Balearic Islands Travel Guide


Ibiza - Eivissa in Catalan - is invaded every summer by a multinational force of hedonistic sunseekers. It has fine beaches, relentless sunshine, good food and wild nightlife. Inland, the landscape is harsh, dry and rocky. Beachside, discos, clubs and bars ensure the place never stops buzzing.

Unlike many other glittering resort communities, however, Ibiza City is actually a living, breathing town with an interesting old quarter. But most people head for the throbbing disco complexes, vast temples to hedonism that you should really check out even if it isn't your scene.

There's far more to Mallorca than the holy triumvirate of sun, sea and sand. Fight your way past the army of tan-seeking tourists, and you'll discover Gothic architecture, hilltop villages, olive groves and hidden beaches. If you're after something a bit crazier, there are 24-hour parties galore.

Visitors can fan out in the direction of either Palma de Mallorca, the main centre, or the northwest coast with the Serra de Tramuntana mountain ranges, or the north and east coast beaches. Whatever your poison, you (and about ten million other tourists) can find it here.

Menorca, the second largest island, is perhaps the least overrun of the Balearic chain. Now a Biosphere Reserve, it boasts several unique ecosystems, including the S'Albufera d'es Grau wetlands, and some fabulous archaeological sites. Impressive prehistoric stone formations dot the island, and more than 90 caves dug into the coastal cliffs may have served as mausoleums or family homes. Pick up the tourist office's excellent 'Archaeological Guide to Menorca', if you're interested in that sort of thing.

Menorca's main city, Ciutadella, (also known to Muslim's as Median Minurqa) is a 17th-century vision that arose from the ashes of the 1558 Turkish motto, invade-and-raze. Sometimes referred to as 'Vella i Bella' (the Old and the Beautiful)it's an attractive and distinctly Spanish city with a picturesque port and an historic old quarter.

Palma de Mallorca
Palma de Mallorca is the island's only true city. Traditionally the haunt of celebrities and royalty, it combines natural beauty with glamour and is a perfect jumping off point for exploring the rest of the island. It's a stylish city that buzzes by day and sizzles by night.

Palma's imposing Gothic cathedral, La Seo, is the town's main feature and worth at least an afternoon. When you've roamed over it, it's time to turn your attention to musuems full of religious artefacts, the town's fine Gothic architecture and the last remaining traces of Turkish occupation.

This attractive town owes its fame largely to Frédéric Chopin and his lover George Sand, who spent their famous 'winter of discontent' (1938-39) in Cartuja de Valldemossa. This former monastery was converted into rental accommodation after the monks were turfed out in 1835. Today you can visit the lovely gardens and rooms: highlights of the tour are Chopin's piano, his death mask and several of his original manuscripts.

More recently (spring 2000), actor Michael Douglas opened the Costa Nord show in Valldemossa. It has two parts: a documentary on the history of that part of the island, and a mock-up of the master's quarters on the ship Nixe. The ship belonged to Archduke Luis Salvador, who was so enamoured of Mallorca he proceeded to buy up large chunks of it. This may have been so he could walk all over it (the Archduke forged many paths through the surrounding mountains which hikers can enjoy today). A few kilometres north of Valldemossa one of Salvador's former residences, Can Marroig, is open to the public.

It's worth exploring the rest of the town too, which is small but charming (if you ignore the inevitable tourist tack). If you fancy a swim, the rocky cove of Port de Valldemossa is 7km (4mi) away. There, a handful of restaurants will vie for your post-swim custom.

Valldemossa is small enough to do in a day, although there's a limited choice of accommodation if you want to stay. The town is 15km (9mi) from Palma and buses run from the capital daily.

The idyllic town of Deià has a bohemian feel: the setting is stunning and it has attracted a large number of artists, writers and musicians over the years. English poet Robert Graves died here in 1985 and is buried in the hillside cemetery. The town's main street is lined with artists' workshops and galleries selling locally produced work. There are also many bars and cafes where you can sketch, write poetry, or just have a beer. Beside the church is the Museu Parroquial, which has an interesting collection of religious effects, icons and old coins. The Archaeological Museum & Research Centre displays artefacts found in the Valldemossa area. On the coast, Cala de Deià has popular swimming spots and bar-restaurants. Daily buses run from Palma to Deià.

To really appreciate Sóller, take the old train from Palma; it twists and turns past trees and olive groves, through the stunning Tramuntana mountains. The journey takes about an hour, and the views are spectacular. Many people use the town as a base for walking in the surrounding area, but it's also a charming place to explore, with attractive old buildings, lush gardens and open plazas. Bars and restaurants border the main square, Plaça de la Constitució. The 16th-century Església Parroquial de San Bartolomé is also here, its modernist facade belying a beautiful Gothic interior. An ex-San Francisco tram takes visitors down to the attractive but overcrowded in high season Port de Sóller on the coast. Boats run excursions to Sa Calobra, Deià, Sant Elm and Illa sa Dragonera.

Set between two huge bays, Badia de Pollença and Badia d'Alcodia, this busy town was once a Roman settlement. Although you can see remnants of its ancient past, the town has a slightly sanitised feel and most of the medieval walls encircling it are a modern copy. Just outside the walls are the remains of the Roman city of Pollètia, 1200 sq m (2150 sq ft) of which have been excavated and opened to the public. The Pollentia Museum in Alcúdia exhibits archaeological finds from the site. If you're not bored of Roman remains, you can also pretend to be a gladiator in the ruined amphitheatre.

For a change of scenery, the Parc Natural de l'Albufera nature reserve nearby is excellent walking, cycling and bird-watching country. Look out for moorhens and coots in the grass, and herons and flamingos in the reeds. You can pick up a map and list of birds to spot at the reception centre. Buses go to the park from Port d'Alcúdia (the seaside resort around 2km (1mi) from Alcúdia), and from Alcúdia to Palma.

Coves del Drac (Caves of the Dragon)
With almost 2000m (6550ft) of caves and six subterranean lakes, this attraction is not for the claustrophobic. The caves were discovered near Porto Cristo on the east coast in 1896, and today crowds of visitors come for the hour-long multilingual tour - be prepared to queue if you come at a weekend. The beautifully illuminated clusters of stalactites and stalagmites are named after things they resemble, though inevitably some labels are more obvious than others. The highlight of the tour is classical musicians playing from boats on a large underground lake. Inspired by this evocative spectacle, you can take a boat ride across the lake before you leave the caves.

If you want to stay out of daylight for a bit longer, Porto Cristo's large aquarium is not far from the caves. Kids particularly enjoy the deadly sea creatures on display.

The principal coastal road runs through Porto Cristo; from here buses run to Palma and Port d'Alcúdia.

Off the Beaten Track

Formentera is the getaway-from-the-getaway. Folks needing to dry out and have a little down-time away from Ibiza and its disco balls and hectic socialising can head to the tiny island of Formentera. If you aren't too hung over or too wrung out it's a great place for short bicycle treks and long picnic lunches.

The emphasis here is definitely on 'beach'; the sea is visible from just about everywhere on the island and the edges of the island are fringed with numerous great beaches and any number of secluded bays, some of them with invisible grottos. Among the evocatively-named beaches worth vsiting are Cala Saona, Coves d'en Xeroni, Es Caló and Es Pujols.

If a good coffee is the only thing on your agenda, get to the main village of San Francesc Xavier, an attractive white-washed village with some good cafes overlooking a series of small sunny plazas.

A ferry from Ibiza is the only way to get there.

Illa de Cabrera
In the middle of the tourist mayhem that hits the islands every summer, Cabrera is a haven of isolation. The entire island was made a nature preserve in 1991 and access is controlled by the Spanish National Institute for the Conservation of Nature. But if you can finagle a permit to visit the island make the most of the opportunity.

This uninhabited island sits around 20km (12mi) off the south coast of Mallorca. Along with the surrounding islets it's part of the Parc Nacional Archipiélago de Cabrera, and you can only get to it by joining a tour or getting special permission. An island with a strong military history, certain parts of it are off limits due to unexploded armaments. As far as sights go, the castle overlooking the harbour is about it; the real appeal of the island lies in its stunning wildlife and vegetation. If you're lucky, you may see a blue-underbellied Liffords wall lizard, or dolphins indulging in off-shore frolicks. Birds such as shags, herring gulls and peregrine falcons can be spotted flying around the cliffs - be sure to take your binoculars.

Once-a-week boat trips to the island run from Colònia de Sant Jordi harbour. You can get a bus from Palma, Cala d'Or or Cala Figuera to Colònia de Sant Jordi.

La Savina
The island of La Savina, just to the north of Ibiza, is definitely a get-away-from-it-all destination. Favoured by passenger ships, fishing boats and luxury yachts because of its main port, the town is a small and rather sleepy affair which nevertheless runs to a few restaurants, shops and holiday accommodation.

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