'Adios, Sardina, adios," the man in front of us keens like a professional mourner. We are surrounded by people dressed in deep renaissance mourning; black widows, demonstrative priests, top-hatted funeral attendants and an exotic foreign bishop; blood-red scarves, black mantillas and the stench of incense; wailing, crying, singing – all of us leading the funeral cortege and following the exuberant brass band –heading to the beach at the bottom of the hill.
We are taking part in the Gran Canarian festival called The Burial of the Sardine, which represents the end of the winter festivities and the beginning of Lent. Later the locals of Maspalomas will burn the giant, red-lipped, papier mache 'sardine', celebrate with a fireworks display and head home for a month of penitence.
They need it. The day before we had been inducted into the annual tradition that is Carnival. Dressed in every costume imaginable to man – some only in dreams or outer space – 300,000 revellers stormed the streets of Playa Del Ingles for the festival of the year. From our perch on a highly coveted float we are centre stage for the entertainments; Venetian courtesans, intergalactic visitors, little green monsters, devils, angels, princesses, rugby players (?), papal imposters and truncheon-wielding policeman, all buffed and waxed and pouting at us as we swig beers and cheer wildly at ever more elaborate apparitions. Surely Brazil's Mardi Gras must pale in comparison with this outlandish, pagan spectacle?
The island of Gran Canaria is not all sea and sand – though it is that too, we think gratefully as we spend the following day, our senses exhausted, in warm sunlight, alternating between the sea and pool at the Amadores Beach Club and Spa.
We are spending an exciting five days discovering all that Gran Canaria has to offer the discerning traveller – one who likes the sunshine but also appreciates nature treks and bike tours, wine tastings and natural, mountainous beauty. The first couple of days are spent in the north of the island where we observe the geologic origin of Gran Canaria, an island which has been created from a thousand years of volcanic eruptions. We stay first at the Roca Negra, a hotel spectacularly built into the side of a volcanic hill; walking to the nearly village of Porto de las Nieve we watch locals bathe in the warm waters of a volcanic pool built into the nearby seashore.
A morning spent trekking through the Azuaje Valley at Firgas is an eye-opener. Who knew that Gran Canaria has such natural valleys of lush, tropical vegetation? We follow a small life-giving spring deep into the canyon, sometimes needing ropes – and each other – to help our passage, until we emerge, explorer like, at the ruins of a small thermal-spa hotel. Built during the Victorian period, when access would have been by donkey, this ghostly building was once a favourite of wealthy honeymooners and cosseted elderly matrons seeking its medicinal water cures for their undiagnosed ailments.
We seek our own medicinal cure at a nearby winery. Finca la Laja is a family-run estate that produces "gourmet coffee and award-winning wine". The effervescent Victor greets us with chunks of fresh oranges grown on his land and we spend an enjoyable few hours, tasting, smelling, feeling and agreeing that, yes, the wine and coffee his family produce are truly sublime.
Nearby, the Hotel Rural las Longueras serves a traditional Canarian lunch which ends with a dessert made with 'gofio', a roasted corn meal the islanders use for everything from stews and sauces to cream pudding.
The hotel itself, once home to a prominent Canarian family, is built in pure colonial style and offers a very different type of holiday to the one usually presented in brochures on the Canaries. Set in the middle of a plantation which produces bananas, avocados, oranges, mangoes and papayas; guests stay in old-style colonial luxury in the midst of idyllic, tropical, and somewhat romantically desolate, surroundings.
In Las Palmas, the capital, we take a bike trip – thankfully on electric bikes for those of us with less than well-developed calf muscles – through the city's new bicycle lanes, visiting the old quarters of Vegueta and Triana and listening to our guide, Bruno, explain the importance of Las Palmas as the eighth largest city in Spain and the effect its tumultuous past has had on its inhabitants. He points out the building from where Franco planned his successful takeover of Spain.
And then we move on to what seems like a different continent; the sunny, beachy, dry and arid south of the island. We have about 20 minutes to settle into our hotel – the family friendly Gloria Palace (San Agustin) with its stunning spa facilities – before our indefatigable guide from the Canarian tourist board, the gorgeous Juana Rosa, arrives with our surprise costumes for the Carnival. We head to our rooms to change and fall back into the hotel lobby, giggling and excited as a gang of adolescents on a first date, and head out for the evening – dressed as a deranged group of psychedelic hippies.
God help the natives.
But, after all those intense cultural experiences, we haven't forgotten the sun and sea. One bright sun-drenched morning we head to beautiful Anfi beach for "nautical activities"; these include jet-skiing and para-gliding. And yes, we had a ball trying them as we realised that sea sports aren't just for the tanned, toned, outdoor type.
Although the women among us enjoyed staring at the tanned, toned, outdoor hunk who sorted our parachutes. "Just admiring the Canarian scenery" is how I explained the innumerable photos I managed to take of this Spanish God.
That afternoon we take a boat ride to the beautiful fishing village Puerto de Mogan and enjoy lunch at the lovely Hotel Cordial Mogan, with its tiny church and tropical gardens making it a favourite for weddings and honeymooners.
Back at Maspalomas, the hotels Residencia and Palm Beach are a luxurious alternative to the usual mass packaged holiday of the average tourist. Bruce Springsteen stays at the Residencia when he's in town. Walking through its understated, quiet, colonial elegance, it's not difficult to understand why he likes it.
Early in February, I had a chat with a leading Irish psychiatrist about those of us who suffer every year from a mild version of SAD – Seasonal Affective Disorder. He told me that he advises (for those who do not need medication) a week of sunshine in the Canaries as the best antidote. Arriving home, refreshed, stimulated and simultaneously relaxed after our five-day retreat, I would have to say he's spot on.
Carol flew direct to Gran Canaria with Aer Lingus and stayed in the Gloria palace: http://www.gloriapalaceth.com/gb/hotel_gloria_palace_royal_amadores_san_agustin/index.php and the Hotel Roca Negra:http://www.hotelrocanegragrancanaria.com/en/gran-canaria-hotels
Nature and Bike Trips by: http://www.walkingrancanaria. com/ and http://www.tripgrancanaria.com/index_en.php
Contact: http://www.gran canaria.com/patronato_turismo /20228.0.html