1976 Land Rover Santana 88
The Bigger The Suite, The Better The View
My flight from Alicante to Palma, Mallorca came in low from the west, directly over Palma's glittering beaches and banking slightly right before completing a broad, sweeping, anti-clockwise arc of the entire island. I could briefly see Menorca to the east before we turned in for final approach, and as we skimmed over the abruptly soaring mountains to the north of Mallorca, I was excited to finally be visiting here.
The Islas Balearas - the Ballearic Islands - are very close to my home, physically. On a clear day I can see Ibiza, famous the world over for its thriving nightlife and innovative DJ's, rising up out of the Mediterranean Sea like a breaching whale, and Formentera, known for its nearly unspoiled natural beauty, has long been on my bucket list. For whatever reason, however, I've just never made it here. The ferry from Denia is slow and rather expensive, and I could never shake the feeling that taking the family across for a visit wouldn't really show them anything they weren't already seeing on the Costa Blanca. I mean... the islands are so close. How different could they be?
I walked out of the terminal into the waning-but-still-warm late afternoon sunshine and hailed a taxi for my hotel, the rather grandly named Valparaiso Palace and Spa, chosen for its proximity to the port and because it promised a secure parking garage. If things went well I'd be departing on the ferry the following afternoon, going home the slow way, old school, driving a Series III Land Rover 88 and putting it onto a boat.
Checking into the hotel, the desk attendant greeted me warmly, with nothing but smiles and bustling efficiency. Then, in perfect English, "Welcome sir! We're so honored to have you with us!"
Slightly taken aback, as it seemed an odd thing to say, particularly in Spain where needlessly effusive greetings are rare, I replied: "Well... thank you."
"I see you booked a standard room," she said. "I have taken the liberty of upgrading you to something more appropriate. I think you will be pleased."
"Wow," I said, signing the check-in forms and feeling a little confused, "That's wonderful, thank you."
She stared hard at me for a moment, and repeated herself, annunciating every word. "I really think you be very, very pleased with the room. And again, thank you so much for choosing the Valparaiso Palace and Spa."
A little alarm bell went off in my head. Why was she being so nice to me? Who did these people think I was?
Weirdly, this is not without precedent. On a trip to Atlanta one time, eight or nine years ago, I was somehow mistaken for the lead singer of Rascal Flatts and the concierge at the Intercontinental Hotel very deferentially placed a company-owned, chauffeur-driven Range Rover at my disposal for three full days, entirely free of charge. But here in Mallorca? I can't see an alt-country band having that kind of pull, even if I looked like Gary LeVox, which I most certainly don't.
But, hey, you just gotta go with these things, and regardless of the reasons why, the bottom line was that I had been given a fairly spectacular suite. Six rooms, including two sitting rooms and two and a half bathrooms, and arguably the largest private terrace I have ever seen. It sprawled over half the roof of the entire hotel and I am not distorting the truth when I say I could have entertained four hundred people on it. No problem. There were buckets of iced champagne everywhere, strawberries, and hand-written notes reminding me that, despite signs to the contrary, "everything in the refrigerators and minibars is complimentary during your stay."
I threw my bag on one of the beds, grabbed a beer and sat out on the roof, overlooking the bay. The sun was going down, and as the deep orange of the evening sky dipped into the blue-black of night, huge yachts slid silently into the harbor below me. The sound of distant house music wafted up to my ears, and also the excited shouts and laughter of nightlife kicking off in the bars along the shore. Palma doesn't look or feel like Javea. Where Javea is low and quaint and quiet and charming in an "old Mediterranean" way, Palma is tall and sparkling and quite posh. More Monte Carlo than Costa Blanca.
I walked around the terrace, lighting each of the thirty or so tiki torches that rimmed the rooftop, and sat back down with my drink, shadows from the flames dancing across my face, thinking about how wasted this suite would be on me. Here for one night and apparently not who they think I am, I would check out tomorrow and leave the bottles of champagne, unopened, sitting in their buckets of tepid melt water, and the strawberries, uneaten, going soft from the heat. Such a shame. Hell, if he were here to see it, the 25-year-old me would have punched me in the throat.
But the following morning, it would be back to business. I was here to see a Land Rover, and the seller, a man named Perez, would meet me in the morning.
I raised my bottle to the harbor and drank to that.
Perfect Doesn't Always Mean Perfect
Buying cars in Europe is very different from buying cars in the USA, and each country has its own idiosyncrasies. One of Spain's is that sellers rarely provide much detail about the vehicle being offered, and usually the extent of the text description is something along the lines of "Car is in good condition." Ask specific questions, such as "is there any rust in the chassis?" and you're likely to get no reply, or maybe "it's better if you come see the car for yourself."
All this would be fine if the "good" car turned out to be good all the time, but alas, it doesn't. Sometimes they're great, sometimes they have needs. There is almost no telling. Getting information out of sellers is sometimes difficult, and if you do as they ask and travel long distances to see the vehicles for yourself, what you find waiting for you at the end of your journey might be anything from a magnificent example to a huge disappointment. So I try not to get too worked up with expectations. That said, after several years I have a good sense for sellers, and talking to them on the telephone generally gives me some idea of what to expect. I had high hopes for Perez. He kept telling me this Land Rover was nearly perfect, and he certainly seemed to know what he was talking about, having done almost all of the work on it himself.
The sun was bright and hot when Perez picked me up at the hotel. He's a tall, rangy guy in his early 30's, with hands the size of baseball mitts and an infectious, genuine grin. We shook hands and walked out to an impeccable, bright red Defender 90. Always a good sign.
Perez fired up the D90 and we roared off through the outskirts of Palma to see the Series III, and on the way we chatted about his life. Born in Cuba, but living in Palma for almost his entire life, he was a charming, honest, straight-shooting guy and a true Land Rover aficionado. The kind of guy for whom hard work is a matter of honor, and a man who takes pride in the things he say and the things he does. I liked him immediately.
When we arrived at the truck, I was smiling before I even crawled underneath it. Gleaming in Tuscan Blue with Limestone roof and wheels, it was a looker from the word go. I checked the floors and found them impeccable, and if there is no rust in the floors, there is unlikely to be rust anywhere else. Still, I did my due diligence, feeling carefully in the bottoms of the doors, wriggling my hand back into the bulkhead areas, and slithering underneath on my back, flashlight in my mouth, to inspect every crevice of the chassis. No rust. No signs of serious leaks. Nothing bent. It was clean as a whistle and looked as nice as any used Landy I'd ever personally inspected. Score.
Perez took me through the vehicle, front to back, and we talked about everything. All the work he had done. Mechanically freshened, cosmetically restored... it was exactly what he said it would be. Better, in fact. I started the engine, and even without much warming of the glow plugs it caught instantly, with no smoke, and settled into a relaxed and relatively quiet idle. After a faultless test drive (and the small matter of money and paperwork) I shook hands with Perez and told him to keep in touch. Sellers like him are rare and valuable resources.
I glanced at my watch. Six hours before the ferry left. Plenty of time to do a little exploring of Mallorca by Land Rover...
Nostalgia On A 14 Percent Grade
I took off from the port area and headed through beachfront traffic on my way out of town, back past the Valparaiso Hotel and up into the mountains behind the city. The little Landy was purring beautifully, with excellent torque and that incredibly notchy, positive gearchange I love so much. Through Genova and then Teulera before turning onto the MA-1043, which starts easy and then devolves into a narrow, twisty ribbon of choppy mountain tarmac as it traverses a huge military base hidden away in otherwise empty hillsides.
I kept going, passing no one save the occasional (hardy) cyclist, turning right onto the 1016 and then left again onto the 1041. More breathtaking mountain climbs, at low speeds, which can be brutal on old cooling systems, but the 88 never ran hot and never missed a beat. Through Son Serralta and Puigpunyent, I turned right onto the MA-1101 and then, well... things got interesting.
I don't really know how to describe the MA-1101, but calling it a "mountain road" seems somehow a little generous. It is, without question, one of the steepest and most twisting bits of roadway I have ever driven on, pitching up onto climbs as steep at 14 percent, and switching back onto itself so tightly there were times when I was forced to make three point turns just to navigate bends. A heavy canopy of trees blocks out the sun for much of the journey, but periodic glimpses of the sea, far off through the trees when I would crest a peak, were as impactful and glorious as they were fleeting.
On this island, there can be no better road for an old Land Rover than the MA-1101.
Halfway up a particularly steep, twisting stretch, I came up behind a cyclist, puffing hard as he ascended the miserably challenging pitch, but when he glanced back and saw me his eyes lit up and he started waving his arms for me to stop. I did, and he got off his bike.
He was an Englishman named Colin, and he began gushing over the Land Rover, walking around it and taking cell phone photos of every detail. "My dad used to have one of these," he said. "Blue as well, but a little grayer. But otherwise exactly the same! I remember him taking the roof off and we'd go roaring through the countryside, with me and me brother perched in the back. Ah, that was magic, mate! Pure magic!"
Land Rovers. Once they're in your blood, they're in your blood forever.
Maybe A Better Name Would Have Been Mediterranean Blue
Later that afternoon, sitting on the back deck of the ferry to Denia, with the Land Rover safely secured a few decks below, I was sipping another beer and staring out at the foamy wake being churned up by the Balleares. I used the WifFi on the ferry to upload photographs of the car to Bill, but with the time difference back to the States, I hadn't been able to actually speak with him yet, so as I got up and walked slowly around the decks, I rang him and told him the good news about Perez and the 88.
We discussed export paperwork for a few minutes, and at one point, as we talked, I was looking over the starboard rail at the water slipping past the hull. Adjacent to the boat it was a dark, steely blue, but just a bit farther out, away from the shade of the superstructure, the fierce Spanish sun was piercing the upper layers of seawater at an angle, exploding underneath to create a radiant, electrifying blue color. It was appealing in a primal, atavistic way. One of those moments that just touches some ancestral genetic memory inside you somewhere or something.
"Man, I'm sorry to interrupt," I told Bill, "but I'm looking at the most amazing thing. The sun is hitting the Mediterranean and lighting up the surface of the water into this crazy, cerulean blue that is unlike any water color I have ever seen. I swear, dude, if we could find a car this color, I'd buy it in a heartbeat."
"Well," he replied. "I'm looking at the photos you uploaded, and I'm pretty sure you just did."
He was right. It was damn close.
I never did figure out why I was given the rockstar suite at the Valparaiso Palace and Spa, and I never did get to sample the nightlife of Mallorca. That will have to wait for another trip. But from beginning to end it had been a heck of a journey, and the result was one of the nicest Land Rover 88's I have ever driven.
And that's pretty cool. Because, you know... life is a highway. I want to ride it all night long.
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