Packed with history, culture, superb food and gorgeous scenery, the Balearic Islands are made for cruising.
Palma, the elegant capital of Mallorca, takes the lion’s share of cruise calls. It is one of the busiest ports in the Mediterranean, visited by lines ranging from MSC Cruises, NCL, Royal Caribbean and Celebrity cruises to Oceania Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Windstar Cruises, Star Clippers and Crystal Cruises.
Ships dock at one end of a long, curved bay, a palm-fringed promenade and swanky yacht marinas stretching most of its length. Opposite the cruise port, in the distance, is the old town, dominated by a spectacular Gothic cathedral and the former residence of the Moorish kings, Palacio Almudaina. Whether or not you spend a day in town, take a moment to stand on-deck after dark and gaze across the bay. All the old buildings are beautifully floodlit and it’s a truly spectacular sight.
Palma itself could occupy a whole day of sightseeing as you explore the Gothic Quarter, browse the shops and galleries and stop for tapas in a shady square. Other excursions on offer, though, include a trip on a vintage train that chugs through the olive groves from Palma to the inland town of Soller, as well as trips to Valdemossa, where the composer Chopin once lived, and the arty town of Deia, where the poet Robert Graves is buried. Scenes from the hit thriller, The Night Manager, were shot in Deia’s tiny but glamorous port.
For something more active, there are foodie tours of the local markets, kayaking, horse riding, 4x4 tours into the mountains, cycling tours and sailing days – Palma is a favourite sailing spot of Spain’s former ruler, King Juan Carlos. If you are cruising with children, you could splash out on a day at the Western Water Park near Magaluf, offering water slides for every level of daring. On the other hand, if you are looking for something cool, the swanky Purobeach near the aquarium is a very smart club with a day spa, pool, restaurant and cocktail bar.
Gin and mayonnaise
Neighbouring Menorca doesn’t pretend to be as hip as its big sister, but it has plenty of attractions nonetheless. The island is lush and green, with undulating countryside where brown-and-white cows graze, providing a thriving cheese industry and, as a spin-off, leather. Several cruise lines call here, among them P&O Cruises, Fred. Olsen Cruises, Cunard, Oceania, Azamara and Seabourn. Menorca has two unusual claims to fame: mayonnaise was invented here; and the island makes its own distinctive gin, Xoriguer. Conveniently, the distillery is right beside Mahon port, so it is easy to nip in for a tasting.
Gin was, in fact, introduced by the British, with whom Menorca has a strong historical connection, as Britain took ownership of the island in the 18th Century, stayed for nearly a century and based its Mediterranean fleet here. You will certainly want to be on-deck for the sail-in to the port, three miles along a narrow, rocky inlet where British ships once sheltered.
Most cruise excursions centre around Mahon, or Maó in the local dialect, with its elegant, Georgian architecture and pretty squares, as well as the remnants of the British military effort at the seven-sided Fort Marlborough, riddled with tunnels and ammunition bunkers and cleverly reconstructed in part to give an impression of 18th Century life in the military. Tours operate to Ciudadela, too, the former capital and an ideal place to mooch around the shops and while away time with a cocktail overlooking the pretty harbour.
The ‘white island’
Ibiza is another story altogether: dramatic, edgy and oh-so-hip. While the island is best known for its clubbing scene, it actually has a beautiful capital, Eivissa, packed with fascinating shops and galleries, and a string of gorgeous beaches, including several where anything goes. Cruise lines’ excursion offerings here tend to be rather more conservative, focused around island tours, beach days and visits to the hippy market at Es Canar which, back in the 1960s and 1970s, was genuinely run by hippies, although it now caters more for tourists. Still, it is a good spot to buy jewellery and the floaty white fashions for which the island is famous. Cruise lines dropping into Ibiza include Celebrity, Saga, Silversea, P&O Cruises, Disney, Oceania and Fred. Olsen Cruises.
Only a handful of ships visit sleepy Formentera, although plenty that call at Ibiza, just 11 nautical miles away, offer a day trip to this tranquil place where the main attraction is the beaches, with sand so white and water so turquoise you could be in the South Pacific.
The majority of western Mediterranean itineraries passing through the Balearics tend to call at Palma. But if you are particularly taken with the region, it is possible to explore in greater depth. P&O Cruises, for example, has a 16-night voyage in 2019 that includes Mahon, Palma and Ibiza. Star Clippers offers several Balearics cruises on its elegant square-rigged sailing ships, while Fred. Olsen Cruises has a couple of Balearic island-hopping itineraries. MSC Cruises, meanwhile, has an Italy, France and Spain cruise that, in the space of a week, gives you overnights in both Palma and Ibiza – the best of both worlds.