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TRAVELING IN STYLE : La Residencia: It's No Place Like Home : This extraordinary hideaway in the craggy mountains of northwestern Majorca traces its lineage to the 16th Century

October 21, 1990|COLMAN ANDREWS | Andrews is the author of "Catalan Cuisine" (Atheneum; $24.95) and writes the Restaurant Notebook column in The Times.


You awaken to a blur of bird song and a sigh of still-cool mountain air through slanting shutters. You stretch and yawn in a big bed with an inlaid hardwood headboard, opening your eyes slowly to fresh-white walls and beamed ceilings, red-tile floors and dark antiques.

Eventually, at an easy pace, you find your way downstairs to a shaded stone terrace where subdued waiters are calmly serving breakfast. You sink into an oversize wicker armchair and find yourself almost immediately addressing a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice, a pot of good coffee, a boiled farmhouse egg and a basket of delicious bread and local pastries. Across the broad lawn below, nestled in a cradle of green, terraced hills, are clusters of tile-roofed field-stone houses and--above them--a gray-rock bluff set against the Mediterranean sky. There is a smell of mock orange and, faintly, of the damp smoke that rises in a thick plume behind one house--a gardener burning off just-cut long grass. In the distance you can hear the sour bleating of sheep. It occurs to you that there is really no good reason to move from where you sit--maybe ever.

La Residencia is an extraordinary hideaway hotel in the craggy mountains of northwestern Majorca, a beautiful island in the western Mediterranean, 150 miles or so out from Valencia. About 1,400 square miles, Majorca is an island of contrasts: high-gloss tourist beaches and secret rocky coves or calas ; severe cliffs and rolling hills; well-ordered almond orchards and shaggy woods of oak and juniper; busy, brassy Palma, the island's seaport capital, and storybook municipalities such as Deya, home to La Residencia.

The hotel is a typical old Majorcan mansion, or rather a little compound of two mansions--one of them said to date from the 16th Century--plus a third building in the same style but dating from 1989. The lobby is a cool salon with stone floors, the reception desk a big oak table. The extensive public spaces, indoors and out, meander and turn, sometimes hiding just out of sight as they might in a rambling private home. The furnishings are mostly antiques, and there is art (of varying quality, it must be admitted) on nearly every wall. There is also a small display of exquisite, limited-edition books by Thomas Graves (son of English poet, novelist and critic Robert Graves, who died here in 1985), a master printer who still lives in Deya.

Germany and England have in a sense collaborated to create La Residencia, for the hotel is owned by a group of German and English investors. One of these is high-profile English entrepreneur Richard Branson, founder and chairman of the Virgin Group PLC--which began as a mail-order phonograph-record outlet in 1969 and is now a multimillion-dollar business empire encompassing more than 100 companies in the entertainment, travel (Virgin Airways), publishing and retail fields.

He got involved with La Residencia, the 38-year-old Branson says, "because when I was 18, I met a woman called Kristen and we fell in love and got married. Then, four years later, she fell in love with someone else, so we divorced and she went off to live with him in Majorca. We remained friends, though, and one day several years ago she called me to ask if I would like to be associated with a hotel project she was working on with the man who is now her husband, a German named Axel Ball. Because Kristen is very artistic and has great taste, I knew that she would do this kind of thing superbly well, so I agreed. We joined forces again, this time on a business basis, and La Residencia was the result." The group plans other similar projects, Branson says, and has already purchased a property to develop on the Greek island of Hydra.


Having stirred at last from the wicker armchair, you stroll up smooth stone steps toward the swimming pool, trying to identify all the trees and shrubs and flowers that crowd the grounds along the way--eucalyptus, for instance, cypresses, and fig, carob, lemon and orange trees, lilacs, gnarled old olive trees, flame-bright bougainvillea, hibiscus, bamboo, hydrangeas, the mock orange with a fragrance that haunts the air, grapevines, rows of high, thick rosemary, jade plants, geraniums, irises, roses, incandescent blue cornflowers.

Settling onto a solid chaise lounge next to the pool (105 feet long), you notice how the mountains wrap around, enclosing you in a natural amphitheater of high stone, isolating you, comforting you. You hear new sounds--a church bell, the rustling of palm fronds, the faint lilt of jazz from a little speaker at the outdoor restaurant-bar overlooking the pool. A couple talks in low, warm tones. A goddess dives into the pool.

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