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Old favourite's new lease of life

RETURNING to Gran Canaria, Sinead Ryan turns her back on the beach and finds new treasures

During what we now laughingly call the Celtic tiger, holidays became increasingly exotic. We wanted to go further, better, for longer. Well, times have changed, and guess what? It turns out that the old destinations were the best all along.

The Canary Islands see almost 400,000 Irish visitors every year -- that's 31pc of the number going to Spain and as a winter sun destination, it simply cannot be beaten.

I revisited Gran Canaria, to see what it had to offer, apart from glistening sunshine, of course.

Plenty, as it turns out, if you're willing to side-step the beach and take to the road. The capital, Las Palmas, is a bustling commercial centre easily accessible by public transport. The GuaGua (pronounced wa-wa) buses are bright blue and go to every resort for about €5 each way.



Ornate

You'll spot the close ties the island has with Cuba in the brightly coloured buildings, ornate verandas and filigree coving. The city was founded in 1478, so expect old churches and architecture. Across from the main bus station, you'll spot a gorgeous cafe, San Telmo. It's tiny, barely a kiosk, but it's decorated in fabulous Art Deco style.

The main shopping area is Triana, but it also has cute boutiques and shoe shops. The Canaries are VAT-free islands, so there are great bargains in perfume and make-up.

Stroll around to the Hotel Madrid on Columbus Square. Although built in 1910, it stopped in time on July 17, 1936 after General Franco paid a visit. Even the clocks still record the moment. The wall of fame has photographs of all its famous occupants, from film stars to war heros.

Nearby, is the Santa Ana Cathedral, dating from 1497 set in the pretty Royal Plaza -- it's a lovely to watch the world go by.

Don't leave Las Palmas without visiting Casa de Colon in the Vegueta district, a museum dedicated to Christopher Columbus who stayed here on his way to America. There are original artefacts from three voyages and entrance is free.

You can't leave without visiting a volcano, stopping off in picturesque villages such as Aquimes or San Bartolome along the way where you can buy lava jewellery and enjoy wonderful food. The largest crater, Tejeda Caldera is 15km wide, but bring a jacket -- it's very windy.

Back at the sea, the town of Mogan has stunning walks and quaint shops where you can buy souvenirs and clothes.



Resolutions

On an island where tourism is the main industry, you'll not be short of somewhere to stay. For a top-class option, try the Palm Beach in Maspalomas (www.hotel-palm-beach.com). But be warned, if you had planned not to overdo the eating on holidays, forget it -- the groaning breakfast buffet will make you forget your resolutions.

The rooms are spacious, with balconies overlooking one of the three pools, or gardens. Have a fun cocktail in the psychedelic retro bar designed by Albert Pinto or enjoy a massage in the spa. A wide, sandy beach is just 100m away. Further away, if it's your thing, is the island's nudist colony.

Rooms start at €170 in the summer with high season over winter.

For a budget-friendly option, Marina Suites in Puerto Rico (www.marinasuitesgrancanaria) is an excellent choice. Originally designed as two-bedroomed residential apartments, they are extra-large and great for kids; 30pc are superior rooms and worth the 10pc extra rate. They have a kids' club, infinity pool and outdoor buffet.

Rooms start from €89 to €156 per night, which is super value, and there's a 10pc discount for summer bookings made before 31 April.

While you're there, try some water sports. This intrepid traveller tried jet skiing (from €30) and para-sailing (from €45) with www.grancanariajetski.com.

Unsurprisingly, the Canaries still remain one of my favourite places, and Gran Canaria lived up to all expectations.


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