Before I’d even laid eyes on a cala, the word conjured mystical visions. Formed by ancient rivers, calas are delightfully protected coves of turquoise water and white sand beaches framed by precipitous cliffs, and Mallorca, where we were spending a week chartering, has an embarrassment of calas. My partner, Michaela, and I figured a cala would be the perfect place to introduce our 1-year-old daughter, Sarah (sailing on her very first charter, if you don’t count our trip in Sweden when Michaela was pregnant) to the Mediterranean Sea. And when we arrived at our first cala, Cala Màrmols, on our first full day of sailing about 30 miles from the Navigare Yachting charter base in Palma, we were awestruck.
Sailing the island’s southeastern coast, we had left the high-rise hotels and busy beaches of Palma behind, watching the landscape become more rustic and wild. While skirting along a rather inhospitable-looking rocky coastline around the southern tip of the island, we suddenly caught a glimpse of a crack in the cliffs that opened up to reveal Cala Màrmols.
Màrmol is the Spanish word for marble. This particular cala got its name from the 60-foot-high marble cliffs that cradled a pristine bay of powdery white sand and water so ethereally blue, I didn’t have words to really describe it. To reach this place without a boat would require a long, circuitous car ride on narrow roads from Palma, followed by a 3-mile trek on foot. But here we were, surrounded by pristine wilderness, not a high-rise, vacation home, or crowded beach bar in sight.
After dropping our anchor on the white, sandy bottom of the bay, which we shared with just one other boat, we headed ashore. My family decided to set up camp on the protected beach and build sand castles, while my crew and Chesapeake Bay sailing buddy, Ian, and I explored the extensive trail network behind the beach, taking a GPS, food, and water with us—when I say this is remote, I’m not kidding. It would be easy to get lost. Our hike took us through scented juniper, mastic bushes, and Aleppo pines and provided majestic views of the expansive Mediterranean and Cabrera Island, our next destination.
It was a heckuva start to this September week of sailing in Mallorca, which, with its neighboring islands—Menorca, Ibiza, and Formentera—form the main islands of the Balearics, off the coast of Spain south of Barcelona and east of Valencia. With 344 miles of coastline, much of it wild and undeveloped, and a wide variety of sandy beaches with good holding and shelter from almost any weather system, Mallorca is an intrepid charterer’s dream destination. The biggest challenge is to resist trying to do it all.
Most sailing trips in Mallorca start in Palma, as ours did. The ancient, south-facing port city has an amazing medieval quarter with narrow streets that wander through ornate fountains, colorful outdoor restaurants, and historic architecture—the most famous and prominent being the gothic Cathedral, which dates to the 13th century and overlooks Palma’s expansive bay.
We chartered with Navigare Yachting, within walking distance from the heart of Palma. They delivered a beautiful and brand new 2022 Beneteau Oceanis 46.1 and provided seamless services, which even featured some well-received welcome gifts, including a nicely prepared snack plate with local specialties, cold beer, and sparkling wine.
On the walk-through of the boat and its systems, I was pleased and relieved to see that Navigare Yachting included free Wifi—a particularly helpful feature for keeping an eye on the weather here. In the summer, Mallorca experiences a lot of thermals, which means winds can come from any direction and shift often depending on time of day and where you are. It’s important to be prepared for all eventualities. Winds are fickle, and the Mediterranean can get a bit hairy.
In September, when we were sailing, the thermals are generally supposed to subside. However, we seemed to find quite a lot of good (albeit shifting) wind on most of our days on the water, enough so we did not have to motor much. Luckily, we did not encounter any of the storms or strong winds and waves that the Mediterranean is known for. We’d previously had a taste of the Mediterranean’s angry weather while sailing off the coast of Croatia at about the same time of year, and it can get wild.
Our original plan was to circumnavigate Mallorca. But as I started mapping out our sailing plan, it was pretty clear that we could not achieve this safely in the seven days we had chartered the boat. To be honest, even with 14 days, I’m not sure I’d want to sail the island’s northwest coast, as it does not provide very much in the way of safe harbor except for Port de Soler. Were we to do this, we’d have to keep an eagle eye on the weather; I wouldn’t want to be exposed on that northwest coast when a storm blew in.
Instead, we stuck to the southern coast, both east and west of Palma. Beyond Cala Màrmols, had we continued northeast we’d have encountered our choice of amazing little coves to tuck into, each with its own charm. It’s important to note that not all the calas that look inviting on the chart are available for anchoring, so research them ahead of time. Some are easily approachable, but some are cordoned off for swimmers. Some narrow ones (like the famed Cala Pi) also require a stern anchor.
Blue Caves and Beaches
Rather than continue cala exploring, after enjoying Cala Màrmols we hauled anchor and headed out to Mallorca’s famed Cabrera Archipelago, which lies due south about 12 nautical miles from Màrmols. This national park includes 19 islands and islets. The anchorage is in a well-protected bay on the north side of the main island (directly across from the mainland), which provides a safe haven in all wind directions. This is especially important in these waters, since winds can shift significantly.
We had reserved a mooring ball and obtained the necessary park permit ahead of time to go to Cabrera. (The booking site was easy to navigate, but the prices seem to vary quite a lot depending on the date, so I recommend booking early.)
After a few hours sailing close-hauled, my crew and I were eager to step ashore and stretch our sea legs. We were welcomed by some very knowledgeable park rangers who provided maps and information about the islands, as well as guided tours by kayak and on foot. Following the rangers’ advice, my crew and I hiked around the eastern shore of the protected harbor and found several nice beaches. After picking a beautiful flat, sandy spot (my daughter choosing by pointing and saying “dis da”—her only two words at that time), we unpacked a picnic lunch and then did some snorkeling.
Our goal was to try to spot one of the elusive loggerhead turtles that call this eco heaven their home. Sadly, we had no luck. However, gliding with snorkel and fins through the abundant, lush, flowing green seagrass was a relaxing break from the often intense Mallorca sun.
After our refreshing swim, we climbed the small hill that leads to Fort Cabrera, a 16th-century building that sits on one of the highest points of the island. From here we had a remarkable view of Cabrera and the mainland while enjoying the last warm sun rays of the day.
As peaceful and relaxing as Cabrera is, this island has a dark history. Around 1808, during the Peninsular War between Spain and France, Spanish forces left 9,000 captured French soldiers on Cabrera Island to fend for themselves for six years until they were repatriated in 1814. By that time, only 3,400 had survived.
One of the top attractions on Cabrera is the Cova Blava (Blue Cave), where the late afternoon sun combined with the incredibly clear Cabrera waters create an otherworldly blue light show. It required a dinghy ride to access, and we felt lucky we had a calm day. (I repeat: Check your weather and sea state first. This could be a rough ride if seas are up.) We arrived late in the day—the best time to see the cave, when the sun fully illuminated the cerulean waters and surrounded us in a near cosmic blue.
One thing to know about Cabrera is that much of it is protected and off limits to tourists, so having a good map and paying attention to it is wise. We naively decided to check out some other features along the coastline and were intercepted by the local rangers. We had no idea we’d crossed an imaginary line into a protected area, and innocence did not prove a very good excuse. It required some fast talking and a lot of apologizing to avoid having to pay a hefty fine (although, having a super cute 1-year-old flashing that smile may have possibly helped convince the rangers to cut us some slack).
After Cabrera, we headed west to explore some of the coastline between Palma and Sant Elm, which is on the southwestern-most tip of Mallorca. As on the southeastern coast of the island, we saw beautiful beaches and bays, though not as spectacular. We also saw much more development in this part of the coast, not surprising given its close proximity to the capital.
One cala we especially liked was on the west side of Punta Negra, just 6 nautical miles west of Palma. This would make a convenient and lovely first night’s anchorage if you’re running late after provisioning and doing all those unexpected things that one has to do before setting sail the first day. The sandy bottom had great holding, and when we were there, the anchorage was not too crowded.
Further west along the southern coast as you round the westernmost tip of Mallorca, just opposite the famed “dragon-shaped” island of Dragonera, lies one of our favorite places we visited, Sant Elm. We liked Sant Elm so much, we decided to spend some time there post-sail and rented a small villa just off the beach called Universal Aquamarin Beach Houses. There was plenty of room for baby and crew and a very nice semi-private pool, which made for a relaxing time.
This quaint village had a number of beautiful beaches to explore, as well as herds of feral goats often roaming the village and beach. We headed out on a rigorous and fantastic hike in the Serra de Tramuntana mountain range, which led to the ruins of La Trapa Monastery. We were blown away at the views of the coastline and Dragonera Island.
From our perch, we could see a few sailors heading down the last stretch of the northwest coast who had decided to battle the strong wind and waves. It looked exciting, but also exhausting. I didn’t see many sails up—most were motoring. From that vantage point, it looked like we made the right call to stick to Mallorca’s southern reaches.
I mark the success of any sailing trip on whether I’d want to do it again. With so many calas and amazing beaches, not to mention all the culture and history of Mallorca and the many other islands in the Balearics to explore—Menorca, Ibiza, and Formentera—Mallorca ranks as one of those places. However, even if we do return, I still doubt we’d be able to do it all.
Navigare Yachting in Palma de Mallorca: navigare-yachting.com
Cabrera Island: intranet.caib.es/rescab7front/ (Sailors must reserve a mooring ball and get a park permit before visiting).
Cuevas de Artà: www.cuevasdearta.com
Universal Aquamarin Beach Houses in Sant Elm: