The latest high-end hotel openings shift the Spanish island’s focus from Mediterranean parties to mountaintop bliss
by SARAH RAPPAPORT
THERE wasn’t a party in sight earlier last month as the sun set over the Grand Hotel Son Net, in the rural village of Puigpunyent in Mallorca. Instead, as the stone buildings turned golden, the only soundtrack was the bleating of the sheep that lived on the estate. I felt calm and restored.
Last time I visited the Spanish island, in 2018, I took a budget flight from London to Palma and spent most of my time swimming in the sea, surrounded by Brits. Club hits blasted from the beach, its rowdy crowds drunk on G&Ts (gin and tonic).
In the past year the island has been embracing its quieter side, playing up its stunning inland beauty to aspire beyond the package tour and cruise sets. Work-from-anywhere warriors have begun making it their year-round home.
The grand vision is to get this island 120 miles (193.12km) off Spain’s Mediterranean coast onto the itineraries of American travellers who’d be more likely to head to Barcelona or Madrid for the culture and food. New luxury hotels, including one that used to be Richard Branson’s private estate, represent big steps in that direction. The properties aren’t the all-inclusive, beachside resorts of British pensioners; several are historical palacios, or mansions, on huge tracts of protected mountain land.
“Mallorca used to be about doing nothing. It was about going to party and living the high life,” said Virginia Irurita of travel agency Made for Spain and Portugal, which she founded in 1999. “Now people want to see how locals live.”
The change was catalysed last year when United Airlines Inc introduced a direct flight to Mallorca from the US. It leaves from Newark, New Jersey, and last year ran from June 2 to Sept 23. American customers generally spend more than their European counterparts, and the island’s tourism director puts the economic impact of the flight at €30 million (RM140.4 million) a season. This year, United extended the window by a week.
The local government is taking steps to transform Mallorca’s image, too, requiring that all-inclusive resorts limit guests to six alcoholic drinks a day and cutting down on the number of cruise ships allowed to dock in the harbour of Palma, the capital city. It’s also planning to cap the number of hotel beds on the island at 430,000. (The population of Mallorca is just over 930,000, and tourism is the biggest contributor to the economy, accounting for half the island’s jobs.)
This approach ruffled feathers in the UK last year when the Sun newspaper quoted tourism director Lucía Escribano saying: “We are not interested in having the budget tourists from the UK. We don’t care if they go elsewhere to Greece and Turkey.” Escribano later said she was misquoted.
I asked her about the new regulations when I visited for a warm week in early May. Over a lunch of “tumbet” — a Mallorcan take on ratatouille — at Hotel Almudaina’s SkyBar, she told me only a small portion of tourists have been a problem. The laws are meant to help families enjoy themselves safely and to help create a year-round economy by attracting visitors keen on local cuisine or cultural events. Take the January festival for Sant Antoni, patron saint of animals, filled with bonfires and dancing.
Travel agents said that’s what people are seeking. “Clients want authenticity now,” Irurita said, “like going to the weekly market in Sóller and buying wine, cheeses and ‘sobrassadas’”, a type of cured Mallor- can sausage.
In 2022 tourists broke spending records across the Balearic Islands. And Mallorca has added 10 five-star hotels since 2018, with more coming.
My taxi driver called the Grand Hotel Son Net one of the loveliest spots on the island, though I can’t imagine any place prettier than the arabesque Jardines de Alfabia, lined with Mallorcan “garballon” palms.
Yet, he’s right: As we drove up toward the Tramuntana mountains, the terra cotta pink palacio emerged like a beacon over the town below. The interiors are exquisite. Around every corner are antique oil paintings, bold colours and artfully mismatched patterns. Inside the palacio’s old olive oil press, the main restaurant merges local ingredients with the grandeur of a medieval banquet hall.
Forty minutes away by car up winding mountain roads is Branson’s Son Bunyola hotel, which has been 20 years in the making. It offers 26 rooms and suites with beamed ceilings, crisp interiors and sprawling terraces. The estate is huge, enshrined in more than 1,000 acres (404ha) of forest and rocky coastline, lapped by gentle waves.
GM Vincent Padioleau picked me up in a Jeep to show me around. “There’s not two hotels in Mallorca that have this view,” Padioleau said. The compound’s white-washed main building was a home that dates to the 16th century; guests can stay in one of the turrets with sightlines to the sea.
High-end options have existed on the island for a while, of course. The well-loved La Residencia, a Belmond Hotel, opened in 1984 in the artists village of Deià and charges more than €1,000 a night in high season. The Jumeirah Port Sóller, with its top-rated spa, is built into the side of a cliff. But the spate of new luxury hotels is solidifying the island’s appeal as a sophisticated destination.
The Lodge Mallorca, a 387-acre estate nestled among groves of olive and almond trees, is now welcoming guests for its first summer season. In June, British photographer Kate Bellm will open the art-centric, 15-room Hotel Corazón on a farm estate between the towns of Deià and Sóller. Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group and the Four Seasons Hotels Ltd plan outposts, too.
All this development is “resonating with the luxury consumer”, said Carolyn Addison, head of product at elite travel outfit Black Tomato. “Mallorca is on the up and up while still maintaining a very ‘if you know, you know’ aspect.”
It could all sound a bit scenery, but for now, that’s far from true.
At Grand Hotel Son Net, I walked past the hotel’s vineyard and pens of sheep on my way to the small town below. At Son Bunyola, Padioleau explained that they were growing their own produce and were constantly herding wild goats away from the kitchen garden. Everywhere, hikers rambled by on their way to villages and the glittering sea below. There wasn’t a cruise ship or tour bus to be found.
Mallorca Mini-Guide — Where to Eat and Drink
El Txoko de Martin: Spain’s most Michelin-lauded chef is Martín Berasategui, and this Palma spot is his casual take on neighbourhood dining — “Txoko” means corner, or small place, in Basque. Try the heavenly cod on a bed of confit potatoes with pepper aioli. Mallorcan wines dominate the menu; the Mosaic white is crisp and just €4 a glass.
El Camino: London’s Barrafina redefined Spanish food for the UK capital; now its proprietors have returned to put their fingerprints on their ancestral hometown of Palma, slinging fantastic classic tapas from behind a long white marble bar counter. Book ahead — the place gets busy.
Vandal: Located in Palma’s leafy Santa Catalina neighbourhood, this local favourite serves up small plates with suggested drink pairings, such as a pisco Bloody Mary oyster with a cool glass of cava. I loved the macaron starter, filled with savoury Idiazábal cheese. The cocktails come strong; be brave and try the Vandal Attitude, with bourbon, ginger syrup, mint and chocolate bitters.
Where to Stay
Grand Hotel Son Net: The Cortesin group lovingly renovated this historic palacio, with sumptuous interiors done by Spanish designer Lorenzo Castillo. Its common areas and rooms are a kaleidoscope of patterns and furnishings — think Moorish tilework and toile drapery — a contrast to the serene Tramuntana mountains outside. It’s a great way to get both town and country: The hotel is only 20 minutes from Palma. Rooms from €800.
Son Bunyola: Richard Branson’s newest Virgin Limited Edition property features just 26 rooms and suites, two of which are in old medieval towers, on some of the most stunning land on the island. Enjoy mountain views and private beach access, plus two restaurants and a spa. Rooms from €800 in high season; opens on June 16.
Sant Francesc Hotel Singular: The best option for a chic cityside stay, it’s in the heart of the old town of Palma, with a hidden garden restaurant. Some suites have original frescoes on the ceiling and come with views of the medieval church opposite. The showstopper is the rooftop pool. Rooms from €325.
Can Ferrereta: This hotel’s opening in 2021 put the small south-eastern town of Santanyí on the map for luxury travellers. An understated arrival gives way to a rustic paradise of local stone and wood beams, complete with a 25m outdoor pool and bar. Check out the Sa Calma spa with its own saltwater pool and sauna, and save room for dinner at Ocre. I’m still dreaming about the “arroz meloso”, a creamy rice dish with burrata and local vegetables. Rooms from €315.
What to Do
Mallorca is the biggest of the Balearic islands, best explored by renting a car and exploring the small villages and rugged coastline. If it’s your first time visiting, here’s where to start.
Visit the village of Deià: With a population of 600, this scenic town on the northwest coast is filled with honeyed stone buildings, galleries and shops, and is the final rest- ing place of poet Robert Graves. Walk down through olive groves for fresh seafood at Ca’s Patro March, a patio restaurant overlooking the pebbled beach Cala Deià.
Tren de Sóller: A wooden train from 1912 makes a meandering, clickety-clack journey from the city of Palma to the beach town of Sóller. The hourlong route makes stops for photos of the views once you’re high up in the mountains. It’s an experience in itself, and a round-trip ticket is €25.
Jardines de Alfabia: In the mountain town of Bunyola there’s extensive gardens and palm trees, alongside a historic house with links to the Moorish invasions. An orchard supplies fresh oranges to the cafe on-site, where guests can chill out to the sound of classic music. It’s a favourite of Virginia Irurita, who suggests travellers stop by for photos and a history lesson. — Bloomberg
- This article first appeared in The Malaysian Reserve weekly print edition