London journalist Matthew Hirtes swapped the bright lights of London for the equally bright lights of Gran Canaria’s capital eight years ago – and is settled into Las Palmas life with his wife and sons. He knows all about going local in Gran Canaria – and here he shares his top 10 tips for getting away from the Canaries’ (in)famous resorts and enjoying a taste of the real Gran Canaria.
1. PARTY LIKE A LOCAL
The lure of the all-inclusive break, offering as much food and drink as you like, and wall-to-wall relaxation is a difficult one to resist, but while in Gran Canaria don’t miss out on a traditional fiesta, which makes the perfect opportunity to sample the Canaries’ very own signature brand of partying. Fiestas here are regular as clockwork. Where one ends in one municipality, another begins elsewhere. Early August sees the island’s most boisterous and good-natured party when Agaete in the north west celebrates its Rama. Here pine branches are brought down from the mountains above to be thrashed in the sea in an imitation of an aboriginal rain-seeking ceremony.
2. Journey To The centre of the earth
Follow in the footsteps of 16th-century Flemish merchant Daniel Van Damme by descending 200 metres to the bottom of the Caldera de Bandama, a volcanic crater 15-minutes’ drive from Las Palmas. A half-hour trek will reward you with sights of volcanic ash, endemic botanic species and even an abandoned farm. You’ll need to arrange permission through the official tourist board in advance. There are guided hiking tours too. Also look out for the hermit who has made the crater his home.
3. Experience Nature’s own theme-park ride
Las Palmas’ Playa de las Canteras, a 2.8km stretch of golden brown sand is one of the world’s great urban beaches. Head to the middle and to a section called Playa Chica (Little Beach). Here, depending on the tide, you’ll be able to swim/wade out to the barrier reef. On the beach side of the reef, the water is calm and great for snorkelling. On the other, well it’s the big, bad Atlantic. A certain spot, noticeable by its crowds, is called the Ascensor (Lift). Jump in and let the waves elevate you back to your rocky starting point.
4. Say hello to Aloe
Upmarket Meloneras is home to some of the island’s more exclusive hotels, so for the ultimate pampering session with the island’s native Aloe Vera to soothe your sunned skin book yourself in to one of the best spas in this area. Try the Spa Corallium at the Lopesan Costa Meloneras Resort which offers Aloe Vera peels, or visit the extensive and Conde Nast recommended Spa and Wellness Centre at the Seaside Palm Beach Resort for their Aloe Vera wrap, all using the native wonder plant. If you want to get even closer to nature visit the Aloe Spa in Gran Canaria’s Sheraton Salobre Golf Resort and Spa – set in the mountains above Maspalomas, it’s a world away from Gran Canaria’s resorts and you can enjoy your Aloe surrounded by golfing greenery.
5. Hike Gran Canaria’s Camino
The Camino de Santiago is a centuries-old footpath linking the churches of Saint James (Santiago) in Tunte in the island’s interior and Galdár in the north west. In 2011, the Gran Canaria tourist board extended the route to 75km, to include an extra day’s hike from Maspalomas on the south coast. Pack plenty of water and avoid hiking in the summer months as the island’s steeper than you would imagine – though luckily it’s the neighbouring island of Tenerife which boasts the highest peak in Spain at Mount Teide.
6. Join A Cross-Dressing Carnival
Join what can only be described as Little Britain’s biggest convention at Las Palmas’ Carnaval where David Walliams’ Emily Howard is the unlikely style icon for the party goers and cross-dressing is all the rage with armies of up-for-a-laugh carnival goers – and carnival season goes on for a full month!
7. Tuck into Canarian Cuisine
Whilst the restaurants in and around the resorts pander more to home comforts, the north offers some more authentic cuisine. Restaurante El Puertillo in Bañaderos, the self-styled Balcon de Atlantico is a popular draw – not least for the welcoming hospitality provided by the Hormiga family. As well as the freshest fish, there are any number of vegetarian dishes including croquetas de gofio y berros, toasted cornflour and watercress croquettes, paella vegetariana, and papas arrugadas, boiled baby potatoes cooked in salty water served with mojo, a piquant sauce typically prepared with cumin, coriander, parsley, and olive oil.
8. Time Travel Back to the stone age
In Gran Canaria’s highest village, Artenara, the local population live in cave houses which keep them cool in summer and warm in winter. For a taste of Flinstone-living, you can rent out a cave house for a self-catering break. There’s even a cave restaurant, Restaurante El Mirador de la Silla (no website: Camino de la Silla 9; 928 66 62 08) demands a visit. Enter the cueva and make your way through a unlit tunnel which 60 metres later opens out into a beautiful sun terrace. Allegedly boasting the toilets with the best vistas in the world, they’re certainly (rest) rooms with a view.
9. BE FULL OF BEANS
The most northerly coffee plantation (and the only one on European soil) at Los Berrazales in Agaete Valley accepts visitors on a phone-ahead basis. Trebling as a tropical fruit farm and vineyard, it really is paradise found. The nearby Hotel Rural Finca Las Longueras is a boutique hotel that’s ideal to wile away a weekend in between coffees.
10. Surf Like An Aussie
Laid-back Canarians are the Aussies of the Northern Hemisphere. Surfing is therefore understandably popular here. Head west from the capital to the island’s north coast which serves as magnet for bodyboarders and take your pick from the surf schools dotted around the La Cicer section of Las Canteras beach. If you’re based in the south of the island in the resorts of Maspalomas, Meloneras or Playa Del Ingles, try a nearby school such as Pro Surfing Gran Canaria.
A range of airlines offer cheap flights to Gran Canaria from UK airports, including British Airways, Monarch, Easyjet, Ryanair, Thomson and Thomas Cook. Flying time is around 4.5 hours.
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