We love a break from the city, almost as much as we love a city break, and in our latest Escape adventure The Editor spends ten days in Majorca exploring the island’s best beaches and culture. A far cry from his last visit.
My face is pressed up close against the dark surface of a wooden bench. Neon lights flash either side of my heavy eyelids, urging them to stay open. I hear a group of disembodied voices chanting “Three Lions on a shirt…” in the unmistakeably boorish tones of young Englishmen abroad. The air that reaches my nostrils is ripe with the odours of aftershaves, pheromones, alcohol and vomit… the last is definitely my own.
Wait!!! That’s not a flashback to Majorca 2015… that’s a total recall of Majorca 1997.
I’m ashamed to admit that… during my callow youth, I was, at least for one summer, the archetypal drunk Brit on holiday.
Yes, I know that these days I masquerade as an urbane and cultured traveller, but I’m ashamed to admit that way back in the last millennium during my callow youth, I was, at least for one summer (well ok three summers), the archetypal drunk Brit on holiday. It was the first vacations of my university life and having scraped through my exams I decided to celebrate by joining one of my new “cool” Uni flatmates and his old school friends on a jaunt out to Magaluf… aka Shagaluf… the party capital of Majorca. By day we alternated getting sunburnt on the beach with getting sunburnt at the pool, whilst by night we dressed up in Ralph Lauren polo shirts to eat steak and chips at British pubs (where they would screen Only Fools and Horses), followed by drinking fishbowls of sickly green cocktails at tacky bars, after which we’d finish the night dancing ’til dawn to cheesy Eurohouse hits in clubs like BCM. (I just Googled it and it’s still going!).
Come to think of it, that was a pretty great summer.
…but safe to say, fast forwarding to 2015, my mindset on my second visit to Majora was a little different, and my travelling companions a touch more cultured to say the least. This time I was travelling with my girlfriend and another couple also now in their 30s. I didn’t ask, but I’m pretty sure none of them would be up for up for congoing down the main strip of Magaluf singing an acapella version of Freed From Desire.
If I lived all the negative cliches of Majorca on my first visit… then I was determined to experience all of the best parts of the island this time around.
If I lived all the negative cliches of Majorca on my first visit (I don’t think I even left the resort!), then I was determined to experience all of the best parts of the island this time around. And when I say determined, I mean kind of vaguely but not really… I would have been perfectly happy sitting my the villa pool, but my companions were determined, so I ended up experiencing them all anyway.
I’m going to break with traditional now, and go all diary on you. Here is a break down of my ten day itinerary on the island. But which day was the best!?!?
Day 1: Bay Time Bliss
I awoke on the first full day of our holiday around midday to the sound of Frank Sinatra on the stereo, walked down the grand staircase of the Villa Al Azhar (more on this lovely mansion in a bit) where I was greeted by my smiling amigos, who kindly served me coffee; after which I strode outside into the sunshine and bellyflopped into the villa swimming pool. As magnificent a start to a vacation as anyone could wish for.
After lunch we drove from our villa, which is situated outside of Port de Pollensa in the North of the island, to the nearby Cala Sant Vicenc, a sleepy resort town which boasts no fewer than five beautiful bays, set in between the rugged Western shore. There’s a statue there of a local painter by the name of Llorenç Cerdà i Bisbal, and the perfect blue of his oil painted seas are just as flawless on the horizons of my real life vistas… although closer to shore the waters are jade, emerald and chrysoprase.
Sand is at a premium on these rocky bays, even in late August / early September, and we are forced to sit quite far back on the beach to find a comfortable spot. Annoyingly the water entry is rocky, forcing one to concentrate a little bit too much for what should be a casual dip, but overall everyone is in agreement that this was a day very well spent.
…And there was still plenty of time for a midnight Jacuzzi and bottle of Cava when we got back to the house.
Duncan’s day rating = 8/10.
Day 2: A Wild Goat Chase
From Pollensa the Cap de Formentor does not look very far at all. A mere 15km as the crow flies. Sadly we were not flying a crow, we were driving a car. And the car had to follow the circuitous roads that wind through this rocky headland. It took us close to two hours (NB: driving in the mountain regions of Mallorca is a slow and painful business as even overtaking a cyclist is nigh on impossible on the narrow winding roads… let alone passing a tour bus) and the constant curving makes me dizzy. On top of that I had stupidly forgotten my sunglasses and the minute I step out of the car the harsh white sunlight, reflecting off stone and water, bores into my brain ruining my attempts to enjoy what were undeniably magnificent views back over the island (see photo below).
All would be fine once we hit the beach I thought. In fact we had got an insider’s tip… en route to the Cap we had picked up a hitch-hiker, a Spanish girl from Valencia, who was on her way to a hidden beach, just a short walk through the forest. We decided to check it out on the way back. Well the short walk turned out to be over half an hour, and I was getting grumpier with every step. Finally however the sweet smell of salt water tickled our nostrils, the lapping of waves nuzzled our ears, and the thickets and trees opened up before our eyes to reveal…. a dull and stony bay.
Pretty enough on another occasion perhaps, with the sun already behind the mountains it seemed distinctly grey and unremarkable and certainly scant reward for our efforts. The only saving grace, as far as I was concerned, was the incongruous sight of two wild goats ignoring beach goers to enjoy a casual stroll on the pebbles. I promptly chased them up onto some rocks for an impromptu photo session.
Duncan’s Day Rating = 6/10… (4/10 plus 2 points for the goats).
Day 3: Enter the Dragon…
After Day 2’s frustrations we had planned a good and proper beach day… but what do you know, the first cloudy day probably in Majorca’s entire history descends upon us. So it’s off to the Cuevas del Drach, aka Dragons Caves. It means more time in the car as these bad boys are located in the east of the island, but at least the roads are straight. Being cloudy the caves are busy as hell, and so we have to hang around for over an hour before we can enter. But I must say, it was easily worth the wait. Pretty much every cavern in this cave system was covered ceiling to floor with stalactites and mites, and eerily lit as they were, I felt like I was entering the world of some twisted sci-fi horror movie… I half expected a face-hugger to slither out from behind a rock and pounce on hopefully someone else’s face.
You descend into this surreal subterrain on foot (alongside scores of other tourists) and once you’ve finished the route (about 30 or 40 mins) you take a seat on a bench by a large underground lake. Here you are treated to a classical music concert played by a string quartet as they are rowed along in a boat in the waters next to you. Weird but fun, and if you’re willing to wait your turn you too can take a short boat ride yourself on your way out.
Once we’d re-emerged into the brightness there was still time to explore Porto Cristo town, which has a decent urban beach, wedged between low cliffs in turn topped with villas and hotels. There’s also a pretty port rammed full of yacht masts, several touristy bars and restaurants and a few fun souvenir shops (who doesn’t want a phallic bottle opener in their kitchen drawer?)
After a quick paddle and a bite to eat it was time to head back to our villa, as we were entertaining our native Mallorcan friend Gerard with a BBQ at our place. And there’s nothing quite like a BBQ followed by a midnight swim in your own private villa to feel like a part-time millionaire.
Duncan’s Day Rating = 9/10
Day 4: Surreal Son Real
Still hankering for our perfect Majorcan beach, on day four we acted on our friend Gerard’s local tip and drove North East, past Alcudia, looking for signposts to Son Real. It was another long walk from parking the car to parking our towels, but in better physical and mental condition than on the ill-fated dia dos it was wonderful to stroll through the island’s forests and fields, where we came across goats, sheep, peacocks and birdlife.
When we did appear from the undergrowth an epic seascape opened up before us. The bay of Alcudia. Twelve kilometres across, we could see the mountainous headlands that marked the ends of the bay’s horseshoe form, rendered faint and blue by their distance. The narrow beach stretched as far as we could see in either direction, interrupted by patches of pockmarked and wafered lunar-like rocks, and littered with dessicated seaweeds, plants, driftwood and other debris. It was as wild and unkempt a beach as I’ve ever set foot on, and absolutely vast. Sharing it with us, within eyesight, was one sunbathing couple and a group of horseriders, who kicked up the sand leaving a hazy golden cloud behind them in the afternoon sun.
We settled down, not sure what quite to make of our environment. It was stunning and surreal… but not quite the pristine white sands and turquoise waters we were hoping for, and the abundance of prickly and sharp rocks once again made entering and exiting the water tricky. Foiled again.
Still we weren’t complaining. We enjoyed a picnic and then, instead of swimming, we decided to evoke the spirit of Vince Vaughn with an improvised game of dodgeball. The girls lost.
Duncan’s Day Rating = 8/10
Day 5: Make For The Mountains
Day five was by far our biggest day of exploring. We decided it was time to do battle with the winding roads of the Serra Tramuntana once again, but this time we were going for broke, taking a route that would lead us all the way through the cordillera to the south west of the island, stopping off at the most famous mountain villages on the way, such as Deia, Fornatlux, Soller and Valdemossa.
– Port de Sa Calobra
Our first stop however was settled on a last minute whim. Stuck behind a convoy of tour buses on the way to Soller, we decided to take “a short detour” to Port de Sa Calobra. We should have realised by now that there’s no such thing as a quick journey when weaving your way through Balearic bluffs, but this has to go down as one of the finest decisions of the holiday. Touristy as hell, I didn’t care a jot, as we walked along the dramatic cliffs to a bay where the sea was even purer shades of green and blue than at Sant Vincenc (day one) – however this time, instead of being translucent, the water had a milky opaque quality, seeming rarer still to my eyes. In fact I hardly paid the sea any mind at all. Because as we emerged onto the beach by dint of a manmade tunnel on my right was, to my mind, an even more beautiful vista… that of a mountain river winding its way through a narrow gorge in the majestic Majorcan cliffs. Whilst the others swam and sunbathed in the bay I took a long walk back along the stony riverbed (the water had almost completely dried up) and snapped some photos. This was my kind of landscape.
Our detour to Port de Sa Calobra meant that we were running dangerously low on petrol by the time we approached Soller, and so we temporarily skipped Fornalutx in order to refuel; and not just the car but our stomachs too. We had set off relatively early in the morning hoping to be here by 11 or 12am and somehow it was past 3pm already, so we sat to eat in the town’s charming main square, where we could enjoy the atmosphere created by several bustling cafes and restaurants. The town’s church has an impressive Modernista facade and attractive vintage trams carry passengers from the town to the Puerto de Soller. If this sounds like your kind of place you can read more about Soller on this evocative piece in the Daily Telegraph. We however had to move on…
Said by some to be the most beautiful village in Spain, Fornalutx is a tiny 500 person town set high in the Serra de Tramuntana, where it is surrounded by orange and lemon groves, cacti and palm trees, mountain peaks and blue sky. The town itself is all cobbled streets, rubble masonry and terracotta roof tiles, creating a timeless aesthetic that has one pining for a simpler more rustic existence (well at least until you next need a good 3G connection). Short on time we couldn’t revel in this idyllic environs for long anyhow. There was just about enough time to enjoy a stroll up and down the pueblo‘s staircased streets and make friends with a local kitten before we had to be on our way.
The most famous town on the island thanks to its connection to numerous poets, artists and musicians, anyone with Bohemian pretensions should make a point of calling by when on Majorca. Whilst Mick Jagger used to swing by here back in the day, and Richard Branson owns a house up in these very hills, it is the English poet Robert Graves who has left the strongest legacy on the town. His former house is now a museum and he is buried in the town’s cemetery, after living here most of his life, when he did much to extol the towns many charms – which in turn led to many more artists moving here in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Whilst few would argue that the town is particularly “relevant” now, I did spy one or two eccentric foreign expats, which together with the music drifting from somewhere through the dusk air, suggested to me that some creative activity still prevails under the broad blue Deian skies. Moreover the town is just as pretty as Fornalutx and much bigger besides. One major disappointment though was the Cala de Deia. Invariably described as one of the island’s best beaches, we discovered a drab bay covered in crusty seaweed with a couple of ramshackle chiringuitos (beach bars) doing little to cheer the vibe. Just thought I’d better warn you!
It was dark by the time we made it to Valdemossa, but there was no way we were skipping this one as my patriotic Polish girlfriend wanted to pay her respects to the town that Chopin (…and woe betide by the way those who claim Fryderyk Chopin was French!) lived in during the winter of 1838/39. The Carthusian monastery where he and his French lover and writer George Sand rented a monk’s cell was dramatically lit by night, and we enjoyed a walk in the grounds before sitting down at a cafe for a local variant of the Spanish horxata drink. I was really enjoying sipping this iced nutty beverage, until someone said it tasted like soap. Wasn’t so good after that.
After all that adventure we emerged on the other side of the Serra de Tramuntana, almost in Palma. It had taken us maybe ten hours to get this far… but we made back in just over one via the motorway through the flat middle of the isle.
Duncan’s Day Rating = 8.5/10
Day 6: Definitely A Beach Day
…unless of course it rains. Which it did. At least it was a chance to take it easy at the villa and enjoy a final day here. It was beginning to feel like home. The Irish/American/Catalan owner popped in now and then to ask how we were and share some stories and advice, whilst the countless books on art, history and culture, in every language, not to mention classic and contemporary novels, helped keep us occupied on this rainy day and other quiet occasions throughout our stay. And then there was the gregarious stray cat, Leo (or so I dubbed him, for his lean leopard-like mien), a mischievous rascal who is ready to chew the nipples of unsuspecting holiday makers, or trip them up on the way to the pool. I liked Leo. But I was the only one.
Duncan’s Day Rating = 8/10 (any day that starts with a guiltless lie in and includes Jacuzzi time is all right by me).
Day 7: Adios y Hola!
On day seven it was time to bid adios to Vila Azhar and hola to Can Rafael, another great property (see Accommodation section of Travel Tips & Advice below) this time on a narrow country lane on the outskirts of the charming inland town of Pollensa. Decorated with rustic farm implements and paintings of the island on the inside, Can Rafael’s best feature was undoubtedly the swimming pool behind which a beautiful forest hill rises up. We promptly channelled our inner 8-years-olds to perform flying jumps into the pool with the platoon of inflatable toys we found by the poolside, followed by an epic table tennis match.
Afterwards our friends had to fly back to Barcelona, but my girlfriend and I took a walk into Pollensa, where we discovered the surprisingly great Pollensa Museum, where we found some great abstract landscapes by local artists as well as avant garde and modern art. There was of course time for some tapas on the main square and a chance to soak up the gentle village vibe.
Duncan’s Day Rating = 7/10 (I lost the table tennis)
Day 8: Alcudia – Port and Town
We were still holding out for another beach day on dia numero ocho, but it was not to be. A thin grey film of clouds clung to the ether and refused to let us get sunburnt, but with nothing else for it we taxied into the sweeping bay of the Port d’Alcudia resort, crossing our fingers for a change of weather. After an hour or two of shivering on what would have been a perfect beach for us on another day (sandy and shallow entry, beautiful waters and views), we relented and walked inland to the town of Alcudia to see what it had to offer instead. No sooner had we got there and lo and behold the skies parted to reveal a brilliant blanket of blue and a still warm sun… but it was too late to get back to the beach by now.
Instead we enjoyed a pleasant afternoon exploring this one time Roman town, which as well as Roman ruins and a beautiful church, has an impressive city wall dating back to the 14th century that you can walk along and enjoy views both back over the city and out over the lush surrounding countryside. Certainly not a bad way to pass an afternoon, but if only we’d headed here in the morning and gambled on the weather improving in the pm we would have had the perfect day!
Duncan’s Day Rating = 7.5/10
Day 9: Grace Kelly’s Footsteps
On our final full day of the holiday our prayers were answered and we woke up (a little late) to blue skies. We were desperate to check out the famous Platja Formentor, the very beach where none other than Grace Kelly honeymooned in 1956 and was also visited by Chaplin and many other legendary figures from Hollywood and beyond. Frustratingly, the bus we took to Port de Pollensa took the long route around, so from there we decided to take a taxi. The outlay seemed a minor expense when we arrived on what was by far the most gorgeous beach we’d seen during our time on the island. By now the clear azure waters were no surprise to us, but the real joy of this location was that it combined the rugged and remote appeal we’d witnessed at several bays with a long stretch of fine powdered sand. It was backed by rocky hills of lush Aleppo pine trees, whilst the bay itself was adorned with a small island and the bobbing hulls of several sail boats.
The only negative point, albeit quite a big one, was that the Hotel Formentor’s sunbeds, most of which remained unused, monopolised a hefty chunk of the available sand… and when we tried to commandeer one we were asked to cough up a whopping €50 with just a couple of hours of sunlight still remaining in the day. This kind of thing really pisses me off, as I’m 90% sure the hotel doesn’t have any special rights to the beach but they treat it as their own. At any rate if you’re heading over you might want to either a) get there earlier than we did, to find a good space of sand b) get there early enough that buying a sunbed for the day makes sense (there were some cheaper options too) or c) bring your Spanish lawyer with you to argue with the hijo de puta in charge of the sun beds.
Anyway we ended up a bit cramped but happy overall as we splashed about in the cool transparent waters, took some photos and enjoyed the last of the summer sun.
Duncan’s Day Rating = 8.5/10
Day 10: Psalm for Palma
Being an urban travel blogger of course I didn’t want to leave Majorca without checking out the capital and the only true city on the island. Whilst two afternoons (one on the way in, one on the way out) is barely enough to get a feel for a place, it doesn’t take long to appreciate Palma’s grandeur – it is apparent on the first glimpse of its magnificent La Seu Cathedral, a mighty Gothic monster that seems to belong on the set of a King’s Landing scene in the Game of Thrones and absolutely dwarves the buildings around it. It is surrounded by gardens and water features and my advice is, wherever you’re staying on the island, be sure to stop off for a gander.
The rest of Palma contains plenty of splendour and beauty as well, from grandiose boulevards like Las Ramblas to cobbled streets full of boutiques as well as plenty of picturesque plazas, it’s a city you can enjoy getting lost in. We felt lucky to find, on our peregrinations, a charming and sophisticated cafe called Las Columnas (also referred to as Can Casanovas), where we stopped for coffee and lemon cake. They also sold a wide variety of local wines, liqueurs and artisanal products.
No chance to check out the nightlife however… it was time to wave a wistful goodbye to this Balearic beauty. Until next year at least!
Duncan’s Day Rating = 7.5/10
Travel Tips & Advice
I was invited to sample the charms of Majorca by Travelopo, the island’s largest villa rental company, with whom you can book both the Vila Al Azhar and La Rafal Gran. Check my reports on Days 6 and 7 above for a bit more info about each. Overall the Al Azhar has a more homely lived in feel, the La Rafal Gran is well appointed, more like a boutique style hotel than a home and its pool, which gradually gets deeper, is ideal for young kids. Alternatively have a browse on the Travelopo website… the vast majority of the properties are drop dead drool-inducing gorgeous and you’ll also be very pleasantly surprised what you can get for your money, especially out of season.
– Car Hire
To experience the best of the island you’re going to need a car – its about the same size of the Isle of Wight, ie. you can’t walk around it. Shop around because prices vary – we found a great deal on Rhino Car Hire. If you’re taking on the mountains consider getting a small car with great handling for those hairpin bends!
– When to go?
We went on the last days of August, and first week of September. The best thing to be said for this time of year is that prices of accommodation drop dramatically from high season, whilst the weather is (usually!) still very reliable. Locals expressed shock at seeing rain at this time of year. On the flipside I was surprised by how busy the isle still was, and if I were going again I’d even consider going mid or late September for a chance at having some of those gorgeous beaches to myself and a few less tourists around, and even October would offer a few good beach days with temperatures typically ranging from 17 to 24 degrees. May or June would also be great bets I’m sure, although in May the water might be a little chilly still.