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All aboard the magical 'Tren de Soller' express

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: November 10, 2012

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It's definitely not hi-tech, the comfort value isn't much to write home about, and don't expect to be served eats or drinks. Yet, its popularity never fades among holidaymakers around the world.

Welcome to the Soller train, officially entitled the Tren de Soller, a magical holiday experience which – despite all the other delights on offer in Mallorca – is still pulling in a million passengers a year.

Opened in 1912, on the same day as the sinking of the Titanic, the train has come through thick and thin to chalk up the remarkable 100-year landmark.

Teams of workmen battled through mountains, constructing 13 tunnels, to build what was then a vital connection for inhabitants and cargoes, mainly oranges, to be carried from Soller, in the north of the island, to the capital city, Palma.

It was a massive success story, and it worked brilliantly until improved road links in later years cast a shadow over the long-term future of the narrow gauge railway. Thank goodness the 1950s tourism boom emerged and proved a life-saver.

It helped to give the little train – fondly nicknamed the "Orange Express" – a huge boost, and it has never looked back. On most days, especially in high season, it's a scramble as passengers climb aboard wooden Wild West-style carriages, polished until they gleam.

A 28 euro return ticket takes sightseers from the heart of Palma on a memorable 17-mile journey. It embraces spectacular landscapes, the tunnels, several bridges, and a five-arched viaduct, before the train trundles into Soller, a picturesque town fringed by the spectacular Tramuntana mountain range.

Travellers then have an option to catch a tram to nearby Puerto Soller, with its crescent-shaped bay, soft, sandy beaches, bustling promenade, and a magnificent marina.

I arrived in a heat wave, and did a quick tour, before opting to take welcome sustenance in a shaded, side street cafe. What a joy!

I have to confess, I first lost my heart to the train years ago. Devoid of electrical gadgetry, and trashy promotional stunts, it provides an experience that takes you back in time to another era, a time when things seemed to be on a smoother track.

And it's not just paying customers who enjoy the trip. Pep Lorente, 57, has spent a total of 33 years as a driver, first on the Puerto Soller trams, and then with the Tren de Soller trains, and he is still enthusiastic about his job.

"For me, it is the best," he said as he prepared to take a train on yet another crowded trip. "Every day is different and I like that.

"I know I have seen the same places for many years, but I always enjoy the environment, seeing the changes in the seasons. It is very special to me and it is wonderful for the railway to celebrate 100 years of service. It's hard to believe."

Pep, one of ten drivers employed on the line, also enjoys meeting passengers. "Some come to see me to thank me when the journey is over, and that's nice. It's like being part of a big family," he said.

The train isn't the only anniversary celebrant. Holiday hotels, apartments, and a vast range of tourist-linked holiday businesses are marking the time when Mallorca took off. Sixty years later, and despite a worldwide recession, the island is more than holding its own. There is a buzz in the air, and there are statistics to prove it. Palma airport recently beat passenger records for the fourth month running. By the end of the year, tourist spend is expected to hit 55,800 million euros, reflecting a 6.3% increase on the same period last year. Isn't that remarkable?

All of this is music to the ears of people such as Martin and Lorraine Xamena and their son Alejandro, who run the wonderful, four-star – it really should be seven – Bon Sol hotel which spills down a hillside at Illetas, overlooking the Bay of Palma.

The hotel, which is planning special events to mark its 60th birthday, started life as a large, old villa.

With Martin's parents at the helm, it grew and grew and eventually led to an expansion project that was totally stunning. It required three tunnels to be built under two roads, and the installation of lifts, so that the hotel and its magnificent facilities could spread down the hill to a small, but beautiful, sandy cove.

Apart from being able to get to the beach more easily, guests can opt to eat their meals at a delightful seashore restaurant, backing on to exotic gardens and swimming pools.

An equally pleasant dining experience can be enjoyed in a magnificent ground-floor à la carte restaurant which adjoins public rooms adorned with curios, paintings and even suits of armour. The Bon Sol's success story is remarkable, and most of the credit is due to a painstaking attention to detail, the warmth of its welcome, and service that always comes with a smile.

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