A grand time in Gran Canaria

By | Category: Travel destinations

Gran Canaria

Landing on Gran Canaria, the third largest of the seven Canary Islands, in the early twilight, I wasn’t too sure what to expect. Preconceived ideas can be hard to avoid in well-known places and mental pictures of huge resorts full of gently frying north Europeans kept cropping up, as I tried to sneak glimpses of the island on my way to the hotel in Maspalomas, in southern Gran Canaria. The south is Gran Canaria’s tourism hotspot and initially those pictures weren’t too far from the reality before me, but, as I was soon to discover, there are many different sides to this island.

The following morning I left the south behind to visit Gran Canaria’s main town, Las Palmas, home to almost 400,000 of the island’s 850,000 inhabitants and a major hub. The journey north along the east coast is a swift 50 minutes and before long I had arrived in Vegueta. This serene and picturesque part of Las Palmas squeezes in over five-hundred years of history and is well worth a special stop. The main square, Plaza Santa Ana, is flanked by the cathedral, the town hall and several other noteworthy buildings, but also, more intriguingly, eight statues of dogs in two groups of four, opposite the cathedral. Apparently the original Berber population, who arrived from North Africa, brought many dogs and this, I’m told, is how the Canaries got their name. Forget all thoughts of small, yellow songbirds, the name instead hails from the Latin word for dog, cane.

Town Hall, Vegueta

Christopher Columbus stopped off in Vegueta on his way to the Americas and Columbus House – one of the city’s finest – commemorates the explorer as well as the Canaries’ ties to the Americas in its museum. From the tranquil cobbled streets of Vegueta it’s only a short walk to the second oldest part of Las Palmas, Triana, a far livelier but less picturesque part of town. Few of the older houses have survived the onslaught of time and tourism, but the pedestrianised streets offer plenty of shopping opportunities for the avid shopper. Even in a place the size of Las Palmas you’re never far from the sea and a pleasant promenade runs all of 8 km along the seafront past prime beaches such as Playa Canteras which is named after the stone quarry that used to supply the material for many of the city’s nearby buildings.

After an interesting morning visiting the old town, by lunchtime I was itching for a bit of countryside and that’s just what was in store. Leaving city street and sandy beach behind, my driver whisked me out of town and up into the more mountainous interior. Much to my surprise the journey from palm tree to pine tree took less than 15 minutes, but in those few minutes the landscape altered drastically. My destination was Villa del Monte, in the village of Santa Brígida, from where the very enthusiastic Austro-German proprietor, Petra, runs gastronomy and cycling tours.

I soon set out on a bike way sturdier than myself – I’m rather wobbly on two wheels – and cycled uphill (surely there should be a law against “pre-lunch uphill cycling”, although “post” might be even harder) for pretty views over Santa Brígida and the surrounding countryside, then into the village itself. Cycling on cobbled streets was a bit hard going, but the lack of traffic very pleasant – road-biking occasionally had a few too many vans and lorries for my liking. Having worked up a sweat in the midday heat, while admiring traditional Canarian architecture from the saddle, it was time for a late lunch feast. Local food in Gran Canaria is quite varied for such a small, and often arid, island. The sampling session included several different goat’s cheeses, quince and guava jellies, olives, breads with olive oil, dried fruits and a number of mojos, the traditional sauces that accompany most meals, all of it nicely complemented by local white and red wines.

parasailing

The next day was no less packed with interesting experiences, this time exploring the more touristy south. A short drive along the southern coast took me to Puerto Rico, a hub for watersports and a good place to try out some adrenaline activities such as dangling in midair, 200 metres above the deep blue sea, behind a speedy boat. Parasailing, also known as parascending, developed in the early 1960s, has really taken off, quite literally and there are now many operators worldwide – some using land vehicles, but most using boats. It certainly brings new meaning to getting a bird’s eye view, but despite the height and the boat moving at speed below, it’s an oddly peaceful and quiet experience while you’re airborne, completely open to the elements. A bit apprehensive at first, even though I had tried it once before, I soon found I had no desire to come back down. I considered unstrapping the buckles that secured me to the boat and just flying away with the parachute, but feared the previous day’s lunch might have made me too heavy. There was nothing for it but to come down and continue the day’s explorations.

The next excursion turned out to be sea-based – a nice change after the land- and air-based activities – a gentle ferry-ride from Puerto Rico to nearby Puerto de Mogán, also on the south coast. The 40-minute voyage offered good views of the coastline and its stark volcanic rock formations, interspersed with sandy coves. Puerto de Mogán, a former fishing village, replete with colourfully decorated buildings and a quaint harbour, proved to be the perfect lunchtime stop before heading back Maspalomas to admire the vast sand dunes, part of a nature reserve following the 12-km beach.

Puerto de Mogán

Come evening, I finally headed for the hotel pool a less busy place in the tranquil hours of dusk and after such full-on days I felt I’d actually earned it. Gran Canaria seemingly had a lot more to offer than what most visitors tend to discover, but there was no need to completely ignore its poolside appeal. Waiter, sangria please!

Getting there:
There are a number of flight options from the UK to Gran Canaria including charter flights, low-cost carriers and scheduled airlines. Twenty different UK and Irish airports have direct flights with Gran Canaria (the airport is Las Palmas) over autumn and winter and there will probably be additional summer 2014 links. Nine airlines provide direct services: easyjet, Monarch, British Airways, Aer Lingus, Jet2, Ryanair, Thomas Cook, Thomson and Norwegian. Iberia have regular services but only via Barcelona or Madrid.

Places to stay:

Seaside Palm Beach Hotel, Maspalomas, www.hotel-palm-beach.co.uk. Five-star resort hotel in excellent location, a short walk from the famous Maspalomas sand dunes. Pool, gym, spa and all the trimmings, traditional Canarian food can be enjoyed in the poolside restaurant.

Sheraton Salobre golf resort & spa, Maspalomas, www.sheratonsalobre.com. Tucked away from the often busy Maspalomas main resort, Sheraton Salobre sits in splendid isolation overlooking the sea and the stark landscape of Gran Canaria. Excellent spa facilities, infinity pool, pleasant gardens. A great place to get away from it all.

Cordial Mogán Playa Hotel, Puerto Mogán, www.cordialcanarias.com. Looking rather like a whole Tuscan village turned into a hotel, Cordial Puerto Mogán, is a colourful addition to the tiny port of Puerto Mogán, on the south coast. Guests can expect interesting architecture with stained glass features and an indoor clock tower, as well as your usual pool and spa. There’s even an archaeological site on the premises.

For more information about Gran Canaria, click here.

Images 2,3 and 4 © Anna Maria Espsäter

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