Standing beside a low stone wall – one quite possibly meticulously built some centuries ago – and with the scent of lavender swirling lightly in the air, Sir Richard Branson gazed sentimentally out over a scene of Balearic beauty.
“Oh, it was love at first sight,” he said.
Spreading out before us, the ravines, ridges and forested peaks of Mallorca’s Tramuntana mountains tumbled down to a coastline peppered with coves and bays lapped by a sapphire sea. Completing the postcard in the near distance was Son Bunyola, the latest addition to Branson’s collection of hotels, and the newest to open on the island.
Spread across 1,300 acres of the Unesco-protected northwestern coast, the opening of the historic 16th-century finca turned 26-room resort is significant, not least because it marks a deeply significant milestone for the Virgin boss, but also because it represents a fundamental change slowly sweeping the island. A new wave of luxury has arrived, and with it a flurry of shiny new hotels, as Mallorca celebrates a reinvention that many argue is long overdue.
But for Branson, it’s personal. This is a love affair a lifetime in the making.
“We used to holiday here when I was a child. It was just wonderful,” he told me. In fact, his connection to the island goes back even further than that. “I was conceived here,” he laughed. “Mum and Dad got married and jetted off to Mallorca the day after their wedding, and I came along nine months later.”
To say this is a place in his blood is something of an understatement. For a time, he was the owner of La Residencia, a landmark hotel now part of the Belmond group. Having sold it, he found he couldn’t shake the pull of Mallorca’s magnetism and set about making a comeback, searching for a new location befitting a billionaire with big ideas.
“This was the very first place we looked at and I loved it the moment I saw it,” he said. That was back in 1994. As we all know, the course of true love rarely runs smoothly, and Branson sold the estate eight years later, having been unable to secure the necessary permissions to realise his vision of opening it as a hotel.
But like any holiday romance, you never quite forget. In 2015, Branson returned to the site with the intention of adding it to his Virgin Limited Edition collection, a portfolio of properties that also includes Necker Island, a luxury private island, and safari camps in Kenya and South Africa.
And just like its sister properties, the brief for Son Bunyola was simple: to create a homely hideaway into which Branson (and others with pockets deep enough) could retreat with his nearest and dearest; one that honoured and respected its surroundings.
Son Bunyola ticks those boxes with gusto. Barely 40 minutes from Palma, and spread across fragrant terraced hillsides of olive groves and citrus trees where donkeys, peacocks and goats roam freely, much of the estate’s original grandeur remains.
The main finca – once home to local nobility and, later, a working olive press – is still dominated by a formidable medieval defence tower that now houses a luxurious suite complete with private rooftop terrace. Elsewhere, original vaulted arches and floor tiles stand alongside 16th-century doors-turned-coffee-tables and modern artwork (including one painted by Branson’s sister Lindy).
Natural materials and muted tones abound. There’s a spa and a glorious 28m (92ft) swimming pool, a tennis court, private beach and two restaurants serving contemporary Mallorcan dishes by Spanish chef Samuel G Galdon with produce from the gardens.
The arrival of Son Bunyola – and Branson’s return to the island – is big news in Mallorca. On a morning’s exhilarating bike ride along mountain roads to the sleepy village of Esporles (73-year-old Richard putting me to shame on a regular bike while I “tackled” the steep ascents on an e-bike), we paused for a coffee break along the bunting-strewn main avenue. It wasn’t long before the double-takes and lingering looks started, as locals recognised that their new neighbour – the world’s most famous entrepreneur – had stopped by.
It’s also big news in a far broader sense. Once best known for boozy nights out in Magaluf, Mallorca has shaken off its past misdemeanours and firmly repositioned itself as a destination that’s decidedly more discerning than debauched.
A reinvention that even Madonna would envy, an influx of game-changing new hotels has opened its doors, redefining the hospitality landscape on the island in the process.
Among them is the sprawling, family- friendly, all-inclusive Ikos Porto Petro (ikosresorts.com), with its seven pools and blessed location between two sandy coves on the southeastern shore. It’s also a stone’s throw from the fabled Parc Natural de Mondragó – a spot easily reached in one of the electric Teslas available to guests.
Also new to the south, on Palmanova beach, is the 319-room Zel Melia (melia.com), which has opened in partnership with tennis star and local lad Rafael Nadal.
Meanwhile Son Net (sonnet.es) has recently reopened after an extensive restoration. A former private palace dating back to 1672, it’s expected to see a swift return of its devoted royal and A-list guests. And what awaits them? Exquisitely preserved frescoes, a 500-year-old cypress tree and 31 individually designed rooms kitted out with bespoke fabrics, antique furniture, stone floors and marble bathrooms.
Luxury takes a more holistic approach at Hotel Corazón (hotelcorazon.com), the art-focused passion project of first-time hoteliers Kate Bellm and Edgar Lopez, which has opened on 12 acres of ancient farmland near Deia. The 15 rooms offer views of the mountains or gardens, and guests can expect healing crystals, sound baths, sunrise yoga and not a television screen in sight.
All this considered, it’s little surprise that the big boys want in on the action, too. Mandarin Oriental and Four Seasons are set to open next year, and rumour has it that Six Senses is scouting for its own little patch of paradise on the island.
Mallorca’s makeover extends beyond where visitors lay their heads. How they fill their stomachs is also on the up. Homegrown chef Javier Hoebeeck was awarded the island’s latest Michelin star – its eleventh in total – for his pioneering restaurant Fusion 19 (fusion19.com), where the tasting menu features no fewer than 100 different culinary creations.
Meanwhile, new laws have been introduced to curb antisocial behaviour, meaning even Magaluf may be on the cusp of turning over a new leaf, while Palma has seen trendy new boutique hotels cementing it as a year-round city break destination that’s chic as well as cultured.
Close to the cathedral in the heart of the atmospheric Old Town is one such place: Can Cirera (hotelcancirera.com), a charming 19-room bolthole that started life as a convent in the 15th century.
“The gentrification is continuing at great pace,” says British historian – and long-term Palma resident – Chris Cleere. “Mallorca is changing. People need to stop thinking about Magaluf and start picturing Monaco, because that is where it’s heading.”
It’s a new dawn for Mallorca, but only time will tell whether this change of direction will help a new crowd of travellers fall for its seductive charm. For Branson, at least, it’s a love story with the happiest of endings.
Nick Boulos was a guest of Son Bunyola (0800 716 919; virginlimitededition.com), which offers double rooms from £520, including breakfast