The view from my 11th-floor suite offered a concise history of Mediterranean tourism. First there was the curvaceous beauty of a lonely beach, creamy sand lapped by glassy blue water, and a scrap of almond groves and pinewoods still visible on the headland. Then what came along to transform that landscape utterly and irreversibly: a jumble of high-rise hotels and apartment blocks, marching around the beach almost to the tip of the bay.
Magaluf is not a place that gets much coverage in the Financial Times. For half a century this resort on the southwest coast of Mallorca has been used as shorthand – at first, for honest-to-goodness Spanish beach tourism, and latterly for the worst excesses of young, rowdy and drunken holidaymakers. This is the destination known by the writers of UK tabloid headlines as “Shagaluf”, notorious for the “booze cruise” and the number of tourists falling from its balconies (something that resulted in the deaths of four Britons last summer alone).
All the more extraordinary, then, that there are moves afoot to reposition Magaluf as an upmarket destination. It is a strategy being driven by Meliá Hotels International, a Spanish-owned chain with 350 properties worldwide, which hopes to transform a resort commonly described as maduro (a Spanish euphemism for “past-it”) into a chic “city resort” pitched at a high-spending clientele from across Europe. The name Magaluf carries too much negative baggage – instead, Meliá and others pushing the resort’s renaissance refer to it by a newly invented name, Calvià Beach.
Arriving at Meliá’s ME Mallorca, a 325-room hotel that opened last month, I’d been struck by the zigzag form in reinforced concrete above the doorway – a piece of 1970s architectural detail that might once have been thought ugly but now, in the wake of Mad Men and the rage for all things vintage, looked rather fabulous. Ambient house music pulsed gently, persistently – occasionally irritatingly – throughout the building. In the reception area, where a projector threw futuristic patterns on to a geometric wall-piece, two girls with white dresses and beatific smiles floated up to introduce themselves as the hotel’s “aura managers” (what other hotels might call concierges). My room was a white-on-white world, flooded with the dazzle of the sea. Rumpled after an early flight, I lounged in a big white Philippe Starck bath placed between the bed and the balcony, and was gradually revived by the view.
Outside the hotel, first impressions had been less promising. In the nearby streets, I saw a dingy Russian supermarket, a pizza and kebab joint, and a series of British-owned establishments whose names – Clem’s Windsor Pub, Elaine’s Mucky Duck, the Bollocks Bar – speak for themselves.
But further exploration revealed signs that the neighbourhood is on the move. Nikki Beach, the club chain known for its champagne-fuelled parties at branches in St Tropez, Miami and Ibiza, opened here in 2012, shoulder-to-shoulder with the ME. (Nikki Beach’s press releases avoid all mention of Magaluf, instead calling the club a “hidden gem located in an idyllic beachfront setting near Calvià”.) Further up the beach is the Wave House, also owned by Meliá – a revamp of a grotty old three-star now featuring live music on the spectacular oceanfront terraza. Beside that is the Café del Mar, a franchise of the original Ibiza chillout bar that, with sunsets being absent on this east-facing beach, broadcasts the spectacular nightfalls on a big screen direct from the White Isle.
Why would Meliá risk investing in an area whose reputation is so tainted rather than find somewhere new? Some motivation seems to come from its long local history. The company was founded by Mallorquín Don Gabriel Escarrer, who in 1956 leased his first hotel in Palma, 19km along the coast, and went on to open several more around the bay. Since then, Calvià, the municipality to which Magaluf belongs, has grown from a rural enclave into the area with the highest per capita income in Spain.
After lunch at Pez Playa, the ME’s excellent Barcelona-inspired beachside restaurant (black rice with chipirones, heritage tomato salad with tuna ventresca and capers) I spoke to Gabriel Escarrer Jr, Meliá’s current chief executive and son of the founder. He described his idyllic childhood summers on Magaluf’s beach and the early days of the resort, when he remembers going to cocktail receptions with his father at which the tourists came down for dinner in black tie.
“This whole area was an enormous success: the hotels were open for 12 months of the year with an occupation rate of 90 per cent. Those were the glory days of Magaluf,” he said. Then, in the 1990s, the rot set in. Competition from the eastern Med and the rise of the all-inclusive holiday had driven down prices to the point where they were no longer sustainable. “I saw it clearly: the era of the hooligan had begun. I was ashamed to bring my wife and children here; ashamed to let them see what had become of my home town.”
Spain’s economic problems meant there would be no public funding for the project but, as the biggest stakeholder in the area, Meliá decided to commit €150m. Escarrer argues that, though hardly an easy proposition, the resort has certain innate advantages as a high-end destination: three luxury marinas within a few miles, plus 17 golf courses and the historic sights and shopping of Palma all within a half-hour drive.
The first phase focused on redeveloping the 1970s hotel Magaluf Playa into the ME Mallorca. One of the first developments on a hitherto unexploited beach, it was designed in a modernist idiom, drawing heavily on mid-century American style, but had become a €30-a-night dump before Meliá bought it cheaply in 2009 and set about turning it into the entry point for its Calvià Beach master plan. The idea was to follow the Miami Beach model whereby a down-at-heel resort is dragged upmarket by means of energetic marketing and a massive injection of private money.
Under phase two, the Sol Antillas and Sol Barbados, two as-yet unreconstructed hotels in awkward proximity to the ME, will receive facelifts and the streets behind the beach will become pedestrianised.
Aware that success hinges largely on ridding Calvià Beach of grot, Escarrer is busy making deals with upmarket retail brands whose presence, he hopes, will raise the tone. He talks of souvenir shops that, instead of peddling T-shirts emblazoned with “Made in the UK, destroyed in Magaluf” and “On it till we vomit”, will stock Mallorcan sandals, handmade basketwork and local olive oils. “I want the client to take away something of the culture of our island, not nasty souvenirs made in China,” he said.
Escarrer says his master plan is already bearing fruit. What was once an overwhelmingly British-dominated destination is now attracting a more diverse mix of Germans, Scandinavians, even Spaniards, with the British making up only 37 per cent. Spending in the resort’s hotels increased by 25 per cent last year compared with 2012.
As I walked along the seafront in the evening sun, it was possible to imagine some of Magaluf’s original hotels, for years derided for their tacky 1970s design, acquiring a gloss of retro cool. I turned inland along Punta Ballena, the street of shame known by British visitors as the Strip, as it was getting into its night-time stride. “Darlin’, you look like you could use a beer,” called a hostess in pink stilettos while, at the Bonkers Disco Pub, a red-faced couple took photos of fishbowl-sized cocktails complete with sparklers.
Then came a small miracle. Under the promontory, out on a limb from the Strip, a new beachside chiringuito was holding its opening party, with caipirinhas and Argentinian barbecue and dancing to Stevie Wonder as the sun went down. The crowd at Barracuda was nonchalantly stylish, a sympathetic assortment of ages and races that reminded me of Ibiza in its heyday. No hooligans here – but there wouldn’t be, with mojitos at €10 each.
Back at the ME, the music had moved up a notch to smooth Balearic house. From my balcony I watched a big yacht dock at the new pontoon, its sleek denizens heading, perhaps, for a VIP table at Nikki Beach. Never mind the Bollocks Bar – from this vantage point, Magaluf’s transformation didn’t seem quite so far-fetched.
Paul Richardson was a guest of ME Mallorca (melia.com) which has doubles from €180