In the words of Cesar Manrique, the island's visionary son, Lanzarote is like an untamed, unmounted work of art – and he held it up for all to see
Somewhere in the middle of this extraordinary island, 70 miles off the coast of Africa, is a rather unique place. It’s a house. That’s about the simplest description I can give you. The rest is off the meter as far as traditional expectations go. Made entirely from lava and lava bubbles, it’s a standing testimony to how you can turn nature into an absolute art form, because this was the house where Cesar Manrique lived and dreamed up all his astonishing projects. Manrique was the inspiration and driving force behind everything that Lanzarote is today; a visionary architect and artist who sadly died in an accident on the island in 1992. But his signature is everywhere here; in its identity, its buildings, its commercial development, its approach to tourism and even in its cuisine.
Of course, Lanzarote offers anyone with an artistic bent a pretty good head start through its unique volcanic landscape. This is an island, like the rest of the Spanish-owned Canaries, born from volcanic eruption. The ensuing lava, now cooled to a blackish rock-like substance called lapilli, has left its indelible footprint everywhere and, even more extraordinarily, has been used to fuel agriculture, vineyards, beaches and, of course, some stunning architecture.
Manrique’s astonishing house is a must-see for anyone visiting Lanzarote. So, too, are the many projects he was involved in during his life, including the Jameos Del Agua, where he built tropical gardens around an amazing underground lava lagoon that’s home to tiny blind albino crabs, and the mysterious moon-like landscape of Timanfiya Volcano Park.
The Park's preserved state is yet another testament to Manrique, because visitors are not allowed to just wander around here; instead you take a 40-minute bus tour around the site, dipping in and out of the craters and lava some 300 years on since the last eruptions. Getting up close and personal with destructive power of that magnitude is a memorable experience, I can tell you. It’s an awe-inspiring place. And right on top of the biggest volcano, in the very centre of the park, Manrique built a restaurant that not only gives you a great view but also provides impressive demonstrations of the heat still emanating inside it from miles below.
He was involved in literally everything of importance on Lanzarote and was probably the biggest influence in ensuring that tourism didn’t mar the island's beauty. Advertising hoardings are banned and no building or development can be more than two storeys high. This has given planners a real headache and their architects have had to be mightily imaginative in finding ways to construct and expand tourist development.
Playa Blanca in the south is an excellent example of this. The heart of the original sleepy fishing village is still very evident, whilst the upscale marina, hotels and resorts expand on either side of it. It’s a resort that’s worthy of mention here, because unlike Puerto del Carmen further north (sadly blighted by the mass tourism boom before Manrique’s protectionist agenda took hold), Playa Blanca is an altogether more upmarket and tasteful place to stay. As it’s the most southerly place on the island, it also has a micro climate that delivers more consistent temperatures all year round. There’s plenty of nightlife if you want it, but it’s certainly not in your face, and the resort is close to Timanfiya, as well as El Golfo, a place of natural beauty, and the great white beaches of Papagayo.
Casa Pedro is a restaurant I’d highly recommend. It’s a large house right on Playa Blanca’s seafront, with stunning views of the ocean. Pedro is quite an institution; after all, he’s been serving high quality authentic Canarian cuisine here for over 25 years. Not only that, he’s always front of house taking care of business, so you’ll be looked after royally. Fresh fish is obviously top of the bill here, but there are plenty of fresh alternatives to choose from. It’s high quality fare at very reasonable prices - what more could you want?
Another excellent place to eat nearby is Costa Azul in the beautiful El Golfo area. This is a fish-eater's heaven, with the ocean literally lapping at the door. There is no menu; your host, Tato, will deliver you a list of specials and suggestions and you just sit back and savour it all. Get down there just before sunset and catch an amazing view of the sun going down. Wonderful.
Canarian cuisine is essentially Spanish but with a twist. There’s tapas and paella on tap, of course, but you’ll also find, for example, the national dish, papas arrugadas, which are small Canarian potatoes boiled in salt and then baked and served covered in mojo salsa, a garlic sauce made from red and green peppers.
However, for me, the mix of Manrique’s unique art/nature fusion and Lanzarote’s food is never better portrayed than at the oasis of Lagomar near the small village of Nazaret. This stunning location was originally a hillside house built by Cesar for the actor Omar Sharif and encompasses a maze of signature lava tunnels, caves and secret passageways that culminate in a wonderful tropical garden and pool. Legend has it that Sharif lost the property in a bridge game and never returned to it, but his loss is our gain because nestling amongst all of this finery is a fabulous restaurant run by chef Luis Leon. The culinary experience more than matches the visual assault on your senses and the combination of both is something not to be missed. If you do nothing else you must spend some time here. It is a magical event.
And what of Puerto del Carmen? Well, there’s good news ahead for the resort, with some fine new developments coming on stream. The most ambitious is the new golf course, Lanzarote Golf, under the stewardship of Elena Gutierrez. Until now there was only one course on the island at Teguise, a lovely course nestled around an extinct volcano, where navigating the lava rock was almost more of a challenge than hitting the greens. The new course just outside Puerto del Carmen has only been open a year but is looking good, with great views across the ocean, a clubhouse complex that will be fit for a king when it’s finished and a string of properties lining the course that will add a touch of class and glamour to an area that’s desperately trying to shake off its downmarket roots.