Spain's Balearics Offer Cosmopolitan Flavor

Taylor, an authority on the travel industry, lives in Los Angeles.

Visiting lesser-known regions of the world, especially islands, often calls for more advance homework than many travelers realize.

A good example is the Balearic Islands, a cluster of Mediterranean islands belonging to Spain and including Majorca, Ibiza and Menorca.

"Many Americans aren't aware that Spain has islands off its coast or exactly where they are in relation to France or Africa," Andres Garcia, a guide in Majorca, said. "Sometimes they confuse us with the Canary Islands, which are also Spanish, but in the Atlantic.

"Many American visitors have no idea of the size of Majorca; they think it's a much smaller island than it is," Garcia said.

"They're also surprised by the size of the capital, Palma de Majorca, which has a population of more than 300,000. Some Americans expect to find a small port town they can quickly walk around."

Knowledge of the size of a destination such as Majorca and its capital can dictate the length and scope of an itinerary.

Variety of Languages

The sheer number of languages spoken at a destination also may take visitors by surprise.

Bilingual billboards rise above major traffic points; I counted signs in six languages at a Laundromat. On one elevator in a Palma de Majorca hotel I heard Spanish, German, Swedish and English spoken before we reached the final floor.

While Spanish is the major language, there are local dialects on each island, all linguistic offshoots of Catalan, the language of Barcelona and Catalonia, the northeastern province of Spain. Many locals admit that Spanish is really their second language.

"We are part of Spain, but we're not Spain," said one resident. "We're very cosmopolitan, and the regional differences are even stronger now than they were during the Franco regime."

Banker's Hours

Banks in the Balearic Islands may close by 1 or 2 p.m. and not reopen again until the next day. If you want to change money after midday you may have to do it at a hotel, store or exchange place, perhaps at less advantageous rates.

Stores also close during the middle of the day but reopen in late afternoon. "Visitors have to keep in mind that the afternoon in Spain goes on to 8 p.m.," one local said.

The usual dinner hour in the Balearics is 9 to 10 p.m., sometimes as late at midnight in Palma de Majorca. Night life in Majorca also starts late.

"Americans may have dinner at 8 p.m. or so, go out to a night spot at 10 or 11, find it relatively empty, then go back to their hotel room thinking things are dead," a guide said. "They don't realize that everyone else is still eating and they don't start coming to the night places till well after midnight, even on a workday."

Amid the international aura in Palma one can find such Americana as McDonald's, sometimes with signs set incongruously beneath iron-grill balconies, green-shuttered windows and street lanterns jutting from weathered cornices.

More Laid-Back

Just as there are differences between the islands and mainland Spain there are distinctions between Majorca, Menorca and Ibiza. Menorca is not as tourist-oriented as the other two islands; it has more of an industrial base.

"Menorca is more laid back than either Majorca or Ibiza," Jim Maps, a tour guide, said. "It has a different and less jet-set personality than the other islands."

A car is useful for exploring each of the islands, though public transportation is available. "Ibiza is smaller than Majorca or Menorca, so some travelers take the bus, not because it's less expensive but because they feel they get more of a feeling for the scene and how people live," Vicente Fernandez, a tour guide in Ibiza, said.

If you do drive, be aware that the islands have quite a few mountains. Two-lane roads wind along many curving ascents and descents. At lookout points you can park for spectacular views of cliffs rising above the sea.

Whitewashed hotels, some with Moorish arches and patios that look like geometrically spaced dark eyes when seen from a distance, lie like modern aeries atop many of the cliff edges.

Mercedeses and Donkeys

Driving around also provides such glimpses of the islands as sheep grazing in fields across from Roman ruins, while Mercedeses and other latter-day vehicles scoot by donkey-led carts.

You can see stone walls arching up hills filled with olive trees, lonely windmills, straw-hatted women in black shawls tilling lettuce and garlic fields, and eerie-looking tayalots and taules --ancient stone structures whose purpose is lost in time.

Given the cosmopolitan flavor of the islands and the huge influx of people from other parts of Europe, American visitors may find that some areas and hotels are somewhat of an English, German or Scandinavian enclave. But there is usually a mixture reflected both in cuisine (with menus in several languages) and entertainment.

At one hotel in Ibiza, for example, the small band went from a "Lili Marlene" rendition in German to a spirited "Roll Out the Barrel."

Visitors interested in shopping will find factory outlets manufacturing such products as shoes and costume jewelry.

According to guides, you may find a greater choice of items at these places, and perhaps see the manufacturing process, but you won't get any great savings over the same items at retail outlets.

Be careful where you buy the pearls Majorca is famed for, Garcia warns. Look for stores that advertise "Majorica," a brand name that provides a guarantee of the product.

'Gin' for Breakfast

Don't be surprised, on Menorca, to find locals imbibing "gin" for breakfast.

"This is very weak gin, with a lemon flavor, that's a local product stemming from the days the English controlled Menorca in the 19th Century," Maps said.

If you're interested in island-hopping by air, the Balearics are covered by Iberia Airlines' Visit Spain air pass, which allows unlimited flights within Spain for 60 days for $199.

You could, for example, fly to Palma de Majorca from Madrid or Barcelona, then fly on to Menorca and Ibiza and back to the mainland. Palma de Mallocra can only be flown to again as a connecting point, and some flights may be aboard Aviaco Airlines, an Iberia subsidiary.

Iberia offers nonstop flights to Madrid from Los Angeles.

For more information on the Balearic Islands, contact the National Tourist Office of Spain, 8383 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 960, Beverly Hills 90211, phone (213) 658-7188.

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