Outside the parish church of San Juan Bautista in Mallorca’s Tramuntana mountains, high above the dreamy stone homes of Deià, the final resting place of British writer Robert Graves lies in the shade of a cypress tree. Only an unprepossessing concrete slab, roughly carved with his name, the years 1895-1985 and the poignant epitaph “Poeta”, marks the spot. Graves came to Mallorca in 1929 on the recommendation of fellow writer Gertrude Stein and lived in Deià for most of the next 56 years. He wrote poetry and books, including I, Claudius, most days walking down to the pebbles on Cala Deià to swim.
Today, while Mallorca has accelerated into the 21st century, Deià remains a fairytale-pretty summer-season village that Graves would instantly recognise. Lycra-encased cyclists speed past, intent on the hairpin turns of vertiginous mountain roads, and multimillionaires such as Andrew Lloyd Webber have moved in, yet the village remains free of unsightly overbuilding.
There are two reasons for that, says Eddy Barrera, MD for the west coast of Mallorca region at estate agent Engel & Völkers: “Deià was always an artistic place to live, but its location across the Tramuntana mountains from Palma made it difficult to reach until tunnels were constructed in the 1990s. Then in 2011 the entire mountain range was designated a Unesco World Heritage Site. Getting planning permission has always been extremely difficult in the rural areas around Deià, and Deià itself remains exclusive.” One example of the village’s elite offerings is a six-bedroom villa with expansive terraces, available for €14.5m through Knight Frank.
Graves was one of the earliest foreign visitors to set up home in Mallorca, but they have come in numbers ever since, all keen to claim a piece of a perfect Mediterranean island. Mallorca’s popularity defied even the darkest days of the global downturn. In 2012, one in every four Spanish properties sold to foreigners was in Mallorca, and today property consultancy Tinsa says it is home to five of the 10 most expensive Spanish property locations.
Mallorca is where wealthy Europeans choose to play, and the island caters well for them, offering 24 golf courses and 46 marinas. The number of five-star hotels has leapt from 22 in 2005 to 40 today, the Park Hyatt Mallorca in Canyamel being the latest addition. A total of 23m passengers passed through Palma airport in 2014, making it the 12th busiest in the EU that year, and Aena, the Spanish airport authority, noted record numbers of private jets and air taxis arriving in the Balearics. As anyone in Palma on a busy Thursday in season will notice, the number of cruise-ship passengers has risen too (up 20 per cent year-on-year for the first half of 2015, according to the Balearic Port Authority).
“Mallorca has evolved to become one of Europe’s most desirable second-home locations,” acknowledges Alejandra Vanoli, MD of Mallorca Sotheby’s International Realty. “Some of the world’s wealthiest individuals have settled here, prepared to pay whatever it takes to secure a prime sea-view property. Puerto Portals, Port Andratx and Palma attract most interest, although some Hollywood A-listers and sports stars prefer the seclusion of Unesco-listed Tramuntana. When it comes to finding the high-end Mallorca home to suit their needs, money really is no object.”
From spring, when almond trees dust the island with soft pink blossom, through to the autumnal harvest of olives and vines, Mallorca provides extraordinary variety for somewhere little bigger than Cornwall. Its charm lies in this mix: mountain peaks contrast with bustling city, rustic restaurants serving tomato-soaked tumbet with chic tapas bars. “It is not just the variety Mallorca offers that is noteworthy,” observes Swedish-born Klas Käll, co-owner of chic Palma shop Rialto Living. “It is the closeness of that variety. Nothing is much more than an hour away, thanks to good roads and tunnels, so wherever you live, it’s all nearby.”
With his wife Barbara Bergman, Käll divides his time between an inland finca in Santa Maria and a restored palacio in Palma. The couple met in the 1980s in Stockholm, where Käll was the designer and co-owner of clothing company Gant, while Bergman was a graphic designer. “Friends introduced me to Mallorca in the 1980s,” he says. “Palma was peaceful, friendly, perhaps a little in slow motion. The climate was a big factor. We would sit in a quiet square in November having a coffee and wearing just a shirt. Imagine doing that in Stockholm.”
In 2006, searching for premises for a retail project, the couple chanced upon an empty cinema in Palma’s Old Town, directly off El Born. They bought it, restored it and a year later opened Rialto Living, a lifestyle emporium selling men’s and women’s fashion, chic interiors and artfully curated gifts. “Home decoration was quite tricky on Mallorca at that time,” recalls Bergman. “It was all dark wood and heavy palazzo-style velvets. We wanted to bring something new and fresh – relaxed and stylish products that were not available on the island.”
Despite opening at the start of the global financial crisis on a street where, Barbara notes, “people just did not walk”, Rialto Living has gone from strength to strength. Last year it doubled in size after expanding its space within the adjoining 18th-century baroque palacio. “The Old Town is a great place to live, with easy access to both beaches and culture,” says Käll. “The discreet architecture means you see wonderful patios – generous cobbled courtyards – but the grandeur hidden behind the façade is private.”
Mallorcan families still live in some of the Old Town’s grand palacios, but it is mostly foreign buyers who see the beauty in Palma’s historic bones, restoring them and bringing new life to the narrow, atmospheric streets. “Ten years ago most second-home buyers wanted country fincas or seaside homes, but Palma has become more attractive to high-net-worth individuals, with increased demand for larger homes for year-round living,” says Terence Panton, MD of Engel & Völkers Palma Centre. “The city has good international schools and there has been strong private investment in retail, restaurants and boutique hotels.”
Buyers looking for a city apartment can choose between light, modern penthouses with outside space or a distinguished bel étage apartment. Two properties that demonstrate this choice are an elegant four-bedroom apartment accessed by an external grand stone staircase for €2.4m and a contemporary two-bedroom duplex penthouse in a recently renovated building with rooftop views over Palma from the terrace for €1.75m, both through Engel & Völkers.
Investment managers and global nomads Anne-Helene and Fredrik Ljungström have owned a penthouse in Palma for the past three years. With their three teenage sons, currently being educated at Eton and an East Coast Ivy League college, they summer in Sweden, winter in Verbier and have a family home in the Cotswolds. They come to Mallorca to hunt and weekend throughout the year. “It is such an easy place to live,” explains Anne-Helene. “We are seven minutes from an international airport. Our boys love the freedom of being in the city. Palma has a wide selection of restaurants within a short walk and reaching the countryside is easy. I start each day exercising along the seafront and always meet friends running or cycling. Mallorca is safe, sociable and has excellent-quality property. We have the Germans on the island to thank for that.”
Germans make up the majority of non-domestic tourists to Mallorca, followed by Britons and then Scandinavians, and it is the winning combination of German standards and Scandi style that has helped propel Mallorca into the holiday-home premier league. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the upmarket southwest, where one can expect privacy, sea views and thoroughly modern interiors (essential technical wizardry includes home automation and fully wired-for‑sound multiroom audio systems).
Port Andratx, 35 minutes from Palma airport, is a fishing village turned gold-plated holiday location, a delightful waterfront spot where total property sales reached €118m in 2014. The steep hillsides are filled with modern family villas, most used as holiday homes by an international clientele. A south-facing four-bedroom villa with extensive terraces overlooking the Mediterranean there is priced at €6.95m (through Sotheby’s International Realty). Engel & Völkers has a newly completed five-bedroom villa in nearby Cala Moragues that showcases top-end finishes and a Mediterranean-meets-modern design style, with pale oak floors, Mallorcan stone and whitewashed beams for €5.89m. This property comes complete with a separate guest apartment – a feature also found at another five-bedroom villa overlooking Port Andratx (€9.8m, through Knight Frank) and a six-bedroom finca in neighbouring Camp de Mar (€9.75m, through Engel & Völkers).
Sales in Son Vida totalled €80m in 2015, double the amount in 2014. This is the place for international buyers who want proximity to the city – Son Vida has a Palma postcode and the Old Town is only 20 minutes away by car – but appreciate the landscaped gardens and three established golf courses. Son Vida has some apartments, but the resort is really about private villas, 350 at present, with 16 being added over the next three years, each on a minimum 2,000sq m plot. Prices rise as you climb the hills, with blissful views over the yachts moored in the Bay of Palma. Traditional-style Mediterranean villas with Moorish arches and stone balustrades are being slowly replaced by contemporary villas complete with expansive glass, open-plan living and warm lighting: another glistening symbol of ever-dynamic and increasingly luxurious Mallorca.