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Experience Mallorca: beautiful weather, striking architecture, distinctive wine culture

OUTSIDE BANYALBUFAR, Mallorca

The road is so narrow that I have folded in the driver's side mirror to avoid scraping oncoming cars. We have been following, for minutes that seemed like hours, six or seven men on road bikes as they labored up the mountain, around an unending series of hairpin turns.

They will not move over.

We are four hours into a spectacularly scenic drive: ancient villages tucked into steep, terraced hillsides overlooking the Mediterranean, seaside hamlets built around sheltered coves. But right now, we are frustrated — by the bikers; by oncoming traffic that passes inches from our rental car; by tailgating locals who negotiate the curves far faster than I am willing; by the GPS that tells us that we are still 49 minutes from our hotel. A while ago, it said 48 minutes.

"Get around them,'' my wife orders. She assumes the bikers will move over if I start to pass.

I'm afraid to try. And there's no way of knowing if a car — or bus — is coming around the next hairpin.

"I can't.''

"Yes you can.'' She reaches over and blares the horn.

Eventually, we pass the bikers and make it back to our hotel, where we promptly dive into a wine bottle.

This was the worst day of our week in Mallorca — and one not to be missed. (More on this later.) Next time though, we'd take a tour bus.

•••

We are not experienced travelers, and Mallorca —an island in the Mediterranean off Spain's eastern coast — would not have been a candidate for our first trip to Europe. In fact, it's not a choice of many Americans: fewer than 30,000 visit annually.

But our friends down the street travel to the island often and invited us to visit. So, for one week in the fall, Safety Harbor may have been the best represented American city on the island.

Mallorca — about the size of Rhode Island — is the largest of the Balearic Islands, which comprise an autonomous region of Spain. Almost all of the 13.5-million annual visitors come from western Europe, with roughly half that number coming from Germany and Great Britain. They mostly come in summertime and mostly for the island's many beaches.

Of course, nice beaches may offer little allure to Tampa Bay residents who are an easy drive from our own sugar sand. But the island does provide the cosmopolitan pleasures of the capital city of Palma, a history that extends to before the Roman Empire, awesome landscapes, outstanding hiking, biking and other outdoor activities, striking architecture and a distinctive wine culture. Here are some highlights from our week in Mallorca.

We start out by train from Palma to Soller, a touristy sit-outside-and-drink-sangria village nestled in the Tramuntana mountain range that towers above the island's western shore.

Advice: Don't try to drive there unless you fancy negotiating the road's 57 hairpin turns — on a journey of just 18 miles.

We transfer to a tram (the cars are San Francisco trolleys from the 1930s) that runs down to Port de Soller, a harbor so pretty pictures fail do it justice. We're not interested in the beach or the touristy stores, and hike up a rocky trail to a restaurant with an expansive view of the port and the multi-hued Mediterranean, where we enjoy an al fresco lunch.

It is perfect: temperatures in the low 70s, good food, National Geographic quality view. Then Velcro on my wind breaker catches my camera strap. My almost-new point and shoot ends up at my feet. Busted.

ARE YOU KIDDING ME? On our first day in a picture taker's paradise?

My foul mood persists until the next morning when a sympathetic clerk back in Palma opens a camera shop early to sell me a replacement. Now, our visit to Port de Soller is known as the day we had a $250 lunch.

To the east of the Tramuntanas is a flat plain that is home to Mallorca's tiny wine industry. We and our friends discovered, separately, that people on tripadvisor.com highly rate a tour ( mallorcawinetours.com)of the area, so we sign up for what amounts to a full day.

The Panades brothers run the tour and own a finca (estate) they say has been in their family for more than 200 years. Gil Panades, driving a Mercedes SUV, picks us up in downtown Palma for the short drive to the first of several stops, the Jose Ferrer winery, one of Mallorca's oldest.

We sample three or four wines at each stop, accompanied by appropriate tapas. The tour is fun (and funny, the way Julian Panades conducts it), informative and far more detailed than what we have previously experienced in Napa and Sonoma.

We end up at the Panades' finca, where we feast on grilled, home-bred lamb, tomato and potatoes, accompanied by wine made from grapes grown right outside.

Perhaps because enjoying good food and wine with friends is one of life's great pleasures, this was probably our best day. And, suitably immersed in island culture, we drink nothing but Mallorcan wine (which we find less dry than typical Spanish reds, less fruity than California cabs) for the rest of our trip.

We make the hour's drive to the island's east coast, where we visit the Caves of Drach, sort of the Mallorcan version of Carlsbad Caverns. The limestone caves, just outside the seaside town of Porto Cristo, are dramatically lit. The one-hour tour ends with a floating violin concert on Europe's largest underground lake. (I found this a bit cheesy but seemed to be in the minority on that score.)

After enjoying lunch with a beautiful view along the Porto Cristo waterfront, we continue on to Alcudia, a main tourist destination on the island's northeastern coast.

The town is home to the 14th century Church of St. Jaume, encircled by a wall dating back to Roman times. Tourists crowd narrow streets stuffed with shops and restaurants.

The trip coincides with our 30th anniversary, and I've been on the lookout for a gift, something uniquely Mallorcan perhaps, for my wife. I notice her eyeing a wrap hanging outside a shop on a narrow back street. Our friends distract her while I hurry back to buy it. Only as the clerk is running my credit card do I think to ask:

''This was made here, yes?''

''No, Italy.''

We leave our friends in Palma and drive back into the Tramuntanas, to a hotel in Deia, a hamlet built into a steep valley facing the Mediterranean. From our balcony we can see the water and, on the high ground above, a 15th century church that is stunningly flood lit at night.

The next day, we embark on what turns out to be about four-hour hike — stopping often to take pictures — that takes us through narrow streets, past olive groves and down to the water, where my wife dips her toe into the Mediterranean.

In yet another example of how travel time does not equal distance in mountainous terrain, we never get more than a linear mile from the hotel.

The next day we took the scenic — and tense — drive described earlier. To be clear, the roads that drove me crazy were not main thoroughfares. Rather, they were secondary roads leading down (and up) hillsides to remote locales. I might even have enjoyed the challenge in my younger years. But this day's experience dissuaded us from driving to Cap de Formentor, a wind-swept Rock of Gibralter-like peak on the island's north coast ranked near the top of many ''must see'' lists for Mallorca.

On our final day we drive to Valldemossa, one of the most visited towns on the island.

The big attraction is the Royal Carthusian Monastery, which dates back to 1399. Today it is a complex that includes a church, an old pharmacy and, for scandal fans, a section devoted to the experience in Mallorca of the composer Frédéric Chopin and author George Sand, pseudonym of Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin, when they were lovers.

In 1838, the couple and her two children came to the island hoping the Mediterranean climate would be good for the composer's health. It turned out to be a bad winter.

Sand, who took a man's name, wore men's clothes and smoked cigars — allowing her access, as I understand it, to social venues not open to women. She later wrote the novel A Winter in Majorca, in which she trashed the climate, the food and the locals.

One assumes the hordes of tourists that crowd Valldemossa's streets have given Mallorcans ample cause to forgive her.

We were able to spend just a few hours in town before heading to the airport for the flight home. We wished we could have had more time, in Valldemossa and on the island generally.

October, when we visited, is traditionally Mallorca's offseason. But our friends say that seems to be changing. The weather — highs in the 60s and 70s, low humidity — makes it the perfect time to go to avoid summertime crowds.

Whenever you visit Mallorca, though, it's likely that none (or few) of your friends will be able to brag they've already been there.

.If you go

Mallorca

Getting there

Perhaps the easiest way to fly to Mallorca is via Lufthansa's new service from Tampa to Frankfurt, Germany, with easy connections to Palma de Mallorca Airport.

Baggage claim in Palma can be confusing for U.S. travelers. Pick up your bags at Belts 8 and 9, which are separated by a wall and narrow gate from the rest of the baggage claim area.

Cab fare from the airport to downtown Palma is 18 euros and change, or about $20.

Connections on the flight home may require a long layover. If you want to rest while you wait, several hotels are in easy (and inside) walking distance of Frankfurt Airport's Terminal 1.

Car rental

The usual companies, like Hertz and Budget, operate at the Palma de Mallorca Airport. Gas cost about 1.40 euros per liter, or about $6 a gallon.

The norm there is for cars to have a manual transmission. If you need an automatic, you'll need to specify that at booking.

Especially if you plan to tour Mallorca's rocky western coast, rent the smallest car you are comfortable with.

Dining

Restaurant prices are similar to what you'd expect at home. One surprise: Tipping is not expected on the island. Many restaurants don't open until 7 or even 8 p.m.

Many cater to outdoor dining.

Dress

Ultra informal. Men will not even need a sport coat.

Experience Mallorca: beautiful weather, striking architecture, distinctive wine culture 12/30/15 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 30, 2015 2:09pm]
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