Thursday 29 September 2016

The Secret Canary Island: A holiday paradise beyond the brochures

Lovin' La Gomera

Published 05/06/2016 | 02:30

La Gomera
La Gomera
Mirador de Abrante, La Gomera, Canary islands, Spain. Ohoto: Deposit
La Gomera, with Tenerife in far distance. Photo: Deposit

La Gomera is the Canary Island that time forgot. And that's exactly why you should visit, says Thomas Breathnach.

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Bienvenido to bliss!

The lush, avocado-hued mountain terraces that surround me could be in Goa. The echoes of merengue from the sleepy hamlet in the valley could be the sound of Hispaniola.

I've never experienced such exotica so close to home - and I didn't even change my watch to do it. I'm on La Gomera, second-smallest of the seven Canary Islands, delighting in the go-slow harmony of local time.

I was cast away on the island the previous night, via a crossing from its gateway neighbour, Tenerife. The larger Canary Island commands a sort of mainland status over La Gomera (900,000 residents live on Tenerife, versus just 20,000 for the latter). Ferries are the typical way to get here, so I caught the morning sailing from the bustling port of Los Cristianos. I was joined by passengers ranging from Germanic hikers and native weekenders to an on-board entertainment troupe, fresh off a red-button performance of España's Got Talent.

With so few tourists reaching La Gomera's shores, however, there's still an air of pioneering travel to the place. Once at sea, memories of Tenerife's high-rises and karaoke bars quickly faded to end.

Just shy of an hour later, the charcoal cliff-faces of La Gomera finally parted for the verdant harbour of her capital. Home to half the island, San Sebastian feels positively downtown compared to what would follow. There's a lively indoor mercado, small financial centres and charming cobbled alleyways which buttress its punchy history: Columbus set sail from La Gomera to the New World in 1492, and its ties to the Americas have been buoyant ever since. In fact, locals will tell you the cultural gusto on the island is more like Venezuela than mainland Spain.

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From San Sebastian, I spring-boarded to Playa de Santiago, the pocket-sized coastal resort some 34km (translation: 90 minutes) away. The scenery en route is gasp-eliciting spectacular: from La Gomera's curb-kissing ravines and palm tree oases to the sight of Mount Teide, Tenerife's landmark volcano, looming across the sounds like a sun-scorched Mount Fuji. By the time I've traversed the island, I've met just two cars and a farmer's pick-up truck (a relief, given some of those hairpin bends).

The largest hotel on the island, my base of Jardin Tecina, is a cool and calm hermitage of white-washed villas clustered around a bougainvillea-brushed cliff-face. Beneath it, an abandoned beach cove is reachable by private elevator (only fitting that such a deserted paradise should have its James Bond touches). Beach-lovers, however, should not expect white sands on La Gomera: due to its volcanic nature, you'll be leaving footprints in the black, sole-scorching variety here.

Given the island's landscape - not to mention the dominance of Berghaus over bikinis, it's clear that La Gomera's main draw is hiking. The island is a Garden of Eden for all-level trails and I joined three-decades-a-local Gordo Wenk for a guided trek.

Gordo, a silver-haired Stuttgarter with a thick accent, dovetails perfectly with the local demographic. La Gomera developed as a hippy commune for Americans and Continentals in the 1960s and today is said be Europe's last outpost of true boho living. "We still have a few folks who actually live in beach caves here," he says, as we wander through the flora-flecked surrounds of Garajonay National Park. Flower power, indeed.

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My hiking efforts are later rewarded with a local lunch at the panoramic Mirador de Abrante restaurant (+34 638 661490; above). El menú? Potaje de berros, a moreish watercress soup heartened with pork belly, fresh sea perch with buttery asparagus and an ice-cream dessert gilded with local palm honey. Delicious!

Almost more impressive were the waiters and chefs who chat in El Silbo, the Gomeran, UNESCO-hailed whistling language (once used to communicate across valleys, now used to place my side order of patatas bravas). There are hidden nuggets of culture in La Gomera and this one is written in the wind.

La Gomera is a switch-off destination with a refreshing lack of choice when it comes to activities: everybody is simply here for nature. For another taste of the wilds, I take a whale-watching trip with a local operator (excursiones-tina.com; €45 including lunch).

True to Gordo's word, we've barely lifted anchor when the sights of nudist hippies inhabiting the caved coastline dominate our binoculars. But they're soon overshadowed by the sight of bottle-nosed dolphins followed by a hammer-head shark and a pod of pilot whales!

That evening, I retire to the lounge at Jardin Tecina, where resident pianist Anne-Tina is reciting Ludovico Einaudi to an audience of one. This is high season on the island. As we banter, I learn that she is Danish, loves Dublin, and has voluntarily stranded herself on La Gomera for the past seven years.

"Why would I want to be anywhere else?" she asks. All but alone on what must be Europe's most beautiful island, I could only say Salud! to that.

What to pack

Layers! In spite of its subtropical climate, La Gomera is home to curious micro-climates which can see temperatures sink. If hiking in the mountainous forests (known for their ghostly mist!), pack long sleeves to avert most shivers. See lagomera.travel for more options.

Getting there

Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies from Dublin, Cork & Shannon to Tenerife, while Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies from Dublin — with a service from Cork starting in September. Fred Olsen (fredolsen.es) is the main ferry operator to La Gomera, with return fares from Los Cristianos from €35. The ferry runs three times daily.

Where to stay

Jardín Tecina (jardin-tecina.com) has B&B from €65pps. Its beach restaurant features a private dining cave — with bed — which should interest romantics. Airbnb (airbnb.ie) also offers exceptional value. Rooms start from €16 and entire mountain cabanas go for €50.

See hellocanaryislands.com for more info.

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