The Balearic Islands (Los Baleares), an archipelago composed of the major islands of Majorca, Minorca, and Ibiza, plus the diminutive Formentera, Cabrera, and uninhabited Dragonera, lie off the coast of Spain, between France and the coast of northern Africa. The islands have known many rulers and occupying forces -- Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, and Moors. But despite a trove of Bronze Age megaliths and some fine Punic artifacts, the invaders who have left the largest imprint on Balearic culture are the hordes of sun-seeking vacationers who descend every year.

After the expulsion of the Moors by Jaume I in 1229, the islands flourished as the kingdom of Majorca. When they were integrated into the kingdom of Castile in the mid-14th century, they experienced a massive decline. The early 19th century provided a renaissance for the islands; artists such as George Sand and her lover, Chopin, and later, the poet Robert Graves established the islands, especially Majorca and Ibiza, as a haven for musicians, writers, and artists. (Read Sand's book A Winter in Majorca.) Gradually the artists' colony attracted tourists of all dispositions.

Today, the Balearics are administrated by an autonomous government, Govern Balear. Majorca, the largest island, is the most commercial and touristy. Many of its scenic expanses have given way to sprawling hotels and fast-food joints, although parts remain beautiful indeed. Freewheeling Ibiza attracts the international party crowd, as well as visitors who come to the island for its tamer offerings, such as white-sand beaches and sky-blue waters. The smallest of the major islands, Minorca, is also the most serene. It is less touristy than Majorca and Ibiza, and for that reason, it is now experiencing an "anti-tourist" tourist boom.

The government of the islands has finally awakened to the damage caused by overdevelopment of Majorca and Ibiza. Under new guidelines, some 35% of this island group is now safeguarded from exploitation by builders.

Very few visitors have time to explore all three islands, so you'll have to decide early which one is for you. Many vacationers include one of the Balearic Islands as an add-on to a visit to Barcelona or the Costa Brava, while others view them as destinations in themselves.