The reinvention of the Balearics
Tired Seventies package hotels are being revamped into minimalist havens
Move over Magaluf – these much-loved Spanish islands are adding a touch of class. Annie Bennett tests the waters
For more than 50 years it has been the beaches – and their cheerful but mostly rather cheap resorts – that have underpinned the success of the Balearic Islands. Few destinations in the Mediterranean could offer such an uncomplicated combination of sun, sand and sheer good value. But tastes and expectations change. Most of us now want more from our holidays than sea and sangria, and the Balearics have been rapidly adapting.
Not only are the tired Seventies package hotels in the more established resorts gradually being revamped into minimalist havens serving smoothies and salads rather than chicken and chips, but many new hotels across the islands are of five-star standard. And this general upgrading has been complemented by a move away from the traditional beach destinations as holidaymakers seek out calmer, more authentic experiences in rural landscapes and less-developed parts of the coast. A plethora of boutique hotels and converted farmhouses has sprung up, welcoming a new breed of visitors who relish local cuisine and spending time cycling, walking and doing yoga and watersports rather than simply lying on a sunbed.
In truth, it’s a process which has been underway for more than a decade. But recently the balance seems to have tipped, so here is our island-by-island guide to the best of the new Balearics.
Upmarket rural tourism has really taken off in Mallorca, where honeycoloured houses in the countryside have been transformed into luxury villas and small hotels, which often have one of the exciting new wave of Mallorcan chefs cooking in the restaurant. While you are still never far from a beach, life in the interior is all about village markets, local festivals and long lunches – plus cycling, hiking, birdwatching and yoga.
The Tramuntana mountain range, which runs down the west of the island, has Unesco World Heritage status in recognition of the ingenious techniques used to grow crops on its slopes over the centuries. Now, the terraced hills provide challenging routes for the thousands of amateur and professional cyclists who visit every year and have stretched the holiday season even beyond the shoulder months. Popular bases include the low-key resorts of Port de Pollenca at the northern tip of the range, the idyllic village of Deià – which the writer and poet Robert Graves put on the map – or Port de Sóller, which featured in The Night Manager, the BBC drama that showed Mallorca off at its absolute best. But there is increasing interest in the centre of the island, around Algaida, Porreres and the market town of Sineu, where the flatter landscape suits more leisurely cycling and hiking and you are likely to encounter more locals than other tourists.
This is also horse-riding country. It’s a sport popular on all of the Balearic Islands, but in Mallorca there is a hotel dedicated to equestrian holidays. The VMG Horse Ranch (vmghorseranch.com) opened recently near Llucmajor in the countryside east of Palma, offering dressage and jumping as well as lessons. Families interested in horses will also love a day at Es Fangar (es-fangar.com), a vast estate of vineyards, olive groves and beehives near Felanitx with a racetrack and trekking trails.
On the coast, the 2016 opening of the first Park Hyatt Resort in Europe put the spotlight on Canyamel, a lesser-known part of the east coast. The hotel is in the Cap Vermell estate, home to some top-of-therange villas. With a string of secluded coves and the historic towns of Capdepera and Artà nearby, this is a great part of the island to explore.
Further down the coast, the area around the attractive town of Santanyí is becoming increasingly popular for villa holidays, particularly around Cas Concos and s’Horta. Then there is Palma, which now has the best range of boutique hotels anywhere in Spain, rivalled only by Seville. Many are in historic mansions dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries, and these traditional buildings also lend themselves rather well to being remodelled as tourist apartments, with a wealth of beamed ceilings, arches and tiled floors. Holiday lets are also taking over the Santa Catalina neighbourhood, where designer bars and vintage shops are popping up all over the place.
Just the thought of Ibiza and its full-throttle nightlife is enough to put a smile on most people’s faces, but these days they are just as likely to be dreaming about doing pilates on a beach at dawn as dancing at one of San Antonio’s clubs. A fastexpanding range of activity breaks based in the quieter corners of this beautiful island includes a holiday from Swimtrek (swimtrek.com), where you spend a week swimming in the sapphire sea around the cliffs in the quieter north of the island near Portinatx. Meanwhile, Ibiza Retreats (ibizaretreats.com) this year has a second base to cope with demand for its holistic breaks. At the chic Can Luminosa on a hilltop near San Lorenzo in the heart of the island, guests are encouraged to walk barefoot in the forest.
Other specialist operators, such as Madrid-based Corazon Travel (corazontravel.com) are setting up tours focusing on the gastronomic scene, with visits to organic farms and vineyards, while the increase in high-end restaurants is a clear illustration of growing demand. Michelin-starred chefs with a presence on the island include Ferran and Albert Adrià at Heart (heartibiza.com) in the Ibiza Gran
hotel, while nearby on Talamanca beach, the Nobu Hotel Ibiza Bay (see panel), which opened last summer, offers the eponymous restaurant plus enough other eating and drinking options to keep guests amused without leaving the premises. Paco Roncero, who has two stars at his Madrid restaurant, is at the helm of the mind-boggling Sublimotion (sublimotionibiza.com) in the Hard Rock Hotel on Playa d’en Bossa (telegraph.co.uk/ tt-hardrockibiza), where dinner costs upwards of £1,500 – one of the world’s most expensive. Don’t panic, though. Tatel, overlooking the beach in the same hotel, is run by renowned chef Nino Redruello, and offers superb Spanish food in a sumptuous setting but at more reasonable prices.
Further west, away from the distractions of Playa d’en Bossa, demand is growing for upmarket villas. There are some spectacular properties in Porroig, Es Torrent, Es Cubells or Cala d’Hort, so much so that demand now drastically outstrips supply in July and August.
Menorca has always been a quiet, laid-back option, and in many ways it is ahead of its neighbours when it comes to a more imaginative holiday offering. It has had Unesco Biosphere Reserve status since 1993 and has been encouraging sustainable tourism for years, long before it became fashionable.
While it has a few family resorts, most of the island is unspoilt countryside surrounded by spectacular beaches, many with superb conditions for diving, kayaking and paddleboarding. On the south coast, where the sea is calmest, good areas to stay include Biniguas and Son Saura. Es Grau, in a coastal nature reserve in the east, is an attractive small resort that is great for families.
Beaches on the north coast are wilder and more difficult to access, but Fornells has a beautiful natural harbour and one of the best places for diving. This is also one of the best places to try the Menorcan speciality caldereta de langosta, a rich lobster dish that is just one of the gastronomic highlights of an island that is fast developing its reputation among foodies. A new gastronomic holiday this autumn from Annie B’s Spanish Kitchen (anniebspain.com) is already fully booked, but more dates might be added. You can visit local vineyards, rural cheesemakers and drop in at the tiny Xoriguer gin distillery by the harbour in the capital, Mahón.
Unlike neighbouring Mallorca, the island does not have dozens of boutique hotels, but there are some gorgeous ones, such as Torralbenc (telegraph.co.uk/tt-torralbenc), a former farmhouse that has one of the best restaurants on the island and from May will also be serving the first wines from its own vineyards. Also on the luxury spectrum Cugó Gran (telegraph.co.uk/tt-cugogran) offers nutrition retreats as well as yoga, pilates, walking and other activities.
With arguably the best beaches in the Balearics and a laid-back vibe, tiny Formentera is a quiet paradise for nature lovers. Most people hire bikes to trundle along the more than 60 miles (97km) of tracks that criss-cross the rural landscape – more than 70 per cent of the land is protected – to reach secluded beaches or to eat at a feet-in-the-sand waterside restaurant. The fact that you have to get there by ferry – or yacht – means you are winding down even before you step on to the glittering white sand.
Until recently, there were few hotels, and most of the apartments and villas were pretty basic, but the island now has a handful of very smart places to stay. The reopening last year of the Gecko Hotel & Beach Club (see panel) is the most obvious example of the shift upmarket. The boho bolthole on Migjorn beach has been revamped by Pablo Carrington of the Marugal group – which also includes Cap Rocat in Mallorca, and Torralbenc in Menorca – and is now a glamorous haven where guests loll on cabana beds under palm and juniper trees in between sessions with yoga guru Yiannis Andritsos.
HOT DAYS AND COOL NIGHTS The moon rises over La Seu, the spectacular cathedral in Palma, Mallorca, main, while the sun shines on Menorca, above, and the many marinas of the Balearics, left
INFINITY COOL Gecko Beach Club in bohemian Formentera
Ibiza eats: Paco Roncero