Travel diary // A Balearic adventure
Words and photography by Andrew Coles – all photos unedited, shot on 35mm film
‘Why don’t we go to Mallorca? It’s not as bad as you think it is…’
I could see exactly what my girlfriend was trying to do when suggesting a late summer island break. Yes, Mallorca has a bit of a reputation as a ‘Brits abroad’ party destination. But what my girlfriend wasn’t counting on is that as a keen cyclist, I knew that Mallorca is home to some of the best riding in Europe. And ever since watching Henry Catchpole’s brilliant YouTube film for Evo on driving the road to Cap de Formentor at dawn, I’d been desperate to visit. We needed a rental car, so I booked us a ‘BMW 1 Series or similar’ and that was that.
A few weeks later, signing the forms at Europcar’s Palma Mallorca Airport outlet, a wry grin crept across my face when our ‘1 Series or similar’ turned out to be exactly that. Now don’t get me wrong, a 116i isn’t quite what would keep you awake at night. But if a rental agency clerk hands you the keys to a manual, petrol engined, rear-wheel drive BMW and you can’t find a way for that to be fun, the problem isn’t with the car.
We’d booked accommodation in Cala Ratjada, and if I’m perfectly honest, those first few hours in Mallorca were a slight disappointment. The landscape was largely flat, the drive from the airport across the island on the Ma-15 which slices north-east was featureless, the 116i was proving to be doughy and dull and the town of Cala Ratjada was the exact package holiday tourist trap I was hoping to avoid. Not off to a good start.
Later that evening, things began to turn around with dinner at Es Coll d’ Os, a haven for local Mallorcan dining. In between all of the high-rise holiday apartments and the stumbling gents on stag weekends, down a small side road there sits an oasis in the desert, a family-run restaurant set in the original stone estate building that they’ve owned since 1526. There’s no menu as such, just a fixed price charge and the promise of four courses sourced from the family’s nearby farm. We’d been lucky to even get a reservation at such short notice, and it immediately proved the turning point of our trip.
Since this was my first visit to the largest Balearic island, I was yet to learn a crucial lesson: there are two Mallorcas. The first is the party destination, rows of faceless white apartments, overpriced and poorly made cocktails, endless racks of single-use plastic inflatable beach equipment and DJ Snake tracks getting lost in the distortion of cheap nightclub speakers. The second Majorca is harder to find, but it certainly exists. It can be found in the mountains, it’s a secret beach at the end of a dusty trail, some long-forgotten Roman ruins or a family-run restaurant. Es Coll d’ Os was the tip of the iceberg, and that little 116i was our key to discovering it all.
The key to the 116i, I learnt, was the Sport button. It doesn’t turn the car into an E46 CSL, but it noticeably sharpens the steering and throttle response to a point where it becomes fun. And hot-damn, was the little 116 about to get a workout.
Freshly caffeinated at the cycling-themed Sa Ruta Verda in Caimari, we enacted the rental-car race harness procedure (a sharp click of the belt to engage the pretension mechanism and then one notch forward on the seat slider to pull it tight across your shoulder) and departed for the spectacular Ma-2130 toward the monastery at Lluc. The road maps here look like you’ve asked a three-year old to draw a road – barely a straight for ten miles and endless switchbacks as the road ascends a craggy rockface. At Escorca, now on the Ma-10, the road flows as we dip and dive across the ridgeline, the impeccably smooth and narrow road providing endless challenge as we stoke the little 116 on, diligently trying to maintain what little speed we have, rowing constantly between second and third gears, fourth if we’re lucky. Only a layby with an expansive view over ragged cliffs and out to the Mediterranean causes us to momentarily pause.
We stop for tapas at Ca’N Topa at the summit of the Col de Soller, a road that bears more in common with a Swiss pass except for its proximity to some of the best beaches in Europe. We’d come to Mallorca in search of warmth and we’d found it, and we spent the stop hunting the web for the best hidden beach to while away the afternoon on. Setting the destination into Google Maps revealed that one just happened to be located at the end of another hour’s worth of sensational driving roads, right through the Tramuntana mountains on the island’s west coast.
Everyone has their idea of heaven on earth, but for me, it’s a little shingle beach called Cala Deia. Surrounded on all sides by rugged cliffs, its tepid waters shine brilliant blues and greens in the sun. Snorkelers explore hidden rockpools, teenagers dare each other to jump from the cliffs into the water and bronzed locals look on from the two restaurants, which are built into the rock, as they eat paella and sip vino blanco, conversing animatedly.
We luck a beachside table at the shabby chic Restaurante Ca’n Lluc, and order ourselves some vino blanco, which is far better than a two-euro glass of wine has any right to be. And it’s here, the keys to the panting 116 sitting on the table next to my prized Nikkormat 35mm camera, that it all begins to make sense.
Of course, nobody would argue that a rental BMW 116i shouldn’t kneel in deference to the famous BMW performance cars, and given roads like we’ve just had, it’s far from the perfect tool for the job. But I think people tend to gloss over the negative aspects of enthusiast car ownership, and for me, you can’t separate these from the total ownership experience.
We finished our wines, found a spot on the beach and floated about in the water for a few hours. The next day we got up before dawn and drove out to the famous Cap de Formentor for sunrise. The road is choked with tour busses during the day and its most remote two-thirds are closed to cars after 10am, but as the sky turned intense shades of purples and deep blues before the firey sun popped up from its ocean horizon, we had the famous dead-end access road to ourselves. Windows down, some soft music in the background, and a manual, rear-wheel drive BMW on a world-famous driving road.
It’s my life lesson that no matter where you find yourself in this world, there’s probably something interesting to see if you look hard enough. And if a rental car and a map is all it takes to discover something you haven’t yet seen, that’s probably a good deal.