Text and Photos by Lisa Arcella
For many Americans, a trip to the Balearic Islands is synonymous with a club beat and an all night party. And while there is certainly no shortage of hipster Europeans docking their yachts for a good time and a glass of champagne, these islands off the Mediterranean coast of Spain offer so much more to travelers of every inclination. There’s history, incredibly beautiful landscapes, wonderful festivals, fantastic food and of course some of the most spectacular beaches in the world.
The islands, Mallorca, Minorca, Ibiza and Formentera (the fifth, Cabrera, is uninhabited) are a province of Spain, and although the official language is Catalan, a Spanish dialect, most people at least speak some English, particularly if they have any interaction with tourists.
And once you have been to one island, you certainly haven’t been to them all. Even though they are relatively close to each other, the terrain and even the mindset, is completely different from island to island.
I began my journey with a brief stopover in Madrid, although its faster to reach the islands via Barcelona. The Plaza Major, The Prado museum and the Royal Palace were just a few of the worthwhile stops along the spotless mass transit system here. Then it was a short hop via air to Ibiza.
scenes from Ibiza
Ibiza, the third largest of the islands, is probably the most famous for its nightlife. But instead of looking for a club to settle into (and you don’t have to look hard, there are plenty for every
taste here), I headed for the Dalt Vila Old Town. Start at the top of the 4th century BC fortress and work your way down the cobblestone alleys filled with shops and restaurants. Near the top is the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Snows, with spectacular views of the port and the sea. There is also a fine archaeological museum called Museo Puig des Molins. Phoenicians, Arabs, Carthaginians, and Norwegians, were just some of the inhabitants who left their relics here. Eventually you wind your way through the tiny streets to the fortress gate or Portal de Ses Taules. Just beyond is Plaza de Vila or main square that is filled with flower markets and cafes during the day and partygoers at night.
Renting a car on any of the islands appears to be the best option. Of course you can hop a taxi, but the only way to really explore is in your own car; Ibiza is hilly and only about 220 square miles, but there are tons of interesting places outside of the capital of Ibiza Town to explore.
Driving past several salt flats (the salt here is almost as famous as its nightclubs), we stop for a drink at the Blue Marlin club in Cala Jondal (www.bluemarlinibiza.com), Famous DJ’s regularly spin here at night, but during the day the atmosphere is laid back sophistication. White couches on the deck for a mojito or a chaise lounge overlooking the sea to do what locals seem to have perfected into an art form, chill out.
A drive along the coast finally leads to a paella and sangria lunch at the El Carmen restaurant in Cala D’Hort, where the views are just as great as the food. From its outdoor terrace you can see the uninhabited rocky island of Es Vedra and the smaller Es Vendranell in the distance.
Ibiza is a celebrity mecca. Leonardo DiCaprio is a regular at the Blue Marlin and from the landing in Cala D’Hort you can see a huge ocean front home that was recently occupied by supermodel Elle McPherson. Es Vedra is said to have mysterious powers and the 1600 sq foot rock often attracts those looking for a spiritual connection. Ibiza was a hugely popular hot spot for Hippies back in the 60s and many of those free spirits remain until today. Every Sunday, Hippies and wanna be hippies, gather to play drums near San Antonio.
Nearby is a very cool beachfront oasis called the Sunset Ashram http://sunsetashram.com. You can find your own nirvana on its cove beach, aqua blue waters and incredible sunsets.
I visited some of the smaller, but still lovely, towns like Santa Eularia and Sant Miguel, which is near the lovely whitewashed church of Puig de Misa and then it was time to take in an amazing sunset of my own off the beach at Benirras. Beatriz Gallego-Gerente (www.ibizamundoactivo.com) is an amazing guide, who knows every inch of the coastline and is very gentle with beginners; she instantly turned me into a fan.
My last dinner in Ibiza was at the incredible Agroturismo Atzaro (www.atzaro.com/agroturismo-ibiza/en) restaurant La Veranda, in Sant Joan. Situated in the middle of an orange grove, the property has been transformed into an incredible hotel filled with flowers and a gorgeous spa. This is where soccer star Gerard Pique came to woo pop star Shakira and it is very easy to see how she fell for him in the midst of this romantic and special location.
The next morning I headed over to the port in the old town to take the ferry to Formentera. It’s the smallest tourist island in the Balearic chain but don’t resist the temptation to skip it–it’s worth the trip. Again, once you land after the 45 minute boat ride its wise to rent a car or scooter to get around. There are only three big hotels here, so find a hostel if you plan on staying for awhile. Here they are better managed inns with private baths rather than the hovels for impoverished students that many may associate with the name.
Formentera is the place to go to escape the nightlife scene of Ibiza. There are many simply incredible beaches and I don’t believe I have ever seen water this blue. Cala Saona and Cap de Barberia are just a couple of the nicest spots. From the beach you’ll also be able to see some of the biggest yachts you can possibly imagine docked in the distance.
The island has plenty of wonderful restaurants and as you might imagine the fish is as fresh as it could possibly be. For lunch I drove past the salt flats and the massive lighthouse to sit down for a perfect seafood paella at Restaurante Vogamari (www.vogamari.es).This pretty spot sits right on the dunes and is also a great place to order sea urchin croquettes, fish soup, lamb stew and so much more.
A visit to Formentera wouldn’t be complete without visiting its white washed capital city of St. Francis, although it’s hard to call its hibiscus lined streets more than a large village. Whatever you want to call it, its not particularly crowded and has tons of interesting shops and pretty of outdoor cafes to explore. Try a Hidrabas, a local herb-infused liquor that is found everywhere and is very tasty.
The food was amazing on Fomentera
Even though I could have spent the rest of my trip lounging on the white sands of Formentera, it was time to move ahead, this time by plane, to the Balearic’s largest island, Mallorca or Majorca if you please.
Gertrude Stein once said about the island that, “It’s paradise—if you can stand it.” She wasn’t kidding. It’s almost too beautiful, if such a thing is possible.
Mallorca is only about an hours drive from end to end, but the terrain again, is completely different. For a start, its mountains are popular with hikers. There are many, many golf courses and even a wine region. I checked in at Castillo Hotel Son Vida (www.castillosonvidamallorca.com/en) , which is a property in the hills outside of the capital of Palma, surrounded by fig trees and a golf course. The 5 star Starwood property does indeed look like someone’s private castle, decorated with tapestries and even a suit of armor, but its highlight is an amazing palm tree lined patio that overlooks the sea in the distance.
Dinner was at Meson Can Pedro (www.mesoncanpedro.com), an open air restaurant high up on a hill that specializes in delicious Mediterranean food, particular meat dishes. Frito Mallirquia, a potato and meat stew is yummy and don’t miss the Pamoreno farmer’s bread either.
he next morning it’s an old fashioned train ride on the Soller Railway from Palma to Soller–the highest point in Mallorca. Along the way, there are views of the mountain and the permeating scent of orange, lemon and almond trees. The train makes a brief stop to snap photos of the highest peaks. Once arriving in Soller I headed for the town square’s Sant Bartomeu cathedral, which blends Art Nouveau (or Modernista in Spain), neo-gothic and baroque styles.
Because of historic battles with pirates, the main part of the town is built away from the port, so it could protect itself from invaders. As you travel its small winding avenues, looking in any direction will offer a view of the mountains in the distance. Soller’s interesting architecture and cultural scene have also attracted some of Europe’s most famous artists, like Joan Miro and Picasso. There is also a very fine modern art museum here today with works by Picasso, Miro, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, Giacometti, Cézanne, Barceló, Juli Ramis and Matisse.
Near the square, a trolley or Ferrocarril de Soller will slowly take you on a ride to the impressive port. Yachts and fishing boats sit side by side an array of seaside cafes. I took a needed break from site-seeing to sit and people-watch the afternoon away, until I was due at the nearby village of Deia in the mountains above.
The impressive cathedral in Palma and Mallorca’s diverse landscapes
Artistic mecca Deia is where British author Robert Graves retired and you can still visit his home, but I am destined for the simply stunning La Residencia Hotel (www.hotel-laresidencia.com). The former olive farm was once owned by Virgin magnet Richard Branson and is now an Orient Express property. To say it is a beautiful place is an understatement. In every corner there are views of the mountains, cypress trees and the clay roofs of the village beyond. There are three world class restaurants here, art and cooking classes, a gorgeous spa and no less than 11 pools on its 17 acres.
The only person who ever visited this part of the world and may not have fallen in love with it was Frederic Chopin. The composer came here with the writer George Sand to try and improve his battle against tuberculosis. But instead of sunshine, it poured constantly prompting him to write his famed Raindrop Prelude.
From Deia, it’s a short drive to Valledemosa, another pretty village that features a Chopin museum and a festival dedicated to the composer every August. The oldest part of the village, near the watchtower (which was also used to keep an eye out for invading pirates way back when) is the most beautiful part of town. Cobblestone streets are filled with flower pots from the homes lining the path and there are mosaic tiles depicting religious scenes near every doorway.
Back in Palma there’s only time to freshen up before traveling over to trendy Fabrica street, where locals come to dine al fresco on the pedestrian-only avenue. I had excellent fish and very good wine at Diecisiete Grados Restaurant (http://diecisietegrados.es)
With not a lot of time to spare, I discovered that one of the best ways to see as much of this city as possible was via a Segway. The crew at Segway Palma (www.segwaypalma.com) is top notch and gives a safety demonstration before heading off with you. As a first time Segway rider I was a little nervous, but they are incredibly easy to maneuver and so much fun. Now I want one of my own.
Palma is such a beautiful city. The massive cathedral is center stage, but its tree lined avenues, historical monuments, interesting architecture, modern art museum and beaches that overlook incredible views of the sea can’t be argued with either. It’s no wonder the Spanish Royal family spends their summers here. Along the waterfront I grabbed a delicious lunch of fresh sardines at Restaurante Pesquero (www.restaurantpesquero.com/en) before catching the 45 minute flight to Menorca.
I saved the best for last. Even though it is perhaps the least known Balearic island to North Americans, Menorca has long been a playground for Europeans. Just a 45 minute drive from end to end, the island offered an incredible array of surprises.
While it initially looks like a lot of quiet farmland surrounded by hundreds of small stone walls, Menorca actually has varied terrain and some of the most beautiful and practically uninhabited beaches in the world. There is also a fascinating prehistoric archeological site called Trepuco.
On this mostly Catholic island, every town and village has a festival dedicated to its patron saint
during the summer. I was lucky enough to visit during the Feast of St. John or “Fiesta de Sant Joan” in the renaissance city of Citutadella. It takes place every year on June 23rd and 24th. The party actually begins the weekend before, when a man carrying a lamb around his shoulders
(yes, he walks around all day with a live animal wrapped around his neck) visits the homes of local farmers to officially invite them to participate in the festival. On the day it begins, tuxedo clad farmers, led by a local bachelor and a nobleman, parade to the church on majestic, mostly black stallions where they are blessed by the priest and attend a mass to pray for their safety during the rest of the festivities.
The prayers are necessary. As they head into the city on horseback, partygoers have already been drinking the local favorite of gin and lemonade for hours, as they will for the rest of the night. (And even though the drinking carries on well into the next day, there isn’t the bad behavior that usually accompanies that much imbibing. In fact one local told me no one would dare embarrass himself by fighting or throwing up on the street.)
Sand has been poured down throughout the cobblestone streets and the riders parade through the narrow streets, packed with people. They come up to windows so family and friends can touch the horses for good luck and at many of the homes along the way, they actually go into the houses, on their horse of course! Everyone calls for the riders to make their horses jump and when they do, cheers erupt. It would be much easier to be trampled by the crowd rather than the horses, but there is always the possibility of being kicked, so it’s a challenge to stay in front of the dozens of riders.
The partying goes on until the early hours of the next morning, when the medieval jousting games begin just outside of the city’s walls. Even though the festival actually makes it onto local television, there is nothing remotely commercial about the event. Nobody is sponsored by Nike and nearly all the local businesses are closed for the weekend.
The square is absolutely packed with people. When they hear the toll of the flute player, the crowd will part just enough for a rider to come full gallop, as he tries to pierce a small metal circle onto his saber. Tourists, who are desperately trying to get the right photo and are looking the wrong way have been killed by riders who are unable to stop. So I tried not to get too close and still take in all the action. The farmers actually used to battle each other during the games, until too many of them were killed and there weren’t enough left to go back to the farms on Monday morning!
As unbelievably exhilarating and borderline crazy as the experience was, there was still so much more to see in Ciuterdella. If you aren’t into gin, try a Horchato, a sweet non alcoholic drink made from a plant root and absolutely visit El Paladar (www.elpaladar.es). Kiko Munoz carries only the best Spanish ham (and there’s no way to visit Spain without experiencing its magnificent hams) and lots of other local delicacies.
The party was still carrying on as I left to have a seafood lunch in peace and quiet at the much more subdued fishing village of Forsnells along the sea. The sardines at Es Mosset de Fornellls are excellent. The pretty town is known for its lobster stew, but check out the price before you order. When I visited, one place was charging a whopping $85. Near here is a 178 kilometer nature path through the countryside, where you can take your own horse out for a spin if you choose.
That afternoon I explored the capital of Mohon, which is completely different from Ciuterdella. Its clapboard shutters and more modern architecture are remnants of its former British domination.
Near the harbor is the fabulous 18th century Xoriguer Gin Factory, (www.xoriguer.es) where I learned just how the alcohol I had overindulged in the night before was brewed. Also near the harbor is an interesting marketplace surrounded by outdoor cafes and concert halls.
During my last evening, I sat under a grape arbor in the moonlight, tasting Menorcan delicacies at the Binfadet Winery (www.binifadet.com/en). At the family owned winery and restaurant, the grapes are still harvested by hand and their attention to detail is evident. The sparkling wines were delicious and the food was great, but they also sell an array of other products like chardonnay vinegars and soaps, rose jam and goat cheese marinated in red wine, that I was determined to squeeze into my already bulging suitcase.
Even though the island is small, it would still take weeks to appreciate everything it had to offer. There was the huge quarry, the many lighthouses, underwater shipwrecks and a 4000 year history. In fact, the same could be said for all of the Balearic Islands, which is exactly why I intend to return as soon as possible.
If you go: