Visiting the Balearic island off-season reveals the island’s quieter side, perfect for a balanced break of fitness and indulgence
By Will Hide.
‘There are fewer tourists. It’s warm enough for short sleeves, the roads are empty and island life returns to its gentle rhythm,’ says 10-year resident Deirdre O’Connor.
On a warm winter’s day in Port de Soller, the seafront promenade was an equal mix of hiking trousers and beach gear, even first thing in the morning. As the sun came up over the jagged Tramuntana Mountains, its rays advanced across the seaside town and the horseshoe-shaped bay guarded by two lighthouses.
Modest yachts bobbed on the water, early-morning dog walkers and joggers ambled along the sand. Germans in cafés heaped bread onto their plates, cautiously eyeing their fellow British diners who were ladling baked beans onto theirs. A rhythmic clack-clack-clack turned out to be the noise of poles on tarmac as the first group of walkers headed out of the town and up onto the limestone paths.
Weather anywhere in the Med in the off-season can be a gamble, but, as I discovered late last year in Mallorca, even the shorter days can still mean T-shirt temperatures. It’s not the obvious time to travel to the Balearics – reduced airline schedules, fewer bus services – but everywhere is delightfully less crowded, with ample space to park your car and no worries about bagging a table at restaurants (even if some of them do take a short, post-festive break). After a frenetic summer, the island collectively leans back, lets out a sigh and loosens its belt a notch or two.
For those of us who have an aversion to Lycra sportswear but still want a break where we reach our 10,000 steps a day, there is hope. Mallorcan hotels are extending their season to accommodate those who want to hike, bike, swim or play tennis while not denying themselves a glass or two of local wine along the way.
“I would argue that winter and spring show Mallorca at its best,” says Deirdre O’Connor, a 10-year resident, who helped organise my trip and originally set up her company, MallorcanTonic, to promote the island year-round. “There are fewer tourists. It’s warm enough for short sleeves, the roads are empty and island life returns to its gentle rhythm.”
Olive oil is still made at the Finca Ca’n Beneït hotel each year in the on-site 19th-century press
Certainly, things got off to a good start in Palma, the capital, where I hired a bike to cycle along the seafront towards Es Portixol, pausing to get some vitamin D on the beach at Ca’n Pere Antoni. Back in the centre I parked up and wandered the streets of the old town, window shopping on chic Paseo del Born and seeking out hazelnut ice cream and apricot ensaïmada pastries (a kind of brioche made with pork fat) at Ca’n Joan de s’Aigo, a tiled and chandeliered café founded in 1700.
I toured the cathedral – supposedly facing Mecca, as it was built on a former mosque – before a balmy-evening dinner on the terrace at De Tokio a Lima (00 34 871 592 002; detokioalima.com). “You absolutely have to get the shrimp fritters,” said a man at the table next to mine, hearing my discussions with the waiter. He was right.
Many hotels in Palma traditionally close for winter but this year more northern Europeans are visiting off-season and an estimated 80 per cent of the city’s properties will remain open or have a shorter closure period, including the highly recommendable El Llorenç hotel (from £183), just a 10-minute walk from the cathedral. The next morning, I drove 45 minutes north to Finca Ca’n Beneït (from £178). Set near the pretty hamlet of Binibona, and a far cry from the scrape of sun-loungers in Magaluf and Paguera, this 10 bedroom property would be my home for a few days.
Renovated last year and open throughout the winter, it is the sort of place you can imagine having a centre spread in a glossy design mag, and it made a relaxing base for pool-side reading, after lazy breakfasts on the terrace with the sound of donkey bells tinkling in the distance. Olive oil is still made here each year in the on-site 19th-century press, just along from the small spa, yoga lawn and sauna.
It is perfectly placed for hikes, too, should you want to clock up those steps. Lasting anywhere from a few hours to a full day (with a picnic stop, of course), several routes start here at Finca C’an Beneït. The more gung-ho can run up into the woodlands that spread up the mountains, but I took one of the e-bikes available for hire (regular bikes also available for those who want to exercise their legs properly) and headed off along quiet roads backed by dry-stone walls and sheep-filled fields, through the village of Campanet to the church of Sant Miquel.
The El Llorenç hotel in Palma
I was alone apart from a rather forlorn-looking Dutchman who had also arrived by bicycle. “There used to be a rather nice café here,” he told me, hungrily. “I guess the pandemic did it in.” But maybe it had just closed until March. I headed back, setting my bike’s power to “turbo” while contemplating the fact that there is nothing more satisfying for a mid-50s e-biker than a cheery wave and a “Guten tag” as you cruise past a peloton of huffing, Lycra-clad German cyclists snaking up a hill.
There was more fashionable spandex on show the following day at the Rafa Nadal Tennis and Padel Academy in Mallorca’s second-largest town, Manacor. Here anyone can pre-book lessons with a pro. You are not guaranteed to see the great man himself, who was actually born in Manacor, although the buzzy complex – complete with a hotel, gym, restaurants, museum and around 50 courts – is overseen by Rafa’s uncle Toni.
“Rafa’s knees are a bit dodgy these days and he’s just had a baby,” I overheard one mother say to another as they tucked into their post-game Aperol Spritzes, explaining his absence. (As it happens, the Spaniard went down fighting, losing 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 against the unseeded American Mackenzie McDonald at the Australian Open in Melbourne last month.)
Eschewing the tennis, I decided to give padel a go instead. Invented in Mexico in the 1960s, it is a cross between short-court tennis and squash, played in a foursome. Padel’s popularity is rising: you can now find courts at the Six Senses in London and Gleneagles in Perthshire, and in Britain it’s governed by the Lawn Tennis Association. Here in Spain, amazingly, it is the second-most popular sport after football.
‘I really like padel because it’s a social sport, anybody can play it,’ says my instructor Guillem Vives.
My instructor Guillem Vives seemed rather unimpressed that I didn’t have the foggiest what to do. But, over an hour, he explained the basics, which includes serving underarm and allowing the ball to bounce off the back wall before trying to hammer it over the net.
“I really like padel because it’s a social sport, anybody can play it,” the 30-year-old told me as the sun beat down. “Even if you are a beginner you can enjoy it. And it’s certainly good for fitness.” I found it pleasantly addictive, and I certainly built up a sweat.
I thought I had justified dessert by the sea in Port de Sóller that evening. A man sat on the sea wall playing the guitar while I dined in a seafront restaurant. I enjoyed the locally caught fish, eavesdropping on the dating-related conversation of three young English women at the table next to mine. Men, we did not come out of it well.
It is definitely a buzzy place for dining out. Es Canyis (00 34 971 631 406) is a relaxed, family-run restaurant which opens its doors for the season in March, but if you want something a bit trendier, Can Karlito comes recommended by my local expat friend Tim, and is a fun Swedish-Mallorcan venture in Sóller, where patatas bravas meets smoked salmon. For a hotel right by the sea, with views over the crescent bay, try the trendily named Pure Salt (from £116), which reopens on February 17.
Will joins Kiwi expat Michelle Holland from Tramuntana Tours for a guided coastal walk.
The next morning, I joined Kiwi expat Michelle Holland from Tramuntana Tours for a guided walk skirting the coast from Port de Sóller to Deià – a small stretch of the multi-day GR221 route, which runs like a spine along the island’s north-western edge. There were plenty of other hikers about, both young and old, as we roved over the hills at a leisurely pace. Every so often we would stop for coffee, to photograph gentians and orchids and to pat donkeys’ noses.
“There are a number of benefits to walking at this time of year,” said Michelle as we picked our way uphill. “It is quieter on the paths, the weather is obviously not so hot and also it is just less hassle to be able to park at the trailhead car parks.”
This is a lovely walk, but I really like the Archduke’s Trail around Valldemossa because of its history. It is only about nine miles in total, but you are well in the mountains so you get beautiful views. We covered about six miles before we finally dropped down into the beautiful village of Deià, where we said our goodbyes.
On a previous visit I had dined on the terrace of Café Miró at Belmond La Residencia (I heartily recommend the Balearic cheeses, Iberian cold cuts, stuffed olives, anchovies, grilled asparagus in orange sauce, sea bass and local cheesecake) but this five-star restaurant is one of the properties that pauses over the winter and doesn’t reopen until March 17.
No chance this time to people-watch the usual mix of guests lolling around its numerous pools in their Vilebrequins as if auditioning for the third series of The White Lotus.
So I tucked into a wine-fuelled lunch elsewhere, having earned myself a few holiday treats after a morning’s activity and breaking into a light sweat. I caught a bus back to my hotel and flopped on my terrace. The clack-clack-clack of walking poles was soon drowned out by the low rumble of a certain middle-aged man snoring softly with a novel over his face to ward off the warm afternoon sun.
Will Hide was a guest of Mallorcan Tonic, which offers information and discounts on hotels booked via its website.
British Airways Holidays offers flights to Palma from Gatwick and seven days’ car hire from £249pp (based on two travelling).
For more information, see newsmallorca.com