Monday 24 April 2017

Fuerteventura: Dancing to the beat of the island of great luck

Sun Holidays

Corralejo, in the north of the island of Fuerteventura, is a magnet for surfers and those in search of some winter sun
Corralejo, in the north of the island of Fuerteventura, is a magnet for surfers and those in search of some winter sun
Lobos Island
Vince of FuerteCharter with Gemma after a catamaran trip to the Isle of Lobos
El Mirador bar
Gemma in Fuerteventura

Gemma Fullam

Ultramarine waters, delicious food and lazing by the pool - it's all in a holiday's work for Gemma Fullam.

Every holiday, I find, seems to choose its own theme tune.

In 1985, in London with my mother, the upbeat refrain of Sister Sledge's Frankie followed us wherever we went; a year later, on the Costa Brava, it was the irresistibly catchy Tarzan Boy by Baltimora; while an early Noughties weekend at the Dunmore East Bluegrass Festival had Man of Constant Sorrow as its plaintive soundtrack.

My week on Fuerteventura played out to a jazzy bossa nova beat; that of The Girl From Ipanema: "Tall and tan and young and lovely . . ." Alas, I'm none of those things, but no matter; on holiday on the island of 'great luck', I felt my walk segue into a samba, swinging and swaying to the relaxed rhythm of the island.

The laid-back magic began the minute we arrived at our hotel in Corralejo, the Gran Hotel Atlantis Bahia Real, where we were greeted with beaming smiles and an ice-cold glass of cava each; bliss after a day's travelling.

Next morning, we awoke to sunshine and a seductive view; from our balcony, we could see the beach below, in the middle distance, the Balinese beds of Coco Beach (more of which anon); and, merging with the horizon, the brooding presence of Lobos Island, a volcanic nature reserve off the north coast of Fuerteventura, and our destination that day.

Vince of FuerteCharter with Gemma after a catamaran trip to the Isle of Lobos
Vince of FuerteCharter with Gemma after a catamaran trip to the Isle of Lobos

After a sumptuous breakfast at the hotel's buffet - the vast array of options meant you could be as healthy or naughty as you choose, but we plumped for fresh carrot juice, bowls of papaya, kiwi and delicious tart pineapple, all drenched in Greek yoghurt; with grilled asparagus and roasted peppers to finish.

Once that was completed, we were collected from the lobby by Julian from Fuertecharter for our morning's excursion (€55pp for a four-hour trip with drinks and lunch, see fuertecharter.com).

There is a regular daily ferry to Lobos, should you wish to spend the day there, but we were going for a trip by catamaran, and mostly viewing the island from the sea.

The sky was clear and blue as we set off and Vince, the skipper, turned up the tunes as the graceful vessel made her way through the Firth River, the passage dividing la Isla de Lobos from her big sister.

Lobos Island
Lobos Island

En route around Lobos, we took in the mountains of La Caldera; the island's black sand beaches; and Martino's Lighthouse, which took five years to build, and has, since 1865, illuminated the passage through the Bocaina Strait, which separates Fuerteventura from Lanzarote.

After a brief stop exploring Lobos and its beautiful lagoons, we returned, via speedboat, to the catamaran for a spot of snorkelling, kayaking and, after all that activity, lunch.

I was too chicken to jump off the side of the boat, but having made it down the ladder to swim, I was spellbound by the shoals of blue and silver fish surrounding me in the ultramarine waters.

Lunch, a simple, delicious affair of Canarian potatoes, mojo sauce, fresh tomatoes, crusty bread and salami, was greedily devoured by all; then, Julian cranked up the Chuck Berry, and, chilled vino in hand, we bopped our way back to port, sunkissed, smiling and sad it was over.

Gemma in Fuerteventura
Gemma in Fuerteventura

The rest of the day was spent lazing by the pool - the Bahia Real has two (and a kiddies' one), both of which are heated, and situated in the lush, tropical gardens of the hotel's inner courtyard. I chose a book from the stash at the towel hut - The Light Between Oceans, which was unputdownable - and felt the last of the winter chill leave my bones as I luxuriated on the soft sunbed, chilled glass of bubbles in hand.

It's very easy to simply spend your time eating, drinking and relaxing at the Atlantis Bahia Real, and we did plenty of all three, but it's nice to get out and see a bit of the island, too.

The Canary Island of Fuerteventura is a long, narrow one and was conquered by both the French and the Spanish (it is now ruled by Spain), although the first settlers are believed to have come from North Africa - the word Mahorero or Maho is still used to describe the people of Fuerteventura and comes from the ancient word mahos - a type of goatskin shoe worn by the original inhabitants.

Today, the goat is the symbol of the island; they roam freely, and their delicate-tasting cheese, queso Majorero, has protected DOP status, recognising it as unique to the area.

The north coast of the island, where we were based, is vastly different to the south, both in landscape and in mood, so we decided to spend a day exploring to get another flavour of Fuerteventura's charms (the entire island was designated a Biosphere Reserve by Unesco in 2009).

El Mirador bar
El Mirador bar

You could hire a car (try Cicar) but the island is well served by the Tiadhe bus service, which is punctual and cheap. We ventured almost as far south as you can go - to the golden sands of Morro Jable - which took under three hours and cost less than €15 each.

It is fascinating to see the landscape change from the vast sand dunes and black volcanic rocks of Corralejo through the rural interior with its windmills and goat farms, to the long, vast golden-sand playas of Costa Calma and Morro Jable.

In Morro Jable, we ate at La Laja, a beachside shack with a sublime ocean view, excellent seafood and cold beer, and the rest of the day was spent topping up our tans on the beautiful beach.

Many of the Fuerteventuran beaches tolerate nudity - my other half had, earlier in the week, suffered a mild case of trauma from an unexpected eyeful of a gentleman's undercarriage on a beachside walk into Corralejo - and in Morro Jable, you're in the minority if you choose your swimsuit over your birthday suit on the beach. So if you are of a modest disposition, be warned!

Next day, back at the Atlantis Bahia Real, it was pampering time. A lazy morning at the pool segued into lunch at Coco Beach Lounge.

Coco Beach, a relatively new addition to the hotel, comprises two areas, both of which are perched on twin piers that jut out from the beach: there's Coco Beach Chill Out, a dreamy set-up of four-poster Balinese beds bedecked with gauzy white drapes, where you can relax and have a cocktail; and Coco Beach Lounge and Club, a glass-walled structure that juts out over the waves, with spectacular views of the sea and Lobos island. The location and light, white decor makes it a dreamy place to have lunch, and the menu, as you might expect, is predominantly seafood-based.

We kicked off with portions of the hugely moreish Canarian potatoes with two kinds of mojo sauce; I favoured the pesto-ish green over the more traditional mildly spiced red; next up was risotto del mar, for me, a soupy sea-green concoction of squid-y deliciousness; and for him, langostinos al ajillo - gorgeous garlicky langoustines, with a chilli kick.

There are big sofas for lounging with a post-prandial if you fancy doing so, but as we were going to be chowing down in Las Columnas, the hotel's Spanish fine-dining spot, later that day, we decided to work a few pounds off with a walk along the beach.

It is less than a mile from the hotel into Corralejo town, and there is plenty of surfing and kitesurfing action along the way for entertainment. The whole island is a watersport-lover's paradise, but with only one surfing lesson to my name to date, which had taken place in the rather calmer, warmer waters of the Pacific, I didn't don the wetsuit on this occasion.

The weather had turned a little windy and wet. Perfect surf weather, as it happens, is also ideal spa weather, so next up was a visit to the hotel's Spa Bahia Vital, one of the largest hotel spas in Europe, for a massage.

I usually favour a good pummelling, but this was billed as a relaxing massage, so I succumbed to the deft hands of Elena, my therapist, who, in a dreamy hour, effleuraged me into willing submission. After that, I did a full tour of the facilities, and in no particular order, scrubbed myself with ice, sweated out a few toxins in the Turkish bath and the sanarium, almost dozed off in the jacuzzi, woke myself up with a cold shower followed by a hot one in the Shower Temple, and finished off with a swim in the enormous spa pool, which has multiple hydrojets. Guests of the hotel can pay one visit a day to the spa free of charge, and once we'd had a taste of it, you couldn't keep us away. Fab.

The perfect pampering day ended with dinner at Las Columnas, one of three fine-dining restaurants at the hotel. This one, which concentrates on Spanish food, subtly conveys its ethos in the decor - the white room is dotted with red anthuriums, which, with their yellow stamens, echo the hues of the Iberian state's flag. The food was flawless - perhaps not surprising, as the Atlantis Bahia Real recently won, for the second time in a row, Best European Waterside Hotel at the prestigious 2017 Conde Nast Johansens Awards for Excellence.

There's so much good food to be had on the island if you take the time to look - there are of course, the usual burger-and-chip joints, but delve a little deeper and you'll hit paydirt. As one of those annoying gluten-free folk - ie, I'm not coeliac but feel unwell if I eat gluten - I always appreciate an establishment that makes gluten-free eating pleasant, rather than the chore it can sometimes be. I wasn't really expecting to find such a place in downtown Corralejo, but a random search of the web threw up Sanus, a vegan/vegetarian/gluten-free/diabetic restaurant just off the main drag, which had glowing reviews of its fare. We loved it so much, we went back three times. Run by Italians Antonio and Carla, the food was largely based on the cusine of that country, and was to die for. Gorgeous crusty bread; soft, pillow-y gnocchi; crisp cabbage rolls; perfect penne with oh-so-fresh vegetables and a hint of curry (it shouldn't have worked, but it did) and the best tiramasu I've ever tasted - Italy included. We drank vegan organic rioja - and I mustn't forget the olives, which have converted me from a hater to a lover. Luscious, plump, green ovals of salty, slightly bitter olive-yness. Heaven. See sanusfuerteventura.eltenedor.rest/en_GB

We really needed to balance out all the eating with a bit of exercise, so next morning, we popped over to the Bahia Real's sister hotel, the all-inclusive Suite Hotel Atlantis Fuerteventura Resort, to hire a couple of bikes from Easy Riders (easyriders-bikecenter.com). The island is a haven for cyclists, from the day-tripper to the Tour de France competitor - many train here during the off season, as the climate is perfect and group cycling (ie not single file) is permitted. We hired two mountain bikes - a steal at €10 each per day - and set off. The island has miles of cycling tracks, so it's very safe for children, or nervous riders (me!). We did part of the 17-mile Los Barrancos route, which took us through the Malpais, aka 'the bad land', a lava field created by a chain of 40,000-year-old volcanoes. From there it was on to the very different landscape of the Natural Park and the famous sand dunes, where we stopped to take in the views and savour the picnic we had brought. If your fitness level is up to it, you can go much further, but the day was getting hot and the pool back at the hotel was beckoning.

An hour later, as I floated in said pool, I heard the faint strains of Sinatra singing a familiar bossa nova beat. I looked up at the cloudless sky as I glided though the warm water, and, in unison, myself and Ol' Blue Eyes sang, "Ahhh . . ."

Getting there

Winter sun package holidays with Sunway to the 5*+ Grand Hotel Atlantis Bahia Real in Fuerteventura start from €1026pp and summer sun package holidays start from €999pp. Packages include flights from Dublin, seven nights on a bed and breakfast basis, transfers, 20kg baggage and services of a Sunway representative. Price is per person, subject to availability; winter sun price is based on January departures and summer sun price is based on June departures. Call Sunway on (01) 231-1800, or see sunway.ie for more information on winter sun holidays to the 5*+ Grand Hotel Atlantis Bahia Real in Fuerteventura. To find out more about the hotel, please see atlantisbahiareal.com/en

Aer Lingus, Ireland’s only 4-star airline, operates up to three flights per week from Dublin to Fuerteventura, with one-way fares including taxes and charges starting from €79.99 for the winter season. For further information, see aerlingus.com

TAKE THREE: Top attractions

Shopping

Taxes and VAT are low on all the Canary Islands so it is the perfect spot for perfume shopping — I bagged a high-end fragrance for half the price it sells for in Ireland in the Europa outlet on Corralejo’s main strip — but check duty-free allowances on Revenue’s website to ensure you don’t go over the allowed limits. Cigarettes and booze are also cheap, so bring home some nice wine or fancy brandy for Christmas dinner.

El Mirador

A holiday isn’t really complete without at least one cocktail along the way, and the El Mirador bar at the Gran Hotel Atlantis Bahia Real is the perfect spot for the ultimate cocktail (it won Best Mixology Bar in Canary Islands at the Coaster Awards 2016). Barman Jose introduced me to the Margarita’s charms and kindly wrote down the recipe when he heard I was going to a bring-your-own-cocktail party on my return home.

Lobos Island

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Lobos Island is a mere stone’s throw from Fuerteventura. It is a nature reserve with an old fishing village at its port — keep an eye out for a 200-year-old dwelling built from volcanic rock, which houses the last remaining sometime-inhabitant of the island — and with its idyllic azure lagoons and coves, Lobos is the perfect place for a romantic afternoon; bring a picnic. See navieranortour.com/en/ for ferry times and prices.

Read more:

Fuerteventura: Surf's up!

Fuerteventura: A family adventura  

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