The Canary Islands are Spain’s tropical paradise, but while they may be Spanish geographically, each has its own distinct personality.
When I was but a mere sailor lad in baggy white shorts and canvas deck shoes, I visited Las Palmas on Gran Canaria no less than seven times with Elder Demptster Lines, as we sailed back and forth between Tilbury in the UK and Lagos in Nigeria – and not once did I set my foot on Canarian terra firma.
As an Assistant Purser I had to keep an eye on cargo being checked into the hold while passengers and crew lucky enough not to be working were welcomed to the island by bonny Spanish ladies in flouncy frocks and castanets before getting into charabancs for a ride into town. It was nearly forty years before I finally set foot on Gran Canaria, and I can’t say the island had changed much because I’d never seen anything of it four decades ago, but I would have liked to have done because it was it was around this time that Gran Canaria was changing from being one of the most important shipping entreports in the world to embrace tourism and become one of the most successful tourist destinations in Europe.
The Canary Islands are Spain’s tropical paradise, and for Spaniards living in mainland Spain they are synonymous with winter holidays, as they are for the hundreds of thousands of foreign tourists who pack the islands’ resorts all year round. A quarter of all tourists that visit Spain go to the Canaries.
Colonized and populated by the Spanish, they lie 1,150km off the coast of Spain but only 100km from Morocco. The Canarians say that geographically they are African, culturally they are European, their nationality is Spanish, but their heart is in America, referring to the fact that Latin America was originally colonised mainly by island people. They may be politically and administratively Spanish but culturally and geographically they have very much their own personality.
The seven main islands of the Canaries – Gran Canaria, Lanzarote, Fuerteventura, Tenerife, la Gomera, La Palma and Hierro –share an eternal spring climate but they differ dramatically from each other. You can experience everything from sub-tropical vegetation to volcanic semi-desert, from verdant cliffs and gorges to sand dunes by the seashore. (Contrary to the belief that the island is named after the chirruping little yellow song bird, the islands where named Insularia Canaria in Latin, Island of Dogs, after the fierce hunting dogs found there when Juba, King of Mauritania, paid a visit.)
Herodotus called them the Garden of Hesperides, Homer the Elysian Fields and Pliny the Fortunate isles. Some historians even say that the legendary continent Atlantis was located here. Christopher Columbus stopped to take on his final provisions at La Palma before setting off to discover the New World in 1492, only four years before the islands themselves would be conquered by the Reyes Catolicos and become part of Spain.
One way or another, the British dominated the Island during much of the 19th century and were responsible for the first hotel, the first golf course, the first telephone, the establishment of a concert orchestra and the arrival of the first car. It depends on your point of view as to whether or not you see these beneficial additions to peaceful island life.
Gran Canaria, despite its name, is only the third largest in the archipelago and isn’t even the size of London. It was described as a ‘miniature continent’ by Canarian journalist Fray Lesco because of its diversity of climate. In winter you can walk in the snow-capped mountains of La Cumbre in the middle of the island and a few kilometres away bask on sun-soaked beaches. It was once the department store betweenSpainandAmerica, and now the island’s capital, Las Palmas, is the busiest cruise port in the Canaries.
The one thing you can’t miss in Las Palmas is the Cathedral in Plaza Santa Ana, the biggest building in the whole of the Atlantic Islands (the Canaries plus Madeira). Built from the local heavy grey basalt stone it is a mix of styles culled from the five hundred years it took to complete but all aiming at an architectura de poder – the architecture of power used to symbolise the power of the Church – usually over the poor folk whose pesetas went to pay for it. Grand as its exterior might be, it is relatively devoid of treasures inside, having been sacked by pirates on plenty of occasions.
Just behind the Cathedral is the Columbus House Museum, still grand but on a more personal scale. Originally the home of the Governor of Las Palmas it is said that Columbus kipped there on his way to discover America (although his final port of call in the Canaries was San Sebastian on La Palma).
Step through the grand stone doorway with its beautiful deep red bougainvillea (it’s actually the back door, the front door is even more impressive) and you enter a peaceful world of shaded patios – at least it’s peaceful if the resident pair of parrots aren’t jabbering on. The museum is a collection of Columbus-related artefacts and nautical impedimenta and even if you aren’t really that interested in sea-going going’s on, it’s still a lovely house to visit.
You can wander the streets of the Barrios of de Vegueta and Triana for hours, but for an architectural giggle nip into the Parque de San Telmo and have a glance at the wonderful quiosco modernista, a confection of white and red art nouveau with its bronze dome and curliqued metalwork.
For garden lovers a ‘must-do’ is a trip to the biggest botanical garden inSpain, the Jardin Botanico, where they are trying to conserve all the plants on the Red List (those in danger of extinction) in th Atlantic Islands.
Of the nine national parks in Spain the Canary Islands has four of them. On Las Palmas itself forty-three percent of the island is protected area. As you drive into the interior, dipping through rugged mountain terrain, great tracts of greenery open up in front of you. You’ll see the weird and wonderful dragon tree everywhere, but don’t be tempted to take a cutting because export from the Canaries is illegal and if an islander plants one in his garden it’s there for life – the tree’s not his – because they are not allowed to be moved once they begin growing.
The higher you get you begin to understand why so much of the fruit you eat at home comes from the Canary Islands. By the time you reach the top you will have passed through groves of apples, pears, cherries and plums while in the north of the island grow pawpaw, guava, avocado, banana and sugar cane.
If you pass through San Mateo on Saturday, market day, you may be lucky enough to be there when a latino band are playing and couples will take a break from their shopping for a quick salsa or romantic rumba. It says everything about the spontaneity of the Spanish people.
Drop down from La Cumbre through the long mountain drive to the Dunas de Maspalomas, a nature reserve but only a short drive from Playa del Inglés, one of the favourite holiday destinations of the British. Far from being a built up tourist trap that many would have you believe, there isn’t a high-rise in sight, but only long stretches of golden sand. For five hundred metres around El Faro, the lighthouse at the tip of the island, the beach is reserved for nude bathing. The area around Maspalomas is popular with gay people and there are a number of gay only hotels.
Forty years is a long time in tourism. Had I visited the Canaries all those years ago I would have seen a completely different face, one that has, in the intervening four decades, applied lipstick, eye shadow and layers of pancake make-up – and not always with a refined hand.
But now Gran Canaria and neighbouring Lanzarote are beginning to show their true selves behind the painted face by promoting the beauty of their respective interiors, places which, had I gone there as a callow youth, would probably have been inaccessible by anything other than foot or donkey – which would have played merry havoc with my starched white shorts and Glo-white canvas deck shoes.