Majorca: Haven for the Road-Weary

Times Staff Writer

Majorca is for getting away.

The sunny Spanish island in the northwestern Mediterranean can provide a welcome break in a European vacation grown hectic and dreary from too many people in too many crowded, clouded places.

If you're in a hurry to make that break, you can fly direct from Paris, Madrid and London to Palma, capital of the 1,500-square-mile island of hillside forests, fertile valleys, sandy beaches and dramatic mountain escarpments that plunge more than a thousand feet into the sea.

But if you can squander an extra day or so in travel time, take the ferry. It's a lot of fun.

There's daily service aboard the Trasmediterranea Line's immaculate fleet of 450-foot ships between Barcelona, Valencia and Palma, with sporadic service to the island from Genoa and other Mediterranean ports on other lines.

9-Hour Voyage

We chose an overnight boat for the 9-hour voyage from Valencia to Palma, with an 8-hour daytime trip from Palma to the mainland port of Barcelona a few days later.

Tickets are best obtained several weeks in advance from Trasmediterranea's agents in major European cities. That way you are guaranteed one of the spacious outside staterooms that provide a private bath, four bunks (even if there are only two of you) and privacy from the swarms of chaperoned 12-year-olds who seem to spend their academic careers visiting the tourist attractions of southern Europe.

There's a good cafeteria (serving breakfast, lunch and dinner), several bars, two immense indoor lounges, a video arcade (to snare the 12-year-olds) and enough deck space to provide a sheltered spot in the sun for everyone on board.

We took our car along. That provided us with the freedom to explore the island on our own terms (rental cars are available in Palma, too), eliminated the need to lug any more baggage than was needed for the overnight on board and added relatively little to the round-trip fare for two, which came to a total of about $250.

Pleasant Preview

The ship skirts the southwest coast of the island for about an hour before you dock, providing a pleasantly anticipatory view of the beach-resort strip that stretches 15 miles from Puerto de Andraitx to Palma.

Debarking--even with a car--is swift and unceremonious. Within minutes you find yourself motoring along a palm-lined, oceanfront promenade.

On your left is the sparkling Bahia del Palma--studded with the splendid yachts of the rich and famous.

On your right is the city--first the downtown hotel row, with its lesser versions of the beachfront hostelries in Nice and Cannes; then the old town proper, with its 15th- and 16th-century Italianate mansions, proliferating gift shops and multistoried apartments, all jumbled beneath La Almundiana, the ancient Moorish fortress that dominates the harbor from an oceanfront promontory.

For really getting away in style, you can move on a bit to one of the island's secluded luxury retreats.

There are several, but by consensus, three hotels top the list--the Valparaiso Palace, in a quiet park several hundred yards above the harbor; the Formentor, on a craggy cape at the farthest reach of the island, about 50 miles northeast of Palma, and the Son Vida, an elegant palace five miles above the city that has been expanded into a gracious hillside resort.

Not a Disappointment

We chose the Son Vida, and we weren't disappointed. Our handsomely appointed room was really a series of rooms: There was an entryway, off which a short hallway led to closets, a dressing room, a bathroom and a toilet room. There was a large and comfortable bedroom and a cozy sitting room, complete with bar and fully stocked refrigerator.

And beyond all that, there was a private balcony overlooking the golf course, the two outdoor swimming pools, tennis courts, the building housing the indoor pool, the terrace where breakfast and lunch are served, and shops that sell everything from Gucci handbags to the latest American paperbacks. In the distance you can see the city of Palma, silhouetted against the Mediterranean.

Lounging by the pools was an indulgence that quickly became a habit, encouraged by waiters eager to bring you a beverage or a light snack. The meals at the hotel were very good, if unspectacular, especially dinner in the attractive main dining room, enhanced by service that was attentive but never intrusive.

While all this is relatively affordable by American standards, it's among the most expensive in Spain--figure about $150 a day for two for everything. We thought it was worth it.

Venturing Out

The hotel was our sanctuary, but we did venture out a bit.

Perhaps the best-known excursion is the north shore drive--a challenging trek over a narrow, twisting corniche that provides the sort of splendidly perpendicular ocean views that have made the Amalfi Drive famous.

Stop-offs along the way include tiny villages, an occasional snack shop and the Carthusian monastery at Valldemosa, where composer Frederic Chopin and author George Sand pursued their tempestuous love affair in the winter of 1838-39.

The cliff-side drive through forests of pine and live oak can vary from between 50 and 150 miles, depending on when you chicken out and take one of the shortcuts back to Palma. The shortcuts are pleasant, too, through more benign terrain that features groves of olive and citrus trees.

The primary attraction in Palma is the Gothic cathedral, a massive limestone structure on a cliff overlooking the sea, begun in AD 1230 but not completed until 370 years later. Unusual for Spanish cathedrals, the slender columns and absence of altar screens permit an unbroken view down the three main aisles of the 350-foot nave, dramatically illuminated by shafts of colored light from the clerestory windows.

Gardens and Shops

Take a turn through the sculpture gardens on the terraces below the cathedral while you're there, or check out one of the shops that feature the best of Majorcan handicraft--glassware, embroidery and jewelry fashioned with locally cultured pearls.

And since you're in town, it would be a shame not to sample one of Palma's many harbor-front restaurants noted, not surprisingly, for their seafood.

We chose the Ancora, a tiny bistro beside a backwater mooring reachable only by a winding stone path. The setting was unpretentious, but the food was sumptuous--a subtle shrimp mousse, then a local sea bass sauteed in a tomato sauce, all topped off with coffee and a delicate strawberry sherbet. The price for two--about $30.

Like so many other treats in Majorca, it was well worth it.

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