A narrow driveway, barely wide enough for one small car, curves sharply away from the main road along the northern coast of the Spanish island of Mallorca. It twists upward through groves of gnarled olive trees and almond trees in full blossom. The landscape falling away below is wild and unspoiled.
Half a mile up sits a small hotel, Ca's Xorc, like a gem stuck in a rock, with a sweeping view of Mallorca's jagged mountains, the colorful port town of Sóller, and the Mediterranean beyond. A stone dining patio gives way to a lush tropical garden. Only singing birds and bells from a distant herd of sheep punctuate the midday calm. On the opposite side of the hotel and down several verdant terraces, the far edge of a swimming pool that's built over a sharp slope seems to pour out its contents into the deep valley below.
Mallorca, long-known as a bargain destination for those who couldn't afford anything better, has a lovely new face. Over the past six to eight years, investors -- betting that the island's abundant beauty could draw well-heeled vacationers -- seeded a crop of five-star resorts, small luxury hotels, and top-notch restaurants. A flush of Northern European vacation-home buyers has also helped create a more upscale service industry. With a population of 640,000, Mallorca now boasts six Michelin-starred restaurants serving innovative Mediterranean cuisine.
Yes, the overbuilt beach resorts such as those dotting Alcudia and Pollenca, with their ugly concrete hotels, still draw hordes of discount tourists. But since only 5% of the 1,400-square mile island is developed, it's easy to avoid those spots. In 1838, French author George Sand, who sojourned there for a year with her composer companion Frédéric Chopin, wrote of Mallorca, the largest of the four Balearic Islands: "It is as green as Switzerland under a Calabrian sky, with the solemn silence of the Orient." In many parts of the island, her description still fits.
The local government worked hard on a smart facelift for the port and the historic center of Palma, Mallorca's main city of 300,000 residents, just under half the island's population. The streets of Palma are lined with gracious palms, chic boutiques, and cafes that lend urban energy and style to a once-provincial city. Just 15 minutes away, you're in the countryside.
CULINARY HOT SPOTS
Perhaps the biggest surprise is the feverish culinary competition under way. A growing number of talented European chefs and sommeliers are gravitating to Mallorca to ply their trade. They're opening restaurants offering inventive dishes. And despite the premium food, the tab for a tasting menu, or dégustation menu, at a one-star Michelin eatery runs from 21 to 60 euros ($26-$75), just a fraction of the cost of equally fine establishments in major European capitals.
One top address is the Michelin-starred restaurant at Read's Hotel, outside the little town of Santa Maria. Chef Marc Fosh delights with dishes that eschew rich sauces and butter, cooking savory meals only with natural juices and fresh herbs. His roasted duck with eucalyptus sauce and caramelized pineapple is a running hit.
Another hot spot is the restaurant Refectori in the 17th century Convent de la Missió in the old town of Palma. Refectori's interior looks like a modern art museum, with black-and-white décor, pale wood floors, and a cascading wall of water. The six-course tasting menu varies weekly and includes two starters, fish, meat, and dessert for 57 euros (about $72).
To make sure you land in the part of Mallorca that suits you best, do a bit of research. The choices range from plush golf resorts to hip urban lodgings and hotels perched on remote cliffs. My priorities were relaxing, swimming, and cycling, in close proximity to Palma.
That helped me zero in on Read's, a small country hotel with indoor and outdoor pools, a long menu of massages, and mountain bikes for touring the countryside. Vivian Read, a British lawyer who was charmed by Mallorca's natural beauty and sold his law practice to live there, invested in 1988 in the ruins of a once-elegant villa. It's now a five-star hotel situated amid almond groves, with 22 rooms and inspiring views of the Tramuntana mountains. The large, eclectic rooms and suites combine contemporary, Arabic, and Asian accents. A small touch I appreciated: Read situated the parking lot a good 200 meters from the hotel, ensuring that the gracious villa and its guests remain undisturbed by car engines and slamming doors. Depending on the room and season, rates range from $240 to $800 a night.
Weekend visitors might prefer a designer hotel on the waterfront on the outskirts of Palma, such as the Hospes Maricel, which opened in 2002. It has 29 rooms, some of which have splendid terraces where it would be easy to pass two relaxing days reading a good book. The Maricel overlooks the sea, although its backside faces the concrete sprawl that many dislike about Palma. (It's no worse than many beach towns in Southern France, Italy, or Florida.) The Maricel's dramatic pool, which looks as if it drops off into the sea, is a highlight, as is the beautiful outdoor spa. Individual therapy stalls are built into the sea wall; treatments take place in the open air as waves wash over the rocky cove.
Who hasn't been let down by a vacation in a spot that was supposed to be idyllic but wasn't? In 18 years of vacationing in Europe, from St. Tropêz to Portofino and beyond, the reality of commercial tourism too often sent the fantasy crashing. Being "discovered" is a fatal blow for many resorts. So Mallorca's reputation as the last place on earth to go for an exclusive retreat may help preserve the unspoiled parts of the island, at least for a while.
By Gail Edmondson