On the western edge of Spain's Canaries, there is nothing vaguely resembling a resort on El Hierro, an island with a rugged volcanic coast, superb diving conditions and romantic restaurants
If you want to spend your holiday lying on never-ending beaches of golden sand, with nights at buzzing bars and cool clubs, give El Hierro a miss.
But if you like the idea of watching the waves crashing onto the black sand in a deserted cove while eating a fresh papaya, peach or pineapple, this tiny island in the Canaries could be for you.
El Hierro is situated on the far left of the archipelago, and was believed to be the end of the western world until Columbus discovered America. Until the Greenwich Meridian was established in 1884, the Punta de Orchilla lighthouse, on the western tip of the island, was the Prime Meridian, marking the midway point between the north and south of the planet.
At this end of the island, don’t miss the extraordinary sight of El Sabinar, where the relentless winds have bent the trunks of 300 or so juniper trees into eerie sculptural shapes, forming a unique landscape. This is just one reason why the island was designated a Biosphere Reserve a decade ago.
The huge bay, backed by black and red cliffs, that forms the northwest side of the island – El Golfo - is actually a massive crater, half of which collapsed into the sea millions of years ago. This has left a spectacular semicircular valley, with sides rising to a height of more than 1,000 metres, on which many varieties of grapes are grown.
The first vines were in fact brought by an Englishman, John Hill, in 1526. Most of the wine produced is white, although there are some good reds too. El Hierro has its own dominación de orígen (the Spanish equivalent of appellation contrôlée), which guarantees the grape varieties used, as well as production methods and quality.
The best locations for scuba diving are on the southeast and south coasts of the island, particularly in the marine area of Mar de Las Calmas near the fishing village of La Restinga. A popular location for inexperienced divers is the Devil’s Cave, as the water is quite shallow and there is plenty of light. More experienced divers could try El Arco, where you go down to a rocky shelf at a depth of around 40 metres, where there is a broad arch covered in black coral.
From the quayside at La Restinga, you can go on a night dive and may spot stingrays, the large local lobsters and a variety of other crustaceans. Close to La Restinga, La Herradura is an area of ravines, elevations, caves and arches where you are likely to see several species of bream as well as parrot fish, morays and mantis prawns.
There are quite a few diving centres in La Restinga, including Arrecifal (Calle La Orchilla 30; 922 557171; www.arrecifal.com), which offers PADI courses and daily trips to spectacular locations. This is the largest centre and the only one to teach all its courses in English (as well as other languages).
Buceo El Hierro (Calle El Rancho 12; 922 557023; www.centrodebuceoelhierro.com) was the first centre on the island and has been going for more than 30 years. They have a wide range of courses, from beginners to specialist, and all sorts of equipment for hire, as well as excellent facilities for all divers to use.
Where to eat
Mirador de la Peña (Carretera General de Guarazoca 40; 922 550300) in Guarazoca is one of the most attractive restaurants on the island. The stone and wood building, designed by the great Canarian artist and architect César Manrique, is set on the edge of a cliff on the northwest coast. There are breathtaking views of the Atlantic from the enormous windows. Canarian specialities such as roast kid or fish stew are prepared and served with a bit more finesse here than in some other places, with correspondingly higher prices. Around €30-€40 for three courses with wine.
La Higuera de la Abuela (Calle Tajanifcaba; 922 551026) in Echedo, north of the capital Valverde, is also very pretty, with tables in a lovely leafy courtyard. The menu changes according to what is seasonally available, but there might be braised oxtail, sirloin in pear sauce or rabbit in almond sauce. Start with stuffed mushrooms or the local cheese, which is grilled until it is melting and gooey. About €15-25.
Casa Goyo (Carretera General San Andrés; 922 551263) is on the main street in San Andrés, the highest village on the island, which is often shrouded in mist. You can have tapas at the bar or a sit-down meal, from a menu that includes some great (and inexpensive) hearty stews made with local produce (less than €15 for set lunch). A lot of the crops around here are organic, but because that is the way it has always been, rather than following foodie trends.
El Guanche (Calle Panaderia 1; 922 559065) in Frontera combines Canarian cuisine with Venezuelan specialities. Try the rabbit cooked in a tangy sauce made with wine, vinegar and lots of herbs. For dessert, order quesadilla, the local cheesecake. Expect to pay around €15-€20 for lunch. Aftewards, stroll through the town taking in the traditional architecture.
In La Restinga in the south there are a handful of unpretentious places around the harbour serving the freshest fish. Head for Casa Juan right by the sea (Calle J. Gutiérrez Monteverde 21; 922 558002) for just-caught parrot fish and other local varieties. You can just have tapas, or a full meal, with a set lunch for less than €15.
Where to stay
The Parador El Hierro is situated right by the sea on the east of the island in a little cove at the foot of volcanic hills, where you will be lulled to sleep by the sound of the waves. Most of the 45 rooms have terraces with views of the sea or the mountains. There is a pool and a good restaurant, and activities including fishing, diving, paragliding and mountain biking can be arranged.
On the other side of the island, the Balneario Pozo de la Salud is set on a cliff in a stunning landscape at the end of El Golfo bay. This is an old-school spa hotel, with medical and pampering treatments using mineral water from a source right by the hotel. There are only 18 rooms and prices for both accommodation and the spa are very reasonable, so it tends to be busy. The restaurant serves healthy local dishes.
The Hotelito Ida Ines is a family-run, rural hotel, with views across the Atlantic and the vineyards of the Golfo valley. There are 11 simply-decorated rooms and one suite, and facilities include a pool and a restaurant. The family will arrange riding, hiking and other activities for you.