Gran Canaria

The Canary Islands

In spite of its name, Gran Canaria is actually only the third-largest of the Canary Islands, after Tenerife and Fuerteventura. But so diverse are the island's attractions, and so majestic some of the landscapes, that it is easy to see how the Spanish conquerors came to christen it the "Great Canary Island", and even today it is often referred to as a continent in miniature. Craggy mountains are cut through by deep ravines, lush vegetation in the north contrast with barren barrancos in the south, and the coast veers from towering, near-vertical cliffs to vast swathes of soft golden sand, sculpted by the Atlantic breezes into dunes of Saharan proportions. Each island in the Canaries has its own appeal, but some would argue that Gran Canaria is the most versatile of them all, offering something for virtually all tastes.

Set in the island's north-east corner, Gran Canaria's capital, Las Palmas, is the largest city in the archipelago, and one of the ten biggest in all of Spain. An important trading port since the days of the discoveries, Las Palmas today is a busy city with superb shopping facilities, a vibrant cultural scene and an excellent town beach - Playa de las Canteras - that is often likened to Rio's Copacabana.

Beach lovers from all over Europe, however, tend to head straight to the island's deep south, an area that was scarcely populated until the 1960s, as the primarily hot and dry microclimate made the land difficult to farm, but which has since become one of Spain's largest beach resorts, thanks mainly to that very climate, and to the magnificent sandy beach that runs for several miles along the south coast. Whilst this area will not suit those seeking quaint villages or historic character, the "Costa Canaria" caters to a wide range of holidaymakers, from young families to retirees spending the whole winter months evading the harsher climes of northern Europe. At the eastern end, where the beach is a little darker and narrower, San Agustin was the first area to be developed, and today mainly appeals to more mature travellers seeking a relaxed beach holiday. Neighbouring Playa del Ingles is the largest and liveliest part, renowned for its diverse nightlife, including an extensive gay scene in the area around the Yumbo commercial centre. But even Playa del Ingles has relatively peaceful neighbourhoods, and makes a convenient and affordable base from which to enjoy the beach and the famous Maspalomas sand dunes, which are as appealing to naturalists for their unique ecosystem as they are to naturists for the privacy they afford (a sizeable stretch of the beach between Playa del Ingles and Maspalomas has been designated an official nudist beach). To the west of the dunes, Maspalomas itself is the more upmarket district, consisting primarily of 4 and 5-star hotels, a promenade lined with designer boutiques, a few clusters of private apartments and two golf courses.

With the southern resorts absorbing the vast bulk of visitors, the island's mountainous interior, and the more verdant and historic north, remain relatively unaffected by tourism, thus offering interesting possibilities for walkers, relaxation seekers and more inquisitive travellers. Situated almost is the centre of the island, the highest peak, Pozo de las Nieves, rises nearly 1,949 metres above sea level, although nearby Roque Nublo, with its massive monolith, is more emblematic. From here, ravines fan out in all directions, some fertile and shaded, others striking in their sun-baked barrenness, and whilst hiking is naturally the most rewarding way to experience the ever-changing landscapes, the less energetic can enjoy a wide range of views from the comfort of their hire car. Those who enjoy pottering around local towns and villages should seek out the historic centres of Agüimes, Telde and Teror, whilst the northern town of Arucas is worthy of a visit not just for its imposing church Iglesia de San Juan Bautista, but also for its charming square Plaza de San Juan, the picturesque pedestrian street Calle León y Castillo, the rum factory (sugar cane cultivation and rum production date back to the 16th century here). The nearby gardens, Jardín de la Marquesa, together with the Jardín Botánico at Tafira Alta between Las Palmas and Santa Brígida display the local flora, whilst sites ranging from the Cueva Pintada museum in Galdar to the extensive open-air "Mundo Aborigen" in the south give insights into the lives of the Guanches, the island's aboriginal people.

For those preferring the coast but wanting to avoid the main resort areas, Puerto de Mogan is a pleasantly laid-back village in the south-west of the island, with a picturesque marina and a very sheltered sandy beach, whilst Puerto de las Nieves in the north-west remains a traditional fishing village, with several delightfully unpretentious fish restaurants overlooking the volcanic beach and the imposing cliffs of the unspoilt west coast.

Gran Canaria's superb beaches and enviable climate may have made it one of Europe's most popular holiday destinations, but with few holidaymakers venturing beyond the main resorts, many of the island's charms remain surprisingly undiscovered.

The dunes and beach at Playa del Ingles

The dunes and beach at Playa del Ingles

The dunes and beach at Playa del Ingles Agaete Valley Las Palmas Puerto de Mogan beach Puerto de Mogan marina View from Mundo Aboriginal across Fataga valley Puerto de las Nieves Maspalomas lighthouse Maspalomas beach and sand dunes Barranco de Guayadeque Playa de las Canteras in Las Palmas Roque Nublo San Agustin beach Puerto de las Nieves Puerto de Mogan Casa de Colon, Las Palmas

Accommodation in Gran Canaria:

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