The Canary Islands are a popular destination for a winter break to which we had never been so we thought we might visit in the spring/early summer when there were fewer holiday makers.
There are seven major islands in the volcanic Canaries; Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria, La Gomera, El Hierro, Lanzarote, La Palma and Tenerife. They are all different and the larger ones are served by direct flights from the UK but we decided on Gran Canaria as I had been to Las Palmas before when at sea and liked the look of the place.
We booked a Ryanair flight from Birmingham which was just over 4 hours flying time and a hotel at St Augustin on the outskirts of Maspalomas called the Gloria Palace. This was a mistake as we realised when we went down for breakfast the first morning and were met by Micky and Minnie Mouse. It was a very comfortable 4 star hotel but also a sort of up-market Butlins catering for families complete with ankle biters, pools full of screaming kids, Germans grabbing all the sunbeds at dawn with their beach towels, Bingo every afternoon and a grand piano with synthesizer.
There was a show every night with the same "animation team" dressing up in different costumes, dancing and miming to taped music.
There was nothing to indicate such activity on the web site and trip advisor gave it good reviews. Indeed everything else about the hotel was fine it was just not for old fogies like us.
The breakfast buffet was exceptional but as soon as we had eaten we beat a hasty retreat.
Our first excursion was to walk along the promenade to Playa del Ingles. The promenade climbs up a steep flight of steps where you look down on the beach and 400 hectares of sand dunes.
The next day we took the hotel shuttle bus down to Playa del Ingles and continued the walk to the end of the promenade, continuing across the sand dunes to the beach where we found many very brown naked wrinkly Germans exposing themselves to the elements and us! I say they were Germans but we didn't actually ask any of them their nationality, however, German seemed to be the predominant language being spoken that we heard.
We walked back along the beach and caught the shuttle back to the hotel but we missed Bingo! After two days of long walks which were each about five miles we deserved a rest so hired a car and drove up to Las Palmas, parked in a multi storie in the shopping district of Triana and walked around the old town of Veguita.
The first inhabitants of the Canaries came from North Africa about 2000 BC. They were an aborigine race known as the Guanches and lived in caves, mainly in the mountainous North where the climate is cooler, wetter and greener than the more barren South. Volcanic activity did not cease until about 1000 BC and many sailors would have known of the island but it was not until Juan Rejón landed in 1478 that a permanent settlement was set up on Gran Canaria. It took until 1483 to defeat the Canarios but many of those remaining jumped into a deep ravine rather than submit to slavery.
Sir Francis Drake attacked Las Palmas in 1595 but failed to defeat the defenders but Pieter Van Der Does had more success in 1599 when Las Palmas was devastated. A port was finally developed in 1881 and it became a free trading port where ships sailing South provisioned and bunkered.
The Canaries more recent history involved a rebellious Spanish general who the government shipped off to the island in 1936. His name was Francisco Franco and it was from Las Palmas that he launched the Spanish Civil War which ended in decades of Fascist rule that did not end until Franco's death in 1975. The European Union might claim that they bought Spain in from the cold in 1986 but had Franco lived longer Spain would not have joined so soon. I remember holidays in Spain in the 60's and 70's when it was a very different place to the tourist destination it is now.
Following the conquest of the island in 1478 the Catholic Monarchs ordered the building of the Catedral de Santa Anna. Building work began in 1500 but it was not completed until well into the 19th century so it has many different architectural styles from Gothic to Neo-Classical. We liked the little 17th century courtyard adjoining the cathedral, overlooked by carved wooden balconies, a feature of many of the old houses in the district.
After Tapas in a pavement cafe in Veguita we wandered along the pedestrianised main shopping street, Calle Mayor de Triana and wished we had eaten in one of the many tree shaded side streets. Lovely old buildings have managed to survive the modern shop frontages.
Back at St Augustin we had a good selection of restaurants but most in a badly designed shopping centre on several levels. St Augustin beach was quite pleasant with one or two restaurants but there were few people about. One reason was that it was their low season and it is a year round destination. The main reason was that most hotels sell all inclusive deals and this does the locals no favours. We only booked bed and breakfast so benefitting the local economy.
We headed North through the mountainous middle of the island in our little VW "up!". That's the name of the car, "up!", including the exclamation mark. Not a bad little car despite the excessive pollution it distributed above the legal limit! But I jest as it was a petrol engine. My one criticism was the huge blind spot at each side of the windscreen.
The roads inland are airy hairy and Canarian drivers impatient so you adopt a defensive style of driving and pull over regularly to let them pass.
The scenery as you leave the coast becomes more and more majestic, getting gradually more verdant as you get further North.
After an initial high pass we dropped into the Fataga valley and followed it up to the village of the same name. The road then climbs up well over 1000 metres before arriving at Roque Bentayga.
This is a big sticky up rock and was a place of worship for the Guanches or Canarios as the Spanish called them. An interesting little museum has been built beneath the rock which gives the history of the original inhabitants and their origins together with geographical information of the surrounding mountains.
The road then drops down into a valley, finally arriving at the picturesque little town of Tejeda where we stopped for lunch.
Almond trees are indigenous to this area and Tejeda is famous for almond delicacies. The early spring sees them all burst into blossom and must be a lovely sight.
Tejeda is perfectly situated opposite the most photographed rock in Gran Canaria, Roque Nublo. This is actually a volcanic plug, formed when the volcano became extinct, after which the surrounding rocks were eroded away over the centuries leaving this phallic knob sticking up on top of the mountain.
We saw them in China and Brazil on our travels. There are a few of these plugs on the island but this one is the biggest of all the knobs!
We headed on North over the Cruz de Tejeda where we hit the clouds. The whole of this Northern side of the mountain range was in the mist and the flora changes dramatically into rain forest. The locals told us that you can experience four different climates on Gran Canaria in the same day. We headed for Las Palmas where we joined the modern motorway back down to Maspalomas.
Our final expedition was to circumnavigate the entire island. That same motorway took us along the coast West to Puerto de Mogan and was mostly underground in tunnels. It must have cost the earth to construct, probably paid for by us Brits through our contributions to the EU!
The road turns North up the Mogan valley and through the town of Morgon then climbs steeply and passes across the face of a mountain displaying an array of rock strata coloured by different minerals.
After crossing a high pass the road descends into a valley and the town of Aldea or to give it its full name La Aldea de San Nicholas de Tolentino, a place so full of poly tunnels for growing produce that little soil could be seen.
The next section of road follows the coast with the narrow winding precipitous road cut into the vertical cliffs with the sea hundreds of feet beneath you.
Not for the faint hearted driver especially when you met a big truck or coach as you rounded a corner.
It was comforting to have the sea on our left while we drove on the right.
This was the Parque Natural Tamadaba and was quite spectacular scenery.
Descending back down to sea level you arrive at Puerto de las Nieves where you can catch the Fred Olsen fast Cat ferry over to Santa Cruz in Tenerife which takes about an hour. Because of this ferry connection the road is much improved from here to Las Palmas but the village is a favourite stop for its abundance of seafood restaurants. We found a little Italian run cafe and had Calamari and chips for a mere €6. About half the price of the more expensive restaurants facing the harbour.
After lunch we headed inland again to Moya, a very pleasant mountain town with a church perched on the edge of a deep ravine. The church, which is extensively named Parroquia de Nuestra Senora de la Candelaria, was begun in 1909 and took 60 years to build.
Here you can see how short Sue is, standing under a little Dragon tree outside the church. It was closed when we visited but it is renowned for its stained glass windows, considered the best on the island.
We climbed up to cloud level above Tejada again before descending back down to Las Palmas and the motorway home.
Our final day was spent on the beach at St Augustin soaking up the vitamin D on a sunbed!
We ate twice at Trip Advisors No 1 restaurant in the dismal St Augustin shopping centre called Pizzissima owned by a young Italian couple from Turin. It serves mainly pizza and pasta with more substantial specials each night. Its Trip Advisor rating was well deserved and you would be hard put to find better pasta or pizza on the island.
We had a 4.20am pick up for the airport the next morning where Ryanair whisked us back to Birmingham, landing on time at just after 11am.