The hedonists head for Mallorca

17:00, Aug 27 2010
Port de Soller
BALEARIC BLISS: Couples laughing at sunny, outdoor cafe in Port de Soller.

'This is the real Mallorca," says Erik, surveying the bobbing boats and lapping waters of Port de Soller. "The old Mallorca."

Erik is a local here. Which is to say he's from Denmark, where he runs a tourist agency that specialises in sending planeloads of frigid Danes to thaw out on the famous Spanish island. Even for a parochial, beach-spoilt traveller, it is beautiful on Mallorca's north-western coast. Calm and sheltered, the bay is perfect for anyone who enjoys sunsets over the sea. With 300 days of sunshine annually, cocktail hour is usually spectacular, particularly given the ragged peaks into which Port de Soller nestles.

How often has Erik visited?

"We stopped counting at 45 times," he says. "That was a long time ago."

In the peak tourist months of July and August, Erik is about as Mallorcan as they come. The man who runs Holiday on Mallorca, with whom we booked our apartment, is Dutch. The people who run Es Reco cafe and bar, where we have lingering breakfasts on the sand, are English.

Like tourist hotspots the world over, Mallorca has been transformed in just a few decades. I'd envisaged crumbling old towns, quaint seaside cafes and donkeys trudging along winding mountain tracks. I'd envisaged a sparsely populated paradise.

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The reality is certainly pretty, with its creaky towns, dramatic cliffs and golden beaches. But sparsely populated? The buzz of the throng hits me as soon as we step off the plane. Palma de Mallorca airport is sufficiently bustling to sustain its own brewery.

Package deals to Palma started in the 1950s. By 1960, 500,000 tourists were visiting Spain's largest island. In 2008, nearly 23 million passengers passed through Palma airport. Many are English, Irish, Dutch and German and a lusty proportion are young and boisterous. For them, Mallorca is a sea-girt rock on which to dance, drink and flirt. Most are harmless hedonists, funloving sun-worshippers.

Unfortunately, last year's influx also included some terrorists. In July, a bomb planted by Basque separatists killed two Spanish policemen. Then, in August, three small bombs exploded in the capital. No one was injured.

"It had no effect on bookings," says a spokesperson for the Spain Tourism Board. "It was regarded as a one-off isolated event."

"My holiday-home rentals have continued just like before," says Roy, who books us into a seaside flat. "No one has ever asked me about it or mentioned it. To be honest I didn't even know it had happened until the next morning when I watched the news."

Roy is a Dutchman who has lived in Germany, Italy and Australia. "I like living here best," he says. "Life is relaxed. Tranquilo. The climate is great. I walk around in shorts for nine to 10 months of the year and the island, and especially Soller, is absolutely beautiful. The Soller Valley, totally surrounded by the Tramuntana Mountains on the one hand and the ocean on the other, is just spectacular."

In April, Spain nominated the Serra de Tramuntana mountain range as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Stretching 90 kilometres and peaking at 1445 metres, the Serra de Tramuntana is also historically significant, with a criss-cross irrigation system dating back to the Arab occupation of these parts.

The range is a natural habitat of black vultures, whose numbers have recovered of late. It's also a natural habitat of hikers. The government recently restored the meandering Ruta de Pedra en Sec, or dry stone wall route, stretching from Andratx in the south to Formentor in the north.

Much of Mallorca is pancake-flat but in the north-west, the Tramuntana range juts dramatically from the Mediterranean. It lends towns such as Port de Soller a rugged, isolated beauty. Driving from Palma to Soller used to involve taking a serpentine road; in 1997, a three-kilometre tunnel opened to halve the trip time.

Port de Soller is a haven for couples and families, not party animals looking to score. For our family of three, it makes a good base. On Mallorca, several towns are split in two, with a port town removed from an inland twin. This is a legacy of centuries of piracy and invasion. It's the same in Soller. We catch the tram from Port de Soller into Soller, a three-kilometre trip through orange, lemon and olive groves. The old rattler, called the Orange Express, makes it fun.

The centre of Soller is a beautiful, historical hybrid. Around Placa Constitucio, cafes spill towards an old fountain shaded by plane trees. Eye-catching edifices include the 1912 Banco de Soller, with ornate ironwork and "modernista" embellishments designed by a disciple of Antoni Gaudi. Other buildings date from the 13th century; still others from the 17th. The street plan is Islamic but many homes are art nouveau.

On Mallorca, there are layers upon layers of human habitation. Since Paleolithic times, tribes and empires have alternated between romance and roughhouse. The Romans occupied the place in 123BC, founding the island's capital as Palmaria, before the Vandals sacked the island in 426. It wasn't theirs for long. In 534 the Byzantine Empire assumed control, preaching Christianity.

Muslim raiders from North Africa kept paying visits, however, until the Caliphate of Cordoba took control in 902. Agriculture and industry thrived, followed, inevitably, by a period of decadence and instability. In 1229, King James I of Aragon invaded with 15,000 men and 1500 horses but by 1570, pirates were posing such a threat that the Spanish king considered evacuating Mallorca and every other Balearic island. The legacy of piracy includes ancient piles such as Torre Picada, a stoic, chunky tower at Port de Soller built in the early 1600s in an attempt to stymie buccaneer raids.

We plan a few raids of our own. Taking to the narrow, winding mountain roads, we drive for an hour to Pollensa in the north. As in Soller, the old town is crumbling, poky and pretty, with cafes spilling on to the main square.

We drive on towards the Cap de Formentor, the rocky outcrop at the island's northern tip. As Australians, we are a little offended to be reminded that we don't have a monopoly on dramatic coastline. At one of the many clifftop lookouts, a crumbling path has views that are breathtaking. Especially for parents of young children - the Spanish tend to take a minimalist approach to safety barriers.

In Europe, it's generally a cliche to say that the old town is beautiful. That's especially true in Palma, despite its particularly turbulent history. On top of the usual Mallorcan instability (Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Moors, James I), Palma was a fascist stronghold when the Spanish Civil War began in July 1936, but the following month the Republicans mounted an amphibious landing.

They might have taken the island, too, but Italy sent its planes and the nationalists triumphed. Today, Palma is decrepit, atmospheric, dusty, beautiful. The La Seu Cathedral is magnificent, a sprawling oddity that looks as resolute and ancient as the Tramuntana Mountains. Started in 1229, it wasn't finished until nearly 400 years later. A hundred years ago, Gaudi played a part in its restoration.

For our final full day, we drive for an hour from Port de Soller to the far side of the island, to a beachwe've been told is one of the island's most beautiful. At the Platja des Trenc, among the salt flats, the coastline is entirely unlike the coves and bays of the jagged north. Here, the beach is long, flat and whiter than white, with hundreds of yachts moored offshore.

It's a Sunday and the place is packed with Spaniards aswell as foreigners. Every few metres, a thatched sun shade covers two banana chairs. For a few euros, these are for hire. Nearby, a large thatched hut sells beer and food. It's crowded but inviting, as a long, sunny day leaches our strength and stresses.

Taking the long way home, we pass through Deia, a cliff-clinging town not far from Port de Soller. Since World War I the village has been a magnet for writers, artists and wannabes. Anais Nin set an erotic story in the cove and, before his death in 1985, English poet Robert Graves spent half a century based here. In 2006, his house was opened to the public as a museum. Brit rockers Mick Jagger, Mark Knopfler and Mike Oldfield have also lived here for a time.

We don't hear anyone jamming at the local bar. Instead, we eat a delicious dinner in one of the town's upmarket restaurants. Spaniards are renowned for dining late but on Mallorca early sittings are common. The island's culture is distinct, with its own cuisine and languages. (Locals speak Spanish and various dialects of Catalan. Just to confuse tourists, places go by more than one spelling.)

In tourist season, however, local culture largely yields to tourists' preferences. For, after centuries of conquests, Mallorca is still being invaded, this time by an unco-ordinated army of sightseers. By one estimate, 80 per cent of its gross domestic product is from tourism. Mallorca is a bit like Bali in a sense: a naturally spectacular isle dependent on the tourist dollar. And like Bali, Mallorca has had terrorist bombings. Fortunately for Mallorca, the death toll was low and the tourist industry seems to have emerged unscathed.

During our nine days on the island, I didn't see a single donkey. And never again will I describe Mallorca as sparsely populated. Not in peak season, anyway. Still, it is indisputably, memorably beautiful. Graves called Mallorca his paradise, and the contented grin on the face of Erik the Dane tells me he agrees.

FAST FACTS

For our nine-day stay, the three of us booked a two-bedroom apartment in Port de Soller, a short stroll from the beach, costing €420-€580 (NZ$757-NZ$1046) a week, depending on season.

We booked on holidayonmallorca.com, run by a Dutch-German couple who live nearby and were unerringly friendly and helpful. Mallorca attracts cyclists and hikers but a car is handy.

Mallorca is the largest of the Balearic Islands, about 100 kilometres from eastern to western tip.

We used Alfa Jet for a small car for nine days.

For lazy breakfasts and lingering lunches, we became fixtures at Es Reco Beach Bar & Bistro, on the port's southwestern corner. For dinner, the boardwalk is littered with restaurants. Among the best is Es Passeig. For Mallorcan specialties, try Camposol.

The Age