On a late-summer afternoon in the tiny village of Deià, a donkey brays and sheep bells clang. Nightingales dart through palms and yuccas and pines. The soft sunlight is reflected off the limestone houses, and violet morning glories cover everything, spilling from grape trellises and gates. On the terraced hillsides above town, olive trees grow under the craggy Tramuntana Mountains. This could be any ancient place, far from today, blissfully peaceful. Then, from one modest house, a song by Moby fills the air. A euphonious language can be heard from inside another house, and it most definitely isn't Catalan. It's English, the Queen's English. A cell phone rings, competing with the singing birds. And on the narrow streets, there are soft footsteps, not of local schoolchildren or matrons, but of sleek blonde women in Hermès loafers.
With its semitropical climate, Majorca, the largest island of the Balearics, has been drawing visitors from colder climes ever since George Sand wrote the dyspeptic Winter in Majorca about her 1839 sojourn here with Frédéric Chopin. "Majorca is the painter's El Dorado," she noted. In 1871, Archduke Ludwig Salvator abandoned the Austro-Hungarian Empire (where he was third in line to the throne) and lingered here for years, working to preserve ancient olive trees and create walking paths in the mountains. He was embraced by the locals, who appreciated his reverence for their remote world. Sixty years later, Robert Graves, the English poet and novelist, settled in Deià, just inland from the northwest Majorca coast. "I found everything I wanted as a writer: sun, sea, mountains, spring-water, shady trees, no politics, and a few civilized luxuries such as electric light," Graves wrote about his adopted home. "I wanted to go where town was still town; and country, country."
This year, the house where Graves lived will be opened to the public as a museum. "So now," says Tomás Graves, the poet's 51-year-old son, "my father's legacy can be seen as something besides a tombstone." Actually, Graves's legacy can also be seen as the cause of the transformation of the quiet Deià of the early 20th century into today's less quiet colony for privileged visitors. It was he who brought attention to Deià by inviting as his guests all manner of attention getters—Ava Gardner, Alec Guinness, and Peter Ustinov among them. And around the time he was entertaining his world-famous friends, Winston Churchill, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Charlie Chaplin were staying at the newly built Hotel Formentor. Just as the Arabs and Romans left their mark on the island in earlier times, so have the latter-day globe-trotters. Accessible by quick flight from most of Europe into a vast, modern airport, Majorca attracts more than 8 million visitors a year; one out of every four people on Majorca is a foreigner. Beaches have become as crowded with sunbathers as Coney Island. And in the summer, Tomás Graves can hardly find a moment to himself.
Graves, a musician and author of Bread and Oil—a book about the island's staple cuisine and traditional culture—darts around on all kinds of social calls. One night he'll be at La Fonda, the Deià bar frequented by hipster kids with pierced noses and dowagers with aristocratic ones, drinking with a tabla player who has just given an impromptu concert in a nearby barn. The following weekend he'll be overseeing a celebration of his father's poetry. The socializing is endless.
"In August, it's like being in St.-Tropez," says Jesse McKinley, a New York Times reporter whose family owns a cottage in Deià, near where Michael Douglas and Andrew Lloyd Webber have vacation houses. "And whenever someone famous arrives, everyone always says it's the beginning of the end, that the whole town is going to be ruined. Yet it remains one of the most beautiful places in the world."
Indeed, despite the new economy that exploded in the 1960's, with cheap air travel and package trips for visitors of the palest hues, despite the high-rises that mar the landscape on the Bay of Palma, and despite the mosh pitlike scenes at even the most isolated coves, Majorca has not lost its appeal. It isn't a rave capital for kids. Nor is it the Hamptons of the Mediterranean. But it is large enough to support a variety of life- styles that can coexist in happy separation. That's why you can find a sloppy beer-drinking crowd at Port d'Alcúdia on the northern part of the island, and then drive across a landscape dotted with windmills and farms to discover a ring of socialites poolside at Deià's Residencia hotel.
José Carlos Llop, a prizewinning Spanish author who owns a seaside flat in an undisturbed fishing village near Valldemossa, knows how to move about the island in summer without seeing any tourists. The mountainous northeastern area near Cap de Ferrutx, for instance, feels relatively untouched. And there are the towns Pollença, in the north, and Sóller, near the west coast, where you can wander in pleasant isolation. Even Palma, a pretty city with architecture dating from Moorish times, has a harbor where fishermen mend their nets within view of chic new restaurants, museums, and bars.
Llop can still remember the island of the not-so-distant past, when waterfront property wasn't highly valued, because Majorcans farmed and felt safer living inland, away from storms and pirates. He tells the story of one man who sold his property in the 1950's for a case of vermouth. Today, he says, the island is becoming too expensive for many Majorcans. For years Llop lived in Barcelona, but like so many others, he came back: "The landscape remains beautiful here. And to be from an island is a destiny."
And what is Majorca's destiny?It already has enough stylish hotels: Pollença's Son Brull and Palma's casbah-chic Puro are oases for the kind of traveler who knows that to find the coolest scene on Majorca in high season means to stay next to an architecturally stunning pool, rather than by the sea. New vineyards are a magnet for oenophiles. The youth-minded, Majorca-based Camper shoe company is drawing all sorts of visitors to its outlet in the town of Inca. And textile makers are attracting discerning shoppers, not to mention at least one ambitious fashion designer, Sebastián Pons.
Alquería Blanca is a tranquil village in the southeast, 15 minutes from the sea. Off the plaza, there's a 17th-century stone manor filled with antique furnishings and brocade tapestries. Yet the scene inside it is anything but traditional. The tawny, thin, 32-year-old Pons is surrounded by a motley riot of fabric as he furiously works on his next ready-to-wear collection. Talking to a young seamstress, Pons adjusts garments and holds dresses up to the blinding afternoon sun. The fabrics are made on local looms that date back to the 19th century. "We're two steps from Europe and two steps from Africa," he says. "Everyone from the Greeks and Romans to movie stars has come through or lives here. On Majorca, you live with people who influence you in all kinds of ways."