Little Island, Big Island

Photo of Palma, the capital city of an island in the Mediterranean sea showing the expanse of buildings and the marina with many boats

With the sand and dirt of Menorca barely knocked off our hiking shoes, we convinced our good friend Patti to join us on a “puddle jumper” flight to visit its closest neighbor, the island of Mallorca. Just 26 miles separate the two dollops of land, snug in the crystal clear waters of the Mediterranean sea, and on a clear, calm day one might imagine kayaking or sailing between the shores. But in terms of temperament the two islands are worlds apart.

The flight route from Barcelona to Mallorca’s capital city took us over a high, jagged mountain range shrouded in clouds that hung like a loose scarf over the western shoulder of the island. Beyond lay a wide, fertile, agricultural zone stretching towards the southern coast and the unexpectedly large urban sprawl of Palma. We could tell, even from the vantage point of 20,000 feet above, that Mallorca was going to be much more of everything than her diminutive neighbor, Menorca.

While it is true that Mahon, Menorca’s biggest city, has one of the longest deep water ports in the world, the port area of Palma vastly outsizes Mahon in every other way. Mega-yachts, 14-story cruise ships, clipper ships, vintage-style windjammers, and pleasure crafts of all types crowd the port and feel like a floating city unto themselves. We spent some time wandering around the waterfront of Palma gawping at the opulence and unabashed display of wealth. One yacht, not even among the largest, had a helicopter on its deck!

In other ways, Palma also differs from Mahon. It may have been the difference between mid-March and mid-April, but Palma was bustling with tourists. Crowds of people lined up to tour the massive cathedral, which claims to have the largest stained glass rose window of any Gothic cathedral in all of Europe. Take that Chartres and Westminster Abbey! Walking around the shops and open markets, we heard more Germanic languages than Spanish, as Mallorca is a popular destination for German and Dutch tourists and we seem to have caught the school vacation week for people from these northern countries. There are horse-drawn carriages for hire, wide pedestrian boulevards lined with tourist shops, and numerous museums, churches, palaces, forts and, of course, a castle. 

Perhaps because of our recent experience on the small island, we were surprised to find multi-lane highways, urban traffic, big-box stores, and theme parks like “Water World” around and beyond Palma. That said, we were able to drive anywhere on the island from our accommodations in under 90 minutes and we took full advantage of that by exploring pretty much every corner of the island as well as some of its peaks.

Photo of Al and Rachel perched on large, jumbled boulders overlooking a far-off valley with wispy clouds against a bright blue sky.

There is no doubt that Mallorca has bragging rights over Menorca when it comes to hiking. The Serra de Tramuntana mountain range has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site and is home to numerous 4000+ foot mountains. It is craggy, rugged, wild, and criss-crossed with amazing trails. This past winter a once-in-a-century storm out of the east passed right over flat, little Menorca and then proceeded to dump upwards of 15 feet of snow on the cloud-catching mountains of Mallorca. The storm shut down the island for days and trail restoration was still ongoing when we got there more than a month after the fact. One gentleman, selling entrance to a hike on private land, described to us his harrowing, just-in-time escape from his ticket booth with the snow mounting rapidly, and then days later returning to his booth to find snow up to its roof.  

photo of a man climbing up a steep grade of gray boulders.

We decided to front-load our week with the hardest hike first, so on day one we set out for a 10.5-mile loop with an elevation gain of 3,600 feet to the highest accessible peak. Reviewers describe the route as, “A difficult scramble in places” and “prepare for some bouldering for the final ascent” and “no switchbacks, a straight shot up”. I admit there were times I emulated the nearby mountain goats and used all four limbs to make my way up the mountain. At one point we nearly met our end when we lost the trail and found ourselves peering over the edge of a steep canyon, at the bottom of which we could just make out the restaurant where we had left our car parked many hours earlier. Tiring? You betcha. Worth it? 100% yes. The views across the mountains to the sparkling sea, the fresh air and goofy bleating goats, and our sense of accomplishment when we finally closed the loop all made for a spectacular day and a well-earned beer (or two) back at our condo.

Photo of an informal shrine inside a stone cave carved from the rock with crude tools. The shrine has small pictures, a notebook, bible and handwritten cards scattered about on the rock.

We managed to hike every day, including squeezing in a beautiful coastal walk before heading back to the airport on our final day. The weather cooperated with perfect temperatures, clear blue skies, and cooling breezes. Even in Palma we climbed up to the fort overlooking the city. It is perched about two miles outside the city center and supposedly you climb 500 steps to ascend the last bit. I could not be bothered to count as I was focused on just breathing. My favorite hike of the week was the Camí de s’Arxiduc (the Archduke’s trail) which took us up switchbacks through a lovely pine forest, beyond an abandoned hermit’s compound complete with an impromptu, current-day shrine, along the ridge of a mountain that skirted above the coast 3100 feet below, and back down past steeply terraced farmland.

Mallorca is peppered with towns and villages, in much the same way as Menorca. Both islands have sweet little, white-washed communities that climb the hillsides over tranquil coves. Both islands boast hundreds of beaches with enough variety to appeal to any visitor. We found that the beaches of Mallorca were, in general, more crowded and offered more amenities than the beaches on Menorca. Nude and topless sunbathing are the norm throughout the island but I do wonder how much of that is non-Spanish visitors versus local residents.

photo of an island cove on an island in the Mediterranean showing aquamarine water against white cliffs capped by green trees.

Perhaps I missed it but unlike on Menorca, where the locals’ pride in their cheese and gin is fully evident even in the off-season, I did not get a sense that Mallorca specializes in any particular gastronomic delight. There are certainly more dining options on the bigger island—we enjoyed fresh poke bowls in Palma for example—but it seems that much of the fresh food at the markets has been imported from the mainland and has prices that reflect the distance traveled.

After just a few days on the small island of Menorca, Al turned to me and said, “If we had started our time in Spain here, I would have advocated that we settle here.” There was something about the unpretentious small-town vibe, the peaceful countryside, the ability to be on a gorgeous beach completely undisturbed, that was magnetic. As wonderful as our time was on Mallorca, neither of us had the same sense that we would want to live there. Too many tourists, too much traffic… just too much. In a perfect world, I would move the mountains of Mallorca to Menorca and happily call it home. Especially if I could take the yacht with the helicopter too. 

Photo of hills sloping toward aquamarine sea water with exposed rocks and vibrant green vegetation. A seaside town is off in the distance.

13 thoughts on “Little Island, Big Island

  1. April Holland says:

    Just have to acknowledge, “Clouds that hung like a loose scarf over the western shoulder of the island.” This old English teacher’s heart sings!


    1. Rachel says:

      Aww! That is such high praise from an educator with very high standards who, I am certain, brought out the best in her students. But, I would argue that you are more a “former” English teacher than an “old” one. If joie de vivre is any measure of age you are 21.


    2. Les says:

      April and Rachel, y todo el mundo,
      I too, liked the shawl metaphor and was equally satiated by “dollops floating on the blue sea”. Yum yum, what a marvelous journey.
      Thanks to all for these writings and your comments.


  2. Lane Klein says:

    I love that you are much more than a superficial tourist. Your descriptions of hikes entice even this 83year old (today’s my birthday!) to follow you up and down the trails. Write on – I’m with you step-by-step.


  3. Carole Greiff says:

    I do enjoyed your comparing the two islands and hiking comments are awesome…tired just from the read. Keep your journal coming. Thanks Carole


    1. Rachel says:

      A poke (pronounced poe-kay) bowl is a typically a bed of rice with raw fish or tofu or other protein, and some vegetables. It’s basically a healthy, fast-food, rice bowl.


      1. Luis Cosme says:

        Thanks! I think for a long time there was an a large ad by the Sitges Renfe station about Poke bowls but I never paid any attention to it since it was a Redbar (?) ad.


  4. Leslie Beatty says:

    Another lovely (in more ways than one) piece on your and Al’s jaunt on Mallorca. I can’t wait to hear about your next discovery.


  5. Rob Race says:

    Given your negotiating skills, I am truly surprised you couldn’t figure out how to get on the yacht and get a ride in the helicopter!

    Thanks for continuing to share the travel adventures!


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