By Robin McKelvie
There is one archipelago – as a travel writer who has visited over 100 countries – I keep returning to; I’ve already been back twice this year. It’s Macaronesia, an epic land of swaying palms, shimmering beaches and vaulting volcanoes; an oasis alive with superb seafood and wine. An exotic archipelago indeed, but one that has become banal in popular parlance; often deadened in our collective imagination beyond Brits abroad cliches. But delve beneath the volcanic layers and the Canaries offer a life-affirming escape, especially when long haul is still too long for many of us.
It always mystifies me how many people are so dismissive, snobbish even, about the Canaries. Sure parched, previously little-used parts of this startling string of eight islands proved the ideal resort for defrosting northern Europeans with the advent of mass jet travel in the 1960s. But it seems churlish to deride the Canaries for its flop and drop tourism when our demand created the resort strips in Tenerife and Gran Canaria. In truth these mega resorts function like giant aircraft carriers floating off the isles’ littorals, leaving the rest of the Canaries largely untrammelled by the tourist hordes.
In the last three months I’ve been back to a trio of the Canaries and they’ve proved more soul-stirring than ever. I thought I appreciated my first sight of Teide from the plane, the big skies, waking the first morning to the thunderous surf of the Atlantic, and the first whiff of garlic from a seafood grill hitting me just after the bone-dry minerality of a world-class white wine. Having been starved of their charms by a half dozen Covid cancellations, I now appreciate the Canaries on a whole new, renewed level. Venture back or discover them for the first time away from the obvious resorts and I swear you’ll feel the same.
I kicked off just before Christmas when I swapped barely above freezing Scotland for the 20C heat of Gran Canaria, the second most populous of the eight Canary Isles. Hailed as the ‘Continent in Miniature’ it really packs a scenic punch, from the sweeping palm-fringed sand dunes of Maspalomas in the south, up through the pine forests into rugged mountains that soar higher than any in Scotland.
I split my trip, starting in the capital Las Palmas, the only real city in the Canaries, indeed Spain’s ninth largest. Its bustling port was built by a Scot and Scottish legacies abound, not least at the Hotel Santa Catalina (barcelo.com), where I was served creative tapas on the terrace by waiters swathed in tartan aprons with tartan-trimmed waistcoats. It’s a classy hotel; too classy for me on this trip
I stayed across the road at the modern Occidental Las Palmas (barcelo.com), which proved a great base halfway between the old Vegueta quarter and the Rio-esque suburb of Las Canteras, with its sweeping beach. You’ll also find Tapas y Pinchos here at the Mercado del Puerto – grilled El Hierro cheese with sweet jam, followed my melt in the mouth croquetas and sizzling garlic prawns was as quintessentially Canarian as it was delicious.
Pushing south I struck for those mountains, hiking up to the unmistakable rock outcrop of Roque Nublo. Gran Canaria is awash with hiking trails and I snaked off on another before lunch with a view at the Parador in Tejeda. There was time to take in the hanging balconies of Teror and the artist hideaway of Fataga, a whitewashed village tucked beneath improbable hills dotted with caves once inhabited by the indigenous Gaunche people. Would you be surprised to learn there are still troglodytes in the Canaries today? This is an archipelago that constantly surprises.
Gran Canaria’s hinterland is breath-taking and the ideal foil to the pleasures of the coast, but it was the ocean that drew me next, and the welcoming arms of the Seaside Palm Beach (hotel-palm-beach.com), where I dined with Lisa Tuckman, a British ex-pat who has chosen to make Gran Canaria home. “It’s a brilliant island with it all, from beaches and the ocean, to tiny villages where time stands still and our special mountains. And the food is great too,” she smiled as we tucked into local fish cerne at dinner. I woke the next day for a sunrise bash across the sweeping Sahara-esque protected dunes of Maspalomas. Lisa was right – Gran Canaria is a brilliant island.
Moving further east, getting closer to the African coast now, I flew out to Fuerteventura, the second largest Canary Island, in early February intent on staying put in one place. The island is often dismissed as one giant beach, as if having world-class beaches and an eternal spring climate is something to be ashamed of. But it’s more than a beach, of course. I savoured boat-fresh seafood, the old fishing village vibe of the old quarter and the tapas bars of Corralejo, my favourite resort in the Canaries. That mainland Spaniards choose to holiday here says a lot; that Italians do too seals the deal on the food front.
I tried out a brace of hotels. I booked the Labranda Aloe Club Resort through Olympic Holidays (olympicholidays.com), who can package together whole holidays on all three of these islands if you don’t want to hunt around for flights, hotels and transfers. It was a cheap and cheerful three star elevated by staff who bounced around in the sun admirably trying to rope me into activities. They didn’t stint with the all-inclusive drinks either. With a brace of heated pools for the slightly cooler months it’s the sort of place I’d love if my kids were with me.
Travelling solo I preferred the Barcelo Bay (barcelo.com). It was impossible not to relax at this adults-only oasis. If the palm-fringed pools and landscaped grounds were not enough, I had a hot tub on my terrace and a view of the volcanoes. The restaurant too upped the buffet ante with fresh cooking staycations and bone-dry Lanzarote white wine.
Just across the water – reachable on a ferry ride away just shorter than Wemyss Bay to Rothesay – lies Lanzarote, the most easterly Canary Island, just over 100km from Africa; still over 2,000km distant from Madrid. Michael Palin and his deeply unfair ‘Lanzagrotty’ jibe (which he has since apologised for) belie its reputation as the classiest Canary Isle. I am back here now on the island that only has one skyscraper due to one mercurial man. Artist and visionary Cesar Manrique worked tirelessly to control development and create his own ‘Nature-Art’ style.
My brace of hotels this time continue this classy vibe. Seaside los Jameos (los-jameos.com) in the biggest resort of Puerto del Carmen is a joy. Bedrooms are large, it’s right by the sands and staff are ultra-friendly. Setting the tone nicely is a hotel buffet that offers fresh local fish like cerne and vieja grilled to order, plus Lanzarote vegetables, herbs and delicious goat’s cheese. Then there is the wine (unusually Lanzarote wines are available by the glass here) – glorious bone-dry Malvasia backed up by a glorious red from the nearby vineyard Bermejo.
Moving south to Playa Blanca, the Princesa Yaiza (princesayaiza.com) lays a fair claim to being the island’s most luxurious hotel. It reclines right on the water in a wash of sumptuous bedrooms, pools that look as good as the brochure and views to Fuerteventura. You can enjoy a great buffet here or go Japanese, Italian or properly gastronomic at Los Lobos, a restaurant that showcases Lanzarote’s growing reputation for gastronomy.
As it’s not a huge island I’ve not hired a car, sticking instead to day trips with a trio of brilliant operators. Lanzarote Wine Tours eschew tour buses with a maximum of eight passengers. I love that they include some of the big names like El Grifo – Lanzarote’s oldest vineyard – along with family artisan newcomers like El Tablero. Blackstone Treks & Tours take a similar number of guests out hiking on this startlingly dramatic volcanic island. While tour operators haul groups around Timafaya National Park, Blackstone get you right in amongst it all in the volcanoes, with insights into the local flora and fauna.
I end my Canarian adventures with Catlanza, a catamaran yacht operator run by creative Irishwoman Roisin McSorley, who offer sailings from Fuerteventura as well as Lanzarote. She meets me at Puerto Calero and explains they used to take 90 passengers out, now a maximum 45, as “people don’t mind paying a little more for a quality experience with much more space”. Family-friendly trips are augmented by the adults-only voyage I’m on.
I gamely try to bend with the yoga instructor, then savour Lanzarote goat’s cheese as we sail down to the beaches of Papagayo where no cars go. We tuck into a vegetarian lunch and I swim and poodle around in a kayak under big skies. Call it Macaronesia, call it the Canary Isles, but there is no doubting the life-affirming escape this remarkable archipelago offers in such rich abundance.
EasyJet (www.easyjet.com) fly to Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura and Lanzarote from Scotland, with returns from under £100.
For tourist information www.islascanaries.