The Big Read: Nature and bargains in Lanzarote. What's not to like?
Anne Marie Scanlon checks into the Princess Yaiza for a week of pampering, sunbathing, shopping and sightseeing.
For some time now, Lanzarote has been ever so quietly and discreetly positioning itself as an upmarket destination.
Last year, British Prime Minister David Cameron spent the Easter recess at Playa Blanca in a visit that was anything but quiet or discreet. If Cameron was trying to prove that he's just an ordinary bloke he called it wrong. Far from high-rise hotels and hen parties, Lanzarote is a place where you can now rent a yurt - and nothing says middle-class respectability quite like a yurt.
Poor Dave is a bit late to the party, Michael D went to Lanzarote last year (without being papped every five minutes) and Bertie went several times when he was Taoiseach, and no wonder, as Lanzarote was voted 'Best Beach and Sun Destination' for 10 years in a row by the Irish Travel Industry. Like Dave, I stayed in Playa Blanca in the south of the island. Unlike Dave, I don't have access to a private villa so instead I tried the five-star Princesa Yaiza Suite Hotel Resort. I could have happily spent my entire time within Princesa Yaiza, as it has everything you need with eight restaurants, five bars, eight outdoor pools and shops. Families have the option of staying in their own block, where suites have self-catering facilities. There's a handy supermarket right outside and prices are laughably low.
Breakfast on the terrace of the Isla de Lobos Restaurant, considered one of the best on the island, is the perfect way to start the day and enjoy spectacular sea views. Directly under the Isla de Lobos, the Thalasso Center Princesa Yaiza spa is a temple to pampering. I opted for a full body massage and despite nodding off during the treatment (possibly the soothing scent of Aromatherapy Associates products), my neck and shoulders were totally unknotted for the first time in years.
Having only ever tried so-called 'tapas' in pubs, I was a bit reluctant to try out Tapas, the resort's Spanish restaurant, but the food was light, delicious and amazingly fresh. I was especially taken with Canarian 'Wrinkly' Potatoes served with Mojo, a spicy sauce. I celebrated my birthday in the Japanese restaurant Kampaii, where you eat at the hotplate and the chefs put on a show as they cook - good theatrics, great food.
Princesa Yaiza is right on the beach and adjacent to a shopping centre (there's two Irish bars if you are feeling homesick). Another five minutes' walk along the clean and well-maintained stone boardwalk brings you to the heart of Playa Blanca. While there are plenty of shops both along the seafront and in the town itself, including fabulous shoe and handbag emporia, I wasn't too tempted.
Lanzarote is very humid which you don't notice so much outdoors because of the breeze. Without air-conditioning my hair frizzed up and left me looking like Sideshow Bob. Luckily, Playa Blanca is not short of hairdressers and I got a great blow dry for €16. (The in-house hairdresser at the Princesa Yaiza is a little bit more expensive but still quite reasonable).
One of the reasons for the increasing popularity of Lanzarote with the yurt-renting classes is that despite the fact that almost the entire economy is based on tourism, it remains mostly unspoilt. For this, we have artist Cesar Manrique to thank. Manrique was that very odd thing in public life - a true visionary. During the 1960s, when other places were keen to exploit their climate and make a fast buck, Manrique lobbied successfully for Lanzarote to keep development sympathetic to the island's culture, and his vision is an integral part of the destination's appeal. There are no high- rises and most buildings are painted white - a striking contrast with the black volcanic ash landscape which is uniquely patterned by honeycombed walls protecting vines.
Manrique's hand can also be seen in Timanfaya National Park the logo of which, El Diablo, was designed by him. 'Park' usually means grass and trees, but Timanfaya is the complete opposite, as it's a large desolate volcanic wasteland. It doesn't sound like a fun day out but really this is a must-see and was one of the highlights of my trip. You can have a sun holiday in any number of places but travelling through acres of volcanic rock and ash is a totally unique experience. The landscape is stunning, quite literally out of this world. As you move further into the park it is harder to believe you are still on planet Earth.
Timanfaya was mainly formed during the 18th Century, when about 30 volcanoes spent over six years erupting. Entire villages were lost to the lava or simply abandoned by the populace. With the constant eruptions, craters forming, lava flow and a pervasive ash cloud that prevented crops from growing it really must have seemed like hell being visited on earth. (Remember the chaos caused in 2010, and that was only one volcano.) The circular El Diablo Restaurant (also designed by Manrique) in the middle of the park provides spectacular views and serves up food grilled using heat from the volcano. Park staff provide demonstrations of how hot the ground is by using water, dry bushes and the hands of any plucky volunteers. I agreed to hold some rubble in the palm of my hand but didn't manage more than a few seconds before yelping and flinging it away. And that's the stuff on the surface.
From marvelling at nature's magnificence in Timanfaya, you can indulge some baser human instincts at the Sunday morning market at Teguise. This is my kind of place where you can buy a lovely scarf, a T-shirt for the child, a jar of Mojo and a knock-off designer handbag and still have change from €50.
Be sure to haggle for your handbag. As imitations go they're not all that, but if like me you just like pretty then this is the place for you. I bargained down a beautiful Teal 'Prada' bag from €30 to €18 - it's probably worth even less but the haggling is great craic. As the stall holder stuffed my purchase into a carrier bag he whispered conspiratorially.
"Lady, lady, don't say I do this deal for you." So you didn't hear it from me, all right?
Sovereign Luxury Travel (0044 843 770 4526, www.sovereign.com) offers a week at the five-star Princesa Yaiza from £1029 per person departing 11 September. Price includes return flights from Belfast, private transfers, 7 nights B&B in a Junior Suite and a complimentary bottle of Cava and chocolates on arrival. For details of Princesa Yaiza Suite Hotel resort see www.princesayaiza.com. Visits to Timanfaya National Park and Teguise Market can be organized with www.jumpytours.com. For more information on Lanzarote see www.discoverlanzarote.com.