Mallorca's High Life

The rugged north coast has long served as a hideaway for nobles and artists.

WORDS Bill Kearney
July 2019
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Photography Mariano Herrera

There’s something about the remove of being on an island that makes travel feel a tad more special. Such is the case with Mallorca. Slightly larger than Rhode Island, and overshadowed by nearby Ibiza—with its 24/7 party scene—the largest of Spain’s Balearic Islands still pulls its share of sun-starved northern European tourists to vast all-inclusive resorts on the flat east coast. The jagged north coast, however, is a different world.

Limestone cliffs jut out of the Mediterranean, the terrain rising steeply into the Serra de Tramuntana mountains. Serrated and covered in centuries-old olive groves, pine forests and stone farmhouses, some dating back 500 years or more, the mountains have long been used by people seeking refuge—whether it’s Mallorcans fleeing marauding pirates in various centuries, or an estranged Princess Diana escaping media scrutiny in the 20th.

The limestone slabs and ridges have resulted in both beauty and isolation. The Tramuntana range is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, prized for its blend of cultural heritage and nature. My plan is to road-trip through the mountain range, eventually making my way to the hamlet of Deià, overlooking the Mediterranean about 25 winding miles to the north.

My entry point, the small town of Puigpunyent, sits in the southern foothills. On a knoll above town stands a regal Tuscan-style mansion, Gran Hotel Son Net, built in 1672 by one of the island’s ten ruling families. It was, in its heyday, the island’s largest olive press.

Today, Son Net is run by an American, David Stein, who originally bought the somewhat dilapidated property in 1991 as a home. “At the time, Spain was an emerging economy, the people were wonderful—it reminded me of California 50 years earlier,” Stein says of his decision to purchase the old property. By chance, his son would marry a local woman, whose family had owned Son Net in centuries past. Within a decade, Stein decided to convert the home into a hotel, but it was still in disrepair, lacking a roof in some places.

“It was fun to renovate. Sometimes we’d open up walls and find doors that were hidden,

elaborate ceilings that were covered up. It was like a treasure hunt, renovating that building. It became a responsibility. My in-laws were quite willing to remind me of the responsibility,” he says with a laugh.

The building now feels like a lavish Renaissance estate house with much of the floor retaining the old small cobblestones, while massive old wooden beams form the ceilings on the ground floor. The reception area once held livestock and the stone-walled restaurant contains the primitive wooden and stone olive press. A suit of armor came with the property, Stein tells me, and is now posed in a corner of the grand stairway, spooking me every time I walk up.

After a dip in the pool, I head to the patio for dinner. The valley below is made up of small farms with plots of grapes. Swallows hunt over the void and clouds crawl down the big peak to the north. “That’s Galatzó mountain,” Stein tells me later. “It’s supposed to have magnetic powers. That’s why everyone sleeps well.”

The food—clever takes on Mediterranean cuisine—is wonderful, but a real standout is the cold tomato and strawberry soup, dancing the line between sweet and savory depending on what you get in a bite: smoky mackerel, cold cucumber, basil sherbet, bits of sweet-and-tart dried tomato.

The next day I hike to the nearby peak of Puig de na Bauçana, guided by Eduard Casajuana of the local tour company MallorcAlpina. From the top you can see the hotel’s valley on one side and the Mediterranean on the other. In the 17th century, the land below us was all part of the Son Net estate, with tenant farmers working the slopes. Stein tells me that the long hike to Son Net was a deterrent to pirates. To the north, where I’m headed tomorrow, the mountains grow larger still.

That evening I stroll downhill to Puigpunyent for a simple dinner, walking by the hotel’s olive grove (where some of the trees are 1,000 years old), sheep eyeing me as I go. The night is cool but pockets of warm air still swirl off the fields. I eat at a small restaurant, Ca Sa Nina, which has seafood paella that tastes like someone’s grandmother presided over it for hours.

When driving toward the Tramuntana, you’re presented with a choice: a relatively fast highway that runs through a notch leading to the coast or a slow, tiny switchback road over the mountains. I choose the latter. There’s an immediate payoff as I snake up and down the jagged limestone shoulders of the range. I’ll admit to enjoying—maybe too much—the tight corners in my little stick-shift Fiat.

Every turn offers a glimpse of a plummeting ravine, an old stone farmhouse on a bluff, sheep grazing on a slope, but not a single human.

After an hour’s drive, I find myself at the coast, and make my way to the village of Banyalbufar, a narrow town on a steep slope surrounded by terraced vineyards. I sit on an outdoor patio at the Restaurant i Café Bellavista, above rooftops that appear to be part of the cliff, plunging to the sea. After an excellent seafood stew with a huge langoustine as the star, I’m off north to Deià, on the recommendation of some of the folks back in Puigpunyent.

The scenery as I drive is gorgeous, which isn’t always an entirely positive thing. I have to keep reminding myself to watch the road, much as I’ve had to do when driving California’s Pacific Coast Highway through Big Sur. As Stein noted earlier, there’s a similarity to the two places—arid mountains rising from the sea, wine country nearby, lovely weather. Except here, the slopes are dotted with craggy olive trees and timeworn villages.

On the way I pass Son Marroig, a Tuscan-style building on a bluff over the water. It looks like the setting of a Maxfield Parrish painting and is now a museum devoted to a former inhabitant, Archduke Ludwig Salvator of Austria, who sailed to Mallorca in 1867 to write a book about beetles. After finding the rustic Tramuntana more appealing than courtly life back in Vienna, he ended up staying. You could say he was Mallorca’s first environmentalist, working to save the old olive trees and establish vantage points, still usable today, from which to appreciate the coast.

Further on is the village of Deià, set in an amphitheater-like valley rolling down to the sea, its stone houses appearing as part of the landscape. The beauty of the place has attracted many luminaries over the years, ranging from Beyoncé to the British poet and novelist Robert Graves, who moved to the village in 1929 to soothe lingering “shell shock” from WWI and immediately noted its “perfect tranquility.” He died in 1985, but his former home is open to the public.

Graves wrote that he moved to Deià, in part, for the climate and the low cost of living. The climate is still delightful, but the prices have gone up. The town’s premier hotel is La Residencia, once owned by Sir Richard Branson and now operated by Belmond. It, too, was a 17th-century olive-press operation, and features a “tower room” used in the 15th century to defend against pirates—the spiral staircase is quite narrow, supposedly so that anyone taking shelter there would only have to fight one marauder at a time.

Art is a big deal in this town, and La Residencia follows suit. There are 33 original Mirós on the property, as well as an artist-in-residence, Alan Hydes, who teaches painting to guests. You can also take a workshop with sculptor-in-residence Juan Waelder, throw some clay with local ceramicist Joanna Kuhne, or stroll up the hills behind the hotel for inspiration in the golden hour.

High summer season here can be hectic, just as in any other sunny spot in Europe, but shoulder seasons are relatively serene. Weather lightens up in April, in May the roses bloom (there’s an astounding number on the La Residencia property) and the sea stays balmy through September. Come October, La Residencia harvests its olive trees, putting its five donkeys to use, as the terrain is too steep for vehicles.

Since a television appearance in 2016, seafood restaurant Ca’s Patro March has raised Deià’s profile even higher. Tucked into a rocky cove below town (the very spot where Graves used to take his daily swim), it was the setting for a pivotal scene in The Night Manager with Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston. The day I saunter down, it’s packed but convivial. I eat very fresh local mahi-mahi while paddleboarders bob on the clear water below. 

Late in the day I stroll to the Parròquia Sant Joan Baptista church on the bluff across town, then enjoy pata negra ham and a glass of local rosé on La Residencia’s patio, overlooking the long slope to the Mediterranean. A pianist offers a rendition of “Summertime” and everyone goes quiet as the sun drops behind the sea.

The last leg of my journey is by boat—a snorkeling trip out of Port de Sóller, about a half-hour north of Deià. Once we leave the harbor and cruise north the shoreline grows too steep for habitation. Seeing the Tramuntana’s cliffs from below brings new understanding to why people have escaped here for centuries.

The high crags, the goat trails, the shafts of light through pine trees—this is the same view pirates would have had centuries ago.

We anchor in a cove to snorkel, the air and water nearly still. I take a dive, and below the surface, a school of sea bream scoot to the next rock outcropping. On a deeper dive I spot small groupers retreating to their nooks, a cloud of fry billowing beyond. Once back on the boat, I hear a faint goat bell clanging, then spot the animal wandering the ridgeline 400 feet up. From here, it’s nearly 15 miles of cliffs to the north before the next significant port, the coast too steep and raw for anything but nature.

The only sound is the lap of small waves on the hull, and the goat making his way in the distance.

Bill Kearney

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