In 1929 the British writer Robert Graves, facing what have been quaintly described as “problems of a private order” (he had decided to leave his wife and family and run off with poet Laura Riding), turned to his friend Gertrude Stein for advice on exactly where to go. Stein suggested Majorca, the Balearic island off the coast of Spain where she and Alice B. Toklas had spent almost a year from 1914 to 1915, “to forget the war a little.” It was paradise, she told Graves, sounding a bit like a chamber of commerce spokeswoman until she threw in a more characteristic Steinian twist: “It’s paradise—if you can stand it.”
“Standing it” aside, finding paradise today would be the bigger concern. The airport is Spain’s third busiest, with millions of tourists descending upon the island each summer. But while paved-over has replaced pristine in most areas, Majorca’s rugged and romantic northwest coast still lives up to Stein’s description. There the steep terraced slopes of the Serra de Tramuntana mountains drop precipitously to the Mediterranean. In fact, they’ve proved as effective at discouraging unchecked development as they once were at warding off Barbary pirates.
The jewel of the region is Deià (pronounced day-a), the charming, beautiful village where Graves, author of I, Claudius, settled and lived out most of the remaining 55 years of his life. Little has changed in the intervening decades—little, that is, except the price of admission: Deià real estate is now some of the most expensive in Spain. It’s no small irony that Graves, he who put Deià on the map for the bohemian set, would never be able to afford property here today.
Once an enclave for artists and writers, the village now attracts a superchic, moneyed crowd. “We tried a lot of places,” says advertising creative director Ronnie Cooke Newhouse, whose family (her husband is Condé Nast’s Jonathan Newhouse) rents near Deià each summer. “We had to find ‘it.’ It’s not in America; it’s not Tuscany. Then a friend said, ‘I think northwest Majorca is your place.’ ” And so it was.
Spanish seafarers first reached the area sometime around 4000 b.c. Then came the Phoenicians, the Romans, and, in the tenth century, the Moors. The latter gave the village its name, daia, meaning “hamlet” in Arabic, as well as its agricultural abundance, by terracing and cultivating the region’s mountainous slopes.
In Graves’s early years here, relatively few outsiders found their way to the village. Those who did came mostly because of Graves, among them Kingsley Amis, Ava Gardner, Alec Guinness, Anaïs Nin, and a young Gabriel García Márquez. In thanking her host, Gardner wrote that Deià “caused me such unbelievable pleasure…that nothing in my life could be compared to it.” Nin penned a different sort of tribute, a short story called “Mallorca,” about a local girl’s sexual initiation with two expatriates on a Deià beach.
But in the years following World War II, as word of mouth circulated among a group of British and American artists and writers living in Paris, others followed Graves’s lead, not just visiting but moving to Deià outright. Priced out of the city, they, too, came for the area’s beauty and simpler way of life. To this day more than half of Deià’s year-round population of 760 are expats, some the children of that bohemian core group (one of Graves’s sons included).
Change came slowly to Deià. It was not until the late fifties that cars really joined the donkeys and the odd motorbike on the winding roads. And until the sixties, in the outskirts of Deià, a list left outside one’s front door at night would be filled by an unseen grocer’s hand by morning. Round-the-clock electricity arrived in the early seventies, about the time that telephone service was expanded from the one phone booth on the two-block-long main street, Arxiduc Lluis Salvador.
Deià’s first hotel, Es Molí, was opened in the late sixties by Axel Ball, the son of German hoteliers, but its reach never extended very far. Locals date the advent of a deeper-pocketed crowd to 1984, when Ball opened a grander hotel, La Residencia. Built around two former estates from the 16th and 17th centuries, it sat amid 30 pastoral acres of olive and citrus groves. In the nineties Richard Branson partnered with Ball, and the hotel lured the likes of Princess Diana, Sting, and other musicians previously repped by Branson’s Virgin Records until the pair sold the property to Orient-Express in 2002.
Over the past ten years members of a new jet set liked Deià so much that they started buying what little property there was, driving prices way, way up. (Andrew Lloyd Webber now owns three houses here.) But glitz and flash have not caught on. Perhaps because of the village’s bohemian past, the vibe remains low-key and dressed-down, and the rule on cars seems to be, The older and more battered the better. No one pays any attention to the celebrities in their midst.
“Deià is still a great hideaway—a place to go and be very anonymous,” says Talis Waldren, who was born and raised here and whose late father, the American archaeologist William Waldren, founded the Deià Archaeological Museum.
A smattering of other hotels have joined Ball’s two, but the best way to experience a taste of the life Graves so cherished is to rent one of the village’s stone houses, with their Arabic terracotta-tiled roofs. Talis and her sister Mya Waldren are the go-to people for rentals, offering a stable of about 20 private homes, all exuding charm and authenticity; most have their own pools.
These pools are a welcome benefit, especially because Deià may not fit many Americans’ notion of a beach vacation spot. The waters of the Mediterranean beckon, but the steep cliffs down to the sea make access a bit tricky, and the beaches on this coast of Majorca are rocky. Still, the swimming and snorkeling are glorious and most easily done at Deià’s two cove beaches. The one at Cala Deià is a five-minute drive from the village or a 20-minute walk through silvery olive groves and pine trees. Bring a picnic or have lunch at one of the two bamboo-shaded restaurants that serve sandwiches and local fish—Ca’n Lluc, on the beach itself, and Ca’s Patró March, up on the rocks. About two miles from the village and accessible only by foot or boat is Deià’s other beach, the clothing-optional Lluch Alcari, where natural mud baths are the extra attraction.
As for food, cooks will adore Es Forn, the tiny grocery and bakery that packs in an abundant selection of goods: freshly baked breads and pastries, local produce, and Majorcan cheeses and meats, as well as wines. And for dining out, Deià’s restaurants range from laid-back to quite expensive and formal. Beautifully straddling the two extremes is Sebastián, a favorite that offers great food with a relaxed atmosphere.
And for after-dinner drinks on weekends, it’s the terrace of the restaurant Sa Fonda. Here you might find old expats playing chess at one table and Deià homeowners Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones with their houseguests Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins at another. Join them in raising a toast to the memory of Robert Graves—or Don Roberto, as the locals called him—who paved the way for us all.
Doing Deià in Style
Talis Waldren SL
The best of the villa-rental agencies, offering a range of places from one bedroom ($1,180 a week) to six ($17,600 a week). 34-971/639-244; firstname.lastname@example.org
Deià’s most celebrated hotel also has a spa and its own beach. $740–$3,950; Son Canals; 34-971/639-011
Luxurious, tasteful, and known for its views. The tower suites are what you want. $300–$730; Carretera Valdemossa-Deià; 34-971/639-111
S’Hotel d’es Puig
A charming bed-and-breakfast in the center of town. $210–$220; 4 Es Puig; 34-971/639-409
Lunch, which begins at 12:30 p.m., is the main event here. Order the grilled calamari or salmonete rojo (red mullet). The restaurant stops cooking around 5 p.m. but stays open for drinks and tapas until 7 p.m. Lunch, $60–$75; Cala Deià; 34-649/198-618
March In addition to calamari and salmonete, monkfish, dorado, and swordfish are the menu’s specialties. Moonlit dinners overlooking the calm cove are magical. Lunch is served from April to mid-October; dinner in August only. Dinner, $105; Cala Deià; 34-971/639-137
Josef’s (a.k.a. Es Racó d’es Teix)
Run by an alumnus of El Olivo, this is Deià’s only Michelin-starred restaurant. Known for its roast suckling pig and tumbet, a ratatouille-type dish. Four-course dinner, $190; 6 Sa Vinya Vell; 34-971/639-501
La Residencia’s romantic but very expensive restaurant in a refurbished 16th-century olive mill. Sit in its wood-beam dining room lit by candelabra or outside amid the olive trees. Dinner, $230; Son Canals; 34-971/639-011
The place for village nightlife, should you care. Arxiduc Lluis Salvador; 34-971/639-306
A convivial, cozy restaurant under one of the old buildings on the main road. Specialties are the rack of lamb and—when it’s in season, from October to January—the wild boar. Dinner, $150 to $180; Felip Bauzá; 34-971/639-417
Xelini El Barrigón
A casual tapas bar, at the opposite end of the spectrum from El Olivo. Feast on tortilla española, anchovies, and pan con tomate, which is toast rubbed with tomato and olive oil, served with cheeses and cured meats. Dinner, $110; 19 Arxiduc Lluis Salvador; 34-971/639-139