You remember those days before lockdown, before masks and when we went on holiday?
Before the world went mad, I went on trip to the Balearics for i newspaper as part of a press group to explore the green credentials of Mallorca and Menorca.
The resulting piece took ages to be published and then I didn’t get round to adding it to my blog – but with the world opening up a little I thought some blue skies might be right about now.
And from what I hear – Mallorca (Majorca) and Menorcan are now both up and running. So here you go..
The tumbledown, conical buildings sit like fallen angels, guarding the surprisingly green fields, and greeting us as we make the descent into Palma airport.
Windmills were once critical to farmers for grinding grain and pumping water on this sun-parched island. More than 1,000 18th-century mills are scattered across the Pla de Sant Jordi area of Mallorca alone.
Long bereft of their traditional red or blue sails and mainly ignored or unseen by tourists, they remind me of birds with broken wings, resonant of a cultural landmark almost lost. Almost.
Because the winds of change are blowing in the Balearics.
I arrive in the fields to see the proof as a lone windmill rotates again, the pride of the farming family that owns the land.
The windmill restoration here is just one of hundreds of projects to restore and protect the Balearics’ cultural and environmental heritage using a newly implemented tourist tax.
Four years ago, the local government decided that action was needed. As a tourist destination, the Balearics were flying: more than 13 million people visit Mallorca, Menorca, Formentera and Ibiza every year, around a quarter of them British.
But away from beaches, hotels and nightlife the islands’ story was less positive.
Historic buildings were crumbling, plastic use sky-high, natural underwater and overwater habitats in crisis and social housing, opportunities and skills for local people declining.
The resulting action was the implementation of a sustainable tourism tax. For most tourists, this would be a tiny proportion of their holiday spending but the revenue would be significant for the islands and their residents.
Since 2016, a total of €340m (£285m) has been raised by the tax, which has been channelled into 225 initiatives.
The benefits are tangible as I walk along the 13th-century sandstone walls of the old city of Alcudia, which is being carefully returned, piece by piece, to its former grandeur.
In Galatzó, at the heart of the mighty Serra de Tramuntana range, the sounds of restoration echo through the picturesque mountains, as work continues to preserve the Unesco-protected idyll and its historic constructions.
In an area infrequently happened upon by foreign tourists, tax contributions are being used to repair and inject new life into the ancient dry-stone walls and buildings.
Project leader Pep Toni tells me an old pigsty – Ses Porqueres de Galatzó – is being transformed into a refuge for hikers and a hub for schools to visit, using traditional techniques lost for generations and allowing more people to experience the hills.
Two more will be restored and opened in the Tramuntana range this year.
As I trek uphill through the orange and lemon groves to the sounds of chinking tools, an ancient and complex eco-watering system is being brought back to life.
It feels a world away from my base at the glossy Innside Palma Centre hotel with its rooftop bar overlooking the bustle of the capital.
The movement towards environmental mindfulness and sustainability is catching on.
At the Celler Jaume de Puntiró in Santa Maria, winemaker Pere Calafat proudly proffers Mallorca’s first ecological vermut (vermouth), which proves to be fruity while packing a punch.
Produced organically, it’s a risky venture but one that’s paying off for this small family business, which produces around 50,000 bottles a year of white, red, rosé and of course vermut.
Injections of cash are seeing ancient castles purchased and repaired including the crumbling Camino del Castell d’Alaró, perched at the top of the Puig d’Alaró and accessible for intrepid hikers.
I take a 4×4 some of the way and hike the rest. My reward is an astonishing mountain view all the way to Palma – plus a meal at the Rick Stein-approved Es Verger restaurant, clinging to the mountainside.
Things are also changing across the water to the east on Menorca – to use a Menorcan expression, poc a poc. Slowly.
And it’s the small family businesses that are seeing some of the biggest benefits.
This includes the 75-year-old Sonpiris family cheese business at Camí d’Alpare, part of a co-operative of farmers who pride themselves on using traditional techniques.
At Sonpiris the cows walk free, exercising and grazing the fields ploughed by the family who know exactly what they are or, more importantly, are not eating.
In the shelter of the cowsheds, the cattle listen to music with the aim of producing stress-free, artisan cheeses and meats.
These are sold direct to customers and supermarkets and can be tracked on every step of their journey.
The cows, it seems, are happy here – and so am I, listening to gentle music in the Menorcan countryside.
In two years’ time, the tax will also have paid for the restoration of the 1950s Sala Augusta theatre in the Menorcan capital Mahón to accommodate a music conservatory.
Not only will this help restore the island’s heritage, it will also bolster out-of-season attractions for visitors.
It’s a far cry from the cheap, flimsy world of the popular Balearic summer break.
But these new initiatives will inform and shape the holiday trips of the future. Poc a poc.
*Many thanks to the media squad I shared the trip with – pics below
How to get there
Where to stay
- The Innside Palma Center has doubles from £79.
- The trendy three-star Brick Hotel in Palma, a former pottery factory, has a rooftop terrace with city views and doubles from £30.
- The Port Mahón Hotel in Menorca has doubles from £85.
- The Artiem Capri Menorca in Mahón has a rooftop pool and doubles from £60.
The sustainability tax is applied on arrival at hotels and on cruise ships. Expect to pay around €3.30 (£2.75 ) per day per person. Children under 16 are exempt. For more about the projects funded by the tax, visit sustainableislands.travel and illesbalears.travel
This piece originally appeared in i newspaper