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Beautifully Balearic

The Balearic Islands of Spain, located in the western Mediterranean Sea, have been in the crosshairs of many rulers, including the Vandals of 461 AD, the Byzantine Empire and the Kingdom of Aragon. Many landmarks, like the imposing Gothic cathedral in Mallorca and the salt marshes in Ibiza, are reminders of their ancient history and architectural wonders built on the beautiful islands. In addition to exploring the relics of past centuries, Mallorca and Ibiza both offer a plethora of excursions for outdoor enthusiasts—from boat rides through caves, to tanning on gay-friendly beaches.

Start your journey by visiting the largest island of the archipelago, Mallorca. Perhaps the most recognizable landmark in the capital of Palma de Mallorca is the magnificent La Seu Gothic cathedral. With walls built from sandstone and lined with flying buttresses that seem to rise out of the sea, La Seu was created during the rule of King James I of Aragon in 1229, with construction finishing four centuries later in 1601. It sits within the old city of Palma atop the former citadel of the Roman city, between the Royal Palace of La Almudaina and the episcopal palace. It also overlooks the Parc de la Mar, where couples stop for a romantic bite and teenage locals host rap battles in Spanish. The small entrance fee allows you to take in the wrought-iron candelabras designed by Spain’s most celebrated modernist architect, Antoni Gaudi, as well as one of the world’s largest stained glass naves, and the controversial unfinished Crown of Thorns, fashioned from cardboard and cork and suspended above the altar. 

In Palma, shopping along the 100-year-old tree-lined Passeig de Born promenade is a must for experiencing the heart of city life. The Passeig de Born is the hub of fiestas, demonstrations and a place where families can enjoy an evening stroll. The promenade is lined with a selection of mid- and high-range shops, including Zara, Boss and Louis Vuitton. Born is also the home to Ca’n Solleric, a modern art gallery that opened in 1995 in a converted mansion.

Leaving the city, one should pay a visit to the east coast of the island, best known for its caves and stunning beaches. The eerie-looking Caves of Drach are one of the island’s most unique attractions, extending for more than 3,900 feet with craggy stalactite formations that hang from the ceiling and jutting stalagmites that rise from the ground. The caves can be explored through an hour-long guided tour, which includes a classical-music concert and a boat trip across Lake Martel, one of the largest subterranean lakes in the world.

Spend a day in the isolated, rugged west coast of Mallorca. Valldemossa is one of the island’s best-kept secrets—a small town with quaint homes and family bakeries. Many doorways of houses feature a religious symbol of Mallorca’s patron saint, Catalina Thomàs, said to protect them from harm. The Royal Carthusian monastery of Valldemossa is the area’s main draw. It’s the spot where the Carthusian monks were based for several centuries. Tourists who appreciate classical music will take delight in the souvenirs and personal objects left by Frédéric Chopin and Georges Sand, who spent a winter there. The stone-paved alleys also make for a romantic stroll around the grounds.

Heading back to Palma, a walk through the Poble Espanyol village gives you a glimpse of Spanish architecture, showing its development through Muslim and then Christian influences. You can eat Spanish food in the Plaza Mayor or sit outside a café watching passers-by browse for treasures at the quaint shops. Artists give displays of handicrafts in workshops scattered throughout the village. Palma City is also the place where gay travellers will find such LGBT events as Saturday-night parties in the gay club La Demence; women flock to the Ella Lesbian Festival, a long weekend of beach activities and night parties.

After a few days in Mallorca, take Air Berlin’s short, one-hour flight over to Ibiza. Air Berlin is an IGLTA member and also has an LGBT information site to promote travel within the gay community (airberlin.com/lgbt). Ibiza is renowned for bringing the best DJs in the world to sell-out events during the party season, which runs from May through September. AfroJack, David Guetta, Carlcox and Avicci are some of the headliner DJs seen on billboards all over the island. But Ibiza isn’t just for the party crowd: the island experience comes with adventure excursions, gourmet cuisine and ancient landmarks for the eager explorer.

Start with your check-in to the Ushuaïa Tower Hotel, located in the lively Playa d’en Bossa. Before even approaching the lobby, you’ll hear music by the resident British DJ Paul Reynolds spilling from the pool area. This is a sign that the party has already started, and it’s not even 1 p.m. Before stripping off your airplane attire and throwing on some shorts to groove by the pool, spend a couple of hours taking in the island’s natural beauty. A prelude to the wild night sure to come would be relaxing on the gay-friendly Ses Salines public beach about 10 minutes from the hotel. During the drive, miles of natural marshes can be seen outlining a combination of gleaming mounds of salt, the church of Sant Francesc, pinewoods and sabina thickets. The Ses Salines Park salt marshes date from 600 BC, and locals favor biking or running along this scenic path.

Relax for a couple hours at Ses Salines beach, turning your body to and fro to absorb a nice even tan (and, yes, the island is topless-friendly). When hunger has started to set in, visit the neighbouring gay-owned restaurant, Chiringay and savour its meat, fish, seafood and pasta specialties in a beachfront location.

Back at the hotel, with the sun setting, you might decide to head over to the Ushuaïa Club. By then, dancers dressed in slinky outfits will have started moving to the DJ’s house music, and a crowd is forming around the massive 50-foot stage. Ushuaïa was the first property to create a combination hotel and open-air club on the island, and it’s one of Ibiza’s hottest destinations for adults-only fun times. And as a bonus, the wristband received at check-in will give you free access to all of the Ushuaïa parties. Even the breakfast buffet offers grown-up food, like lump black roe caviar and air-dried beef from the Alps. If this doesn’t sell you, according to Guille Rodriguez, social media marketing manager for Palladium Group, “there is no such thing as gay-friendly here because everyone is treated the same.”

You decide to head out for your first night in Ibiza, and many club options are presented to you, like Pacha, Space and Privilege, each having different days for their weekly party. Gay travellers usually attend mainstream parties and events, but at times there are also gay-specific events. Since Playa d’en Bossa is near the airport, planes fly close to the rooftops, almost magically transforming the air as they go. Ibiza’s blowout gay event, the WE party, happens at the Ushuaïa Club in July and August. Additionally, the Velvet Ibiza party (www.velvetibiza.com) is described as “The Wildest Women’s-Only Weekend” for lesbians. It’s scheduled to take place in 2015 from May 28 to 31 and includes pool parties, concerts, yoga and beach events.  

On Tuesday and Saturday nights, the Hard Rock Hotel, just across the street from Ushuaïa, has a dinner-and-show experience on the ninth-floor rooftop. At the Heaven restaurant, guests can enjoy a four-course tapas menu while watching a series of performances, including ballet, sexy sailor dances and contortionists in a setting à la Las Vegas and Miami wrapped together.

Be sure to take the rental car out for a drive to the western side of the island, where another beautiful beach awaits your discovery. Enter Cala Salada. This tucked-away paradise is mainly on the radar of the locals. Warm sand is flanked by crystal-clear blue waters that beckon you for a swim or to rent one of the paddle boats for an up-close perspective of the coast.

Because Ibiza is known for its world-class beaches, what harm could come from visiting a second one in a day? The see-and-be-seen Cotton Beach Club offers one of the best views on the island while dining. The ritzy restaurant-lounge is swathed in white and offers sweeping panoramas. Choose a Mediterranean main course, browse the sushi menu or reserve a table on the rooftop to take in the sunset. Eat and drink your fill, then head down to the Tarida beach to take a photo on the flat-rock formation, with sailboats and a bright horizon in the background.

Mallorca and Ibiza both sparkle with centuries-old history and offer adventurous activities along the Mediterranean Sea. With top-tier hotels, mild weather year round and a lively party scene—not to mention their celebrated openness to LGBT travellers—these Balearic Islands have more than earned their must-see status.