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Mallorca

Mallorca, Spain

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The Balearic Islands have had more than their fair share of invaders, including the Romans, and, since time immemorial they've been a magnet for traders, settlers, raiders and now tourists who come to marvel at the landscape and wildlife, enjoy the warm climate, sigh over the quaint beauty of the old stone villas, admire the clean lines and simplicity of the white temples, or soak up the atmosphere of island life. Although Mallorca has a reputation for nightclubs and partying it's much more than Europe's summer beach party. You can enjoy chic cafes, see some great art and explore countryside that encompasses craggy mountain peaks, fertile lowlands, fine beaches and pine forests - all in an area you can happily cover in a short stopover on your cruise.

First port of call will be Palma, a historic capital with typically Mediterranean buildings in the Old Town: thick stone walls keep the insides cool in summer without the need for air-conditioning. The town is well worth a leisurely exploration. The star attraction is the La Seu Cathedral, Spain's grandest and best. Taking over three hundred years to build this monumental Gothic structure in golden sandstone was worth the wait. Stroll inside and the interior by Gaudi combines typical flamboyance with a sense of reverence. There's also a breathtaking Gaudi canopy with lights and a multi-colored crucifix that hanging above the altar. The central nave is one of the largest in the world and the gigantic rose window - 1200 individual glass pieces, forty feet in diameter - is particularly special. They're also very proud of a relic of wood supposed to originate from the Holy Cross, now richly encrusted with jewels.

The Parc del Mar is great for a relaxing stroll and contains a fine mural by local boy Joan Miro. There's much more Miro on offer at the Miro Foundation in Cala Major, a few kilometers west of Palma. Wander down the tree-lined avenue of La Rambla to take in the city's biggest flower market - a riot of perfume and color.

Palma also boasts one of Europe's most beautiful Gothic castles, the Castell de Bellmer. Sited close to the entrance to the harbor it'll be hard to miss when you leave your ship. It was built in the fourteenth century as a summer residence for the king of Mallorca, but later served as a prison. Complete with moat and military fortifications it's no mere stately home, combining beauty with true defensive functionality. The castle's been extensively and carefully restored and the views from the top are stunning.

Venture only a little further afield and all the beaches around Palma are at your disposal - plenty of opportunity for watersports enthusiasts to strut their stuff, but more posing is done on the sand than in the water. There are plenty of well-oiled, fashionable folk soaking up the rays on the golden sands, but you'll be welcome to splash around in the warm water and improvise a game of beach baseball. If you've had enough water onboard ship, remember that horseback riding is popular - you'll be able to arrange a trek from Palma or Soller.

If you're happy to explore on your own a popular choice is the Red Arrow narrow gauge steam railway from Palma to Soller, a much more laidback seaside town. The ride through the spectacular mountain scenery on the clanking, hissing steam train is a real treat. Stroll around the sloping lanes of Soller to get the flavor of this relaxed old fishing community then take a vintage tram to the Port of Soller to see the lighthouse and enjoy a seafood lunch.

Your cruise operator will probably have organized trips to some of the sights further away from the capital. The limestone caves of Mallorca are justly famous, and the ones at Arta and Drac are amongst the finest. There are underground caverns the size of cathedral - sometimes waterborne concerts are organized inside - and magnificent stalactites and stalagmites. The caves have been a hideaway for everyone from smugglers and pirates, through early settlers to those seeking religious sanctuary. Other possibilities are the pilgrims' monastery at Lluc or the Carthusian monastery in Valldemossa where the composer Chopin rented a cell.

If you're souvenir hunting go to the modern town of Inca for leatherwork or to the Can Gordiola glassworks at Algaida. The glassworks are the oldest on the island with a pedigree to be proud of: Mallorcan glass used to rival Venetian glass in reputation. You'll be able to watch the glassblowers at work and admire the collection of old glass before you buy a modern piece.

Mallorca's turned a history of repeated invasion into a fine tradition of hospitality but the dramatic growth in tourism brings pressures which are threatening the natural environment, unspoilt beauty and relaxed life that is prized by locals and visitors alike. Enjoy it while you can.

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