The best part of Mallorca. Just don’t call it posh

October 24th, 2014

By Mark Hodson, Editor of 101 Holidays

In 1929 the artist Joan Miró took his new wife on honeymoon to Mallorca. They headed not to the elegant capital Palma, but to an isolated and little-known fishing village on the north coast of the island, Port de Pollença.

In the early part of the 20th Century, the village had barely 100 inhabitants, but early visitors – including the Catalan painter Hermen Anglada Camarasa and his disciples – discovered a place of rare beauty, a long sweeping horseshoe beach overlooking a glassy bay, flanked on three sides by rugged hills.

Before Instagram, before television, before even colour photography (which wasn’t widely used until the 1960s), this was how tourism started. Artists would discover beauty spots, reproduce them in paint, and word would slowly spread.

Camarasa view of Mallorca

Ametllers en flor (1917) by Hermen Anglada Camarasa

After the artists come the writers. Agatha Christie stayed at Port de Pollença during the 1930s in an epic journey that took her to Jerusalem, Luxor and Cairo. She is said to have headed to the island’s north coast to escape the growing numbers of British and American tourists in Palma and fallen in love with this pine-scented bay.

The nascent growth of Mallorca’s tourism industry was swiftly halted by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. The island was held by Franco’s Nationalists and German seaplanes were based in the Bay of Pollença. Hotels were ordered to boot out their guests and hand their rooms over to Nazi airmen.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that tourism to Mallorca really took off – and we know what happened then. But despite the growth of downmarket resorts such as Magaluf and Arenal, the north retained its looks, and the region around Pollença is now routinely – and lazily – referred to as the “posh” part of Mallorca.

This is misleading. Although a glance in the window of any estate agency will reveal a large number of lavish villas selling for seven figures, there is nothing opulent or ostentatious about the region. Most hotels are still family run and restaurants serve traditional Catalan dishes. English is widely spoken, but so is Mallorquin, alongside Spanish.

Nor is the area marred by overdevelopment. In Port de Pollença, a promenade stretches along the perimeter of the bay. The prettiest section is to the north where there is no road and the path ducks beneath sprawling pine trees alongside a row of elegant villas. There’s a bronze bust of Camarasa, who lived on in Pollença until his death in 1959.

The promenade eventually reaches the hotel Illa d’Or where Miró and Christie both stayed. Although upgraded and expanded over the years, it retains many original features and has its own handsome charter boat, the Isabel Maria, on which I spent a gloriously lazy afternoon exploring the far reaches of the bay.

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The Isabel Maria moored in front of the Hotel Illa d’Or

On my visit in the second week of October the sea was 25ºC and tourists were sunbathing until 6pm. While Pollença is popular with middle-class families in July and August, the autumn crowd is very different: retired couples soaking up the rays and groups of brightly-clad cyclists on high-spec road bikes.

Cycling has a rich heritage in Mallorca, and it has long been the winter base for several elite race teams. Those picturesque hills soon turn nasty when you’re relying on pedal power and one ride – the Tramuntana Epic – starts and ends in Pollença and stretches for 168km with 2,700m of climbing.

Wherever I went in the area I saw groups of (mostly middle-aged male) bikers, sweating up hills and sipping espressos at pavement cafes. Not only does Mallorca have a well-maintained network of roads and cycle paths, but hotels and rental shops are well equipped. The Hoposa Hotel Uyal, where I stayed, had a laundry room especially for cyclists, along with a lavish breakfast buffet where budding Bradley Wiggins types could load up the carbs.

Biking isn’t the only activity on offer. There are dozens of places in the north of Mallorca where you can go canyoning, coasteering, kayaking or caving, and hundreds of kilometres of well-marked footpaths, including the GR221, which follows the Tramuntana mountains from Andratx to Pollença for 120km and takes six days to walk. In spring and autumn, Mallorca is less about buckets and spades than helmets and hiking boots. The activity season is long: only the weather between the end of November and late February is unreliable.

Cala San Vicent

Cala Molins, Cala Sant Vicenç

Just to the north of Port de Pollença, the small resort of Cala Sant Vicenç is wedged between two rocky headlands overlooking a crystalline bay. It’s a great spot for kayaking and snorkelling but walkers are also well served, with five routes leading directly out of the village. No motorised transport required.

I took one of the routes, climbing through a small pine forest and high onto one of the two headlands. I was passed by a heavily-perspiring German tourist, Werner, who clutched an altitude meter and looked like he was competing in some kind of race. He slowed to chat for a few minutes, telling me that he was on the island for two weeks, hiking every day. Where was his wife today, I asked. “She’s having a lazy day by the pool,” he sniffed. As Werner marched determinedly ahead, I felt her pain.

It took an hour to reach the summit, by which time the path had given way to boulders and tufts of coarse grass, the way marked only by cairns. The sun was a scorching 27ºC but the views across to the open sea were spectacular and the walk along the ridge was relatively easy. At one point I peered down from the top of sheer cliffs to a group of kayakers that looked like specks on the cobalt water several hundred metres below.

Hiking in Mallorca

Your author hiking near Cala Sant Vicenç

I lunched on pan catalan, that ubiquitous deliciously simple dish of bread, tomato and olive oil. A local guide, Miguel, explained that it’s all about the ingredients: a dense, brown, freshly-baked loaf, big ripe juicy tomatoes to smear over the bread, extra virgin oil and a generous sprinkling of salt. With a glass of red wine and a slice of sobrasada, it makes for a great meal.

If you like your cuisine more haute, there are plenty of appealing options. Among the best is Son Brull, a tastefully-converted 18th-century monastery set amongst vineyards and olive groves with just 23 rooms, a bar dominated by a huge olive press and a renowned restaurant, 3|65. The two-course dinner menu – with amuse bouche, sorbet, bread, oil and petit-fours – is good value at €49 and a bottle of cava from the estate grapes is attractively priced at €30.

On another evening I ate at Stay, a restaurant directly overlooking the bay where a three-course menu with wine, mineral water, coffee and chocolates was a snip at just €35.

On my last day I rented a bike. Alas, not one of those skinny lightweight road bikes, but a Boris-style banger, and I pootled the 6km to the town of Pollença, the whole centre of which is now a Unesco World Heritage site.

It was Sunday and the weekly market was in full swing: fruit and vegetable stalls, jamon and cheese vans, jewellery makers, chi-chi shops run by expats and, beside the door to the church, a pair of performing pigs. The streets were heaving and a band of buskers in the corner of the Plaza Mayor had drawn a crowd of around a hundred.

Considering this was the middle of October, and Spain is still mired in economic misery, the place was absurdly busy, both with locals and free-spending tourists. But spoilt? Overdeveloped? I didn’t think so. If Camarasa were alive today he’d not only recognise his beloved island, he’d still be able to paint many of the exact same canvases.

How to do it

Three nights half-board at the Hoposa Hotel Uyal costs from £436 per person including flights from London Gatwick to Palma and private transfers with Classic Collection Holidays (0800 294 9318). A seven-night stay costs from £704 pp. Other UK departure airports are available.

Son Brull can be booked through i-escape. Other recommended restaurants include Stay in Port dePollença and Clivia in Pollença town.

Activities in the area can be booked through Mon d’Aventura. It charges €30 for 2.5 hours of kayaking, €35 for a 5.5 hour hiking tour and €45 for a 4.5 hour coasteering adventure and speedboat tour.

For more information on the region, visit Pollenca Tourism and the Pollenca Hotel Association

Valencia: how well do you know Spain’s third city?

September 5th, 2014

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By Mark Hodson

Many people have visited Spain’s two-big-hitting cities Madrid and Barcelona, but what of its third? Some might struggle even to name it, and fewer still will have actually explored Valencia.

I recently spent a fortnight with my family staying in a village called Massalfassar about eight miles north of Valencia. It was staggeringly hot – reaching 42ºC on one torpid afternoon – but we did manage to prise ourselves away from the swimming pool to explore the city and the surrounding region.

Valencia is widely known (in Spain, at least) as home to the paella, and hosts a couple of colourful festivals: Las Fallas in the spring and Tomatina in August, which involves manic tomato throwing and is actually held in the nearby village of Buñol. For many years it wasn’t a place troubled by excessive numbers of tourists, but that has changed.

In 1957, the river that ran through the centre of Valencia, the Turia, flooded spectacularly, killing at least 81 people. The government decided to divert the river to the south and – faced with an unsightly dried-up river bed snaking through the centre – decided to turn it into gardens.

It took several decades to complete the project but now you can join the locals as they walk, skate, cycle and jog along six miles of beautifully landscaped gardens, pathways, fountains and playgrounds. The ancient bridges across the river remain, along with some new ones, several of which were designed by the Valencia-born contemporary architect Santiago Calatrava.

Calatrava was also commissioned to design the City of Arts and Sciences, a collection of cutting-edge museums that stands at one end of the Turia Gardens. This provides a new focal point to the city, a counter point to the elegant old town, which lies to the north-west.

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To orient ourselves we took a cycle tour with Solution Bike which is based in the old town. Despite the heat, Valencia is a great city for cycling – it’s very flat, has a large network of dedicated bike paths and it’s not long before you find yourselves in the Turia Gardens away from all motorised traffic.

Like all visitors, we stopped to gawp at the futuristic structures of the City of Arts and Sciences, though our guide Alvaro was keen to point out that one of the buildings was already missing all of its white tiles. Pointing at a huge wall of grey concrete he said: “They just fell off and nobody knows if the city will have enough money to put them back up again. Like all of Spain, we’re broke.”

Valencia certainly rode the wave of prosperity for the last couple of decades of the 20th Century. It played host to the America’s Cup, for which an expensive new marina was built, and the Spanish Grand Prix was held on a track around the docks (though this has since gone back to arch-rival Barcelona). Its taxpayers are still picking up the bill.

We cycled to the marina and found it a little lifeless, despite the fact it is still home to the America’s Cup teams. A few super yachts were moored up, but some of the buildings were starting to look a bit tatty. A flagship modernist building was empty. Alvaro pointed to the tiles above our heads and pulled a face. “Best not stay under here, just in case,” he said.

It was only a short ride to the beach which was much busier. Valencia is lucky enough to boast a long wide sandy beach lined with seafood restaurants and cafes. Though there are finer beaches a few miles down the coast, you wouldn’t complain if you had to spend an afternoon there.

With our bearings in place, we returned to the city on several occasions, both in the daytime and at night. Eating out was a highlight. One day we whet our appetites by wandering around the food stalls of the Central Market – a high-ceilinged modernista building – before lunching at La Pilareta, a tiled tapas bar in the old town that is so famed for its mussels that it has buckets under the bar where you are encouraged to throw your shells. These mussels are not like the big flabby mejillones found elsewhere in Spain, but a smaller and tastier local variety known as clochinas. Served in a plain broth of lemon and garlic, they are superb.

On another day we ate at Bar Cantina La Lonja Del Pescado, an atmospheric seafood restaurant in the docks. This is not some tarted up dockland area, but a working dock, so it’s fairly gritty. The food was sensational though, particularly the spaghetti with seafood pictured below.

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We spent one long hot day at the City of Arts and Sciences, which contains a science museum, an IMAX cinema and Europe’s biggest aquarium. The science museum was particularly impressive with endless buttons to press and games to play, while the movie about outer space we saw at the IMAX was entertaining, if not quite as technologically impressive as the architecture suggested.

The aquarium, Oceanogràfic, was busy with families looking to escape the heat outside and it would take a particularly jaded palette not to be wowed by the sharks, walruses, beluga whales and sea lions. I had my doubts about watching a show of performing dolphins, but I was outvoted by the rest of the family, and it turned out to be a highlight of the day.

Although Valencia remains an eccentric destination for a two-week summer holiday, it would certainly make an outstanding place for a city break in spring or autumn. There is plenty to see in two or three days, the food is sensational and the weather is reliably sunny, and if you don’t have kids in tow, you can explore the hip bars and cafes of the Ruzafa district close to the train station. Next time, maybe.

Find out more from the tourist board.

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P.S. It’s claimed the building pictured below in Valencia’s old town is the narrowest in Europe at just 109cm. The mind boggles.

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Deal of the Day: 48% off five-star Mauritius retreat

August 12th, 2014

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Holiday details: save 48% on a week-long stay at the five-star Constance Belle Mare Plage, Mauritius. Enjoy the seven resort restaurants, spa, swimming pool and activities available including scuba-diving, water-skiing and kite surfing.

Price: from £1,199 per person (a saving of £1,125 pp) based on two adults sharing a room on half-board basis and include scheduled return flights with Air Mauritius from London Heathrow.

Date: departures between 1 and 15 September 2014. 

Book with: Tropical Sky or call 0843 249 5361.

 

Deal of the Day: £1,000 off luxury Ibiza villa

August 11th, 2014

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Holiday details: rent out Escandell on The Balearic island of Ibiza. This four bedroom, three bathroom rural hideaway sleeping seven has its own private pool, table tennis, landscaped, tiered garden with lawn, citrus and olive trees, covered dining terrace and sun terrace.

Price: £1995 per rental (a saving of £1000). Return UK flights and car hire are extra, but these can be arranged on request.

Date: departing 31 August 2014.

Book with: Vintage Travel or call 01954 261431. 

Deal of the Day: save over £1000 on thatched villa stay in the Maldives

August 7th, 2014

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Holiday details: enjoy a seven-night stay at Kanuhara, Maldives with Western & Oriental. Stay in a thatched roof villa and take advantage of the resort’s tennis courts, squash courts, beach volleyball and watersports including 40 nearby dive sites and dolphin spotting trips.

Price: from £1,935 per person (a saving of £1,005 pp) based on two sharing a sunrise beach villa on a full-board basis. Price includes economy flights with Sri Lankan Airlines from London and seaplane transfers.

Date: book by 31 October for departures between 1 November – 21 December 2014.

Book with: Western & Oriental or call 020 7666 1234.

Deal of the Day: save over £240 on two-week studio stay on the island of Kefalonia

August 6th, 2014

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Holiday details: Sunvil Holidays are offering a 28% discount on a two-week stay to Apollonia Studios on the island of Kefalonia, Greece. The property is located right on the water in the village of Assos, and each studio has a private veranda with ocean views. A beach and handful of tavernas are just a minute away on foot.

Price: £669 per person (a saving of £243 pp) based on two sharing on a self-catering basis, including flights (Manchester) and transfers.

Date: departing 23 August 2014.

Book with: Sunvil Holidays or call 020 8758 4758. 

Deal of the Day: save 30% on eight sharing a private villa in Ibiza, with private pool

August 5th, 2014

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Holiday details: stay for seven nights at Can Colina, Ibiza, and save up to £4,840 in total. This six-bedroom villa, complete with private pool, is situated just 10 minutes from Ibiza Town and Talamanca beach. Alternatively, the nearby Santa Gertrudis is renowned as the artistic and gourmet centre of the island. Many of the island’s best beaches and restaurants are within a 15-minute drive.

Price: from £1,410 per person (a saving of £605 pp) based on eight travelling. Price includes seven nights’ self-catering accommodation, flights from London Gatwick to Ibiza (other regional airports may be available upon payment of a supplement) and car hire.

Date: departing on 18 or 25 August 2014.

Book with: Simpson Exclusive or call 020 3411 4399.

Meet the Boss: Emma Barnett, MD of Tots Too

August 4th, 2014

Emma Barnett, Tots TooImagetots too

In our latest Meet the Boss interview, we talk to Emma Barnett, Managing Director of Tots Too. Emma founded Essential Escapes in 2002, following a career in luxury travel which saw her travel extensively around the globe visiting some of the world’s top spa destinations and resorts. Now a mother of four, she launched sister company, Tots Too, to help parents find the world’s best spa resorts with second-to-none kids facilities so that Emma, and parents like her, could continue to enjoy the luxury spa holidays she had enjoyed before the arrival of children.

Q. Please tell us about a great holiday memory from your childhood.

I went to Hawaii on a business trip with my dad and remember, even at the age of six, thinking how exotic it was. I learnt to swim in a huge pool, ate chicken and chips in a basket with club sodas every day for lunch and remember hula dancing round a giant pig on a spit.

Q. What three items are always found in your hand luggage?

iPad, Dr Haushka hand cream and lip gloss.

Q. If you could spend next weekend anywhere in the world, where would you go, and why?

I love Indonesia. The people are so warm and hospitable and the food is amazing. There is a real spirituality to the country and it’s one of the few places that have evoked very strong emotions in me. I love Asia but I find Indonesia to be the most magical.

Q. Please tell us about a particularly challenging booking you have handled.

We had a client who wanted us to fly over a string quartet for him to serenade his wife. Easy in the UK but not so easy on a small Greek island. Needless to say we did manage it.

Q. What has been your most enjoyable holiday in recent years?

I went to Daios Cove in 2012 when I was heavily pregnant with number four and had my three other kids in tow with the youngest being only 13 months. The fantastic kids club run by WWKC, the head of guest services and restaurant hostess Ana all helped to make it very easy for me. We had three hours off every afternoon and babysitting for the baby every evening. We were always given the same great table at breakfast with amazing personal service and room service at 6pm every day with the most delicious food for the kids. Everything ran so smoothly that I truly relaxed on this holiday. Unimaginable, really, considering.

Q. And what has been your all-time worst holiday experience?

I booked a diving holiday in Watamu, Kenya, for my sister’s 30th birthday. The first week of the holiday was an amazing uber luxury safari experience in the Masai Mara (paid for by my previous company) so when it came to me paying, the standards had to drop! The hotel was awful with dirty rooms, depressing public areas and some very dubious clients. It didn’t help that the weather was bad for the whole week, the food was inedible and the diving conditions were very unfavourable. It was the longest week of our lives.

Q. What luxury would you take to your desert island?

A martini – my outlook is always a lot sunnier when I’ve had a martini.

Q. What one thing would most improve people’s overall holiday experience?

Good childcare. When the kids are happy and entertained, that’s one less job for the parents to think about and then they too can relax and enjoy the things they wouldn’t normally have time for at home like spa treatments or romantic dinners.

Q. Tell us your favourite hotel – one for business, one for pleasure.

Hotel for pleasure is the Ritz-Carlton, Abama in Tenerife and for business it would be The Oriental in Bangkok.

Q. What is the most exciting project your company is working on right now?

Our family experiences for kids that are a bit older – we’ve started with exclusive jungle safaris in Sri Lanka which has been a huge hit so far. There is more in pipeline but I can’t divulge too much at this stage.

Thanks, Emma.

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