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Wednesday 16 April 2014

Gran Canaria: Far from the tanning crowd

Soaring treks, endless views, gorgeous food... there's more to Gran Canaria than brash beach resorts, as Shane Dunphy discovered

Stunning Vista from Roque Nublo

Some years ago, I vowed to give up package holidays. I'd had my fill of high-rise resorts, buffet dinners and tedious holiday reps frantically trying to sell you over-priced excursions.

But this summer, I made an exception for my daughter Marnie. She's on the cusp of her teenage years and was longing to lounge by a pool and work on her tan.

My wife Deirdre and I had other plans and wanted our holiday to feature hikes in the mountains and snorkelling in the sea.

A package seemed the perfect compromise, so we flew to Gran Canaria with Panorama a few weeks ago.

The third largest of the Canary Islands, Gran Canaria is a volcanic land mass, spanning not much more than the size of Co Kildare.

The terrain comes steeply down from high central peaks with vast barrancos -- dry water courses or ravines that run to the coast like the spokes of an enormous bicycle wheel.

The island is, of course, best known as a haven for those in search of golden beaches, bronzed tans and groovy nightlife. But we had other intentions. We wanted to see the real thing -- the Gran Canaria actual Canarians might recognise.

We opted for the family- friendly resort of Puerto Rico, on the southwest corner of the island. Our apartment was in the SunSuite Terrazamar complex, which we decided to use as our base of operations.

The accommodation was just what package veterans might expect -- basic kitchen, decent-sized living room with sofa-bed and a TV that showed 1980s American movies dubbed into Spanish, and a bedroom with two single beds that could be wrestled together. Air conditioning was worth the f15 extra.

The best thing about the apartment was the huge balcony, easily as big as all the inside rooms put together and perfect for breakfast in the mornings before the real heat of the day kicked in.

We hired a car for a week -- a Peugeot 207 with a 1.4 engine. We soon learned that you need a reasonably sized engine to cope with the sometimes very steep roads. This cost us a reasonable f217.

The main motorway (GC1), the spine of the island's transport system, runs right past Puerto Rico, minutes from the hotel, so we were in just the right place to get out and about.

And there was so much more than sunbathing to experience once we hit the open road. Our first adventure took us to Roque Nublo (Clouded Rock), the second highest peak in the Canaries, soaring 1,803m into the sky. The stubby fingerpoint of stone can be seen from almost anywhere on Gran Canaria, looming on the horizon as if the island is making a rude gesture.

Amazingly, 98pc of all tourists visiting the island never leave their resorts, so this oddly beautiful monolith remains a distant presence.

The short trek begins in a small carpark off a mountain road. A winding pathway scrolls through a wood of pine trees filled with the song of finch and thrush. The valley spreads out below to reveal a patchwork of cultivated fields, and white and terracotta farmhouses.

Finally, you reach a series of rough-hewn stone steps punctuated occasionally on either side by prehistoric cave dwellings, leading to a rock plateau from where the vista opens out like a tapestry.

The Roque offers a view from the top that is well worth the effort of getting there -- you can see as far as the neighbouring island of Tenerife and everything in between.

But such exploration required sustenance. We decided to stop in on the pretty village of San Bartolomé de Tirajana on our way home for a bite in La Hacienda de Molino, a traditional bar run by a friendly young couple. Don't bother ordering -- the kitchen takes care of you with screamingly fresh tapas.

Strong local cheeses, salty cured ham, creamy pork fat (much better than it sounds), rich goat stew, oily deep-fried anchovies and crisp, newly baked sourdough bread were laid out on a platter before us.

A frosted glass of Tropical beer, the locally brewed pale lager, did the job after a day in the heat. The whole lot, including drinks, came to ¤26.50 for three.

One of the things that hit me most about our time on the island is that history is everywhere, some of it very much alive and not a little bit grumpy.

Pay a visit, if you dare, to the caldera or crater of Bandama, a volcanic pit which forms a perfect bowl, 1km across and 200m deep. Its steeply sloping sides are made up of ash, dark grey in colour, but the floor of the crater is fertile and peppered with crops of figs, oranges, potatoes and lettuce.

Farmers have lived at the bottom of the caldera since the 16th century. We met one of them, Juan, who works during the day and hikes out at night. When in a good mood, he opens a small bar that serves excellent roast pork and red wine made from grapes grown in the crater. When he is in a bad mood (as he was when I visited), he packs up early and locks you in.

A high gate at the top of the pathway is closed at 5pm sharp to deter any unwanted after-hours visitors -- and to trap unwelcome stragglers. You have been warned!

Juan's way of life struck me as being not unlike that lived by subsistence farmers in Ireland up until very recently, a fact I pondered once I managed to climb the high wall and get back to my car.

Another similarity we found was a culinary one, albeit with a twist. One day, we ordered the local sausage, morcilla dulces -- literally 'sweet blood sausage', which turned out to be a remarkable gastronomic surprise.

It looks almost exactly like our own black pudding, but that is where the similarity ends. It contains pig's blood, cream, sugar, raisins, cinnamon, thyme and oregano. Once the initial shock wears off, they are incredibly moreish.

We found food and more at one of the best markets we've ever been to. Tourists are usually directed to the market in Puerto de Mogán for knock-off Gucci handbags and fake Ray-Ban sunglasses. The real deal, however -- the market the Canarians go to -- is in Vega de San Mateo, in the north east of the island, and takes place on Sunday mornings.

Go as early as you can -- even if you buy nothing, the sights, smells, sounds and atmosphere are worth the visit, and you'll be amazed at what you might find. I came away with a handmade shirt for ¤10, Deirdre got a hat for ¤8 and Marnie got some jewellery for ¤2. Not to mention the ingredients for a delicious packed lunch for less than a fiver.

With our time on Gran Canaria growing short, I was determined to get one really serious hike under my belt. I had heard of a walk from the village of Puerto de Mogán to a secluded beach at Veneguera, once home to a hippy commune. It turned out to be one of the most beautiful and challenging things I have ever done.

Spanning 30km, the entire trek took me a good seven hours, including a break in the middle. Running through a spectacular ravine, you walk with the sound of the sea in your ears. At one point, two eagles swooped low over the road, hunting the ever-present Canarian lizards, then soared upwards to circle high above, calling to one another as they did so.

There are no shops or bars to buy a refreshment at journey's end -- you are absolutely on your own for 30km, so go prepared and brace yourself for hazards along the way. A road sign at the entrance to one farmer's field warned, 'NO PASAR -- NOT PASS -- DANGER BEES'!

Flying home the next day, I had to admit that I had revised my opinion of package holidays. If you're prepared to be a little imaginative and steer clear of the usual trappings, they can offer the launch pad for a very special holiday indeed.

1. Take a picnic in Barranco de Los Cernícalos, a nature reserve tucked in a ravine between Telde and Valsequillo.

2. Watch the sunset from Roque Nublo, the most spectacular viewing point on Gran Canaria.

3. Visit the Cactus Parque, where 1,200 different species of cactus grow

4. Hike to Gui Gui beach, a 10km trek through mountains and valleys to one of the most beautiful beaches on the island.

5. Drive to Tejeda and see the stone age ‘grottos’ where the first inhabitants of the island used to live. Clockwise from main: The stunning vista from Roque Nublo, the second highest peak in the Canaries; farmers issue a warning to walkers; Shane and his daughter relax; family-friendly Puerto Rico



GETTING THERE

Ryanair (0818 303 030; ryanair.com) flies direct to Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, from Dublin, Cork, Knock and Shannon. Aer Lingus (0818 365 000; aerlingus.com) flies to the island from Dublin and Cork. A one-bedroom apartment (which sleeps three) in the SunSuite Terrazamar, Puerto Rico cost ¤360 for one week, including flights, with Panorama (0818 200 300; panoramaholidays.ie). WHEN TO GO Gran Canaria is described as “the island of eternal spring”, as it never really gets cold. December to February are the peak times to visit, with average high temperatures of 21 degrees.

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