In uncharacteristically accepting form,STUART PRITCHARD headed out to the reputationally battered Balearic Island of Mallorca and found a world of luxury and culture a million miles from the somewhat seedy image…
Consider this: you’re a rich, sophisticated British ex-pat living on the island of Mallorca and you want to travel back and forth between there and Blighty, but don’t want to be herded into no-thrills Hell to do it. What’s that? It wouldn’t be an issue because no rich, sophisticated British ex-pat would live somewhere generally deemed to be merely for drunken stag/hen parties and Club 18- 30? Ah ha, you’ve played straight into my convoluted trap!
You see, this is a common misconception when it comes to Mallorca, and although the immediate image of tribes of lobster-red, lager-fuelled Britiots (that’s a fusion of ‘Brit’ and ‘idiot’) in Union Flag shorts throwing plastic patio furniture at each other prior to throwing up in the hotel swimming pool may be true in a certain area of the island – and as much as I was hoping to avoid starting this article with such an obvious journalistic cliché – there really is far more to this Balearic gem. And that’s why so many rich, sophisticated Brits really do live here.
Don’t believe me? Well, going back to the question of air travel, it was exactly this problem that the ex-pats faced. So, this being the case, they cunningly began clubbing
together to charter private jets, thereby cutting out all the unpleasantness of Sleazy Jet and CryInAir all together. However, this was still massively impractical and a better solution was sought; so say “¡hola!” to British Airways’ new service from London City…
Let there be light
Okay, sometimes there’s no escape; the cackling harridans of the Bond-girl themed hen party clogging the entrance of London City Airport were hard to ignore, especially at just after six in the morning. Each wore a black and pink T-shirt with the name of a specific Bond-conquest on the back; “Pussy Galore” read the name on the back of one who looked like a veteran of the hen party scene. Yes, I thought, looking her up and down, very probably.
Fortunately, though, we didn’t encounter them again until after a comfortable flight delivered us to arrivals at Palma Airport. Here, hen party clashed with stag do over reclaimed luggage and the whole thing looked dangerously like turning into a clumsy Roman orgy right there at the baggage carousel. Thankfully, we had a secret weapon: Frank. Frank was to be our tour guide for the next couple of days… and savage taskmaster. He’d put together a punishing schedule that we were to start on immediately and, subsequently, he had us out of the airport and en route to Palma Cathedral before the frenzied copulation began in earnest.
Built on the site of a former Arab mosque, construction of the Gothic marvel known locally as La Seu initially began back in 1229, but wasn’t completed until 1601, with ‘snagging’ continuing right up until 1904. Whether that adds any credence to the old stereotype about Spanish builders, I couldn’t say, but what I do know is that not only did Antonio Gaudi himself have a hand in the interior design during the early 20th Century, there’s also some seriously weird stuff going on inside…
Wandering through, casually ignoring the ‘No Flash Photography’ signs, it’s a strikingly impressive building that any supreme being would be flattered to have built in their honour and, naturally, it’s full of the usual God stuff – intricately carved chapels, giant, elongated nave columns, and people begging for redemption. But, there’s more to it than that… it’s also got its own light show. Yes, thanks to a stunning stained glass rose window high above the end of the nave, for most of the day the congregation taking a pew right at the front are bathed in a wonderful technicolour glow thanks to the sun streaming in above them.
However, it was while basking in the glow myself that I spotted unusual sight number one: a woman openly breastfeeding on the front pew. Now, I know that there’s technically nothing at all wrong with that, and I’m sure God wouldn’t mind, but it was just unexpected – chapel; chapel; image of Jesus; lactating nipple. See?
Moving on swiftly, I followed in the direction the nipple had been pointing and hit oddity number two. The best way I can describe it is as a nightmarish undersea mural that covers three walls in ghostly fish and, in what can only be a tribute to Star Wars, has Jesus emerging through the back wall as though frozen in carbonite. It transpired to be a representation of the story of the Fishes and the Loaves by a local artist. But that’s not what I saw.
After leaving the Gothic splendour of La Seu, her golden buttresses and her links with George Lucas behind us, it was clearly gin o’clock. Fortunately, Frank had anticipated this very English hour and booked us in at Cappuccino San Miguel, a charming, relaxed café with a sun-drenched courtyard, complete with fountain and G&Ts that come served in goldfish bowls, alongside ample amounts of mouth-watering tapas. And a couple of goldfish bowls later, it was time to make the half-hour drive to our base: the Hilton Sa Torre Mallorca.
Despite the Hilton name, this is no soulless carbon-copy construct of glass and steel; this is something new. A renovated 14th Century fort, this is more a boutique retreat than a hotel, with 41 individually designed rooms spread over three floors, in a complex that comes complete with its own spa, windmill, chapel (deconsecrated to allow the likes of me inside), a brace of swimming pools, a pair of tennis courts, a full-sized football pitch, and a beautiful cobbled courtyard.
Checked in, served Cava and then escorted to my suite by a string of very friendly ladies, it was immediately clear I’d been given the wrong room – it was massive. A study, stairs down to the lounge with LCD TV number one and sofa, through to the bedroom (complete with two double beds, LCD TV number two and dressing table), and off into the bathroom with its spa bath and separate wetroom. Then there was the balcony – wrapped around the front corner of the property with an unspoilt view down to the windmill, it would have been possible to host two games of five-a-side simultaneously, such was its size. Then it hit me, in what alcoholics would call ‘a moment of sobriety’, a sudden realisation of absolute peace and tranquillity. I opened a beer, sat down, lit a cigar and drank it all in.
Later, at the welcome cocktail served in the chapel, I caught up with one of our hostesses. “If you’re trying to impress me,” I said, “You’ve succeeded.”
Food for thought
Dinner that evening was at the hotel’s own Zaranda restaurant, under the direction of head chef Fernando Arellano, an incredibly talented young chap who picked up his first Michelin star at Zaranda in Madrid. Lured from there by the promise of more freedom at the Hilton, loyalty amongst his staff is such that 14 of them followed him.
Once we’d eaten as many different animals as possible, my fellow journalists and I retreated to the courtyard for a selection of nightcaps and to discuss exactly what ‘sweetbreads’ were. Face pulling ensued…
The following morning Frank arrived bright and early for the run to the port of Colonia De Sant Jordi, wherein lay a cobweb-blasting speed boat tour of the stunning coastline over to Sa Cova Blava – the Blue Cave – and a chance to dive into the light-enhanced aquamarine waters of this almost ethereal grotto.
And how do you follow magical caves? With wine, of course! Which is fortunate considering that Mallorca is home to Bodegas Jaume Mesquida – 25ha of family run winery in Porreres. Founded in 1945 by the great-grandfather of current brother and sister proprietors, Barbara and Jaume Mesquida Mora, biodynamic agriculture is the order of the day here, an approach that sees them producing wines that could potentially have a huge impact on the world wine stage, particularly in the UK, if only it was easier to find them. As it is, short of a personal visit to the shop at the winery, the best bet for those seeking to try their exquisite produce is via the online presence (www.jaumemesquida.com).
After the azurite wonders of the Blue Cave, you’d be tempted to believe that Mallorca could offer none more blue, but you’d be hideously mistaken. Even if you found yourself at the other end of the island and had forgotten the name of Azul Playa, “The blue hotel?” would be sufficient information for any taxi driver.
A four-star with 18 rooms parked right on the edge of the beach at Ciudad Jardin, the bedrooms at Azul may be a touch on the small side, but if you can secure one with a sea-view, you might forgive its lack of cat-swinging facilities.
In the restaurant, meanwhile, the fare here is a fusion of the classic and the modern, relying heavily on the quality and availability of the local seafood. The restaurant is smart, but the atmosphere comfortable and informal – which is the direction the whole hotel pushes in – while service is warm, welcoming and highly attentive.
While I wouldn’t have wanted to give up my comfortable, sprawling suite at the Hilton, the restaurant at the Azul Playa is an excellent way to spend a relaxed evening, and was a pleasant way to round of our last night in Mallorca… not that it ended there, of course, not whilst the Sa Clastra bar remained open back at the Hilton. That would have been rude…
The next morning I begrudgingly checked out of the luxuriously appointed pad I’d come to think of as ‘home’, said farewell to the Hilton Sa Torre Mallorca, and hit the open road to Palma with the rest of the press gang and Frank at the helm. Today’ s leisurely jaunt would involve taking the mountain train to the sleepy village, beach and port of Soller; in a private carriage, no less… a private carriage that Frank defended from the entry attempts of several geriatric locals with the tenacity of an enraged bulldog.
The trains themselves have been in service since 1912 and retain all their original character. Powered by electric- locomotive, the journey from Palma takes you up 27km up through the mountains, past picturesque orange and olive groves to a town with more charm than a Spanish Nigel Havers: Soller.
Orange juice & purple haze
At the northeast of the island, the sleepy town of Soller has prehistoric origins dating back to 5200 BC, and time doesn’t seem to have been in too much of a hurry there ever since. An ideal spot to enjoy a glass of freshly squeezed orange and indulge in a bit of people watching from one of the cafes circling the Plaza Constitucion, so that was exactly what we did before making our way down to its immaculate beach to enjoy a cold beer served by a German man with the kind of handlebar moustache you’d write home about.
From here the end was dangerously in sight and, following an even more dangerous journey along the steep, winding road up Cap Gros de Moleta, we arrived at our final itinerary destination, the restaurant Es Faro – the Lighthouse.
Nestled at the very peak, next door to said lighthouse, Es Faro possesses what is probably the island’s finest view, taking in the complete sweeping majesty of the Port of Soller. Here you can sit and enjoy delicious tapas, the freshest seafood and all other manner of Mediterranean dishes whilst staring awe-struck at that aforementioned view. As locations for lunch go, the best really was saved for last, and nobody with the senses of taste and vision should visit Mallorca and miss the chance to experience it for themself.
After lunch it was time to head back down the treacherously narrow mountain road and on to the airport. Frank seemed a little emotional by this point, but still relentlessly keen to impart Mallorcan fact. Then as we rounded another ludicrously sharp bend there was a terrible metallic grinding sound accompanied by a severe jolt. We stopped. Frank and the driver jumped out, moments later Frank’s head appeared round the door. “It’s okay,” he grinned, “It’s nothing!” the last words timed to perfection as the driver reappeared, hurling half the back bumper onto the chair beside him.
So it was, in a mere 48-hours (or so), my entire perspective of both this much maligned island and of Hilton hotels had been completely changed. The natural beauty of Mallorca, the rich history, the delicious food and warm welcome had taught me that I’d been a Britiot (this will catch on) for accepting the perceived stereotype so readily. And even though this now mars my otherwise 100% record in being absolutely right about most things, it’s a lesson I’m pleased to have learnt.