There’s a lot to be said for taking the slow train. The one I’m riding on is at times so leisurely I’m tempted to reach out of the carriage window and pick one of the luminous yellow lemons hanging in the gardens that border its narrow-gauge track. As we trundle towards Mallorca’s mighty Serra de Tramuntana mountains, the antique wooden carriages of the Ferrocarril de Sóller, which has been operating since 1912, play a merry tune of grinds, toots, rattles and pan-pipe chants that have but one message: escape!
It takes around 75 minutes to travel north on this enchanting service linking Palma, the capital, to Sóller, a town so famous for its succulent oranges they used to be sent regularly to the court of King Louis XIV of France. You could drive this journey in half the time, but of course that’s not the point. Everyone on board is part of an unspoken conspiracy: to take the slow, scenic route across a bewitching Balearic island that has, frankly, got tourism cracked. As everyone in Europe knows, if you want to hit the beach, relax in the sun, eat well and enjoy fruitful sightseeing and activities, this popular island delivers.
Last year was the best yet for Mallorca, with a record 11.5 million visitors. What’s the magic formula? Surprisingly, the answer has a lot to do with the island’s cultured past. The Mallorcans have kept in touch with their traditions. They are polite and dignified, and they have a lot of time for the arts. A simple example is that when you get off the train at Sóller there are two small galleries in the station that are free to enter for the benefit of passengers and visitors. One is filled with the work of Picasso; more than 50 ceramics with his characteristically spirited designs. The second is devoted to the prints of Joan Miró, the surrealist painter whose mother and wife were from the island. If you’re a fan, you can visit his studio near Palma where a new Joan Miró Museum Hotel, with 20 original works, recently opened close by.
Outside Sóller station, a cheerful Saturday market is taking place in Plaça de sa Constitució. Mallorca loves its markets, and every day there are several happening somewhere. Flowers, fruit, local cheeses, straw baskets, vintage finds, hippy clothes – it’s all here plus lots of leather goods and shoes (this is the home of Camper, arguably the island’s most global brand – after Rafael Nadal). For me, it’s the foodie treats that always catch my eye: the superb organic honey, pan de higo (fig and almond cake), and intensely flavoured tomatoes, peaches and cherries that make you wonder why one ever goes to a supermarket. Look out, too, for roba de llengües (cloth of tongues), a durable and distinctively striped and patterned Mallorcan fabric used for bags and home furnishings.
A surprise for many visitors to Sóller are the several strange and fantastical buildings. At the start of the 20th century, all those oranges and lemons brought sufficient prosperity to prompt the building of a fancy new bank and a remodelled church in the modernista (Catalan art nouveau) style. Visit Ca’n Prunera, a grand residence from this time that is now an exquisite museum filled with period furniture and art (Cézanne, Gauguin, Diego Rivera, Man Ray…), and you’ll get instant apartment envy.
Palma has even more glorious examples of the modernista craze, including the Gran Hotel in Plaça Weyler and Can Forteza-Rey in Calle Monges. Don’t miss its waterfront Gothic cathedral, which includes a baldachin (ornamental canopy) by Gaudí.
As we know, looking at art always pricks the appetite, and while Mallorca now has seven Michelin-starred restaurants it’s the simple, peasant-born dishes that invariably hit the spot. Pa amb oli (bread with olive oil), tumbet (a hearty ratatouille) and sobrasada (spicy pork sausage) are some favourites, along with locally caught sea bream and monkfish. Sóller, though, is famous for its prawns, landed in the nearby port, and as its market closes at 1pm I have to dash to its fish counters to buy some.
A few minutes later, I’m sitting down with a glass of Mallorcan rosé while my prawns are instantly cooked a la plancha (grilled) in a nearby bar. Add some bread, lemon and olive oil, and here is proof that heaven is attainable. The island’s wines aren’t that well known outside Spain but the one I try, from Finca Son Bordils, is so enjoyable I accept the patron’s suggestion of a top-up. Then he tells me he’s looking for an agent to sell it abroad. Suddenly, I’m having life-changing fantasies. Yes, I will move here and live in the sun, deal in wine, do 50 lengths of the pool every morning…
That’s not exactly a new dream. Mallorca is generously sprinkled with flashy yachts, luxury villas and bougainvillea-wrapped second homes in the olive-dotted hills, all testifying to its success as a dream spot to find your place in the sun. As often happens, aristocrats and artists led the way. The Spanish royal family have long spent their summer holidays here, while in 1867 Archduke Ludwig Salvator of Austria set up home in the mountains and created some fine walking trails that are still in use today.
Another early fan was the English poet, writer and classicist Robert Graves, who is best known for his autobiography Good-Bye to All That, describing the craziness of the First World War, and I, Claudius. Today he would be called an ‘influencer’, but the truth is that when he came to the village of Deià in 1929 he was just poor and not drawn to the conventional nine to five (or 24/7 if you live in Asia) lifestyle. A stream of famous writers, film stars and artists, including Ava Gardner and Gabriel García Márquez, visited Graves here until his death in 1985. Today his home, Ca N’Alluny, is a charming literary museum, the Serra de Tramuntana is a World Heritage site, and Deià has a legendary luxury hotel, Belmond La.
One of Graves’ achievements was an English translation of A Winter in Majorca by the radical-thinking, cigar-smoking, trouser-wearing French author Aurore Dupin, who used the pen-name George Sand. She came here in the winter of 1838-9 with her lover, a 28-year-old Polish composer called Fryderyk Chopin. You can visit the Carthusian monastery in Valldemossa where they stayed, and see the piano he ordered from Paris, which only arrived three weeks before they left.
The weather wasn’t great, but Chopin composed some of his best-loved preludes here. Find a seat in this glorious valley, select your chosen audio device and listen to numbers 4, 15, 17 and 23, which are deeply infused with his time here. The second of these, known as The Raindrop, might well induce a teardrop – a decade later Chopin was dead from tuberculosis.
Fortunately, the default weather in Mallorca is blue skies and sunshine. The best way to get down to the sea from Sóller is aboard its vintage wooden tram that winds round to the port in 20 minutes. Here the wide, curved sandy bay of Port de Sóller presents a classic, family-friendly beach scene of gently shelving waters, bobbing boats, pedalos and a long promenade of bars and restaurants. One of Mallorca’s great strengths is that it has plenty of good hotels, and here the options include the five-star Jumeirah Port de Sóller, perched high above the bay, and the mid-price, Swedish-owned Hotel Esplendido with an easygoing seaside chic.
If you’re a walker or cyclist, stay in the mountains at an inexpensive base like Petit Hotel Alaró, while the madly in love will enjoy Cap Rocat near Palma. Once a cliff-top military fortress, it’s now a magnificent, child-free hideaway hotel. Local designer-to-the-stars Antonio Obrador has turned its gun emplacements into serene rooftop patios with day beds, while an infinity pool keeps watch from the ramparts. That’s typical of Mallorca’s winning style: it’s an island of secret spots and simple pleasures. It’s also just an 80 minute flight from Madrid, which means you can get there fast – then take it very slow.
Cathay Pacific flies a four-times-weekly service to Madrid from Hong Kong