Away from the main resorts explore Northern Gran Canaria, a mountainous landscape of gorges, craters, traditional villages and hidden coves in the Canary Islands
Gran Canaria is known as the ‘miniature continent’ owing to the variety of ecosystems on the almost circular island, where around half the area is protected land. There is sometimes snow on the highest peaks, while at the same time people are sunbathing, swimming and surfing on the coast.
The northern half of the island is much greener than the south, with terraced hillsides where the fertile soil is planted with avocados, mangoes, figs and tomatoes. There are extensive banana plantations too, established by British entrepreneurs in the 19th century. Most of these crops end up on sale in European supermarkets.
The downside is that the weather is not as reliable as in the south, with frequent mist and showers. A lot of people, however, find this climate more comfortable than solid sunshine, particularly if they are not into lying on a beach all day. The beaches around the north of the island are smaller and backed by steep cliffs. The sea is rougher here, with good conditions for surfing.
If you are staying in one of the resorts in the south, it is easy to explore the north with a hire car. Although it is only around 50 km from one end of the island to the other, the winding mountain roads away from the coast mean you have to drive slowly – all the better to take in the breathtaking views.
To get an idea of the extraordinary landscape of Gran Canaria, head for the village of Tejeda in the heart of the island, which developed around a little chapel, known as Cruz de Tejeda, built by the first Spanish settlers. From here, gaze across at the Roque Nublo, a rocky mass rising to a height of 1,813 metres. The highest point of the island is a bit further to the east at Pico de las Nieves, at 1,942 metres.
One of the most spectacular hotels in Gran Canaria is the newly-reopened Parador de Cruz de Tejeda. Revamped using lots of natural colours and materials, this is a really soothing place to stay. Most of the 43 rooms have views across the enormous crater that characterises the centre of the island. I love sitting on the terrace with a drink to watch the sunset, particularly after a day spent hiking along one of the many trails that meet at Tejeda. There is a new spa too, and an outdoor pool that juts out into the forest on the hillside. Like all paradors, the restaurant specialises in the local cuisine, which on Gran Canaria means hearty watercress soup, roast kid, wonderful fresh fish and ‘wrinkly’ potatoes, boiled in their skins and served with mojo dips flavoured with paprika or coriander.
Teror, to the north of Tejeda, is one of the prettiest villages in Gran Canaria. White houses with intricately-carved wooden balconies and flower-filled courtyards line the main street, Calle Real. In the main square, after having a look at the 17th-century Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pino, be sure to stop at one of the tapas bars to try a bocadillo de chorizo – a squashy roll stuffed with the locally-made paprika sausage. This is great with a cold beer, particularly on Sundays when the street market is in full swing.
Heading north again, you arrive at the small town of Arucas, which is dominated by the neo-Gothic Iglesia de San Juan Bautista, a church of a grandeur usually only seen in cities. It is, however, not as old as it looks, as it was begun at the beginning of the 20th century and not completed until the 1970s. Built in the local bluish-grey stone, it was funded by the wealth brought to the town by the banana plantations in the surrounding countryside.
Another major crop is sugar cane, which is distilled to make rum. Try it – ask for una copa de ron Arehucas – in any of the bars, or visit the Ron Arehucas distillery (Eras de San Pedro 2, tel 928 624900, www.arehucas.es), where you can see how the rum is made, find out something about the history of rum production in the area and buy some to take home too. This is one bottle that won’t be left mouldering at the back of the drinks’ cupboard, believe me.
Just outside Arucas, the Hacienda del Buen Suceso is a gorgeous hotel for a romantic break. Set in a sprawling estate surrounded by banana plantations, the house dates back to the 16th century and is one of the oldest in the Canary Islands. The 18 rooms are all different, some with sloping wooden ceilings and four-poster beds. Swimming in the outdoor pool, with banana trees as far as the eye can see, is an unforgettable experience.
Arucas is only a 15-minute drive from Las Palmas, the capital of Gran Canaria, but you could also carry on to the coast, which is only five minutes’ away. Around Bañaderos, black, volcanic rocks form strange sculptures which shelter the string of little bays from the sometimes harsh winds. El Puertillo has fine sand and rock pools which are big enough to swim in. Right by the beach, have lunch at the El Puertillo restaurant (tel 928 627537), where they serve fabulous locally-caught fish and there are panoramic views of the coastline and the ocean.