It might have been Treasure Island or Mutiny on the Bounty that sparked my interest, but islands have always exerted a magnetic pull on me. Small. Romantic. Isolated. Surrounded by water. Their attraction is galvanic.
I first heard about the Balearic Islands when I was in college. Dots in the Mediterranean Sea, ruled successively by Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals, Moors, and Catalans. Spain, but not quite Spanish – Mallorquin. Exotic.
The archipelago has four major islands – Mallorca, the largest, with Minorca, Ibiza, and Formentera in descending order. My first visit was to Formentera a few years before its first hotel was built. Then, a windless sailing trip took me to Ibiza, the party island, where we repaired the blown engine that left us becalmed in Mediterranean shipping lanes at night. Mallorca was last in the sequence but not least in its appeal.
Despite a career in international aviation and years of independent travel, my wife M and I have seen a lot of the world, but it hasn’t dampened our curiosity or desire for more. For nearly two decades we took annual self-supported bike trips to Europe, but as we grew older (and slower) our approach to travel changed. Our richest experiences were always those closest to the ground – biking, walking, sitting in a sidewalk cafés – so in 2014 we altered our approach and began to pick destinations for extended stays. We wanted to experience living as locals. First in Paris, then Rome and Berlin. Two months each.
International travel can be overwhelming. Speed travel is exhausting. Cramming as many cities, museums, and monuments as possible into a short time diminishes the experience. Remember the film If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium? Probably not, but there’s a message in the title. Travel is enriching but, like chocolate mousse, whose dark flavor and creamy texture is more enjoyable in small portions, we think travel is better savored in small bites.
In 2018, a year and a half before the Covid-19 pandemic shutdown most elective travel, we settled on Mallorca as our next extended stay. Island life would be our next small bite.
Nevertheless, just before our flight touched down in Palma, we had a personal issue–a little rough patch to get over. Inbound, I learned that a Legends’ Cup tennis event was scheduled to begin the night of our arrival. I winced, knowing it would rankle if I asked M to spend her first night on Mallorca at a tennis tournament, but I couldn’t resist.
I knew it would stress test her generosity and patience – virtues she has in abundance but not unlimited supply. Of course she’d seen it all before. The French Open in Paris (2016). The Italian Open in Rome (2017) and the U.S. Open years before. But, none of them was on the first night of her vacation. None was on an island in the Mediterranean. And not one was…on her birthday.
“Are you kidding? Tennis? On our first night in Palma? Did you forget it’s my birthday?”
“I did. I mean no, I didn’t. But these guys are legends. Mats Wilander. Carlos Moya. Tim Henman. Tennis greats. All in Palma. All competing. There’s even a chance we might catch a glimpse of Nadal. It’ll be great. Up close and personal. On clay. Close enough to reach out and touch ’em. And it’s part of the local scene. I mean it’s Mallorca. Rafa and Moya are local heroes.”
“Amazing. What about my birthday?”
“We’ll do it up big tomorrow. I promise.”
“One night? Just one night? One night and one night only? Not the whole tournament, right?”
“Yup. I promise.” I was all in. She wasn’t, but she gave in. I don’t want to leave the wrong impression though. She is not long suffering and doesn’t suffer fools—me included—but she is forgiving and that counts for a lot. I knew it would cost me, but it would be worth it. Mea culpa.
On the advice of a friend, we had chosen a small ground floor apartment in Santa Catalina, a lively area neighborhood full of bars and restaurants just a short walk to the harbor, cathedral and city park. After checking in and getting settled that afternoon, we walked the short distance to the tennis stadium.
We watched the first two matches then took a break to stretch our legs and look for a snack. While I was in line for tapas and wine, M scouted for a place to sit. The tables near the refreshments tent were all occupied, but she spotted one with two empty seats and asked the couple seated there if we could share with them. They gestured yes, and by the time I showed up with the tapas M had them deep in conversation.
“Jack, say hello to Gisela and Nicolas. They’ve invited us to share their table. They live just across the street; in the building you can see behind Court One.”
I laughed and nodded. “Hi! Nice to meet you. Thanks for letting us share your table. I’m sure M has told you all about us? She’s very good at making friends.”
Sharing their table established a connection that was key to the success of our Mallorquin adventure. That’s generally how it goes when we travel. I find places, she makes friends, and it all works out. Our best travel memories almost always center on the people we encounter.
As we drank our wine and nibbled on tapas surrounded by fragrant bouganvilla, they gave us a quick rundown on themselves. Both had long careers in the hospitality sector. On Mallorca, Gisela was consulting for a hotel chain and Nicolas was General Manager for a high-end resort called Sa Torre. Those we discovered were the least interesting things about them.
Nicolas was born in Paris to a Russian émigré father and Swedish mother. He met Gisela, a Chilean, while they were both working in Sweden. There’s a lot to unpack in those two sentences. Global citizens to be sure. Our serendipitous meeting, another instance of how good fortune often follows when time and opportunity come together. The tennis match was never part of our vacation plan, but we leveraged it into something more. Two glasses of Rioja and a short conversation were all it took.
As we headed back to the match, Gisela told us they’d like to see us again so they could “share something very Mallorquin” with us. We exchanged phone numbers, and Gisela promised to be in touch.
In his 1953 memoir, Majorca Observed, the poet Robert Graves, wrote,
“I chose Majorca as my home because its climate had the reputation of being better than any other in Europe…. because it was large enough – some 1300 square miles – not to make me claustrophobic. Then, from all of Majorca I chose Deia, a small fishing and olive producing village on the mountainous north-west coast of the island… where I found everything I wanted as a background to my work as a writer: sun, sea, mountains, spring water, shady trees, no politics, and a few civilized luxuries such as electric light and a bus service to Palma, the capital.”
The morning following the tournament (and M’s birthday), we initiated a ritual we held to for the rest of our stay. Roll out of bed. Slip on shorts and T-shirts, and step next door to SIM-PLE, a “smart food” organic café,for lattes with a side of yoghurt and fresh fruit. English is the café’s lingua franca, but the air was full of Swedish, Dutch, and German voices blending with Castilian Spanish and the local Mallorquin dialect. We acclimate quickly, adjusting to differences, but with its polished concrete floor, exposed pipes and ducting, this small café could have been anywhere in the world, making those adjustments easy.
SIM-PLE’s baristas, Sergio and Miryam, welcomed us with smiles and a warm “Que tal?” each morning and when we finished, they sent us off with the same smiles and a “Que tengas un bonito dia.”
M and I love beaches, and after breakfast on any other island we’d be thinking of which one to go to, but Mallorca is different. It has stunning, secluded beaches too, but Palma, with nearly half a million residents, is a sophisticated urban center with upscale shopping, fine dining, and an historic cathedral. Miro, a Mallorquin native, and Picasso, a Catalan, have literally left their marks on the island’s mix of Roman, Gothic, Art Nouveau, and Modernist art and architecture. As Robert Graves noted, the island’s scale makes it appealing – not too small, not too large – every part of it easily accessible.
The island’s topography is a mix of mountains and plains. The best beaches are on the east side, where the flat plains run to the sea. The other side, the Serra de Tramuntana, is a spiky ridge of mountains running from its southwestern edge near Andratx to its northernmost tip at Port de Pollensa. Razor-like peaks, limestone cliffs, centuries old terraces, hidden coves, and eye-catching villages mark the route.
Our days on the island were spent taking those proverbial small bites, discovering little-known facts buried in its historical record and unique geography. Our small bites methodology was to pick one local highlight each day – a village, gallery, museum, market, restaurant, church – then let the day unfold. A bus ride up-country with the locals, an historic touchstone like Graves’ home in Deia, the Joan Miro Museum in Palma, or the Carthusian monastery in Valdemossa where Chopin and George Sand spent a miserable winter in 1838, followed by an al fresco lunch at a shaded table in the village and a bus ride back to Palma These were the small bites that made up our nearly perfect day trips.
Back in Palma, within a day or two of our meeting, Gisela called to invite us to their apartment. She wanted us to meet their son, Andreas, a younger version of themselves – born in Sweden, raised in Mallorca, studied in London, now working in Tanzania. When we arrived, spread out on the kitchen table was that “something very Mallorquin,” she’d mentioned as we were leaving the tennis match—a traditional fix-it-yourself dinner of – Pa Am Boli.
Artisan bread lightly toasted, brushed with extra virgin olive oil and rubbed with garlic. Salty dry-cured Iberian ham, sweet Ramallet (local) tomatoes, and slices of smooth young Manchego cheese. Sweet, tangy, savory, chewy, and spicy fragrant. The taste and scent of Spain washed down with a fruit forward Rioja red. As we sat around the table in their kitchen it was as if we had known them for years. We talked about jobs, hopes for our children, places we knew and loved, as well as things they thought we shouldn’t miss on the island. Such a generous and rich introduction to Mallorca.
During our Mallorquin holiday, we saw them several more times, including a day at Sa Torre where Nicolas walked us around the resort, treated us to an elegant English breakfast, and showed us where his guests enjoy luxurious gourmet dining, Swedish crystal, Italian linens, horses, golf, tennis, three swimming pools – even a 17th Century chapel.
Their generosity continued with suggestions of even more Mallorquin sites, foods, and restaurants, many of which we took in. We couldn’t begin to repay their hospitality but did take them to a lovely indoor/outdoor restaurant in the heart of the old city to share one last meal before our departure.
It’s been three years since our Mallorca adventure, but we continue to be in regular communication. Nicolas and Gisela are still in Palma, but Andreas is back in Tanzania, with a project that brings lighting to rural villages without electricity. Last year I put him in touch with a friend of mine who delivers medical and dental care in the same area, and they’re hoping to collaborate on a project in the future.
Like most serious travelers we work hard to shed our Seattle skins and adapt to the local culture. Mallorca had everything we were looking for—striking landscape, interesting people, unique culture, fragrant bougainvillea, and savory foods. But, arriving in Palma in 2018, we couldn’t have known that within a year Covid-19 would strike and disrupt elective travel.
Life is full of surprises and this one taught us to expect the unexpected. Because of our ages, M and I have finite travel horizons. We’re hoping to be back on the road for another extended stay later this year, but if we’re delayed we will still have the sites, smells, tastes, and Mallorquin friends who linger in the small bites we banked on our last stay.