In the lush light of sunrise, I walk to the bow of the sailing yacht to scan the Mediterranean. We’re gliding through the expanse of water silently, a moving island alone in this world. The wind has been carrying us south from Spain’s coast, where a statue of Christopher Columbus in the port city of Barcelona marks the quest for new discoveries by sea. The past night was just as serene as this morning; our captain never used the motor on this 290-foot vessel, Le Ponant, keeping the sails billowing. In our private stateroom, my photographer husband and I wound down from the bustle of Barcelona and slept to the natural rhythms of this sea. Even now, as the handful of other passengers begins to rustle below deck, I hold onto that serenity, hearing almost nothing above the light flapping of the sails and the lapping of the waves. I want to lose myself in the water — dive in, watch my arms and legs become a moving alabaster statue in what looks like clear blown glass. The color is not just green or blue, indigo or gray; it can only be called Mediterranean.
And then I see it, much as the ancient mariners did: the promise of land on the forward horizon, the jutted outline fading in and out through the morning haze. I watch, conscious of that primal experience of approaching land by boat and simply excited about what comes next. The outline takes shape, forming a majestic mountain range. On the northwest side of Mallorca, the lofty peaks of the Serra de Tramuntana serve as nautical signposts for this island, the showpiece of the western Mediterranean. This is why we’ve traveled so far from our California home.
But I’m surprised to find I’m not ready to see it yet. When we had planned this voyage with the Tauck cruise company, Mallorca stood out, as it does for any island traveler. Millions of people cross the sea each year to explore and enjoy this island’s centuries’ worth of cathedrals, castles, beaches, mountains, markets and more. After Mallorca, Tauck’s itinerary graciously gave equal attention to a stop at Menorca — the definition of a little-sister island — which is rarely a destination by itself. Instead, it’s often treated as the much smaller , much flatter, less historic also-ran you might bump into if you can tear yourself away from Mallorca. Yet on this cruise, I was about to discover what Menorca can do much better than Mallorca — or almost any other island.
First, though, I hear the anchor drop and splash. Captain Régis Daumesnil has stopped us short of Mallorca’s westernmost point, in the bay just off the deserted islet of Dragonera. Only the gulls are visiting here. Many of the 20 couples aboard start preparing for what’s on our itinerary: an eventual docking at Palma de Mallorca, the capital city of Spain’s Balearic Islands, of which the 1,400-square-mile Mallorca is the largest. We enjoy an alfresco breakfast of fresh fruits, homemade breads and steaming cafès, courtesy of onboard chef Francis Itoumbou. Then I make my way back to the stern to do exactly what I wanted while standing at the bow: I jump.
Reality meets fantasy as I slide through the water. A very narrow continental shelf drops to a deep basin of liquid that offers the richest hues yet. A seaside village to the east is the only human outpost on this part of the Mallorcan shore. To the west is the ferry route that arcs around this point and then turns like a backward “J” into the Bay of Palma and the vibrant port city. Le Ponant is about to trace the route, too. I take a moment, maybe two … maybe three … then climb back aboard.
Typical cruise ships dock in Palma’s pier-lined harbor, releasing busloads of people who spread across the island — the latest development in a long history of human migrations. For an estimated 2,600 years, waves of humanity have come to the Balearics and Mallorca, from the prehistoric Talayotic people , who created distinctive pottery, to the Romans and Vandals who swept across with conquering raids, to Muslim farmers who lined the dry fields with water wheels and windmills. Sites on Mallorca have been built upon, leveled and built upon again and again like the geologic layers of the soaring cliffs.
As we slide into our mooring, the vibrancy of Palma and its 400,000 people is everywhere I look. On one side of the city is the 14th-century, circular Bellver Castle, perched protectively on a 400-foot-high hill above the harbor. To the other side is the famed Palma Cathedral — known locally by the Catalan nickname, La Seu, which rises above the ancient city walls and palm-lined streets of the waterfront. It seems epic in every way. And in between, possibilities and hotels and museums and restaurants stretch in all directions along the city streets and up and over the hills.
The walk from the dock to the cathedral is a short one. Outside La Seu, I see the moat of the Parc de la Mar at the base of the walls and notice in the water how the staggering scale of the spires softens and shimmers. It’s another moment of calm before my mind fills with the history of the place. As the chronology goes, Catalan conquerors 800 years ago were sailing from the Spanish mainland to Mallorca when a powerful storm hit. Their leader vowed that if God spared them, he would erect a temple. The Catalans made it to the island, found the site of a Muslim mosque and built a cathedral on it. Four hundred years ago, it was offi cially fi nished, though changes seem constant. If there is one place that represents how cultures and centuries collide on Mallorca, the cathedral is it.
In the overwhelmingly vast interior, bathed in the rosy light of nearly 100 stained glass windows, we take in some of what’s been added in the past 100 years. Over the altar is a canopy that architect Antoni Gaudí designed as part of contributions he made from 1904 to 1914. In one chapel, a terra cotta tableau offi cially unveiled in 2007 shows the miracle of turning water into wine. That work rises up the walls, the fish in relief, meeting me eye-to-eye. I feel again like I’ve plunged underwater.
Just as I try to follow all the historic tracks at work in the cathedral, we move out into the surrounding Gothic Quarter, itself a lively labyrinth. Gargoyles on plaster, tile and stone façades wink at me. Green shutters are closed to keep warm air from entering the cooled houses. Foot-polished cobblestones glimmer in the afternoon sun as we stop for an helado almendra — homemade almond ice cream . We peek into several cafes and shady patios at street level. The enclosed, flower-filled courtyards create little oases apart from the thrum of the city. Without the time on this day to go too far afield, we circle back to the harbor via the city-wall walkway. There, near La Seu, we hear musicians doing a sound check for an evening open-air concert. Once named “the island of calm,” Mallorca actually shares the dynamic excitement of Barcelona, though on a smaller scale. I do love it, but I realize I can’t wait to relax back at sea on our ship, gazing out from the deck again.
On our own, though, my husband and I feel we have to squeeze in more of Mallorca’s sights. With Palma like the center of a splash in water, the ripples roll outward, becoming calmer the farther you go. A drive to the northern coast leads to the enchanting village of Valldemosa. There we visit the monastery where Chopin wintered and wrote sonatas, including the Raindrop prelude. In a tiny chapel I listen to a pianist play this piece. It gives me shivers. A young boy, maybe 10 years old, walks in and sits right in the front row. He seems transfixed, his small hands fluttering on the seat beside him as if he’s playing along.
Farther along the Tramuntana range is the town of Sóller. A wooden train from Palma ends at a station here, which itself is a museum exhibiting artwork by Picasso and etchings by Miró. From the station, a tram traces a scenic route to the small bay of Port de Sóller. The mountains we attempt to navigate on our own, driving the precarious road that crawls around and through the rocks and descends to the secret beach of Torrent de Parlos. There, a river has carved its own path to the coast, opening up a pebbled beach. We swim alongside fellow adventurers as mountain goats hop the cliffs above us.
Exhausted, we still have not seen all of Mallorca’s wonders. But returning to the Tauck cruise itinerary, we will soon check off Menorca. Unlike the crossing from Barcelona, this next leg is hardly worth the time to unfurl the sails. After all, Menorca, which the Romans named “the little one,” is only about 25 miles away as the Balearic shearwater flies. Our ship, fortunately, takes the scenic route, and I become attuned to the gentle rhythms of the Mediterranean again. We leave the Bay of Palma and make an exceptionally wide turn around the southern point of Mallorca. That takes us past another green islet, Cabrera, home of a national park. From there we enjoy the view of the sea, stretching quietly to the horizon. Before I’ve sorted the memories of Mallorca in my mind’s photo album, Menorca comes into view. As we enter the harbor, it’s clear this will be a much different experience.
Le Ponant draws close to land at the eastern peninsula of La Mola, the first spot in Spain to greet the morning sun. The history here is layered but in a much subtler way than on Mallorca. The Spanish Fortress of Isabel II stands guard on the flat peninsula, with simple geometric lines defi ning its architecture. It dates back “only” to the mid-19th century. British and French forces have come through here, but they didn’t leave as much to show for it.
We continue on; this three-mile harbor is more like a river leading to the town of Mahón. Captain Régis tells me it’s one of the world’s largest natural harbors, and it’s one of the reasons the island has attracted mariners for centuries. Yet unlike Mallorca, cultures didn’t take root as well on Menorca. In fact, the entire island is covered not with that same vibrant cacophony of lively history, but with its ruins. More than 1,500 archaeological sites are sprinkled across this flat island, out in the open and often easy to ramble through. Taluas, ancient stone slabs that once supported long-disappeared buildings, now look like upright capital T’s. The island itself can seem much like one of these slabs, somehow afloat on its own.
And yet, as we step off in Mahón, Menorca’s color starts to appear. We find the Mercat, the shaded, historic cloister that now abounds with fresh fruits, cheeses and vegetables. I sample some locally crafted cheese called Mahón and sink my teeth into a ruby-red tomato I’ve smashed onto oven-warm bread, or pa amb oli. Strolling through the town, I’m enchanted by the hand-crocheted white lace curtains that adorn windows of shops and homes in a variety of patterns. In a boutique along the main pedestrian walkway, I choose a hand-embroidered shift as a memento of Menorcan lacework. The people here appreciate our visit, taking pride in their art, their food and the work they’re sharing with us.
Menorca does have large fields and homesteads, but it’s hard to cultivate this dry land. For millennia, farmers have painstakingly cleared the rock-strewn soil by making drystone walls that form a network of plots and pastures. These walls seem to stretch farther than you’d expect on an island that’s just 32 miles long by 9 wide. Their work made it possible to grow wheat and raise cattle, sheep and pigs on an island where hard-working days give way to early nights. Unlike Mallorca, to me Menorca seems sound asleep when the sun sets. From December to February it goes into winter hibernation. In the summer, we’re catching it at its liveliest.
I felt rushed on Mallorca, but Menorca is generous with time. It’s mellow, provincial. On Mallorca, bicycling is a serious quest to master one mountainous spine after another; on Menorca, it’s more of a picnic-basket-and-straw-hat sojourn on a bicycle squeaking by on one slow gear. The town of Mahón soon gives way to the countryside and to the Talatí de Dalt, ruins of an ancient Tatalyotic settlement. Archaeologists estimate 100 people lived here sometime in the third century. In the time since, no one — neither imperial kings nor ambitious hoteliers — have overtaken these grounds. It’s as quiet today as it was centuries ago. The peace here reminds me of that feeling I had the morning I woke up on the Mediterranean: I hear nothing, yet I can see everything.
In the interest of covering Menorca end to end, since it’s possible in one day, we board Le Ponant to follow the southern shore. It’s scalloped with scores of little coves — calas — fingerlings of blue borne of fierce rains that pummel the ground, eroding it into ravines as the rainwater escapes to the sea. We anchor at the cozy cove of Cala Galdana. While Mallorca had its snaking mountain roads, Menorca has the softer La Serpentona, a village with ever-so-gently curving streets on its limestone cliffs. Nothing intimidating about it. Swimming in the bay, I listen to the distant hiss of waves pulling away from shoreline pebbles and feel the water currents shift from warm to cool as the sun penetrates everything. It’s as if these interludes aboard ship have cleared my senses and allowed me to notice the particulars of these Mediterranean moments.
On the western shore, we turn into the harbor of Menorca’s old capital, Ciutadella. Strolling along, I realize that it, too, is like a little sister to Palma. I feel just as relaxed with the people of Menorca as I am with my fellow travelers on the yacht. We are all friends, floating in the open water on a serene cruise that never needs to return to shore.
A woman in a bakery doorway greets me: “Bon dia!” Over an espresso and flower-shaped pasticettes, cookies dusted with powdered sugar, we talk — I in halting Spanish, she in Catalan. Then I follow strains of music to a small plaza and the Roser Church, as unassuming a building as La Seu is overwhelming. Fragments of a concerto mesmerize me. On a nearby bench, a man leans against his cane, listening. He smiles at me, and the music spirals up into the air so the wind may carry it out to sea.