Despite its honey-coloured stone streets, harbour packed with gleaming white yachts and majestic mediaeval cathedral, Palma has an image problem. That the cause of the problem is its rowdy southern neighbour Magaluf has probably caused more furrowed brows and wrinkles over at City Hall than any amount of sunshine could. Here, I should probably admit that I was among the crowds of naysayers. Sun, sea and getting tanked on sangria in ‘Shagaluf’ – that’s what people go to Mallorca for, isn’t it? As it turned out, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Actually, I wasn’t wrong about the sun or the sea. Mallorca has an abundance of both and you can get sangria if you really want it. Arriving at Palma de Mallorca airport, the ranks of budget airlines drawn up on the tarmac didn’t look promising. With visions of neon lit casinos and drunken tourists flashing through my skull, I headed into town – and got my first Palma surprise. The streets are clean. Really, spotlessly clean. Then there was the sea front strip that looked like a patrician version of Miami, back-dropped by the enormous cathedral that glowed gold in the afternoon sunshine. Further into town, I spotted lines of pretty little shops with multicoloured awnings and boxes of crimson geraniums on the steps, and groups of elegantly dressed women pottering about. Forget Shagaluf – this had shades of St Tropez.
My reappraisal of Palma continued apace when I arrived at the comely Hotel Dalt Murada. A former family home, the Dalt Murada is a treasure box of wonderful old oil paintings – many of which feature members of the Llado family who own it. Outside, the hotel’s central courtyard was a riot of orange and lemon trees, while cerise bougainvillea blooms crept up the walls. My room, across the terrace and away from the main hotel, had one of the biggest bathrooms I’ve ever seen – complete with a huge porcelain tub and enormous metal framed windows. The bedroom itself was furnished with antiques, many family heirlooms, and a rather intimidating portrait of a Catalan John Doe who eyeballed me disapprovingly every time I went near.
After a stroll down to the seafront and a glass of wine in a Park de la Mar cafe manned by two of the idlest waitresses I’ve ever come across, we headed back to the Murada for supper laid on by owners Luis and Ferran. A huge trestle table of Mallorcan tapas awaited: tender fried calamari, slabs of rose pink ham sliced thickly and piled high, tiny, salty olives, friable white cheese and bowl of sweet red tomatoes. Thank you Doña Llado, I thought as I tucked in. Thank you! We washed it down with glasses of the local red, enjoying the citrus fragrance that rolled around the sun-warmed courtyard before tucking into homemade almond icecream. Bliss.
The next day, still groaning from Doña Llado’s Spanish feast, we headed off to explore. It’s easy to get lost in Palma thanks to its twisting alleyways and warren-like succession of courtyards and side streets, but as Luis explained, you can always get to where you need if you use the cathedral as a compass. Known locally as La Seu, it was begun in 1229 by the Aragonese king, James I but wasn’t completed until 1601. It’s a fabulous piece of architecture and utterly dominates the skyline, which unlike Magaluf, doesn’t have a single high-rise to mar it. In fact, it’s all decidedly Moorish with the odd Arabesque or curlicue popping up on most streets. Up behind the cathedral on the medieval lanes, where few cars but plenty of horse-drawn carriages go, it’s easy to forget that you’re in the 21st century at all.
That impression was compounded by a stroll down Palma’s own version of Las Ramblas, which was lined by tiny basket-framed boutiques and awash with flower sellers. From coral pink geraniums to scarlet roses and blush coloured peonies, it was a botanist’s dream. A botanist would probably enjoy the Olivar Market too. Along with boxes of brightly coloured blooms, the covered food market was bustling with shoppers rummaging through the precarious piles of orange and yellow tomatoes and the teetering stacks of peaches and apricots while sidling past the gory pig’s heads that peered balefully out from behind the butcher’s block. Despite the bloody row of bonces, business was brisk – testament, as I was later told at the Hotel Bon Sol – to the Spanish appetite for pork.
All this I learned while tucking into a prime example of the meat in the Bon Sol’s formal, antique filled dining room. Also a family run affair, owners Martin and Lorraine Xamena have turned what was a sizeable home into a huge hotel, complete with its very own beach. Inside, it looks a bit like a Mayfair gentleman’s club, complete with oxblood walls, mahogany floors and a suit of armour in reception. It’s vintage Britannia transported to Spain – not entirely surprising given the perfectly coiffed Lorraine’s Anglo-Saxon roots. What it also has is a spa; a space where antediluvian Brit chic has been dropped in favour of clean cream walls and oriental paintings. In the attached gym, there’s a sauna, a never-ending supply of herbal tea and a glossy sun terrace complete with cream cushioned loungers, where I swiftly lowered the tone by digging out a dogeared Jilly Cooper novel to peruse as I dozed in the sunshine.
Cooper or no Cooper, there’s not much that beats a lazy morning spent lounging about doing absolutely nothing, although it does help if you get to follow it up with a facial. Mine was a no-frills affair that concentrated on the basics – ideal, if like me, you’re a relatively youthful 28 with zero patience for elaborate bells and whistles. The exfoliation was thorough, the massage excellent and my skin glowing as I sauntered off to the beach.
Sun and sand are a big part of the Bon Sol’s appeal and it’s one of those self-contained spots that you could stay in for days without needing to leave. It has three restaurants, a large wood-panelled bar and numerous pools. There’s also yoga and tai chi on tap as well as a squad of incredibly helpful staff. The sluggish senoritas from Palma should come here for lessons. By the time I left, I was so relaxed I was practically catatonic. If you want parties and booze, I wouldn’t recommend it – head to Magaluf for that – but if you want a side order of culture with your chillaxing, Palma and the Bon Sol are just perfect. No drunken beach bums, no neon-lit casinos and definitely no fights: Palma – you can consider me well and truly corrected.
Classic Collection Holidays (0800 294 9315) offers three nights (seven nights) at the Bon Sol in Illetas, Mallorca from £569 (£953) per person. Price based on two adults sharing on a half board basis and includes return flights from London Gatwick to Palma and private transfers. Visit your local travel agent or classic-collection.co.uk. An upgrade to a junior suite sea view room adds £28 per person per night. The Hotel Dalt Murada offers rooms from £65 per person including breakfast. For more information and to book, see daltmurada.com.