When a friend invited me to visit her in Mallorca where she had been living for two years, I was at first divided.
There was the excitement of seeing her again and exploring what is always spoken of as a gem of the Mediterranean, but also the fear of finding an overly touristic and crowded place.
I was in Italy to visit friends and family and I thought: “why not escape the cool spring weather of my native hilly regions and plunge in the middle of the Med for a week or two?”
The siren’s call of the sea was too strong to ignore, so I packed my light baggage and took a direct flight. The joy was immense when I realised that most of the island, especially in low season (I went there in early April), retains much of its original fascination and character.
The reasons for its fame
Not including mass tourism, the largest island of the Balearic archipelago has indeed attracted visitors, seafarers and colonisers since the old times.
Its fascinating history shows a constant trail of invasions and maritime trade: the Phoenicians first controlled it, the Barbary corsairs from the north of Africa often attacked it, the Romans were here later on and even the Vandals and Moors did not miss the opportunity to give it a go. In response to all this, many coastal watchtowers and fortifications were erected
and many remnants are still visible nowadays.
Its strategic position, favourable weather and beautiful geographical features caused its positive fame: so why was I so reticent to go and check it out?
Well, what at first postponed my visit to glossy Mallorca were the rumours about sunburnt Russian and Polish tourists invading its beaches and German families taking over the restaurants and bars. I had been told about whole suburbs near Palma, the main city, full of tall grey hotels facing the sea and I associated that with memories of my childhood summer holidays in touristy locations on the Riviera Romagnola in the north of Italy, where many middle-class families used to move for a couple of weeks each year in a sort of collective seasonal ritual.
That was probably what inspired me to travel through remote areas of Australia (both inland and at sea) in search of isolation and wilderness!
So yes, I must admit it, I had numerous preconceptions about the place. Luckily, I was wrong. What I was lacking was some accurate information about the beautiful, less crowded calas (coves) of the north, surrounded by majestic rocky mountains.
What I could not imagine were the lush farmed terraces in front of the sea and the elder locals who look after them with a timeless care and everlasting, patient habits; what surprised me one early morning was being the only visitor roaming through the pot plant-filled lanes of Valldemossa, a little village embraced by mountains in the north of Palma and being the only one in the transparent water (admittedly, quite freezing) of breathtaking Sa Calobra, where my friend’s yacht Filo was anchored.
Paradoxically, what I had mostly underestimated were exactly the main attractions of the island: its coastline of more than 550 kilometres of crystal clear beaches and spectacular cliffs, its diverse landscapes, the delicious Mediterranean food, the sunny weather. All in all, there must have been a reason for all those people to visit, right?
So that is true, in high season the island does receive something like eight million tourists from around the world (Palma is the second busiest airport in Spain). But, like many other popular destinations, tourism is also a blessing for an island that otherwise would just be based on agriculture, wine production and horticulture (over four million olive and almond trees are present on the territory). Local and foreign investments into the islands have also provided a sophisticated infrastructure, good road links, and many excellent social, education and health facilities.
The low season deal
Autumn is a lovely time to explore the coast, as well as the inland with many festivals celebrating local produce. While in spring wild flowers and fruit trees blossom in an explosion of colours and the folkloric Easter week processions attract both tourists and locals to the cosy alleys of Palma.
At the beginning of spring the port of Palma also hosts some of the best sailors in the world during the Princess Sophia Trophy, a famous yachting regatta celebrating the queen of Spain.
No matter what time of the year you visit you will definitely appreciate the natural beauty of the island. To properly explore it, allow at least two weeks.
Chartering is very popular, especially in high season, as cruising around this spectacular stretch of land is certainly the best way to enjoy its varied landscapes and local skippers will share their precious knowledge.
If you go with your own boat, plan in advance and ask some fellow cruisers; the weather conditions are usually pretty good and the main hazards to navigation could paradoxically be the crowded anchorages and the narrow marinas. One thing I had never experienced, since all my previous sailing was done in Australia, was manoeuvring in such tiny ports and berthing ‘Med style’. That was quite an adventure but our experienced friend Karlos handled that magnificently.
The position of the Balearic Islands is such that they create a sort of ‘Mediterranean front’ with very favourable and steady local thermal winds throughout most of the year. Conditions are usually only bad when other weather fronts prevail, which can happen during the winter months often swept by some strong northerlies. Even then, though, many protected nooks and bays such as Puerto Pollença and Port d’Alcudia remain safe places for dropping anchor.
To summarise: sailing can be pleasant and safe throughout most of the year, conditions mainly good. Nothing else to do then but try it out!
Many people start from the capital city of the Baleares, Palma, although this area is densely populated and its marinas can be quite expensive.
Some of them though are a good option for wintering ashore or afloat, due to the vicinity to many yacht support and repair facilities.
The city of Palma is indeed fascinating, with its stunning gothic cathedral facing the sea, its maze of cobblestone streets, its food market, tapas bar and restaurants. If you want to get away from Palma but you do not mind some marina life, head to the west, where Port d’Andraitx will entertain you with its trendy restaurants and bars, vivacious in summer but pretty quiet during the rest of the year. This is also a good spot to haul out your boat, as they allow you to work on it without any problem.
A clockwise tour of the island
My favourite part was probably the northwest-facing coast, rugged and mountainous, with just one port: Sóller.
This popular boating and holiday destination, although pretty crowded in summer, was peaceful in April when I visited. The two well sheltered marinas lay in a deep cove; one is cheaper than the other, but they both boast excellent locations.
That whole side of the coast is towered by the steep Serra de Tramuntana, a UNESCO World Heritage site ending in the spectacular Cap de Formentor. The latter is a perfect sightseeing point; once up there you feel at one with nature and you can unwind while the sunset rays paint the rocky cliffs with pink nuances. From up there the sea that I am so used to observe close-by, felt gigantic and alive and the lines of the Balearic swells wrapping around the island seemed like constant visible breaths.
The quiet northeast coast is very attractive too, with some nice anchorages and a marina. The area around Port Pollença is actually renowned as one of the best sailing spots in Europe.
The lovely Sunday markets fill up the town centre with colourful stalls, souvenirs and gourmet food, while the wide bay often witnesses kite surfers skim past in the afternoon breeze.
Just south of it, Badía d’Alcudía is another spacious bay hosting pristine coves like Es Coll Baix. This beach, almost only visited by yachties, is a gift for people fond of nature and tranquillity; the milky turquoise water deepens quickly very close to the seashore, which makes it a perfect place for anchoring near the coast. Jumping off the side for a swim or a snorkel just becomes inevitable, you will not resist the colour
of that water!
The east coast is crossed by the Serra de Llevant, a mid-mountain range with heights of up to 500 metres. This stretch of land hosts many marinas and tourist resorts.
On the natural side, though, it is drilled with spectacular caves, both above and below sea level. Two of the caves above sea-level (Coves dels Hams and Coves del Drach) also contain underground lakes. They are both near the eastern coastal town of Porto Cristo and a visit, although quite pricey, is a unique experience.
On the southern coast there are numerous bays with picturesque beaches, safe anchorages and well-equipped marinas. Although I did not have time to visit it, the Cabrera marine national park is supposed to be stunning
Only ten nautical miles south of Mallorca’s southern tip, this area is protected and wild. Due to its isolation from the rest of the Balearics, it has developed its own unique range of flora and fauna; opportunities to snorkel and hike are apparently numerous. I will definitely head back there when I have a chance!
You need to book in advance before visiting, as all unauthorised anchoring is prohibited and just 50 permits at a time are released for the local moorings. These passes are only valid for one or two nights during peak season, while from October to May you can stay for up to seven nights. Another great reason to come back in the quieter part of the year!
Colonia Sant Jordi hosts some famous and glorious beaches. Here you can see local fishermen tidying up their nets in the afternoons and chatting about island issues.
The bottom here has rocky patches, so caution needs to be taken.
Not far from there lays Cala Santanyi and its famous stone arch Es Pontas (the bridge) created by the erosive force of the waves. This cala has a good depth (from about five to eight metres) and it is a good place for swimming and snorkelling.
If you feel like exploring the interior of the island, Mallorca will not disappoint either. The fertile central plain, Es Pla, placidly lies in the middle of this treasure island, with its evocative old-fashioned windmills that remind me of the famous descriptions out of the Spanish classic novel Don Quixote.
If, like me, you can not resist good agroturismos (farm stays) and sustainable agriculture, escape the crowds for a day or two and spoil yourself with handmade jams and fresh local products.
Mallorca also offers plenty of options to burn those calories off; if you are into training, this is the spot to be! The island is a paradise not only for water sports and sailing, but also for cyclists and triathletes, with its many mountain ranges and twisty roads passing through timeless and incredibly diverse villages.
Or if you prefer to remain by the saltwater, there are also many options for free climbing above deep water or more tranquil sea birdwatching from the Formentor cliffs.
Whatever you do during the day, a glass of fruity red wine and a sopa mallorquina (typical local soup) while watching the sun go down over the blue sea will be a perfect evening treat.
Is all this enough to convince you to to drop anchor in Mallorca some day?