If I had to choose from the three Balearic islands – Mallorca, Ibiza and Menorca – which one I enjoy most, I would pick Mallorca. I went to the island last September after a week in Ibiza and it’s strange how coming back to Mallorca after more than 10 years, has led me to appreciate it more. Ten years is a long time and perhaps getting older has also changed my idea of an ideal holiday, but I still like the same thing: a balance between active pursuits (hiking and swimming) and lazy ones (reading a thick novel by the pool or on the beach).
Mallorca has changed in those ten years. Most notable of the changes is the dramatic upgrade in hotel interior decoration. In the late 1990s, most Mallorcan hotels had fairly conservative, traditional interiors. Some hotels still do but they have added contemporary touches to their lobbies and lounges. Many have completely renovated their hotels and created very modern rooms with flat screen TVs and Wi-Fi. The luxury hotels have all added spas that offer beauty treatments, massages, and even yoga and Pilates classes.
Another dramatic change is the appearance of the boutique hotel. This is an international phenomenon, but it has taken over the island as well. The large chain hotel with its identical rooms and institutional carpeting is out; we want intimate places that meet our standards of design: cool, urban, contemporary with natural, local elements. To meet this need, new hoteliers have purchased and converted historic villas, farmhouses, and old convents.
The culinary scene in Mallorca has also undergone a remarkable change. More than 10 years ago, it was difficult to find Asian food on the island and most restaurants served traditional Spanish and Balearic food: heavy, unimaginative and repetitive. Today, not only can you find Thai and Indian food, local chefs have also modernized the way they prepare Spanish and Balearic dishes. When I say “modernized” I mean that local chefs have found a way to create dishes to fit the way we live today and how we want our food (less heavy, using organic ingredients), without losing their culinary traditions.
Indeed, people who have been traveling to the Balearic islands every summer since their childhood are now pleased to see restaurants moving away from the “same old” stuff. So why shouldn’t modern chefs update the old classics? They do this very well in Mallorca because of the excellent quality of the locally grown fruits and vegetables. Moreover as a new young generation of chefs who have traveled around the world lend their own interpretation to Balearic classics, they add influences which often come from Asia and North Africa.
Differences between Mallorca, Ibiza and Menorca
So which island should you visit? All three if you have three weeks or more. Ideally you should spend five days or more on one island to give yourself enough time to swim, relax, savour the local cuisine, the beach life and the natural environment.
The islands differ from one another not just in topography but also in temperament. The “scene” and the vibe determine the demographics of who goes to which island and vice-versa. Note, too, the time of year: outside of July and August, you will find mostly retirees, young couples without children, and couples with very small children.
Mallorca is the largest island. It has many wide sandy beaches and protected coves. It is also the busiest island during the holiday season. One look at the enormous Palma airport with its endless row of baggage carousels and the massive parking lot filled to capacity with tour buses will make anyone want to turn back. But hang on. Most of the tourists stay in the package tour resorts near Palma. The rest of the island is surprisingly unpopulated. It has the most impressive natural environment of the three Balearic islands, and being a large island, it’s easy to get away from the crowds.
The Tramuntana mountain range on the northwest side of Mallorca is a favorite among hikers and cyclists. Because of the high mountains, you have stunning views over valleys and the sea, and when you are staying in a town like Soller in a deep valley at the base of the mountain range, every time you look up, you see the soaring peaks of the Tramuntana. That is why I prefer to stay in this northwest part of Mallorca instead of Palma de Mallorca (the capital) or the flatter sections near Binissalem.
Who goes to Mallorca? A significant percentage of visitors are between 50 and 70, but are very active. You will see them hiking past you as you struggle up a hillside, cycling like daredevils or swimming across the calas. Make no mistake: this is a paradise for active seniors (and active young people). The hiking trails are exceptionally well marked and there are many guidebooks and maps available for hiking every part of the island. Hiking in Mallorca has been a favorite activity for decades. Along many hiking trails, you’ll find friendly farmers and guest house owners selling food and drink, and providing a shady patio with tables and chairs. They’ve been doing this for a long time and their hospitality is much appreciated by visiting hikers.
There is a party scene in and around Palma, but it is nothing like Ibiza. I noticed that people eat at around 8:00 pm, not 11:00 pm as they do in Ibiza. Of course, many Spanish people and locals dine late but on the whole, because of the presence of so many (older) foreigners who don’t go clubbing at 2:00 a.m., the dinner hour is much earlier than Ibiza’s.
Another noticeable thing about Mallorca is the overwhelming German presence. This explains why you see many signs in German (and even a local German language newspaper). It is estimated that 60 percent of holiday homes on the island are owned by Germans. On Ibiza and Menorca, it’s harder to notice the dominance of any one group of people.
Cycling is extremely popular in Mallorca, in addition to hiking. Indeed because of the steep mountain roads and mild weather in the winter and early spring, the island is a favorite place for professional cycling teams to train before the cycling season. So if you find yourself struggling up a hill on your bicycle, don’t feel too bad when someone whizzes right by. It could be last year’s Tour de France winner.
The ultimate party island. But even if you don’t party much, Ibiza is a great place for a relaxing holiday at the beach or by the pool. In reality the large clubs are mostly around Sant Antoni and Ibiza town, and most of the hardcore clubbers stay in those areas. If you want tranquility, stay in the northern part of the island near Sant Joan de Labritja. It’s very quiet there and the beaches are not crowded. Like Mallorca, Ibiza has wonderful long sandy beaches but also small intimate calas (coves).
Who goes to Ibiza? A lot of young party animals who hang out in the clubs from 2:30 am till sunrise. The crowd in Ibiza is very young compared to Mallorca. Because the island is popular among the fashion and design crowd, there are a lot of trendy, chic restaurants with a very high celebrity quotient. The island also attracted a lot of hippies in the late 1960s and early 1970s who have never left. As a result, the alternative community on Ibiza – from the original hippies to young eco-conscious people – is quite large and they own many agroturismos, as well as organic food stores and restaurants. So Ibiza is a funny mix of older hippies, gorgeous fashion models, rock stars (young and retired), DJs, designers, architects, bankers and drug dealers (yes, the island has a lively drugs scene, thanks to all the nightclubs). But you don’t need drugs! With the gorgeous beaches, the amazing food and the unforgettable sunsets (people gather together on beaches such as Benirras to watch the sun go down), Ibiza is the perfect place to “chill out”.
Topography: the island is smaller and flatter than Mallorca. The highest mountains are in the northern part of the island but they much smaller than those in Mallorca. Hiking is not as popular on Ibiza, nor is it as organized. Cycling isn’t as popular either.
The daily rhythm in Ibiza: People eat late in Ibiza. If you arrive at a restaurant at 10:30 pm, you will be one of the first. Most people arrive between 11:00 and 11:30 pm. Then they go to the clubs. The next day they get up at noon, have a light lunch, hang out on the beach, watch the sunset, get drinks and small tapas with friends, freshen up then go to dinner, then to the clubs.
Menorca has the most stunning, quiet and clean beaches and coves of all Balearic islands. Many of them can be reached only by walking for 20 to 30 minutes down a dirt road. The result: you have a beach all to yourself. The downside: there are no sun beds and umbrellas to rent so you can get burned. Because Menorca developed well after the other islands, they did not make the mistakes that Ibiza and Mallorca made and that is, ugly massive hotel resort complexes. Most of the holiday rentals on the island consist of small hotels, bungalows and villas for families. The island is very small and you can drive from one end to the other in 40 minutes. It is a very flat island, and not very scenic. But Menorca’s beaches are worth the visit. Most of the small calas have gently sloping sandy or pebbly shores, and no waves.
Menorca has very little night life and the restaurant scene is not as vibrant as in Ibiza or Mallorca. Most of the visitors to the island tend to be families with small children. It is a much quieter place than Ibiza or Mallorca.
Where to stay in Mallorca
The best area to stay in Mallorca is in the northwest, which is dominated by Tramuntana mountains. I recommend the hills around Soller, but if you want to be right next to a beach, Puerto de Soller (or Port de Soller, as it is known in the local language) is fine. A lot of people like to stay in Deia because it is a charming, historic artists’ village (where poet Robert Graves lived). I have stayed in Deia, but I find it very small and isolated. It has a tiny little beach which is rocky and not too interesting.
If you stay in Soller, you can simply walk into town for lunch or dinner, have coffee, rent bicycles, etc. without having to drive. Puerto de Soller is only 10 minutes away by car and it has a long sandy beach. There are a lot of excellent restaurants in Soller and Puerto de Soller.
My recommendation for a hotel is actually a luxurious bed and breakfast that has unfortunately now closed. For recommended hotels, please read Mapplr’s favorite hotels in Mallorca. I listed hotels in Deia, Soller, Andratx, Fornalutx, Pollença and Puigpunyet.
Where to eat in Mallorca
Because I stayed in Soller, my recommendations are for restaurants in the center of Soller (on the main square called Plaça Constitucio), in Port de Soller and Palma. In the summer, you can eat outside in the evenings.
Restaurants and cafes in Soller
La Vila Restaurante
Plaça Constitució, 14
+34 971 634 641 (best to reserve)
Excellent meat and seafood dishes, wonderful service, somewhat expensive.
Restaurante Sa Cova
Plaça Constitució, 7
Delicious small plates, seafood dishes, great for lunch and dinner; good value for money.
Plaça Constitució, 13
Informal mostly outdoor cafe; serves good pasta dishes and local favorites; inexpensive.
Es Traves, 5
07108 Puerto de Soller
+34 971 63 18 50 (reservations necessary if you want a table outside)
Lovely little bistro at the Esplendido Hotel right on the beach, great place for lunch or dinner.
C/ Camino El Faro, 2
07108 Puerto de Soller
+34 971 633 860
On the water at Port de Soller, romantic, live guitar music sometimes; excellent seafood, wonderful service; expensive but worth it.
Hotel Agroturismo and Restaurant
Carretera de Deia, km 56.1
+34 971 63 82 80 (reservations are necessary)
Restaurant at the edge of a cliff with spectacular views of the valley of Soller and Port de Soller; located in the luxurious Ca’s Xorc agroturismo. Very delicious Mediterranean cuisine, sophisticated and elegant. Expensive but worth it. Wonderful service. See my review of the hotel Ca’s Xorc.
Restaurants in Palma de Mallorca
Carrer de la Missio 7A
07003 Palma de Mallorca
+34 971 720 114
Located in the minimalist Hotel Convent de la Missio
Tasca de Blanquerna (tapas bar and restaurant)
Calle Blanquerna 6
07003 Palma de Mallorca
+34 971 290 108
Zaranda Sa Torre (has one Michelin star)
Cam de Sa Torre 8
+34 971 010 450
Located in the beautifully refurbished Sa Torre Hilton; outdoor courtyard is an atmospheric place to dine in the summer
Calle Apuntadores, 10
07012 Palma de Mallorca
+34 971 71 31 68
Fresh seafood especially the ceviche, reasonably priced tapas and wine.
Calle Apuntadores, 24,
07012 Palma de Mallorca
+34 971 21 40 11
Vinoteca serving wonderful tapas and reasonably priced, excellent wines.
What to do in Mallorca
Hiking: There are hiking trails just about everywhere. You can buy hiking maps and guide books from shops that rent bikes and cycling equipment (see Cycling, below), book shops and tourist offices.
Cycling: Another favorite activity on the island! You can rent road and mountain bikes, helmets, cycling shoes, and more from Tramuntana Tours which has two shops: Calle de la Luna 72 in Soller )which runs into Plaça Constitució) and Paseo de Traves 12 in Port de Soller (on the beach). You can see a number of cycling routes undertaken in Mallorca by people wearing the Garmin device. In the summer months (June through September), you should cycle early in the morning to avoid the hottest part of the day. Average temperature at 7:30 am around Deia and Soller is 20C.
Swimming: my favorite beaches are Cala Tuent, Sa Calobra, Cala Agulla, and Es Trenc.
Soller train and Soller-Port de Soller tram: the train between Palma and Soller, and the tram between Port de Soller and Soller have been running for a hundred years and they carry mostly tourists now. But they take you through beautiful olive and orange groves at a relaxing pace.
Palma de Mallorca: the Cathedral and Banys Arabs (restored Arab baths). Make sure you stop by Cacao Sampaka, an amazing chocolate shop and cafe. Cacao Sampaka is on Plaza Marquès Del Palmer, 1.
Overrated in Mallorca: Valldemossa – this is where dozens of tour buses from Palma end up dumping hundreds of tourists. Why? Because Chopin once stayed in a Carthusian monastery here in the cold, rainy winter of 1838-1839. So naturally they turned the monastery into a museum. He came with his lover, Aurore Lucile Dupin (later Baroness Dudevant) who wrote under the name of George Sand. She published a book titled “A Winter in Mallorca’ in which she complained bitterly about the weather, the banditos and the scheming, corrupt local population. The bad weather had a terrible effect on Chopin’s chronic lung disease. He complained about the incompetence of local doctors and was forced to leave the island because of his deteriorating health. I have no idea why Mallorca celebrates Chopin (with a Chopin Festival nonetheless!) since he hated the island. There’s nothing special about Valldemossa itself.
Books on Mallorca
Walk! Mallorca North and Mountains by Charles Davis: a hiking book that covers the Tramuntana area, Soller and more.
A Woman Unknown: Voices from a Spanish Life by Lucia Graves: this is a captivating memoir by the daughter of Robert Graves (from his first marriage) describing her life in Mallorca and later in Barcelona where she started a family. Lucia Graves is a one of the best Spanish-English translators today and she writes beautifully. She is the translator of Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.
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