Off-Topic: Playa Garden Hotel & Spa, and Mallorca

It is summertime, and time for another off-topic blog post about travel. This year, we took our family vacation on the island of Mallorca, at the Playa Garden Hotel & Spa. It is located in Playa de Muro, between Port d’Alcudia and Can Picafort on the east coast of Mallorca. The goal was to enjoy a bit of sun & sea, and that worked out very well. It looks like we were lucky in our hotel choice, too.

The location of the hotel is very good when looking for peace and quiet, and not wanting to have lots of entertainment close by.  The Playa Garden is one of a string of hotels between the beach and the natural park of S’Albufera. This means that the area is rather quiet and almost empty, unlike the busier areas further north in Port d’Alcudia. The hotels sit conveniently along the MA-12 road, and there is a small strip of shops and convenience services between the hotels and the road.

On our flight down, we flew past the bay and managed to snap a picture showing the shape of the bay out the window.

Speaking of the flight, the airport in Palma de Mallorca was quite a surprise – nice and modern, especially for a tourist destination like this. Turns out Palma airport is among Europe’s busiest airports in the summer, and on a yearly basis it sees more passengers than Stockholm-Arlanda and Oslo-Gardemoen! Tourism in Mallorca is an industry on a scale rarely seen elsewhere.  It really permeates the entirely island.

The Traffic

We used a rental car to get from the airport to the hotel, as the buses did not match our timing. Renting a car was about as expensive as taking a taxi, and gave us a bit more freedom.  It takes about an hour to drive to Alcudia from Palma Airport. The main highway across the island, as well as the roads long the bay were in very good shape – indeed, lots of it felt very new. This is Spain, though, and the roads and especially the streets in cities are a bit narrower than what you find in Sweden. When we arrived home and drove on the E4 up north from Arlanda I realized that the Swedish two-lane highway would have easily fit three lanes with Spanish lane width (maybe even four).

Parking was surprisingly easy to find out on the streets around the hotel, as well as free. Indeed it seemed that parking was free all over the island – I guess that is good for the tourist industry, but it also seems to encourage people to take the car everywhere. I won’t complain from our perspective, but if I lived there I think it might be better to charge for parking and make it harder to have a car. There were some cases where parked cars required some care in navigating the streets, but we never got entirely stuck due to poor parking at least.

The Beach

We choose this hotel due its promised beach access, and it did not disappoint. The hotel has its own beach on the Alcudia Bay, which is reached via a short footpath through the dunes protecting the hotel from the sea.

In the next picture, we can see how the two “horns” jutting out from the island frame the bay:

The beach was very good with nice soft sand and long gently sloping bottom. No rocks, no aquatic growth, just clean sand and the sea. Most days there were waves that were big enough to be fun to play in, but not big enough to be a concern. Just perfect I think. It really is a perfect beach for families with children.

The beach was not particularly crowded. It is apparently possible to book the beach chairs on the beach for some kind of fee (see picture above), but there were a few empty chairs available most days even in the middle of the day. Having a private beach for the hotel is really convenient and helps keep the load on the beach reasonable – even though it is a bit sad to have a beach privatized in this way. It seemed that there was a piece of public beach closer to town, judging from some signs and parked cars…

The Pool

The pool area of the hotel contains one splash pool for really small children, one shallower pool, and a deeper (1.80m) pool. The pools closed by 19.00, presumably to keep the noise down for the night. Not clear why they opened as late as 09.00, though. The way the weather was during our stay, a cool dip in the morning would have worked very well even before 08.00!

There is also a play area for smaller children with a pirate ship and a few short water slides. In the pictures on the hotel website, they manage to very nicely cut the hotel building wall out of the picture – but on the other hand, having the shade from the building was actually a feature in the afternoon.

The hotel has some 220 rooms by my estimate (for some reason there is no official number on the hotel website), and it appears to have been essentially sold out when we visited. Despite this, the pool did not feel overcrowded, and the pool area felt relaxed and roomy. It seems that the hotel has more area per guest than most others in the area – in particular, the Alcudia Pins hotel that is right next door looked to be far more crowded.

We found the pools varied enough for a week’s stay, even if we would have loved to have some more water slides for bigger kids and adults. There were enough sun chairs to go around – at least if you got out by 08.00 in the morning to claim a few with the beach towels provided by the hotel. The hotel guests were very good about respecting this… to the point that it was rare to see more than a fraction of the chairs actually being used at any one time. Here is a typical state in the early afternoon – with people in their rooms, having a late lunch, or whatever. But still keeping their chairs reserved…

The Activities

There were two sets of kids clubs and activities at the hotel. The first was run by the hotel itself, for both adult guests and kids. The second was kids’ activities run by the German charter company TUI, who showed up with a rather large groups of leaders a few times a day to pick up a small group of (german-speaking) kids. The hotel’s own activities were open to all guests, using their own mascot “Woogi” for the kids.

The entertainment team did do an excellent job – they were great with the kids, and worked hard to keep the guests entertained in a very informal style. For adults, they had a fitness session each day, and then some kind of sports in the pool in the afternoon – like pool basketball or water polo. Quite a bit of fun, actually, with a mix of older kids and adults participating. There was also activities for kids in the pool in the morning, and some kind of competition around lunch.

Finally, in the evening there was a kids’ mini disco at 20.00, and then some kind of general entertainment at 21.00. We never checked out the show, since that is way past bedtime for the kids… and where’s the fun in going to a show with one parent left in the room?  I guess this is Spain so the late hours fit, but they do not work for someone used to normal Scandinavian hours.

The guests at the hotel were mostly German and Swiss German, and the entertainment was mostly run in German. Not a big deal for us adults, but it might have been better for the kids to find a hotel with more Swedes… but those hotels are typically not as good as the Playa Garden.

There was a German swimming teacher at the hotel who seemed to have a rather tough job with demanding parents and trying to teach kids to swim in a pool really built more for play.

The Food

The hotel offers both half board and all-inclusive. We went for half-board, which suited us best. This meant we had breakfast and dinner in the restaurant, and then we just cooked our own lunch in the little kitchen in the room.

The price difference from half-board to all-inclusive (AI) is rather surprisingly steep (factor of two, essentially, for adding a lunch meal). The reason is that AI includes a lot of extra service, like free drinks and even most alcoholic drinks for free. However, due to that “alcohol included” aspect, in order to get value out of the AI you have to drink a lot of alcohol each day (or just take it on for the convenience). The AI product seems calibrated for guests that consume multiple alcoholic drinks per day, or a lot of expensive fruit juices… It would have been nice to have the ability to book an adult-level no-alcohol AI, which would have made the cost equation more reasonable if you do not plan to spend the vacation slightly tipsy all the time.

The buffet restaurant itself was what you would expect – everything pretty nicely done, enough variety for a week. Might get a bit repetitive if you stay longer. Some reviews we read complained that the breakfast was supposedly “German” in style, but I would say it is just standard continental European. I was almost a bit disappointed, having hoped for more German bread… Sure, they had some dark-ish bread with Nutella, but that is something I would expect to find in France just as well.

There was a section in the restaurant where cooks did live cooking of meats, fish, pancakes, pasta, and similar. Normally, there was chicken, some meat, and some fish on offer there. There was also something special and different each day, including themes like sushi, pasta, and mussels:

In the morning, they had a selection of freshly-pressed juices that was pretty nice – if sometimes including rather strange combos like blood orange + mint juice.

The service was prompt and professional, and at least with our slightly early hours the restaurant was far from crowded. Maybe it got a bit more crowded later in the evening, but we always found a table immediately, and usually even one of their few outdoors tables.

The Allergies

Our family has quite a set of food-related allergies and issues, and how hotels handle allergies (and similar issues) is pretty important. The Playa Garden managed not to serve us anything we could not eat, but the variety and taste of the “safe” food did leave something to be desired.

In terms of allergy information, the Playa Garden implemented a solution that was both a bit opaque and nicely high-tech at once: QR codes on the signs in the buffet. Like this:

When scanned with the QR reader of your choice, this led to a web page with the ingredients – defaulting to Spanish, but changeable to English or German. Not always entirely easy to parse even in English, but good enough.

It would have been much more convenient with this information posted directly at the food. At least the allergens information. More annoyingly, only a small portion of the food in the restaurant actually had this information posted. There was nothing on desserts table, for example.

This meant that it was impossible to find out if certain courses offered were indeed safe to eat. The restaurant staff referred us to the cooks, and cooks did not manage to communicate in anything except Spanish – leading us to have to take the safe route and assume that everything that was not obviously safe (or QR-coded) was bad. This pretty severely limited the choice. It would be have been better to have a book or similar reference material (translated to the usual languages) with the ingredients listed that the waiter staff or guests could consult.

When asked, the restaurant staff would indeed order and provide custom-cooked food like non-gluten non-milk chicken nuggets (positively delicious, by the way) or gluten-free breakfast bread. But this required quite a bit of effort and time.

The Room

We had a room with a “lateral sea view” which is not entirely as stupid as it sounds. Essentially, you could see the sea from the side of our balcony. Just out beyond the Samsara Beach Club (run the by the same company as the hotel and apparently used to get guests at other hotels to the beach). We also had a view directly into the neighboring Alcudia Pins hotel, which did not seem quite as nice.

The building also opened right out onto the pool area, which made it super-convenient to just go out to the pool and up to the room to fetch things. Most rooms of the hotel seem to be like that, even though some closer to the reception appear to have a slightly longer distance to the pools.

The room was really a small apartment of some 40 square meters (according to the hotel itself), including a small kitchen and separate bedroom in addition to the main living room. Perfect for families with children. The kitchen made it possible to do some basic cooking, and having a fridge for food and drinks is very convenient – especially for us with special dietary requirements.

The hotel offers a range of different rooms on the their home page, but most of them look like different packaging of essentially the same room/apartment layout – basically, it seemed to me that most of the rooms are the same, but differ in where they face and whether they have their own garden or not. With small price differentials between them.

Credit Cards?

A positive surprise was how easy it was to pay with credit cards on Mallorca – we had been advised to expect to have to use cash in a lot of places, and brought quite a few Euros with us for that purpose. But in the end, all the shops and places took cards, and cash was really only needed in a few places like paying small sums at the Hidropark. Things are improving – at least in a tourist-heavy place like Mallorca.

Excursions

We planned to make some excursions and not just play by the pool during our vacation, but we ended up doing less of that than expected. It was surprisingly hard to find meaningful things to see and do in Mallorca. Most of the attractions are clustered around Palma on the other side of the island from where we stayed, which would have required quite a bit of driving. The pricing for most attractions is pretty atrocious – things like the Palma Aquarium look great, but maybe not at the price they charge… but given the huge volume of tourists, I guess the prices do not hurt business. The heat wave that hit Mallorca during our stay also did not encourage walking around looking at things.

Recommended: Cuevas de Árta

We did find one real gem: the Cuevas (or Coves, spelling seems to vary) at Arta. A very impressive limestone cave, with high ceilings and many really cool rock formations. There are tons of stalagmites and stalactites, often with shapes that remind the human eye of things like flags, elephants, and octopi. The caves are well lighted to bring out details, and there is a short animated sequence with lights & music included in the tour – it is really a cave customized for tourists.

The only way to view the caves is through a 45-minute guided tour that happens roughly every hour. We arrived there at quarter past two, and that was just in time to catch the scheduled tour that probably should have started at two or something. Seems maybe they just wait to collect a big enough group to make the tour meaningful. The guide we got gave a really good presentation in Spanish, a bit less in German, and not quite as much information in English. But that’s OK.

Compared to other cave tours I have been on, this was very relaxed. There was no issue taking photos, or even taking photos with a flash. The guide did not object to people lagging a bit behind to take photos either.

The main entrance looks pretty cool with a big staircase leading into the mouth of the cave – except that this is the exit from the regular tour. The entrance is down below by the little cafe to the bottom-left in the picture:

Warning: Hidropark, Alcúdia

The other attraction we visited deserves a big warning sign. The Hidropark in Alcudia looked like a great water land/aquapark, but it was way overpriced and far too inefficiently run.

The park charged 22 EUR per adult for entry, plus 5 EUR for a locker, plus 4.50 EUR to rent a sun chair; in addition to requiring you to buy their food and drink rather than bring a picnic with you. It seems like clear revenue optimization at the cost of customer convenience. That price might have been OK, and the policy of no picnic is not unheard of. But then what you offer needs to be good enough, and in this case I would say that about half the price would have been a fair price.

There were really only five water slides to choose from. The slides were very badly run – people stood in line until the previous rider had finished their run, and only then were the next people in line allowed to get to the start. This took a lot of time – it would have been far better to line up the next set of riders as soon as the current set had been started. The current method basically cuts the throughput in half, and the lines were thus very long even early in the morning.

Their wave pool apparently ran about twice a day – we caught the end of the waves around 11.30, and then the next run was not until 15.00. That is completely unbelievable – normally, you run a wave pool every 30 minutes or so.

Overall, a total disappointment.

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