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Exploring the Balearic Islands

Familiarize yourself with the four isles situated off the eastern coast of Spain.

The Balearic archipelago—featuring Ibiza, Formentera, Majorca and Minorca—accounts for a third of Spain’s dozen inhabited islands. The quartet lies in a rough curve off the country’s east coast, yet all are closer to Africa than to Madrid. I lived in Ibiza for ten years in the 1990s and have made innumerable visits to the other islands, and my love of them runs deep.

History has knocked them about: Minorca was marked by its spell as a colonial vassal, while Formentera was abandoned entirely for a period. After Ibiza saw tensions in the Spanish Civil War, it sunk into near oblivion. Then came big changes. Few world revolutions have affected a place as completely as the Balearic tourist boom of the 1960s. The figures tell a startling tale: In 1960 there were fewer than 400,000 visitors to the four islands—half a century later, 15.5 million. Over the same time period: A coastal landscape has been utterly transformed, fortunes have been made and a once rural society, now largely suburban, has left behind its historic demons—poverty and political irrelevance—forever.

Economically speaking, the Balearics’ daily bread is summer package tourism from Europe, so more discerning visits require careful planning. Timing is crucial: If one desires peace and quiet, then avoid the islands during July and August. And one would do well to make for the inland fincas, or farmhouses.

Choosing between four such powerful personalities is a formidable task. The decision will depend on factors such as family, mind-set and, above all, age. Twelve years after leaving Ibiza, I would be happy to recommend the island’s playful hedonism to a much younger person, while the discreet charm of Minorca, for example, is what I crave and value now more than ever.

The great advantage of the Balearics is that such a choice exists at all. As David Stein, American owner of one of the islands’ more delicious country hotels, Majorca’s Gran Hotel Son Net (rooms, from $460; Calle Castillo Son Net, Puigpunyent; 34-971/147-000; sonnet.es), says, the Balearics can provide “just about any experience you could want in the Mediterranean—there’s just so much here.”

Details

If the Balearic Islands had an official shoe, it’d probably be avarques, traditional leather farmer sandals developed on Minorca. Look for the ones by avarcasUSA. avarcasusa.com.

Ibiza

Reputation: Home of the Balearic Beat music scene.
Glam Factor:
For decades, the island has been defined by its bountiful nightlife, with thumping discotecas and the attendant rough-hewn hedonism.
Best Feature:
The laid-back rural areas, such as Sant Joan and San Miquel, recently have seen an increase in luxe accommodations.

Longtime Ibiza fans say it’s gone to the dogs—but then they would. When I lived there, the island was a glamour-free tourist destination, albeit with a cult nightlife and New Age community. Since I left, big new money has just about squeezed out the hippies.

The upside of the newly sophisticated Ibiza is that the island now has a number of high-end places to stay. The market for “status” villas and fincas to rent is big business: Go to the likes of Cédric Reversade (cedricreversade.com) and one can expect to pay up to $141,245 a week. A wider range is available through Hip Holidays Ibiza (hipholidaysibiza.com), a rental agency run by a young Brit-Swedish couple with all the right connections. Ibiza’s newfound popularity with wealthy young Europeans has led to the rise of an island subspecies: the well-connected fixer/caterer/rental agent, a prime example being Serena Cook, who runs DeliciouslySortedIbiza.com. Cook is an authority on local restaurants and recommends La Paloma ($ Ctra. Santa Gertrudis–Sant Lorenç; 34-971/325-543; palomaibiza.com) for dinner, Es Torrent (Playa Es Torrent, Sant Josep; 34-971/802-160; estorrent.net) or Es Xarcu (Cala Es Xarco, Sant Josep; 34-971/187-867) for fish and Macao Café ($ Calle Venda des Poblé 8; 34-971/197-835) in Santa Gertrudis village for a trattoria lunch.

Ibiza’s fame as an international brand rests largely on its extraordinary discotecas. The Gran Hotel (rooms, from $780; Paseo Juan Carlos I 17; 34-971/806-777; ibizagranhotel.com) is as good a conventional hotel as one might find anywhere in the midsummer mayhem of Ibiza Town in high season, when the whole place throbs to dance music. Just out of earshot, however, lies the radical contrast of the rural hinterland, which is where Ibiza’s true appeal can be discovered. Up in the hills around the villages of Sant Joan, Santa Agnès and San Miquel, the scene is laid-back, with pristine coves like Pou d’es Lleó, Aigües Blanques and Benirràs good for lazing at simple beachside chiringuitos. As Chantal Laren, co-owner of Can Bikini (from $8,620 a week for up to 12 people; Poligono 13, Parcela 271; 44-7973/345-116; canbikini.com), a contemporary rustic property in Santa Agnès, puts it, “When I come up here from the south, it’s like driving away from all the madness.”

The last decade has seen a miniature boom in rural accommodation, with the classic Ibiza casa pagesa, a whitewashed cuboid farmhouse, making for a great little bijou hotel. The best of the dozen-strong genre, Can Curreu (rooms, from $340; Ctra. Sant Carles, km. 12; 34-971/335-280; cancurreu.com), combines real Mediterranean mood with a certain elegance. The Giri Residence ($ rooms, from $470; Calle Principal 3–5; 34-971/333-345; thegiri.com) in tiny Sant Joan is a hip rural hangout, as is Atzaró (rooms, from $460; Ctra. Sant Joan, km. 15; 34-971/338-838; atzaro.com), though the latter’s panethnic decor may limit its appeal. In picturesque Ibiza Town, check in to the townhouse Mirador de Dalt Vila (rooms, from $480; Plaza de España 4; 34-971/303-045; hotelmiradoribiza.com), and while in the neighborhood be sure to visit the newly reopened Museu d’Art Contemporani d’Eivissa ($ Ronda Narcís Puget; 34-971/302-723).

Formentera

Reputation: The smallest and quietest of the islands.
Glam Factor:
The vibe is minimalist and simple; it’s no surprise that Philippe Starck has a home here.
Best Feature:
From Migjorn to Illetes, the beautiful white-sand beaches are some of the finest the Mediterranean has to offer.

If one ever needed to stop the world and get off, Formentera, the tiny island hanging off the southern tip of Ibiza, would be a fine place to do it. Mostly flat except for the high plateau of La Mola and smaller Berberia in the west, 11-mile-long Formentera confirms that in travel, less is often more. The minute capital, Sant Francesc, has the somnolent charm of a rural hamlet.

It’s pointless to look for luxury here: Formentera fans come for the island’s minimalist landscape (a fig tree, a dry stone wall, a cloud of dust, a postcard-blue sea) and the simplicity of the lifestyle it engenders. Designer Philippe Starck, who has had a house here for 40 years, uses the island to unplug and unwind. So, surprisingly, do thousands of young Italians, who charmingly ram the place in summer.

Top-end rental villas are in short supply, so it may be better to stay at the secluded woodland pavilions of Es Ram (rooms, from $480; Camine del Ram, km. 13; 39-011/818-5270; esramresort.com). The funky Gecko (rooms, from $200; Playa Migjorn, Ca Marí; 34-971/328-024; geckobeachclub.com) is the island’s single upmarket beach hotel. Nightlife comes down to a pleasantly chic scene of beer and reggae at the Pirata Bus ($ Playa Migjorn, km. 11; piratabus.com) or cava and chill out at the Blue Bar ($ Ctra. San Ferran–La Mola, km. 7, 9, Playa Migjorn; 34-666/758-190; bluebarformentera.com).

The real luxuries here are the beaches, some of the finest in the Mediterranean: Migjorn, a five-mile stretch of untrammeled sand on the southern side, is trounced only by the dazzling beauty of Illetes. Le tout Formentera heads for lunch at Juan y Andrea ($ Playa Illetas; 34-971/187-130; juanyandrea.com), a sprawling beachside chiringuito at Illetes where one can spend whole afternoons picking idly at paella and grilled fish. The simple truth is that Formentera is heaven.

Majorca

Reputation: The largest and most developed of the Balearics.
Glam Factor:
Being family-friendly and somewhat chic means there are vacationers galore.
Best Feature:
The vibrant local culture, terrific food and massive rental market are the real draws.

It’s the completeness of Majorca that wins out. Where Ibiza is a sporty little racer, Majorca is a four-by-four grand sedan that can handle off-road and highway with equal ease. The island may be a tourism machine on a huge scale, but its generous surface area cushions the impact, allowing for greater landscape diversity and rich local culture. Together with Minorca, Majorca is the most family-friendly of the four islands.

Majorca has no fewer than 30 high-end hotels, with another 25 considered “rural deluxe,” most of them housed in historic country estates known as possessiós. Well-loved classics like St. Regis Mardavall (member of Fine Hotels & Resorts rooms, from $800; Passeig Calvià, Costa d’en Blanes; 34-971/629-629; stregismardavall.com) and Castillo Hotel Son Vida (rooms, from $520; Raixa 2, Son Vida; 800-325-3589; castillosonvidamallorca.com) are still doing the business, while contemporary takes on mallorquín country style—like Son Brull (rooms, from $495; Ctra. Palma–Pollensa, km. 50; 34-971/535-353; sonbrull.com), Son Gener (rooms, from $360; Ctra. Son Servera–Artà, km. 3; 34-971/183-612; songener.com) and Hilton Sa Torre (rooms, from $435; Camino de Sa Torre 8, km. 8.7; 34-871/963-700; hilton.com)—are bringing in a younger Euro crowd. For drop-dead chic, head straight for the stunning Cap Rocat in its clifftop fortress (see “Hotel Cap Rocat in Majorca”). To experience the Balearics’ only historic thermal spa, visit the Font Santa Hotel (rooms, from $395; Ctra. Campos–Colonia de Sant Jordi, km. 8; 34-971/655-016; fontsantahotel.com). For international luxe, try the new Jumeirah (rooms, from $590; Calle Bélgica, Port de Sóller; 34-971/637-888; jumeirah.com). And for country living in a 19th-century possessió: Finca Filicumis (apartments, from $160; Camí es Tossals Verds, Lloseta; 34-630/663-056; filicumis.com).

The difference in atmosphere from Ibiza is palpable. As the regular presence of the Spanish royal family might suggest, high living on the larger island is a more sedate, less debauched experience. The holiday rental market is enormous, with Engel & Völkers (engelvoelkers.com) as the island’s prime real estate and letting agency; Owners Direct (ownersdirect.co.uk) is a reliable online agency with no less than 2,796 properties on the island. The island’s official agroturismo (farm stay) site, RusticBooking.com, is also worth a look. Those with boats are well served by posh Puerto Portals (puertoportals.com) and the newest contender in the high-end marina stakes, the Starck-designed Port Adriano (Urbanización El Toro, Calvià; portadriano.com).

The food on Majorca is the best of the islands, with an energetic locavore movement, excellent traditional mallorquín gastronomy (char-grilled meats, rice dishes and superb fish), a sprinkling of Michelin stars and ambitious cooking at El Jardín (Calle del Tritones; 34-971/892-391; restaurantejardin.com), Santi Taura (Calle Joan Carles I 48; 34-971/514-622), Es Moli d’en Bou ($ Protur Sa Coma Playa Hotel & Spa, Calle Liles; 34-971/569-663; esmolidenbou.es) and Simply Fosh (Carrer de la Missió 7A; 34-971/720-114; simplyfosh.com)—though I’d say Zaranda (Hilton Sa Torre, Camino de Sa Torre km. 8.7; 34-971/010-450; zaranda.es) is the best restaurant anywhere in the Balearics.

Strikingly, Majorca has a closer relationship with the United States than any of the other Balearics. “Americans have long been an integral part of Majorca. Our small valley has and has had numerous American families,” says Liz Barratt-Brown, a Washington, D.C.–based lawyer who owns an olive farm in the mountains outside Pollensa (go to pedruxella.com for rental possibilities). The most famous of American Majorca-philes is Michael Douglas, of the S’Estaca estate near Valldemossa.

Which brings us to Deià. This pretty town on the island’s Costa Tramuntana is part boho hangout, part expat bolt-hole, with a post-hippie vibe that either charms or repels. As for hotels, La Residencia (member of Fine Hotels & Resorts rooms, from $735; Son Canals; 34-971/639-011; hotel-laresidencia.com) is a classic that never disappoints. To rent village houses and possessiós in the Deià/Sóller/Valldemossa area, consult Talis and Mya Waldren (myawaldren.com). Gertrude Stein must have had Deià in mind when she said of Majorca: “It’s paradise, if you can stand it.”

Minorca

Reputation: Its remoteness keeps it off the radar.
Glam Factor:
This underdeveloped island with just two tiny cities offers little in the way of luxury rentals, but for hikers and horseback riders, it’s ideal.
Best Feature:
UNESCO has designated its unspoiled landscape as a biosphere preserve.

More than any of the other Balearic Islands, Minorca pulls me back time and time again. This is a special place with a strong personality. Its easterly position, farther from Madrid than almost anywhere in Spain, gives it an out-on-a-limb feel. Much less frequented by tourists than its neighbors are, the island has a curious cultural gene pool that mixes influences from Africa, Catalonia, France and England. Crucially, it has managed to refrain from overdevelopment, which means Minorca has the best-preserved natural environment in the Balearics. With a few exceptions the beaches are little exploited. The best of them are inaccessible by car: Cala (meaning “cove”) Pregonda and Cala Pilar in the north, Cala Trebalúger and Turqueta in the south are permanent fixtures on my Mediterranean top ten list.

Of the island’s two pocket-sized cities, English-inflected Maó has the Mediterranean’s largest natural harbor and a classic hotel, the Hotel Port Mahón (rooms, from $250; Avda. Port de Maó; 34-971/362-600; sethotels.com), now somewhat down on its luck—better to try the 1740 colonial townhouse Casa Alberti (rooms, from $110; Calle Isabel II 9; 34-686/393-569). Lovely Ciutadella at last features somewhere interesting to stay within steps of its cathedral: the six-room 971 Hotel Con Encanto (rooms, from $90; Carrer de Sant Sebastià 10; 34-648/196-973; 971menorca.com). The Hotel Port Ciutadella (rooms, from $150; Passeig Marítimo 36; 34-971/482-520; sethotels.com) is a very acceptable seaside hotel. And out in the countryside, whitewashed llocs (country houses) are busily being converted into small hotels.

Renting a house is not easy on this sleepiest of islands, but Laia Seguí (laiasegui.com), Minorca’s top fixer and event planner, has access to some glorious properties. Binicalsitx is a 250-year-old lloc for rent (from $4,300 a week for up to 12 people; 44-207/731-0495; binicalsitx.es), perfect for a summer holiday. Never a gastro destination, despite an idiosyncratic local cuisine (like baked stuffed zucchini), the island has improved its offerings. Seguí directs visitors to Restaurante Sa Llagosta ($ Carrer de Gabriel Gelabert 12; 34-971/376-566) in Fornells, famed fishing village of the lobster caldereta (stew); and to Sa Paradeta den Doro (Camí de Binissafuet 75; 34-971/150-353) and Es Molí d’es Comte ($ Carrer del Molí del Comte; 34-971/768-000)—to which I would add Can Bernat des Grau (Ctra. Maó–Fornells, km. 3; 34-650/974-685) for peerless fish as well as the on-farm eco-restaurant Ses Truqueries (Ctra. de Ciutadella; 34-971/188-384).

Hikers and riders love Minorca. A leisurely walk down the Barranc d’Algendar gorge is a magical experience, as is a trot along the Camí des Cavalls that encircles the island; Menorca a Cavall (Ctra. Ciutadella–Maó, km. 24; menorcaacavall.com) is one of several riding clubs on the island. More menorquín idiosyncrasies to seek out include the impressive Neolithic remains that dot the landscape; island-made gin and superb cheddar-like cheeses; and authentic fishermen’s sandals called avarques. At Ciutadella’s midsummer Festes de Sant Joan, the Balearics’ most astonishing local fiesta, horses are paraded and hazelnuts hurled. Like I said, this is a special place.

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