped stone monuments, known as taulas, makes a fascinating history lesson. The ruins are linked to the second century B.C. Tayayot culture, although little is known about their original function or purpose.
Sightseers and photographers may want to venture up to Menorca’s 1,150-foot high point, Mont Toro, for a panoramic view. Shoppers should check out the shoe factories, which produce some of the finest of Spain’s famous leather shoes. And everyone should stop into El Paladar to sample Spanish ham, locally made pastries and Menorcan cheeses.
The island’s two main towns are Mahón, the current capital and major port; and Ciutadella, the former Moorish capital at the western end. Those arriving via cruise ship enter Mahón. The British moved the seat of power there in 1722, establishing a naval base in its enormous deep-water harbor. English architectural influence can still be seen through the classical Georgian sash-windowed townhouses around Mahón’s pleasant town squares.
Ciutadella is quite different with slender stone streets lined with whitewashed arches, giving a distinctly Moorish/Andalusian feel. Like Mahón, this town overlooks a harbor, but one used by small pleasure craft and fishermen. The waterfront promenade, lined with restaurants and backed by the remnants of the old city walls, presents an authentic vibe a traveler doesn’t often experience. I found it easy to imagine Menorca’s past while standing in the central plaza admiring old noble houses.
The horse plays a major role in many summer festivals all over the Spanish islands. The most famous takes place in Ciutadella around June 24, the annual Festa de Sant Joan, honoring patron saint John the Baptist. The pageantry follows centuries-old traditions, including dangerous medieval jousting games. The tiny city bursts with frenzied excitement, somewhat akin to the Running of Bulls, but with tuxedoed riders on horseback.
The Balearics can justifiably claim to cater to all tastes. Each of the four islands has a its own flavor and travelers will long remember a vacation here. n
Traveler Report Card
On Mallorca, consider Castillo Son Vida, a castle hotel originally built in the 13th century, now a Starwood property. It boasts Bay of Palma views, four golf courses, tennis courts, four swimming pools, a spa and a sophisticated bodega-style restaurant called Es Vi. Equally noteworthy are the Orient Express-owned La Residencia, which features twin historic manor houses, gardens dotted with orange trees, outdoor pools, individual villas with private terraces, a spa and Michelin-star dining at El Olivo; and the luxurious Jumeirah Port Sóller Hotel & Spa, which overlooks a fishing village and has two al fresco Spanish restaurants. On Ibiza, try Atzaró, a centuries-old family finca that has been converted into luxurious accommodations and features an excellent restaurant. On Menorca, opt for Torralbenc, a one-time farm that has been renovated into a 22-room luxury hotel with Mediterranean views where guests can take part in cookery classes or spend the day at the nearby beach.
Fresh, often expertly prepared seafood predominates in beach bars, farmhouses and restaurants. Enjoy spectacular local lobster, classic dry-cured Serrano ham and tapas. Mallorca boasts its own wines and Menorca, thanks to the British, produces its own gin. Evening meals don’t begin until 10 p.m.
The islands offer some of Europe’s finest golf courses and water sports. Yachting and sailing are popular. Menorca is notable for horseback riding and Ibiza for nightclubbing.
Traveler Fast Facts
WHAT IT IS: The Balearics include four Spanish islands that lie between Africa and the mainland of Spain in the Mediterranean Sea.
LANGUAGE: Both Catalan and Spanish are official languages; many also speak English.
CLIMATE: Hot and dry in summer with cooling sea breezes. Winters are generally mild.
GETTING THERE: Most visitors arrive by airplane, but some come via cruise ships and use ferries between islands. The best way to get around is by car, except on Formentera, where cycling or a Vespa are recommended. Palma de Mallorca is Spain’s third-largest airport, with two asphalt runways, the longest of which measures 10,728 feet. Ibiza Airport handles 5.6 million passengers per year on one 9,186-foot-long concrete/asphalt runway. Menorca Airport greets a large number of charter flights carrying tourists, especially during summer. The longer of its two asphalt runways measures 8,366 feet.
Frequent BJT contributor Debi Lander (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Florida-based freelancer specializing in travel stories.