I’m walking around the terraced olive groves of the Belmond La Residencia, a hotel in the village of Deià on the Spanish Balearic island of Mallorca, when I hear a haunting voice, like a siren’s call, coming from beneath me. I follow it, until I end up inside the hotel’s art gallery watching a woman sing passionately while her friend accompanies her on an old Steinway piano. It’s hard to describe what’s so unforgettable about this perfectly timed yet spontaneous encounter, but it absolutely encapsulates the essence of Deià.
Nestled among the mountains overlooking Mallorca’s northwest coast, Deià is far – both in distance and spirit – from the rest of the island. For the past half century, buzzing towns such as Palma and Magaluf have cemented the isle’s status as a tourism Mecca, a place in which to enjoy wild bachelor weekends or indulge year-round paella and cheap beer.
The promise of 320 days (give or take) of sunshine has encouraged many British and Swedish expats to make Mallorca their permanent home, with apartment complexes, hypermarkets and motorways springing up in their wake. All the above are enough to deter more seasoned travellers from visiting, though the nostalgic still dream of finding the Mallorca that seduced writers such as Robert Graves, Kingsley Amis, Evelyn Waugh and Agatha Christie or, a century earlier, pianist/composer Frédéric Chopin and his lover, the French novelist Amentine Lucile Aurore Dupin, who was better known by her nom de plume George Sand. In truth, that Mallorca still exists – you just need to know where to find it.
The journey to Deià isn’t exactly arduous. About 20 minutes into the drive from the airport, the tourist shops are replaced by farmland and glimpses of sheep taking refuge from the heat. Travelling up into Serra de Tramuntana mountains, a Unesco World Heritage Site, the colours become more vibrant and the air feels lighter. The landscape looks like a film set, with its stone houses with vibrant green shutters, citrus and olive groves, lush valleys and inter-connected waterways.
On first sight, Deià looks a little too quiet, which is no surprise as the local population numbers just 800. There are no tourist shops – not even a helado vendor. A stroll along its quiet cobbled pathways, however, reveals its hidden character as an enclave and spiritual home for artists.
Graves, the British poet and writer whose house is preserved as a museum and is open to the public, moved to the village in 1929. Today antique dealers sit alongside art galleries and studios, which cover every discipline from painting and sculpture to textiles and ceramics.
The centre of Deià’s artistic universe can be found in the most unlikely of places – the aforementioned La Residencia hotel. Once owned by Richard Branson and now run by the deluxe chain Belmond, it’s built around a pair of old manor houses and serves as a living and breathing testament to the village’s creative roots.
The American artist and avid collector George Sheridan was the first to be exhibited at the hotel’s art gallery, Sa Tafona, when it opened in 1984. Over the years he became its curator and continued to build a collection of Spanish contemporary art, much of it sourced locally.
Following his death 10 years ago, his widow Cecilie took over as the hotel’s curator and she continues to hand pick every piece of art that adorns the walls of the guest rooms, public spaces and gallery. She also offers guests a walking tour of the village to meet local artists and visit their studios. The most impressive series of paintings within the hotel, however, can be found in the Cafè Miró restaurant, which gets its name from the 30 Joan Miró works on loan from the artist’s grandson.
La Residencia does more than just showcase art. Initiatives such as its artists-in-residence programme invites painters and sculptors to set up studio at the hotel and interact with guests. Current residents include sculptor Juan Waelder (who oversees the hotel’s sculpture garden) and British portrait artist Alan Hydes, among whose clients is Leonardo di Caprio. The third, US-born ceramicist Joanna Kuhne, lives locally. More recently they collaborated with fashion designer and part-time resident Matthew Williamson to reinvent one of the hotel’s top suites.
While it’s hard not to be captivated by art in Deià, the food is also to be savoured. Mallorca is blessed with fertile soil and a mild climate, which means that a bounty of produce is grown on the island. El Olivo offers fine dining using only local ingredients, while El Barrigon Xelini has an endless list of tapas. There’s even the Michelin-star Es Racó d’es Teix, which serves traditional Mallorcan cuisine. After dark, guests escape to Cafè Sa Fonda, a lively late-night bar favoured by bohos (and, on occasion, Kate Moss).
A short hike from the centre of the village leads you to the stunning Cala Deià, a secluded cove with crystal-clear blue water. Here you can gorge on fresh seafood at the famed Ca’s Patro March, which was featured in the BBC TV adaptation of John Le Carré’s novel The Night Manager. You can also take a boat to the family-run Sa Foradada where traditional paella is cooked over an open wood-fired grill.
The time of day when Deià is at its most bewitching, however, is sunset. Every evening I’d walk up the hotel’s donkey path to a quiet spot with a 180-degree view of the houses below. The mountains by this time are bathed in a soft shade of pink. Music plays in the background often by a local musician who’s entertaining guests at the hotel bar below. And once again that magical feeling lingers.
Read the full story in Prestige Hong Kong October 2018 issue