This archipelago of islands off the east coast of Spain is a perennial favourite for Spaniards and international visitors alike. Mallorca, Ibiza, Menorca and Formentera are diverse islands offering distinct experiences for visitors, yet still remain little misunderstood. So, here's an insight into Spain's most popular Mediterranean islands.
Mention Ibiza, and many people's thoughts turn to legendary clubs like Amnesia and Pacha; carefree partying to the island's soundtrack of Balearic beats. It's true that the music and party scene remains a major draw for visitors; and the offering for holidaymakers is now broader than ever. Properties like Ushuaïa Ibiza Beach Hotel showcase a new generation of resort that brings together a world-class music venue, stylish accommodation and the classic Balearic beach experience.
Yet as the revellers have got a little older (and a little richer) Ibiza is also about a new style of hedonistic luxury. Take a quick look online and you'll see that some of Europe's most elite holiday rental villas are hidden among the pine trees of this diminutive island. There are new boutique hotels too, like Bless Hotel Ibiza. Opening its doors this June in the upscale area of Cala Nova, it promises to capture the ambiance of exclusive and stylish Ibiza. Fewer drums on the beach at sunset and more curated experiences from the island's cultural agenda - think live music, fashion shows, performances, visual art and photography exhibitions.
Ibiza also still retains its charms from the days of the 60s. One may not think it, but travellers come to Ibiza for its tranquillity too. The trend in 'agro-tourism' has flourished here. Farmhouses and country estates have been sympathetically converted into small guest houses and rustic hotels - with the unique signature style of the white island. Can Lluc Agroturismo Hotel for example, is a calming antidote to the Playa d'en Bossa club scene or the partying of San Antonio. Less electronica and more massages, yoga, meditation, wholesome local food and plenty of chilling by the pool.
This tiny island is easily reached for a day trip from Ibiza on the regular ferry. In summer its white sandy beaches, sheltered bays and shallow waters look like a scene from the Caribbean. The Formentera crowd is a mix of day-trippers, bohemian holidaymakers and the 'rich-and-famous' who arrive by superyacht, dine in a chic beach restaurant and then leave.
This foodie destination has to be one of my favourites. I first wrote about this 'small island with the big welcome' back in 2013. Then last year I focused on the slow food and slow travel pleasures of this unspoilt, sleepy island. Menorca is a Unesco Biosphere Reserve, and farming methods remain respectful to the environment. The interior is surprisingly pastoral - it doesn't feel like you're in the Balearics.
Mahón, set by a deep natural harbour, is the lively capital, while on the other side of the island is the former capital, Ciutadella, a delightful town of narrow streets and historic squares. You'll be surprised by just how many stores are selling avarcas, the traditional sandal that is still widely made on the island.
Visitors come for the slow food, uncrowded countryside and the quintessential Balearic coves.
Mallorca is the largest of the islands and one that has worked hard to update its image from party destination to sophisticated, family-friendly island of natural wonders; great cuisine; and chic hotels. Palma, the island's capital, has emerged as a compelling, city-break destination in itself; offering history, architecture and culture - and all within walking distance of a chic marina and a city beach.
Palma Old Town
The old town has been transformed from an almost abandoned backwater into the hub of the city's hotel, food and drink scene - think neighbourhood tapas joints, cool bars and upscale restaurants. Palma's restaurants are buzzing with energy and creativity, from Michelin-star dining from the likes of Marc Fosh, the first Brit to be awarded a star in Spain; to chic all-day dining at El Patio de Gloria, a tucked-away jewel of a place that is worth searching out; through to casual dining like Can Frasquet, a new gourmet burger place.
This is also where to find some of the Mediterranean's best boutique boltholes. Recently opened Can Bordoy Grand House and Garden aims to capture an ambiance of 'decadent romanticism'. A historic house with one of the largest private gardens in the city centre, this new addition to Palma looks like a movie set. Renovated with flawless style, it has a magical feel, with twisted greenery decorating the public rooms, as if the secret garden still hasn't fully relinquished this once-abandoned mansion. Enjoy an evening cocktail or Sunday brunch at the Botanic restaurant to capture a flavour of this unique place.
The south-west coast, a short drive from Palma and an easy transfer from the airport, was among the first areas of the island to become developed for tourism in the 60s. Its picturesque coves and postcard-perfect beaches were a natural draw for holidaymakers. Over time, Palma Nova and Magaluf developed a party-town reputation, and during my regular visits to Mallorca, I avoided them. Yet unfairly. Recently I stayed near the upscale marina of Puerto Portals. It was a real eye-opener, presenting the modern face of Mallorca's resorts - and it was a very positive experience.
Holidaying in Mallorca is for many about sun and sea. Staying at OD Port Portals introduced me to how hotels are keeping that fun at the heart of the experience but also making it about the contemporary culture of the island too. During my short stay the hotel felt like a creative hub where guests and locals could meet and mingle, enjoying a compelling programme of social and artistic events. Connecting with Mallorca as a destination is about experiencing the island's music, art and food - and OD brings that to the hotel with evenings of live music, art shows, and foodie events. It's a cool, young vibe that's also very family friendly.
Yet Mallorca is also an island that needs to be explored beyond the coast. Although there is a charming vintage wooden tram/train (El Tren de Sóller) that rattles along from Palma to Sóller, it really helps to have a car. I was zipping around the country lanes in a smart car. Guests staying in Junior Suites at OD Port Portals get a complimentary Smart Car - such a great idea, as it really enhances one's experience of the island.
Palma Nova & Magaluf
I couldn't resist the temptation to drive down to Magaluf, which I had heard so much about. The coast wasn't at all as I expected. It was well presented with 5-star resorts and established hotels that had clearly been renovated. Properties in the area are shifting towards quality, family-friendly resorts like the Zafira Palace Palma Nova, which opened in 2017. The Zafira Palace is aimed at families and couples looking for a 5-star experience without the inflated prices. The hotel is built around a central pool area, and the resort is divided into different zones; adults-only, spa, children etc. so everyone has their own space to enjoy their holiday. It's the kind of evolution from which the Costa del Sol could learn a lot.
A car also means you can experience Mallorca's natural beauty. It is home to the Unesco recognised Tramuntana mountain range - make a point to visit the villages of Valldemossa and Deià. Admittedly, they can get crowded in high season, but go early to enjoy a coffee and the market or go hiking.
You will see the island from an authentic perspective. The Balearics are not just islands for partying but also great local food, family fun, sophisticated hotels and yes, those beautiful beaches, bays and coves.