Fantasy island

Fantasy island

Gran canaria

Fantasy island

There was intense colour everywhere… like light pouring in from multiple shattered stained-glass windows. Dancers in glitzy costumes, floats with blaring music, over-the-top-gala events… The heady Carnival of Gran Canaria in February was in complete contrast to the zen-like stillness in the island’s mountainous heart. In parts of Gran Canaria, the third largest of seven islands in the Canaries’ archipelago, we felt time in rewind; we might as well have been living in another century.

Yet in its capital, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, the carnival unfolded like a hip and happening fairy tale for adults. Indeed Las Palmas de Gran Canaria basks in year-round sunshine. When US climatologists surveyed 600 places to discover the world’s most perfect climate, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria was at the top of the heap!

A look at history

Little wonder then, Gran Canaria has been billed as the island of eternal spring and its balmy clime has lured tourists in search of sun, fun and sangria including the redoubtable Agatha Christie, who invented her famous character Miss Marple while vacationing in Gran Canaria. In ancient times, the island drew explorers like Christopher Columbus, who spent much of his time restocking and repairing his fleet in this rocky outpost, even as he chilled on its spun-sugar beaches. In Las Palmas’s Old Town stands a building, Casa de Colon, House of Christopher Columbus, where the explorer is believed to have lived in between his voyages to the Americas.

In the 15th century came the Spanish who colonised the islands. Not surprisingly, the people of Gran Canaria say that their minds are European, legs are African, but their hearts belong to South America! Located off the coast of north-western Africa, Gran Canaria was once dubbed the bridge between continents, as it played a role in Spain’s colonisation of the Americas and Canarians founded numerous cities from San Antonio in Texas to Montevideo in Uruguay.

And the terrain is equally varied, ranging from its pulsing capital Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, sleepy villages, rainbow-hued towns with lyrical names like Arucas, Ingenio, Teror, Agumes… towns with cobbled streets, yawning squares, soaring churches and houses with overhanging wood balconies that are reminiscent of South America. Throw in rugged mountains and rolling sand dunes and beaches that flutter like gold and white ribbons in the sun… and Gran Canaria has more to offer than its hefty purpose-built resorts which lure Europeans aching for a tan in winter.

Unveiling the island’s many charms started with an excursion to La Finca de La Laja to the north of the island, outside the town of Agaete, which sits pretty on a mountainous ridge, an amorphous cluster of blinding-white homes topped with red roofs. We arrived at an alluring spot, shaded by 200-year-old pines where the air was spiked with the tangy zest of oranges and the cloying sweetness of mangoes. Vineyards spread a glistening green welcome, while bushes of juicy red Arabica Typica coffee berries (La Finca is the most northerly coffee plantation in the world) sprouted across 12 hectares.

We did a spot of coffee and wine tasting there before tucking into a light local-style lunch that left us feeling like we had swallowed mouthfuls of Gran Canaria sun.

Satiated, we headed for Guayadeque ravine in the east of Gran Canaria, via giddy winding roads dotted with dry scrub and cacti that ended at a lush gorge, surrounded by ridges that heaved out of the earth like breeching whales. Here where cliffs rose as high as 1,500 metres, there was also a small settlement of cave homes where modern-day escapists hunker down in cosy little caves. It was in similar bolt holes that the original inhabitants of the island lived prior to the Spanish conquest in 1478; safe from rampaging pirates who prowled the seas that circled the island.

Life in a cave

Even today, apart from cave homes, there are cave restaurants, a chapel in a cave where the pulpit, altar and confessional are all carved out of rock and even rural cave accommodation for tourists! Isabel, a kindly old lady, showed us her cosy cave home, which has an even temperature of 22 degrees centigrade throughout the year. Solid wood closets, capacious double bed, photos of her children and grandchildren and a large crucifix made it seem like that was the most natural way to live. When we returned to our hotel fronting Las Canteras beach in the capital, we were swamped by a surreal feeling of how Gran Canaria dances to the twin rhythms of modernity and tradition.

Tourists flock to Gran Canaria for its white sand beaches fringed by a turquoise sea, especially Playa del Ingles and Maspalomas in the south, which has some impressive rolling sand dunes reminiscent of the Sahara. Here, tourists sat dreamily on hillocks o sand ruffled by a gentle breeze or did yoga as a blood-red sun sank behind a swathe of sand. But it was the small bougainvillea-draped fishing village of Puerto de Mogan in the south-west that we fell in love with. Its marina brimmed with yachts and fishing boats which handed the day’s catch to restaurants that lined the quay.

Indeed that ball-shaped sun-blasted island is a continent in miniature where the landscape unscrolls in infinite variety and every bend in the road throws up a new vista. Yes, Gran Canaria is the kind of place where each morning you want to just leap out of bed and get on with life!

Fact file

Flights arrive at Gran
Canaria Airport from Madrid and most major
European cities. There are air and ferry connections between the other Canary islands of Tenerife, Lanzarote, La Palma, and Fuerteventura.

Las Palmas has a choice of mid-segment and luxury hotels, as does the south with its swish resorts built for fun in the sun. Some of the historic small towns have atmospheric boutique hotels.
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