In the first half of the 20th century, Mallorca was a relatively poor island, its inhabitants eking out a largely pastoral existence.
But the Balearics, which include Mallorca, Minorca, Ibiza and Formentera, boast some of the most stunning scenery in the world, especially the former, by far the biggest of the four main islands, which is home to mountainous terrain every bit as impressive as more celebrated Tuscany. It’s little wonder it once attracted an international set of artists, including the poet and author Robert Graves, who were inspired by the scenery as well as the affordable rent. At its peak there were just shy of 100 working artists on the island, mirroring nearby Ibiza and the not-so-distant art hubs along the mainland Spanish coast.
There are still a handful of artists there today – among them Arturo Rhodes, who painted an excellent series based on Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring – but most were priced out as the world began to recognise the value of the Balearics.
It wasn’t until the late 1950s, though, that mass tourism really kicked in, with Brits and Germans in particular flocking here in their millions, making the capital, Palma, home to among the busiest airports in the world. Like most islands within easy reach of the UK, Mallorca gradually set aside areas for budget travellers, the most famous of which is Magaluf, that infamous 18-30 destination, whose nadir came last summer when the story of an exploitative party spread across the world’s tabloid media. As a result, many people associate the island with drunk women called Barbra on a weekend break from Leeds drinking Lambrini from a shoe, rather than as a viable alternative to Europe’s most celebrated coastal destinations.
But it doesn’t need to be this way. Steer clear of the south-island resorts in favour of the smaller northern towns and you’ll find historic landscapes virtually free of tourism even during high season. I took a 40 minute-drive from the airport to the small mountainous town of Deia, a hub for Mallorca’s art community and among the island’s more exclusive locations.
The Belmond La Residencia hotel and restaurant – once owned by Richard Branson – is one of the last bastions of this art community, with an on-site gallery displaying both local and international works and gardens filled with sculptures; perfect for an afternoon in the sun drinking sangria and watching the sun trawl across the afternoon sky.
Deia is even good enough for James Bond-in-waiting Tom Hiddleston, with a scene in his recent series The Night Manager, an adaptation of a John Le Carré novel, being filmed in cliffside restaurant Ca’s Patro March, an idyllic grotto where you can eat fish plucked from the sea just hours before it reaches your plate. I ate so much fresh squid I dyed my lips a fetching shade of purple.
The best way to get to the restaurant is to swim from a yacht at sunset (mine was courtesy of Mezzo Magic), which will pick you up from the nearby harbour town and sail down the coast, stopping so you can explore submerged caves. Some entail diving a few metres under the jagged rocks into vivid-blue caves teeming with fish and anemones; fortune favours the brave here – they’re exceptionally beautiful if you dare to reach them.
In terms of accommodation, you can’t do better than the imperious Sa Quinta in Deia, perched atop a mountain on the rocky north west coast, with views taking in a series of villas owned by Andrew Lloyd Webber. A north-facing infinity pool looks down across the Tramuntana mountain range towards the coast, and is best accompanied by the sound of Bach drifting in from the nearby player piano. Watching the sun set from the terrace before taking a night swim in the spot-lit pool is a rare pleasure.
There are six double rooms, all with their own bathrooms, and, as it’s a private residence for half the year as opposed to a rental-only property, the decor is genuinely impressive, with chandeliers, a library in a converted courtyard and – I think – Regency period art on the walls.
You could quite easily stay in the villa for an entire week; its staff will cater for you during your stay and there’s an outdoor dining area with cooking and cocktail-making facilities, all, of course, overlooking the sea. If you do venture out, make sure you nominate a non-drinking driver as the winding route up the mountain is terrifying even when sober.
It’s set in acres of land, with olive and lemon trees, wild goats and a resident donkey whose brays sometimes puncture the silent evenings.
So if you’re planning on a late summer getaway but want to branch out from the usual luxury costal breaks of the Amalfi Coast, Tuscany, Dubrovnik or the south of France, bear in mind Mallorca, an island that’s so much more than Barbra and her sodden shoe.