Exploring the Real Majorca: Rugged, Rustic, and Steeped in Tradition
People often give me quizzical looks when I tell them that Majorca is my favorite place in the world. Maybe they know it from The Magaluf Weekender, a reality show about drunken Brits on the make on the island’s southwestern edge. Or they confuse Majorca with Ibiza, its Balearic neighbor, which is light on culture and heavy on yacht parties and Kimye. And some beach areas on Majorca do live up to the stereotype. But at just over 1,400 square miles, Majorca is bigger than its beaches (though it does have some great ones).
For one thing, it’s rich in history, having been passed back and forth for centuries between Islamic and Christian powers before becoming a base of Catalan culture. The tourism industry took off in the 1960s, when enterprising families began building mega-resorts near the capital, Palma. By the end of the 1980s, in an attempt to attract more upscale travelers, the government restricted coastal development and soon a wave of swanky heritage hotels opened. On a weeklong summer trip, I discovered some of these lovely boutique properties, along with the island’s rugged mountain landscapes and unique North African inflected cuisine.
Es Capdellà and Sant Elm
The one reason to go to the western mountain village of Es Capdellà is Castell Son Claret, the newest of Majorca’s antique castle makeovers. Everything about the place is designed to impress: the neo-Moorish crenellations of the 19th-century manor, the glassy pool, and the vast garden of herbs, olive trees, and blue agapanthus. When the hotel opened, in 2013, Madrid- based chef Francisco Pérez Arellano moved his Zaranda restaurant here and began applying his studied, haute-cuisine technique to the local ingredients. On my first night, I had a four-course meal that included stuffed loin of rabbit with crunchy snails and spinach. I still dream of the dessert box, with its cinnamon-dusted custard tarts.
Es Capdellà and Sant Elm
If your intention is to block out the world in highly tasteful surroundings, then Castell Son Claret is ideal. But I craved the open sea and headed 20 minutes down the hill to the town of Sant Elm, where German and Catalan families were picnicking next to swimming-pool-blue water. A lane of shops peddling bathing suits and a nautical-looking wine bar called Es Bocoi were just up the road. On the menu was pica pica, a dish of calamari in a broth flecked with sea fennel and Algerian raisins, a flavorful reminder that Africa is only an hour’s flight due south.
In recent years, the historic center of Majorca’s capital has experienced a boom fueled by wealthy Northern Europeans who have transformed centuries-old buildings into chic hotels, boutiques, and restaurants. Hotel Cort, co-owned by a Majorcan and a Swede and designed by Barcelona-based Lázaro Rosa-Violán, is a former 19th-century bank now decorated with colorful tiles and blue-and-white ikat wall covering. On the hot August night I spent there, the hotel’s restaurant was packed, with crowds spilling out onto the Plaça Cort.
Behind the dusky ocher façades of Old Town are a growing number of high-end shops, including La Percera, where I found vintage furniture and sophisticated beach accessories like chunky espadrilles and wide-brimmed cane hats, all locally made. An extension of the Gallery Horrach Moya nearby had impressive works by Joana Vasconcelos, along with a slick new restaurant. But on the advice of a friend, I headed to Patron Lunares for dinner. My negrito a la plancha, a toothsome whitefish, was perfectly grilled. All around me were young preppy groups smoking over aperitifs at sundown, which, in summer, means 10 p.m.
Perched above the shore on the cliffs of the Tramuntana mountains, this stone village was built in the Middle Ages by the Moors, who constructed terraces on the mountainsides to grow crops. The houses that are sprinkled throughout are blanketed in morning glories and surrounded by pine trees.
Deià’s Belmond La Residencia was the first of Majorca’s heritage properties, fashioned out of a group of 16th- and 17th-century villas. When Richard Branson bought the hotel in the 1990s (he sold it in 2002), it became a magnet for celebrities like Sting and Elton John. Together with wealthy local homeowners, this A-list brigade has managed to keep a low profile. Nonetheless, Deià’s polish was evident everywhere when I passed through, from the beautifully maintained antique houses to the posh English retirees who dined at the upscale Es Racó d’es Teix.
Deià has one rocky beach, Cala Deià, in a shady grotto far below the village, and I had to arrive well before noon to find a spot. Eventually, the smell of garlic lured me to Ca’s Patró March, housed in a shack on the side of the cove. I took in the view of the sea, its pockets of bright jade prettier from up there, over razor clams and a glass of ice-cold white wine.
As you drive a bit south of Sant Elm the coastline gets truly picture-postcard, with pale gold- and white-sand beaches off almost every road. This is where to drop the beach towel and forget the world, but the medieval village of Santanyí is worth a detour. Largely overlooked by the hordes, it has been historically known for its yellow-stone quarry. The place to stay there is S’Hotelet de Santanyí: it’s an old town house renovated by Majorcan architect Antoni Esteva with five understated, all-white rooms. Just off the central square, it was the perfect launchpad for a walk past fairy-lit cafés and town houses—in the late light they gave off a honeyed glow the color of Sauternes wine.
Esteva’s first property, Son Gener, an updated 18th- century farmhouse in nearby Son Servera, was one of the first fincas to turn boutique, almost 20 years ago. Today, it’s run by his wife, Catin, who showed me around the hotel’s vegetable gardens and whitewashed rooms. When I asked about the property’s rough-hewn ceramics, she told me that the artist, Maria Antonia Carrió, lived nearby. The next thing I knew, we were driving up a tiny road to her house. Carrió explained how her vases, in shades of eggshell and black, were inspired by the Japanese principle of natural imperfection. I wasn’t surprised to learn that designers like John Pawson are collectors. A side street near Santanyí’s cathedral.
A tiny gathering of humble stone buildings and grape arbors at the foot of the Tramuntanas, Caimari feels like the middle of nowhere. The surrounding area produces some of the island’s best olive oil, but I had another reason to drive up my last steep road on this trip: Ca Na Toneta, a lovely contemporary restaurant run by the Solivellas sisters, who share a passion for traditional Majorcan cuisine and centuries-old recipes.
On a terrace under a trellis laden with grapes patrolled by a fat cat, Teresa served dish after dish prepared by her sister Maria, a self-taught chef. There was grainy house-made ricotta from local heritage-breed sheep, a charred blue fish called serviola with an intense vegetable ragoût, and lemon ice cream with apricot pound cake. “We will never forget our traditions,” Teresa said as she poured me another glass of Château Paquita, a biodynamic wine from the town of Felanitx. In Majorca, that’s a sentiment shared by many.