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Beyond the sea

Majorca may be notorious for its crowded beaches and high-rise resorts, but, as Bob Morris discovers, a new generation of style setters is finding inspiration in this Spanish island.
Krause, Johansen
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Majorca may be notorious for its crowded beaches and high-rise resorts, but, as Bob Morris discovers, a new generation of style setters is finding inspiration in this Spanish island.

On a late-summer afternoon in the tiny village of Deià, a donkey brays and sheep bells clang. Nightingales dart through palms and yuccas and pines. The soft sunlight is reflected off the limestone houses, and violet morning glories cover everything, spilling from grape trellises and gates. On the terraced hillsides above town, olive trees grow under the craggy Tramuntana Mountains. This could be any ancient place, far from today, blissfully peaceful. Then, from one modest house, a song by Moby fills the air. A euphonious language can be heard from inside another house, and it most definitely isn't Catalan. It's English, the Queen's English. A cell phone rings, competing with the singing birds. And on the narrow streets, there are soft footsteps, not of local schoolchildren or matrons, but of sleek blonde women in Hermès loafers.

With its semitropical climate, Majorca, the largest island of the Balearics, has been drawing visitors from colder climes ever since George Sand wrote the dyspeptic Winter in Majorca about her 1839 sojourn here with Frédéric Chopin. "Majorca is the painter's El Dorado," she noted. In 1871, Archduke Ludwig Salvator abandoned the Austro-Hungarian Empire (where he was third in line to the throne) and lingered here for years, working to preserve ancient olive trees and create walking paths in the mountains. He was embraced by the locals, who appreciated his reverence for their remote world. Sixty years later, Robert Graves, the English poet and novelist, settled in Deià, just inland from the northwest Majorca coast. "I found everything I wanted as a writer: sun, sea, mountains, spring-water, shady trees, no politics, and a few civilized luxuries such as electric light," Graves wrote about his adopted home. "I wanted to go where town was still town; and country, country."

This year, the house where Graves lived will be opened to the public as a museum. "So now," says Tomás Graves, the poet's 51-year-old son, "my father's legacy can be seen as something besides a tombstone." Actually, Graves's legacy can also be seen as the cause of the transformation of the quiet Deià of the early 20th century into today's less quiet colony for privileged visitors. It was he who brought attention to Deià by inviting as his guests all manner of attention getters—Ava Gardner, Alec Guinness, and Peter Ustinov among them. And around the time he was entertaining his world-famous friends, Winston Churchill, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Charlie Chaplin were staying at the newly built Hotel Formentor. Just as the Arabs and Romans left their mark on the island in earlier times, so have the latter-day globe-trotters. Accessible by quick flight from most of Europe into a vast, modern airport, Majorca attracts more than 8 million visitors a year; one out of every four people on Majorca is a foreigner. Beaches have become as crowded with sunbathers as Coney Island. And in the summer, Tomás Graves can hardly find a moment to himself.

Graves, a musician and author of Bread and Oil—a book about the island's staple cuisine and traditional culture—darts around on all kinds of social calls. One night he'll be at La Fonda, the Deià bar frequented by hipster kids with pierced noses and dowagers with aristocratic ones, drinking with a tabla player who has just given an impromptu concert in a nearby barn. The following weekend he'll be overseeing a celebration of his father's poetry. The socializing is endless.

"In August, it's like being in St.-Tropez," says Jesse McKinley, a New York Times reporter whose family owns a cottage in Deià, near where Michael Douglas and Andrew Lloyd Webber have vacation houses. "And whenever someone famous arrives, everyone always says it's the beginning of the end, that the whole town is going to be ruined. Yet it remains one of the most beautiful places in the world."

Indeed, despite the new economy that exploded in the 1960's, with cheap air travel and package trips for visitors of the palest hues, despite the high-rises that mar the landscape on the Bay of Palma, and despite the mosh pit–like scenes at even the most isolated coves, Majorca has not lost its appeal. It isn't a rave capital for kids. Nor is it the Hamptons of the Mediterranean. But it is large enough to support a variety of life- styles that can coexist in happy separation. That's why you can find a sloppy beer-drinking crowd at Port d'Alcúdia on the northern part of the island, and then drive across a landscape dotted with windmills and farms to discover a ring of socialites poolside at Deià's Residencia hotel.

José Carlos Llop, a prizewinning Spanish author who owns a seaside flat in an undisturbed fishing village near Valldemossa, knows how to move about the island in summer without seeing any tourists. The mountainous northeastern area near Cap de Ferrutx, for instance, feels relatively untouched. And there are the towns Pollença, in the north, and Sóller, near the west coast, where you can wander in pleasant isolation. Even Palma, a pretty city with architecture dating from Moorish times, has a harbor where fishermen mend their nets within view of chic new restaurants, museums, and bars.

Llop can still remember the island of the not-so-distant past, when waterfront property wasn't highly valued, because Majorcans farmed and felt safer living inland, away from storms and pirates. He tells the story of one man who sold his property in the 1950's for a case of vermouth. Today, he says, the island is becoming too expensive for many Majorcans. For years Llop lived in Barcelona, but like so many others, he came back: "The landscape remains beautiful here. And to be from an island is a destiny."

And what is Majorca's destiny? It already has enough stylish hotels: Pollença's Son Brull and Palma's casbah-chic Puro are oases for the kind of traveler who knows that to find the coolest scene on Majorca in high season means to stay next to an architecturally stunning pool, rather than by the sea. New vineyards are a magnet for oenophiles. The youth-minded, Majorca-based Camper shoe company is drawing all sorts of visitors to its outlet in the town of Inca. And textile makers are attracting discerning shoppers, not to mention at least one ambitious fashion designer, Sebastián Pons.

Alquería Blanca is a tranquil village in the southeast, 15 minutes from the sea. Off the plaza, there's a 17th-century stone manor filled with antique furnishings and brocade tapestries. Yet the scene inside it is anything but traditional. The tawny, thin, 32-year-old Pons is surrounded by a motley riot of fabric as he furiously works on his next ready-to-wear collection. Talking to a young seamstress, Pons adjusts garments and holds dresses up to the blinding afternoon sun. The fabrics are made on local looms that date back to the 19th century. "We're two steps from Europe and two steps from Africa," he says. "Everyone from the Greeks and Romans to movie stars has come through or lives here. On Majorca, you live with people who influence you in all kinds of ways."

Which is why he chose to return here to design his own line. Family members brought him the best materials from the island's markets. The village baker embroidered a garment for his first collection. His mother hand-crocheted more than 200 camellias, to be used as appliqués. And a nun at an ancient convent in Sancelles gave him her blessing. "When I was little, I didn't appreciate it here," Pons says as he sips water from a well at Monasterio de Consolación, a 17th-century church with ceramic-tiled steps, dark carved wooden walls, and Moorish chandeliers. After work, he goes to Cala des Borgit, a swimming cove where he picks a plant called sea fennel, gathers piles of sea salt, and collects snails, all of which he uses to cook dinner the way his grandfather taught him. "Right now my mother is making apricot jam," he notes. "And though my father has retired as a farmer, he will be planting almonds until the day he dies."

Even Majorcans who don't support themselves as farmers anymore (many family fincas have been sold to wealthy foreigners) still find places to make the famous native sausages and celebrate festivals with processions and bonfires. Traditional foods such as fish pastries, blood sausage with white beans, and the famous frito mallorquín (a stew of potatoes, vegetables, and pig offal) are all readily available in family-run restaurants. Many people here continue to work at ancestral crafts, even as the island maintains its service economy. Bellboys come home from hotel jobs to blow glass vases. Chambermaids and waitresses have side gigs making appliqués for clothing.

In tiny Portocolom, on the southeast coast, fishing boats are docked in the port, and you can still buy fresh catches directly from the fishermen. There are few big buildings and fewer cars. The people in this town are fighting to keep it that way. They want to preserve what's left of the old Majorca. As the rest of the island caters to teeming crowds, Portocolom's streets are quiet. A white-haired woman in a dark blue housedress sits on a lawn chair crocheting the same lace that hangs in the windows of her white stucco town house, a study in old-world simplicity. A few doors down, another woman is also crocheting, while her ruddy-faced husband, wearing bedroom slippers, sits beside her, reading the newspaper. "It takes a lot of patience and hard work to do this," she tells a passerby. "But I love it."

Majorcans are nothing if not industrious. Perhaps that's why the island is not giving itself over wholesale to the kind of tourism that homogenizes a place. In fact, it is now doing all it can to reverse its more lowbrow image and refurbish itself for a more desirable tourist who respects a place as much for its mountains as for its beaches and seeks out experiences that are not like the ones available at home.

"For many years, Majorca was attractive to visitors because of the low cost," says Alexandre Suau, co-owner of Son Brull Hotel & Spa. "But I am more interested in quality and exclusivity." A few years ago, Suau renovated a ruined monastery near Pollença, in the north of the island. Because the farm is 20 minutes from the water, the view includes none of the unsightly high-rise buildings that are visible from every accessible seaside nook and cranny—there are only dusty hills and stands of olive and cypress trees. At Son Brull, Suau created rooms with plush, minimalist fabrics, blond-wood furniture, and dramatically tiled baths. There's a Zen-like infinity pool, a top-flight spa, and a highly innovative restaurant serving fusion cuisine. The bar, set in a former oil mill, incorporates shimmering surfaces, theatrical lighting, and a DJ. The response to all this has been heartening: Majorcans and visitors from mainland Spain, as well as chic international travelers, have been flocking to Son Brull. "It will be a long process to reinvent Majorca," Suau says, "but it has begun."

Outside the cathedral of Palma one Saturday morning, tourists from Germany and England are everywhere. They languidly glance at the Gothic structure, which has a towering main altar by Antoni Gaudí. Then they turn to admire the souvenir shops and a mime who is painted green and pretending to be a statue. Inside, canvas tarps covering the walls of a chapel are being removed for a small group of invited guests, who watch with intense anticipation. These are friends of renowned artist and native son Miquel Barceló, who shows his vast neo-Expressionist paintings all over the world. Since 2001, he has been working on a massive ceramic relief, which will cover the entire expanse of the chapel walls. The images have the broad sweep of Michelangelo, the depth of Hieronymus Bosch, and the flourish of Marc Chagall, and they tell the story of creation as Barceló sees it—that the world was born on his native island. Indigenous plants give rise to loaves of bread. Sheep and pigs graze on Majorcan hills. Native fish and stingrays swarm the Mediterranean waters.

His assistants begin carefully spraying the mural with water, to remove the coat of dust that covers it. Suddenly, grapes and wine bottles glisten. Palm and almond trees come into strong relief. Within a year these images will cover every inch of the walls, and Barceló's stained-glass windows will flood the room with intense-hued light. Still, what is revealed now is stunning enough. His friends break into spontaneous applause. "It is like the creation of the world," one says.

Perhaps, when this chapel in this great cathedral opens to the public this year, it will help to inspire the ongoing re-creation of Majorca as well.

BOB MORRIS is a T+L contributing editor.