The most populous Canary Island has been attracting sunseekers since the 1960s...
‘When things are made with love, you can really feel it,” says Guillermo Bernal, a guide showing me around the island of Gran Canaria.
We’re sitting beneath the leafy shade of vines in a tiny courtyard outside a tiny bodega at a tiny vineyard stashed away in the depths of the García Ruiz ravine.
In the kitchen of Señorío de Cabrera (senoriodecabrera.com), Felisa Cabrera is busy preparing several courses of home-cooked deliciousness. Crispy croquettes giving way to gooey fillings; local sheep and goat cheeses; a chickpea stew known as “old clothes” (from a tradition of using leftovers); and torrija, a take on French toast served with island honey and an orange blossom on top.
The family photos, kitchen presses and TV around Felisa remind me of an Irish B&B behind the scenes at breakfast time... apart from the orange, lemon and coffee trees popping outside, the African blue tit pinging between them, and the soothing constancy of 20-something degrees Celsius.
Out front, Felisa’s husband Agustín is delivering her dishes, watching as we taste, topping up the wine and nodding approvingly. The couple produce just 4,500 or so bottles a year, run meals like this for small groups (from €30pp; advance booking essential), and in so doing appear to have figured out a formula for happiness. It’s elevated home cooking, and the meal winds up with coffee roasted from their own beans.
It’s made with love, all right.
This is not what I expected of Gran Canaria. One of the best-known Canary Islands, this is a fly-‘n’-flop poster child, a place people have come for decades to sunbathe and party. “For many years, the image has been of a cheap place for the Germans to get roasted in the sun,” as Guillermo puts it. But as I learn over a few days exploring its pine forests and peaks, there’s more to it than that.
But first things first. Gran Canaria has been a package holiday hotspot since the 1960s, when the development of Maspalomas was set in train by an architectural competition. The island’s geography means the southern end is more sun-sure, and its sprawl has pretty much continued ever since.
Today, Maspalomas connects with high-end Meloneras and Playa del Inglés via a 6km stretch of golden sands. Walking its dunes, and the promenade that passes its famous lighthouse, I soak up a mix of life, languages and much-needed vitamin D. Though its wide boulevards, malls and fancy hotels don’t feel particularly Spanish, I’m surprised and sucked in by the retro-chic, modernist resorts and villas. There’s a coffee-table book in it, for sure.
My own stay is the Seaside Palm Beach, a five-star built in the 1970s to designs by Alberto Pinto (hotel-palm-beach.com).
Its curving facade brings Miami to mind, and interiors pop with Pucci-style patterns, Barcelona chairs, Murano glass and a mix of travertine, marble and chrome that could be cheesy (it reminds me of Las Colinas, the retro resort in Apple TV’s Acapulco where “the guest gets what the guest wants”), but stays classy. At breakfast, I spill coffee into my saucer, and a waiter floats over to swap in a replacement within seconds.
A plum pool, buffet-to-end-all-buffets and location about 100m from the beach have me checking package rates for a family trip. Peak-season prices from around €1,500pp half-board are beyond me, but if your budget stretches, I recommend it.
Playa de Mogán and the densely stacked resorts of Puerto Rico are other stalwarts of Irish holiday brochures, and another popular base is Las Palmas, the biggest city on the Canary Islands.
Moseying around here, I find a real Spanish colonial feel, with cafés spilling out onto leafy squares (a cortado costs €1.20), outdoor tables on atmospheric strips like Calle Cano, and nuggets like Ermita de San Telmo, a centuries-old church I peek inside to see a priest saying mass beneath model ships hung from the rafters — a nod to the archipelago’s seafaring heritage.
Nearby, the wrought-iron Mercado del Puerto (mercadodelpuerto.net) is where to mix with locals for pintxos and cañas (start at Pisces y Buchos, and go from there).
Guillermo describes Gran Canaria as “a miniature continent”. I see what he means as we go from rocky south to lush north, which is much greener thanks to “la panza de burro” (donkey’s belly), the cloud that regularly settles over it.
Driving the ravines and winding mountain roads, we pass whitewashed villages and the odd cyclist in Lycra. The island is roughly the size of Co Kildare, with a circular shape rising to a volcanic caldera, and a patchwork of hiking trails, small wineries and lesser-known villages that feels a world away from the coastal resorts.
At over 1,800m, Roque Nublo is the rock formation best-known on Instagram, but we hike the short trail up to Bentayga, a similar stone giant that contains signs of the indigenous Guanche people. The vistas are truly panoramic, the caldera popping with early summer wildflowers and floating kestrels. And best of all, we pass just a pair of fellow walkers, so almost have it to ourselves.
The Canaries offer year-round sun, but to my mind, the best time to visit is shoulder season — autumn, before the winter-sun crowds jet in, or May, for the wildflowers. Early summer provides perfect weather for my tour, when we also stop for lunch at Parador Cruz de Tejeda (parador.es), visit a banana plantation with a lovely villa to rent (haciendalarekompensa.es), and find Dulceria Nublo, a 75-year-old bakery in Tejeda, crammed with treats.
“When we were young here, there was no sweet shop,” the owner tells me. “Our candy was doing things with almonds!”
Those are made with love, too. A reminder that even in the busiest resorts, there are surprises to savour.