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The Spain Nobody Knows : The four lovely Balearic Islands, from Greek-looking Ibiza to sophisticated Majorca, are still an insider's secret-and Mediterranean to the core.

April 25, 1993|Colman Andrews | Andrews' Books to Go column appears twice-monthly in Travel. and

PALMA, Majorca — Orchards full of almond trees blossoming gloriously in pink and white against gently sloping yellow hills; a broad white beach framed by tamarisk trees and pines beneath a white-hot sun; sheep browsing through a misty field of heather transected by low fieldstone walls. . . .

You might expect to encounter these scenes in three different countries, even on three different continents. But I've seen them all, within a few days of one another, on one small cluster of islands in the western Mediterranean--an offshore bit of Spain in archipelago form, about 50 miles from the mainland at their nearest point, known collectively as the Balearic Islands.

Not counting miscellaneous islets, there are four Balearics, each with a personality very much its own: Majorca (or Mallorca ), Minorca (or Menorca ), Ibiza (called Evissa in the local dialect) and Formentera.

Over the past decade, I've traveled frequently to three of the Balearics (I've never been to Formentera), and have come to find them irresistible. On Majorca, I've wandered through the narrow streets of old Palma surrounded by costumed folk dancers from a dozen countries, there for a festival but lending an eerie air of cultural dislocation to the city. I've seen Palma's pre-Lenten Carnival, too, with its dancing cigarettes and marching bands dressed like pigs and chickens. I've picnicked alongside prehistoric monuments on Minorca, and passed whole summer afternoons in cafes along the waterfront in Ibiza--once spotting ex-Warhol superstar Nico gliding by in a cornflower-blue dress. (She lived on the island, and later died there in a bicycling accident.) I've visited wineries and museums, strolled down busy promenades and hiked up mountain paths, discovered stunning seascape vistas and stopped to look at old wrought-iron door handles on ancient whitewashed houses. I've discovered a whole world here.

These islands are not, most emphatically, "Spain" in the usual touristic sense--the Spain of flamenco dancers, bullfights, huge crenelated castles and landmark collections of Goya and El Greco. But they're a vivid and easily accessible (if slightly out-of-the-way) reminder of Spain's great cultural and geographical breadth. And I would highly recommend them to anyone who enjoys beautiful, varied landscapes, the resonance of history and the sun and sea--anyone, in short, who enjoys the Mediterranean.

A week or 10 days divided between Majorca, Minorca and Ibiza would add up to a delightful, varied, intensely Mediterranean vacation. For the visitor who hasn't got that much time to devote to an area with no world-class museums and only a handful of Michelin-starred restaurants, three or four days on any one of the islands would add texture and depth to a visit to Spain.

But which one? It depends on what you're after. If you're looking for sheer hedonistic pleasure--a place to laze by the sea, ogle (or join) the undressed, eat some plain grilled fish and sip sharp, ice-cold white wine--Ibiza's your place. If you're attracted by the offbeat, the cross-cultural, the archeological, I refer you to Minorca. If you want a little bit of everything, from beaches to mountains to monuments to serious restaurants and more, head for Majorca--which, in any case, I'd recommend that you visit for at least a day even if you're headed for Ibiza or Minorca.

After Formentera the least known and most southerly of the four, Ibiza is the smallest of the Balearics, covering about 350 square miles. Like the Costa Brava, it is a place both lovely and brassy, both sublime and ridiculous. On one hand, it is arguably the Mediterranean's most famous (or notorious) party island. Here you'll find huge, frenetic discos, vast nude beaches (thoughtfully equipped with nude snack bars, which even the not particularly prudish may wish to avoid when they get crowded), nonstop beer gardens, even a marijuana-scented "hippy (sic) market." (However, the legendary Ku disco, a few miles outside of the town of Ibiza, where only the nerds showed up before 2 a.m. and where the proprietors sometimes had to turn on the fire sprinklers to clear the dance floor by, say, noon, closed last year.) Sleep, sun, eat and drink, sun, drink, eat, drink, dance, drink, couple, sleep--that's the typical summertime routine here, at least for the young (or would-be young) and uninhibited.

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