Avoiding its strip of ‘Paddywhackery’, your family will be enthralled by Lanzarote’s natural beauty
My friend was incredulous. Whatever about he, a true Spaniard, never having vacationed in the Canaries, it was baffling to him that an Irishman had lived to the ripe old age of 40 without ever setting foot on the perennially sun-kissed islands. I was, he pondered aloud, probably the only one of my countrymen who had never visited.
Winter in Ireland had been hard, I reminded him, and had instilled in our young family a steely determination to escape before more heating oil had to be purchased to see out the last weeks of cold.
We’d have a young traveller in tow, a fairly flexible Montessori-goer who is up for anything provided there are animals and ice cream involved. A tenth of my age, my son would be off to a better start than Daddy-come-lately.
Lanzarote is the first island in the North African archipelago that you encounter due south from Dublin, and perhaps this has contributed to it being the Irishman’s favourite.
There are some parts of Puerto Carmen, our nearest town, where it can appear that every third establishment carries “Oirish” imagery and promises of Caffrey’s and beef stew. We solemnly agree to avoid this strip of Paddywhackery like the plague and instead seek out the real Lanzarote – the local heritage, the volcanic landscapes, the food and drink culture.
Our base is the efficient and always gracious Costa Sal resort. It situates us a stone’s throw from Playa Matagorda, its waters a balmy 18°C and perfect for a morning dip after a stroll along the extensive promenade.
Right at the rear of our spotless and comfortable two-bedroom villa is a crystalline swimming pool and a children’s paddling pool surrounded by sun loungers, and this becomes a late-afternoon tradition.
With the help of yours truly, Junior gets to reacquaint himself gingerly with chlorinated water and armbands after two years of pandemic pool closures back home. Herself, meanwhile, works on some colour and the new Sally Rooney novel.
The small arena is calm and familial, with no raised voices or “merry” revellers, and for this we are grateful, given that we are unashamedly in family mode.
When we’ve dried off and had a snack, a beachside playground provides another nearby option. What we find, however, is that the island itself is rife with places to go, meaning we fall into a routine of preceding these poolside afternoons with morning excursions around the island’s extraordinary natural splendour.
As the name might suggest, Rancho Texas Park (ranchotexaslanzarote.com) is something of an anomaly in this respect. An extensive zoo and water park, it makes for a varied and colourful encounter early on in our week while we are finding our feet.
A dash of animal magic here – the dolphin performance got a strong review, the tiny otter enclosure less so – a white-knuckle water slide there, and our young charge is out for the count on the drive back to Costa Sal.
At the northern tip of the island one day, we climb and climb to the Mirador del Rio (cactlanzarote.com/cact/mirador-del-rio). Some hero decreed that this panoramic cliff-top summit would have a bar and cafe integrated into its viewing area, all tastefully arranged and accommodating an outdoor terrace as well.
The view is one that isn’t quickly forgotten. Below you, the cliff face plummets hundreds of metres to surf-pawed beaches of dark sand, a crawling sea, and the island of Graciosa.
This intriguing place sits out in the ocean like a burnt fried egg, the yoke its own volcanic corona and the white the sprawling scrub and drylands.
Two towns are clearly visible, the ever-present whitewash of Spanish habitation breaking the yellows and browns. They sit at opposite ends of the island, and between them is divided Graciosa’s 700-odd population.
Do they get along, I wonder. Are there rival football teams or star-crossed lovers? I half-form a novel in my head about this island curiosity as I gaze down at it from Lanzarote’s loftiest vantage.
A ferry links it to the town of Orzola over the headland but the seas look too choppy for Junior this time around. Maybe when he’s older we can go and see for ourselves.
The real wonderment of this volcanic eruption-turned paradise island is when you leave the resorts and the tourist strip behind and enter into a landscape unlike anything we are used to in northern Europe, save perhaps Iceland.
At the Timanfaya National Park on the west coast, we drive slowly through a Martian-like terrain of crusts, rifts and shards. The only ostensible life are the bryophytes and mosses where sea mist has gained a foothold, and a pair of Barbary falcons quartering high in search of prey.
At the interpretive centre on one of the summits, visitors gather around a pit in the ground where handfuls of dry grass quickly catch fire as they touch subterranean rock heated to 200°C.
Water is then poured from a bucket into pipe openings sticking out of the ground, only to flash up abruptly as geysers of piping vapour. This volcanic cluster is only snoozing, something Lanzarote’s neighbours in La Palma were tragically reminded of last year.
A little further down the coast, we pull up at Los Hervideros, a particularly rugged stretch of volcanic coastline framed by dazzling turquoise waters. A walkway through this land of charred chocolate crumble means we can get up close to blowholes and crashing waves surging up through sea arches.
The natural features of this part of Lanzarote are brown to black, the result of a recent spewing and drying of magma. This lava field was formed 250 years ago, a veritable toddler in volcanic terms, meaning the rock faces can retain a gloopy smoothness in places.
Elsewhere, the terrain is a sea of dark jagged crests as far as the eye can see, alien and tranquil in equal measure. Like all deserts, its beguiling economy and stark featuring has an exceptional beauty all its own.
Another of our morning excursions takes us to what is perhaps Lanzarote’s greatest melding of its volcanic rhythms and the human ingenuity that worked around it.
Cannily wedding a cave system to a restaurant, underground amphitheatre, and manmade garden oasis is Los Jameos Del Agua (cactlanzarote.com/cact/jameos-del-agua). This astounding creation by homegrown artist César Manrique is the jewel in the island’s crown and perhaps the most novel lunch venue a four-year-old Irish boy and his parents could wish for.
The underground cave pool you descend into looks so still and crystalline that it puts us all under a mild trance. Part geological cathedral, part Bond villain lair, this is a Canarian spectacle that defies simple categorisation and has to be experienced in person.
Daddy has earned a morning off, so the local dive company Aquatis (divinginlanzarote.com) is contacted. I’m one of those divers who leaps on any chance to do a guided dive, provided the water is any way warmer than Ireland’s.
After collection at Costa Sal’s reception, myself and two fellow underwater tourists are shuttled the short distance down the coast of Puerto Carmen to the gorgeous Playa Chica.
We have a quick refresher course in the shallows where our guide Matteo takes us through safety procedures, then set off nice and gradually into the depths, through shoals of luminous shore fish, slouching groupers, hypnotic octopuses, and the silver flash of a large barracuda.
Back on dry land, a short chat with Matteo reveals two facts that make him the perfect person to advise on matters culinary – he is Argentinian, and has lived on the island for more than a decade. Within minutes, I have a shortlist of what he promises is some of the best food on the island.
Toro Grill Asador’s location beside a small roundabout might not seem enviable, but this traditional Iberian grillhouse is a must for carnivores young and old.
With the sunset blushing the distant Lanzarote highlands, we feast on dry-aged meats cooked over Spanish oak charcoals, everything tender and salted to perfection. This is served with padrón peppers, simple chopped tomatoes that burst with flavour, and all washed down with sangria.
Not for the first time on this trip, Junior is gushed over by lovely waiting staff.
The best tapas, Matteo had assured me, is to be found in El Bocadito (tabernaelbocadito.com), a short drive north from Puerto Carmen in Costa Teguise. Platito after succulent platito arrive at our table – croquettas, marinaded fish, grilled meat, squid à la plancha, exquisite seafood risotto and gambas. A favourite of Spanish cinema giant Pedro Almodóvar, we would probably have eaten here every day had we known about it earlier in our week.
It’s our second-last day and Himself is not happy. This is partly because he wasn’t brought on that morning’s diving excursion, something we remedy later on with a visit to a nearby aquarium.
More problematic is that he is new to the concept of foreign holidays in sunny and splendid locations. It takes quite a bit of explaining to bring him around to the idea that the trip is over and that our flight home beckons.
He is having none of it, greeting our argument with a jutting lower lip, folded arms, and a thunderous frown. Mummy and Daddy aren’t much better, truth be told.