Sunday, 30 December 2012

Majorca Holiday - Complete with pictures

I must admit I have never thought the words paradise and Majorca went together and maybe they don’t entirely. However I was surprised how close they got when I spent two weeks there very recently.

I am a self confessed travel snob who has been spoilt silly by first class travel and holiday destinations like The Maldives, Mustique, Mauritius and suchlike. But this time we wanted somewhere closer to home, cheaper and less hassle and we came up with Majorca which is just two hours flight away and sunny. So off I went online and booked Thompson flights, local car hire and a villa through Villa Select.

I was filled with a sense of foreboding as I found out more about the place. You have to get there by low cost airlines or holiday charters (what no special desks and premium cabins?). Then somebody in the pub told me about Palma Nova and Magaluf with their rowdy pubs, English cafes, nightclubs, big plasma sports screens and everything else I have not enjoyed since I was in my twenties. What have I done I thought as our departure date got nearer.

Finally the day came and off we went to Gatwick. We arrived at North Terminal and walked past our usual un-crowded BA Executive Club check in desk and into the people maelstrom called the Thomson check in area. It looked like pandemonium with milling crowds of young party people, families and old gits like me and there were hundreds of them. Not only that but they were checking in all flights at the same row of desks and my heart sank.

Using my vast travel experience I concluded this simply could not work…but it did. In no time we were herded by a team of Thomson staff into a huge ‘conga’ line of a queue that zigzagged at least eight times backwards and forwards across the whole width of the departure area. This will take years I snarled to Judith as we fitted in behind a group of young school leaver party girls and in front of a couple juggling 3 children, two bottles of water and an array of buggies. It took only 20 minutes. After much shuffling, bumping and tight turning we were at the front where we got politely manhandled by a couple of shouting marshals who pointed to one of the desks

. Check-in was seamless apart from one big but. I wanted extra baggage above our one 20kg case each allowance so I prepaid for an extra bag online by adding an extra £30 to our bill. I soon found out that yes, you can have an extra case but no, you could not have any extra weight. What is all that about? What is the point in paying for two bags if you can only carry stuff for one in them? Weird! Anyway they tried to charge me £100 in excess baggage and it took all my selling skills to talk them out of it.

We walked past our usual empty priority security channel and joined the rear of the busy general entrance and, to my surprise we were through in no time. OK I had to dress again having taken off my shoes, belt, jacket, watch etc but that would have happened anyway these days. It was unfortunate my trousers dropped to my knees as I walked through the metal detector but at least they could see I had no obvious secret weapon. I hope I have decent underwear I thought as I bent down to pick them up.

The thought of hanging around the main departures area was too much for my spoilt sensibilities so I had prepaid for the use of the No.1. Lounge when I was booking our Gatwick North Terminal valet parking. It cost £40 for the two of us and it was bright, airy and not overcrowded. For the £20 a head we could have lunch, watch a film, and drink what we wanted for up to 3 hours. When you think that on the aircraft the meal alone costs £12 each it is a cost effective way of lunching and drinking beforehand in comfort whilst getting away from the crowds.

Flight time loomed so off we went to the gate. The only trouble was that the advertised gate was incorrect. In fact I do not think it existed. This resulted in much milling around where the passengers reckoned it should be. Eventually a member of Thomson staff beckoned from a nearby desk (which said ‘closed’ above it) and off we strode.

Why we all do it I do not know but as soon as a flight is called for boarding it is something like the ‘charge of the light brigade’. The plane won’t go without us but we all make that undignified dash. Some people start queuing at the gate an hour beforehand. I can only think it is because everyone wants to be sure there is still room to stow their bags before others from surrounding seats chuck their stuff in first.

Finally we were on board this rather old looking Airbus with rather old looking and very small tight-packed seats. I had paid (£25) for extra leg room and got it in the emergency exit row. Unfortunately a rather enormous person had the same idea and squeezed in next to us. What would have happened in an emergency is anyone’s guess but folk would have had to scale the man mountain first to get out.

To my surprise the flight was really good. I had to get used to paying for everything but I could not fault it. If I had been anywhere in the rest of the plane I might have got claustrophobia but my little row was great even with the big guy alongside. Again I had pre-ordered champagne and chocolates (for £25) and a full size bottle arrived with no fuss. This is not at all bad I thought and certainly rivalled many a short-haul schedule flight I have been on in the past.

So we sat back, relaxed and waited for our arrival in Palma, What would the airport, car and villa be like? Would the island be one big hen party/stag tour? Would I live on a diet of egg and chips washed down with “tea like mum makes it. We were getting slightly sizzled on champagne and considerably nauseous over the chocolate. My chunky neighbour had an itch and the guy behind seemed to be suffering from cramp judging by the number of times his leg jerked into my seat back.

I tried to focus on the entertainment system but the overhead screens were poor and the programme poorer. I watched in silence as you could only buy (not rent) headsets and nobody said before the flight you could bring your own. Funny that! At least I had the little girl in front to ‘amuse’ me as she lolled over her seat back and pulled faces. Are you a monster she asked? I am not sure I replied. Yes you are she said as the faces continued.

Her dad was a shaven head brute of a man in an athletic vest. He was covered in tattoos. He had ‘True’ and ‘Love’ across his knuckles, wrestling dragons, anchors and mermaids around his neck and back. All along one arm he had ‘Karen Forever’ which was rather strange as we later found out his wife next to him was called Dawn. He leaned over his seat and glared at me as though I was a pervert and said ‘Hanna (again not Karen), don’t talk to that man. Happy days I thought.

The plane touched down without further incident and I had to reflect on how painless it was. I had avoided DVT and sipped champagne which is a good combination. There was no queue to speak of at immigration and our bags popped up last as usual. Some kind soul in the baggage area had snipped my BA Executive Club labels in half but that was the only damage.

So all we had to do now was collect our car and drive to our villa in the northern part of the island near Pollensa and 55 minutes away. We used a company called 'Centauro' and I would recommend them. I found it best not to book the company that Thomson recommends as everybody else does it and the queue at their desk was horrendous.

They are located on the airport perimeter road and you get to them by their transfer bus. It should have been very easy except their printed directions to the bus stop had been written by someone facing customs not coming out of it; hence we wandered off in the opposite direction. Once this got sorted we found the lane we had to stand by but no ‘Centauro’ sign as there wasn’t one. I found waving and leaping in front of their vehicle had the desired effect

We got to their facility and were issued with the necessary contract and guides very quickly. Within less than 10 minutes we were sitting in our ‘violent blue’ Fiesta that groaned under the weight of three large suitcases and us. Why three large cases? Because I am a packaholic. All those years of travel and I still over-pack. Once I wrapped a large beach umbrella in bin liners and took it to Mauritius in case there was not enough shade for our young daughter!

This time I was slightly better and only packed double clothes, half a chemist shop, cling film, Marmite and a pair of swimming trunks for each day. I had however forgotten all my underpants and charging units for Ipod, camera (which went flat) and Kindle. Judith’s eyes rolled as she saw all the silly stuff falling out at the other end.

So we hit the road. Actually it nearly hit us as I judged my first roundabout rather inaccurately. Judith had the map and I had my short driving temper. Turn left she shrieked about twenty yards after the correct turn-off. Relations were strained but eventually we found the right road. By the way they have changed the motorway speed limit to 110 kph. I remind you as the Centauro maps are rather ancient (as are others) and still tell you it is 120 kph. Also be aware that most Majorcan coach drivers are suicidal psychopaths.

The motorways and roads in general are smooth and very well maintained. I am glad that Spain uses our huge EC subsidies to ensure we can glide to our destinations. The signage is also pretty good. Parking can be tricky especially in the busy months and around the old towns but places are very clearly marked. I would recommend driving to even the nervous except for the westerly coast road which is a bit of a switchback and sometimes inhabited by those bus driving psychopaths I mentioned.

The main part of our drive to the villa was uneventful. Having got on the main motorway to the north we simply cruised for 45 minutes until it became a two lane highway. The directions were spot on until this point but then we arrived at the road/track where our villa was located. Things then became confused as we drove in the fading light down a single lane track with dead ends, dodgy signage and blind corners. Having narrowly missed two chickens, a pig and the neighbours Daschund we arrived at the Villa Son Rotger.

So we finally arrived at the villa which was to be our home for two weeks. “Don’t think I am going to be chained to the cooker all the time” said Judith as I tried to turn our small car into a smaller driveway before the electric gates closed. ‘No darling’ I replied thinking about 14 days of fried food, barbecues and cosy home suppers.

Now we get to the ‘paradise’ bit The villa was beautiful and I would recommend it to anyone. We have used Villa Select before and they have never let us down so far. It had three bedrooms, three bathrooms and a bright and spacious living area.

The design was modern and the facilities were all there from the large infinity pool to the sunny barbecue area to the large balconies with views over the bay of Alcudia. There was a modern halogen hob, new looking cooker and washing machine and an excellent fridge freezer. You will be able to make great meals here I said to Judith as she gave me an icy stare. ‘No, let’s go out instead’ she snapped.

That first night we drove the short distance to Alcudia where we promptly got lost. ‘Left here’ she shouted after we passed the turning for the second time that day. We eventually ended up in the old town where we seemed to be the only tourists and came face to face with an eighteen inch penis. It was attached to an eight foot statue of a naked violinist that was ‘mounted’ in the forecourt of a small bar. Naturally we could not resist dining there.

We sat adjacent to the statue but we could not escape from its member as the setting sun threw its shadow right across our table. Rather unnerving when you are eating a ham baguette I can assure you. I placed the pepper and salt at one end and it looked quite lifelike! After being stared at by the locals, drinking beer and watching the sunset we drove home. Apparently our naked stone friend was called Javier San Pedro but I am not sure if the scale used was lifelike or wistful thinking.

We went out touring in the car a few of the days and found some really nice places that make mockery of the concept that Majorca is all crowded beaches, nightclubs and tourist dominated. There are such places for those that want them but they are mainly in the south, except for perhaps Port de Alcudia.

A great place to go is Port de Solier on the west coast. The drive is quite hair raising over mountains and around many tight bends but it is worth it for the views. We ended up behind a very nervous driver who panicked and nearly stopped at every bend and then shot off afterwards to stop you overtaking. He met his match when he met a bus driving psychopath on a particularly bad loop. They ended up bonnet to bonnet with neither able nor willing to give way. We nipped past whilst they screamed at each other.

We then ended up behind another bus which was aptly named ‘no frills bus tours’. An inspiring name and the people aboard looked wretched. By the look of it no frills meant no air conditioning, no shock absorbers and no windows that opened. It was dull rust red in colour (no paint) and the driver was wearing a vest (no shirt). Even Michael O’Leary would think that this bus had less frills than his Ryanair planes.

We went to a lot of the usual places like Formentor where you can climb down from little car parks to gorgeous little beaches and Cala San Vicente which is a very pretty little resort in a small bay that has some very nice cafes.

When we ate out we either drove in to Pollensa old town or Port de Pollensa depending on what mood we were in. If we wanted pretty and quaint it was the former where you could sit in the main square, eat good food and watch people who were probably watching you. Everybody eyes each other up on holiday; it is part of the ‘fun’. I think they particularly appreciated it when I got drunk with a Brazilian waiter who demonstrated (repeatedly) how to make an authentic caiprinha.

Port de Pollensa is at the seaside and full of cafes lined along the front. This place is great fun on any evening and you would be amazed by some of the sights that walk past. In June the local people are out in force too so it is quite a scramble of tourists and residents of all sizes, ages and dress sense as well as the local dogs which get taken walkies in the evenings. The latter provided great entertainment by escaping, tangling leads, fighting and occasionally defecating while you are trying to eat your paella.

Picking up dog litter seems an alien concept to the Majorcans. Very often they do not notice what their dogs are doing as one lady with a chihuahua demonstrated. It was on one of those extending leads so it got ahead of its owner and squatted down by a palm tree in an orderly manner. Sadly for him and everyone else his owner failed to notice and the next minute Fido was projected through the air when the lead tightened. It continued to ‘go’ as it flew dropping bombs like something out of the dam busters film.

What can you do? You cannot pick it up and you cannot tell ever passerby about it. So we decided to wait and watch while vast numbers of people came from either side all converging on these brown bombs. We felt so helpless but it was compelling viewing.Eventually there was a bulls-eye by a local on a bike followed by a glancing blow from a lady in heels. We really did feel guilty!

Food at both these locations is of a reasonably high standard taking all into account although it is not particularly cheap. Wine costs far less than the UK and Majorcan grapes are quite acceptable. Food in the supermarkets is pretty extensive and you will find many international brands. The bigger the supermarket the bigger the range and the cheaper the price but that is the same the world over. You can use credit cards at most places but only if you can show ID like a passport or driving license.
The main thing for me about this holiday was that it was in a villa not a hotel. I have done it on short stays twice but never a fortnight and I wondered whether the novelty would wear off… and it did. Yes, the novelty of it went but got replaced with far better feelings of relaxation and peaceful familiarity than I have ever felt in a hotel where I usually start climbing the walls by day ten.

To understand why I am now a villa convert one needs to know why me, and possibly others often feel let down when staying in hotels. To me the best word to explain my disappointment is freedom, or lack of it. In a hotel I feel too regulated. You end up eating what they want, when they want at a frequently unacceptable and unjustifiable price. Once you are there you operate under their rules alongside their guests using their dress code.

You cannot really get up when you want, have a light snack of your own choosing and pick your own environment to spend the day. For example you could go to the pool and not find a quiet, comfortable, shaded spot. The pool menu will serve portions big enough (and costly enough) for three. So you go back to the room and find housekeeping there. Some people even smuggle out food from breakfast purely because it gives them the kind of things they want to eat at lunch.

Later you decide to have a relaxed meal but can your wife really go down without washing, drying and straightening her hair? And what about the other guests who seem to think the whole thing is a fashion contest. Can you really face another full set meal of something you would never bother with at home? Can you do this at breakfast, lunch and dinner for 14 days and nights? We all seem to but I reckon the first hotel to come up with the alternatives people want will make a killing.

Right, that’s now off my chest. After all those years of holidays where I thought that if I ate another lunchtime shared club sandwich I would kill myself or the waiter…or both. I found a well planned villa holiday can save me this grief albeit at a cost. The cost? Well you better be sure it is the right villa for you or you have had it for the duration.

You have to buy your own food but the consolation is that you can eat what you want, when you want it and in the right portions. OK, you have to pay for the staples like pepper, salt, oils etc but it is all far cheaper than hotel dining and you can stock up on drinks, crisps, and nibbles etc at a fraction of the price. When you don’t want to cook? Well you go out!

Villa concerns for me were mostly not problematic. You have to have a car. You need to seriously consider security especially in some places. You need good easy means of contact with the owner or their agent in case of problems and you have to take location and the proximity of neighbours into account. I cannot imagine what it would be like to move into a place with screamers and loud music lovers over the fence. We did our research and we were fine…thankfully!

OK, there can be some niggles. For example there is a growing habit in Majorca of owners putting the air conditioning on a timer so you can only use it at night. They conveniently assume that everyone will either keep the doors and windows open all day or go out. So the sales pitch says air conditioning when it should say ‘part’ air conditioning. I think if you are paying for aircon you should get aircon when YOU want it rather than reduce the owner’s electricity bill. Others may be more eco minded than me. I found a little visit to the fuse box controlled solved my problem!

So, the headquarters of my Majorcan ‘paradise’ was the Villa Son Rotger in the hills 5kms from Pollensa. Our days panned out like this: Get up at around 9.30 a.m. , open the shutters and pad downstairs to pick up cereal, fresh fruit and tea and bring up to the balcony overlooking the sea. Then agonise over whether to have yet another fry up or salad. Then morning swim, sunbathe and read Kindle under the sun umbrella. Lunch is large or little depending on the fry-up decision. Afternoon? Repeat morning or possibly tour the area.

The evenings were great, particularly as they were warm and starry. A barbecue? A swim? An evening in front of the T.V watching UK programmes? Mostly we went out. The only unwelcome nocturnal noise was the neighbour’s dog who partook in bouts of barking. We solved this by bribing him with cat treats we had brought in from the UK in case there were local moggies!

As I said earlier there were not many neighbours. We had orchards and a farmhouse on one side. We always smiled and waived at the owners as they picked fruit from trees next to our driveway. I am not sure what they thought of us after we got caught ‘sampling’ their plums. It was made worse when I strode naked onto our balcony doing a mighty stretch only to lock eyes with grandma sitting on her tractor holding plums in her hands. She just looked, shrugged, muttered and drove away. Ah well.

So the end of the holiday came and unfortunately we had to vacate the villa by 10 a.m. which is pretty normal but a pain when your flight leaves in the evening. I had booked a day room at the Hilton near Palma airport. It is a lovely hotel but we ended up being reminded why we had chosen a villa. I simply could not have imagined staying there a fortnight.

The hotel was great, its staff were mainly great, but its guests were not. The pool was crowded, noisy and full of people tucking in tummies, running fingers through hair and indulging badly behaved kids. They had the usual snack menu that was only available through certain times and starred ‘club sandwich’. Yuk! The room was a snip at £160 (excluding food/drink) for six hours!

Finally we got to the airport. The car return was very efficient and we went to check in only to be asked for the £100 excess baggage for the extra case. I told them I was not charged on the way out so they said I had to pay them now for both! To be fair the check in was manned by Iberia Airlines staff and they called in the Thomson representative who agreed to ‘let us off this time’. A reason she gave was I had been polite when most people yell at her. Worth remembering as airline staff are the last people you should yell at, especially when they have you by the ba**s.

The flight this time was on a modern Thomson aircraft which was clean, comfortable and on time. The crew were courteous and by then I was used to paying for everything on board. The family we saw on the way out were just in front again and clearly. Dad, with the tattoos, looked like he was missing his ‘Forever Karen’ and mum and daughter looked like they wished he had stayed with her. ‘Did you have a nice time’ I asked the girl. Daddy says I can’t talk to you’ she replied morosely.

So there you have it. The villa life was paradise to us. Thomson was far better than expected and Majorca was everything we wanted it to be. And spoilt little me? I learned that first class travel and 5 star hotels is not necessary for holiday ‘paradise’


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