La Gomera

The Canary Islands

Just 40 minutes by catamaran-ferry from the port of Los Cristianos, the small island of La Gomera provides a stunning contrast to the barren landscape and brash commercialism of Tenerife's southwest coast. Measuring just 25 km at its widest point, La Gomera has always been a remote, scarcely populated backwater, and whilst communications have improved significantly over the last two decades - thanks to the introduction of the high-speed ferry, the opening of the small airport for inter-island flights and the construction of better roads on the island itself - La Gomera remains gloriously unspoilt. Like all of the Western Canary Islands, La Gomera is remarkable not for its beaches but for its dramatic mountain scenery, and the island's authorities have been successful in carefully managing the local tourist industry so that it should not conflict with their efforts to conserve their island's unique natural beauty and cultural traditions.

Visitors come to La Gomera not primarily in search of sun, sea and sand, but to relax in peaceful surroundings, to escape the pressures of 21st century living and - above all - explore the island's marvellously varied landscapes on foot. Undoubtedly the greatest lure for keen walkers is the Garajonay National Park. Located in the centre of the island, this dense 4,000-hectare rain forest is the largest and most complete example of laurasilva left in the world (a similar woodland of laurels, ferns and giant heather trees would have covered much of southern Europe until it was destroyed by the last ice age). On La Gomera, a distinct microclimate, which almost permanently covers this central high plateau almost in mist, provides the necessary humidity for this unique ecosystem to continually thrive. Whilst the scenery is magnificent even from the road, we would strongly recommend packing a pair of sturdy boots and setting off on one of the many footpaths that cross the national park.

Elsewhere, the island boasts fabulous coastal paths, some striking waterfalls, and no shortage of stunning valleys, gorges and ravines. The most majestic of these is the Valle Gran Rey, the Valley of the Great King, which fans out towards the island's west coast. Over the centuries, hard-working farmers have carved narrow agricultural terraces from the steep walls of the valley, many of which are still cultivated today. Where the valley meets the sea, there is a string of pebble and black sand beaches, and it was here that the first foreign visitors - mostly hippies seeking respite from the commercialism of the coastal resorts of the Mediterranean - made their base. Since then, Valle Gran Rey has grown into the island's main resort, but it remains true to its slightly alternative, eco-friendly roots, with most of the accommodation in small self- catering complexes and just one medium-sized hotel. And whilst most visitors will make use of the resort's beaches (which include a naturist beach set slightly away from the village) at least once or twice during their stay, nature-based activities such as hiking and mountain biking remain higher on most visitors' agendas.

The only other "beach resort" on the island is Playa de Santiago on the south coast, which boasts a pebbly beach as well as the island's only golf course. Other serviceable beaches can be found just outside the island capital, San Sebastián. With just 8,000 inhabitants, San Sebastián is more of a sleepy provincial town than a thriving metropolis, but it does make a very pleasant place to while away an afternoon or two. Take a stroll along the picturesque Calle Real, where you can visit the well from which Columbus filled his ships with drinking water to last for his voyage to the Americas; take a glance at the 15th-century Torre del Conde (tower of the count) and marvel at the many types of blossoming plants in the surrounding park; or just relax in one of the cafés and enjoy the disarmingly unhurried atmosphere of a town where the only event of any note seems to be the arrival of the ferry boat from Tenerife.

Given how laid-back La Gomera's capital is, it should come as no surprise to find that the more rural villages are positively sleepy, and whilst few of them boast any must-see sights, places such as Hermigua and Vallehermoso are well worth visiting for their picturesque appearance and traditional charm. Venturing deep into the island's rugged interior, you may even hear locals "talking" to each other in El Silbo, La Gomera's unique whistling language which made it possible to communicate across the steep ravines that slice through the island in the days before mobile phones were invented.

Vallhermoso

Vallhermoso

Vallhermoso The village of Agulo, with Tenerife's Mount Teide in the background The whole island offers superb terrain for walking San Sebastián's Old Town Lush agricultural terraces The port of San Sebastián View from the Garajonnay National Park towards Mount Teide on Tenerife Relaxing in the Torre del Conde park in San Sebastián Unspoilt mountain scenery Fishing boats in the harbour of vueltas, Valle Gran Rey Valle Gran Rey Hermigua

Accommodation in La Gomera:

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