Rafael Nadal, Richard Branson Bring New Hotels—and Attention—to Mallorca

The largest of Spain’s Balearic Islands has become a hotbed of celebrity hotels yet remains blissfully low key.


Richard Branson’s 26-room Son Bunyola is set on a 1,300-acre Mallorca country estate with a nascent vineyard.

Courtesy of Son Bunyola

It’s the perfect match. Next month, Melia hotels will formally open its latest property in Mallorca: Zel, a 165-room hotel and the first in a planned 20-strong chain in partnership with Grand Slam tennis hero Rafael Nadal. The Mallorca-born player already operates a tennis academy on the island, with two dozen or so courts in his hometown of Manacor, but this is the champion’s first hospitality project. No wonder he picked Melia for a partner, as it’s a fellow Mallorcan success story, starting here in 1956 before spreading around the world.

The first Zel site sits on the south coast of the island between super-yacht hub Andratx and the capital, Palma; the name means “sky” in the Catalan dialect widely spoken here. Rooms have a retro-Mediterranean vibe—think neutral tones, rope curtains, and accents of the homegrown ikat pattern. There’s a 3,200-foot-long golden beach out front, plus several restaurants and an ample gym; oddly, though, Zel has no tennis court on site. Perhaps it’s a sign that the hip injury–plagued heartthrob is ready to fully pivot from serve to server, though he’s not yet been spotted doling out drinks behind the bar. (Nadal did compile a list of must-sees on the island drawn from his childhood that guests can consult.)

But that four-star property isn’t the only new opening this summer on the biggest of the Balearics. (At 1,400 square miles or so, Mallorca is about six times larger than Ibiza.) Belmond-operated La Residencia in Deia has long reigned as the island’s top luxury hotel—but it’s just gotten a new rival, courtesy of the man who originally opened it as a hotel, Richard Branson. His new property is the 26-room Son Bunyola, which debuted earlier this month; it’s set on a 1,300-acre country estate, where oil is made from olives growing there and vines have been planted in a nascent vineyard. Grand Hotel Son Net welcomed guests at much the same time: the 31-room former finca (think Spain’s answer to a Texas ranch) is set among the hills of the central Tramuntana range, and has been reimagined as an ultra-luxe hideaway. Try one of the smaller rooms—41, 42, or 43—in the main house with their own private entry; the brand-new, multistory subterranean wellness center is also a standout. The nearby Castell Son Claret is a superb all-rounder, with large rooms and memorable meals from local chef Jordi Cantó—try some of the moreish chorizo toast at breakfast.

Also dabbling in hospitality in Mallorca is photographer Kate Bellm, a bona fide tastemaker who works with the likes of Alexa Chung and Chrome Hearts. Bellm and her partner Edgar Lopez are behind the new Hotel Corazon, a maximalist, 15-room converted finca that doubles as an art space and shop near the artsy hub of Deia. Later this summer, a 37-room spot in central Palma, housed in one of the city’s oldest buildings (dating back to the 12th century), will begin operating under Scandinavian chain Nobis.

Hotel Corazon

The new 15-room Hotel Corazon has a photographer’s eye for design.

Photo by Anna Malmberg

Why, though, is this longtime fly-and-flop spot seeing such an uptick in upscale openings right now? In part, it’s thanks to concerted efforts by the local authorities, keen to shift the island’s market away from the hordes of sunseeking Brits and Germans who long formed its key audience. They flocked her for cheap beer and guaranteed good weather to districts like Magaluf—or Calvià Beach as it’s now known. Those marathon drinking sessions have been curtailed thanks to new laws that restrict everything from booze cruising to pub crawls, as well as the introduction of conduct contracts brandished at visitors during check-in. The image overhaul has centered on luring newer, higher-end operations to open in Magaluf’s environs. High-end day club Nikki Beach—a mainstay of St. Bart’s, Miami, and the South of France—opened there three years ago. Zel is opening five minutes’ drive from the main Magaluf strip, part of the Melia company’s €230 million (US$251 million) efforts to overhaul the area. More than 60 percent of the hotels there now qualify as four star or higher.

Authorities have even enacted rules intended to better safeguard staff; new beds in hotel rooms, for example, must be elevated so as not to strain room attendants’ backs. Authorities hope this deliberate shift upscale will discourage the rowdy crowds that once plagued the city all summer. “Getting 10 million tourists a year, it has a cost,” the local tourism director told the BBC when explaining the impetus. “And for us, getting a lot of people partying, getting the streets dirty or ending up in hospitals, it’s a huge cost for locals.”

Mallorca has a cap on the total number of hotel beds that can be sold here, too; last October, the council set it at 430,000, still a large number when the island’s population is less than 1 million people. Throttling capacity like this has been a driver of the new boom, too, as Luke Jakobson explains; he’s an expat Australian who runs The Mallorcan magazine. “You can only open a new hotel at the expense of existing beds elsewhere,“ he says. “There were a lot of hotels built here in the 1970s and 1980s, which had gotten very rundown. They were going out of business, and COVID sped that up. It then opened up the opportunity within the quota to start new hotels because they’d closed.”

Scott Dunn Private head Jules Maury has monitored Mallorca for some time, aware it was primed to emerge as a hot, high-end destination as soon as enough new four- and five-star properties replaced those aging seafront spots. This summer, Maury has relaunched it as one of her recommended spots. “It has needed a new hotel explosion for years and the land agreements and planning permission, for example, have all just come together at the same time, which is really interesting,” she tells AFAR. “Son Bunyola’s been years in the making but it has only recently had the go-ahead.”

Value and convenience are key to its revival, too. Many locals cite the new nonstop flight that connects New York–EWR and Palma on United Airlines as transformative for the hospitality scene. It started last year for the summer season and increased in frequency from twice weekly to three times each week for 2023, through September. “That direct flight has 100 percent had an impact—there are so many more Americans,” says London-based fashion exec Daisy Hoppen, whose family has long had a second home in Mallorca’s countryside. “Maybe six years ago, Mallorca was not a social scene kind of place—it was all about Ibiza—but there’s been this crazy revival recently.”

Even deep-pocketed visitors will be surprised at how Spain remains remarkably good value, especially compared with other Mediterranean destinations. “The money you need for one happy day in France, you can have two in Italy or three in Spain,” says Madrid-based travel specialist Virginia Irurita. “Mallorca is similar to Italy, but you’re paying so much less [for] the food, the wine, the olive oil, the countryside. The Balearic Islands are what Americans think Italy looks like, with cypresses, almond trees, and deep blue water.”

Unlike many other destinations in the Med, though, Mallorca is viable for tourism year-round—indeed, pro cyclists come to practice on its rugged interior terrain when the weather’s crisper and less sweltering than in midsummer. Made for Spain & Portugal founder Virginia Irurita reports a rise in off-season travel, too, even in the wetter months of January and February. “That’s what luxury means to me nowadays, custom travel, off-season—otherwise, it can be hell,” she says, noting the overtourism in the region at season’s peak between June and August. The economics of operating year-round make Mallorca more appealing for hoteliers than, say, a Greek island outpost, which can operate at most for five or six months. Son Net, for example, has fireplaces throughout, making it as handy for a winter getaway as a summer weekend. The shift toward year-round travel among higher-end visitors, as Irurita notes, means there’s newfound demand for that year-round supply, too.

Don’t expect this summer for Mallorca to max out, either. Its pop culture clout is rising: If watching the next season of The Crown makes you crave a trip to St. Tropez or Portofino, skip France or Italy and come here instead, as Mallorca subbed for them both. Mallorca was where Nicole Kidman shot her forthcoming miniseries Lioness, from Yellowstone’s Taylor Sheridan, last winter, too. And there are even more hotels on the horizon: Both Mandarin Oriental and Four Seasons have settled on sites, and Six Senses is rumored to be circling a location. “If you find Capri too busy and lacking in scenery, and Ibiza too hectic, Mallorca is the top pick,” says Jules Maury. “It fits everyone and is easy to get to, with quiet places and charming towns. It just ticks all the boxes.”

Know before you go

Getting there

United Airlines flies from Newark to Palma three times weekly: eastbound on Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday, and returning on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. The service started on May 25 and will run through September 2023. The main airport is a short drive from the historic city center of Palma; staying elsewhere, be sure to book a car, as distances here can be surprising. Rideshare services are also widely available.

Where to stay

Travel advisors and tour operators to call

When it comes to planning bespoke insider itineraries in Spain, Virginia Irurita has no peers, and she’s a regular visitor to Mallorca herself (usually to pick up trinkets at the weekly flea market in Deia). To find a villa there, or to tap into on-island concierge services, the best option is Milagro Care, run by a pair of longtime resident expats, one British and the other German.

British-born, New York–based Mark Ellwood has lived out of a suitcase for most of his life. He is editor-at-large for luxury bible Robb Report and columnist for Bloomberg Luxury. Recent stories have led him to hang out with China’s trendsetters in Chengdu and learn fireside raps from cowboy poets in Wyoming.
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