‘THAT is one of our new volcanoes. Anything younger than a million years, we consider new,” smiles my guide Guillermo Bernal, as we peer over a wildscape alive with kilometre-high cliffs and pounding Atlantic surf, a wildscape riven with a sweep of volcanoes. “We are always a mixture of old and new here, so varied. You will find all the best bits of the Canaries rolled into one.”
I have been lucky over the years to visit Gran Canaria more than half a dozen times and it is indeed an island bursting with all the best bits of the Canaries. There is always something new to savour – I’ve been on dozens of local walks, but none in the Agaete Valley on the wild western coast, which Guillermo guides me around.
Hiking on Gran Canaria is often a slow process. Not because the trails are tough – though there are challenges – but as there is so much to check out. I admire a cacti, before Guillermo corrects me that it is a local doppelganger. We catch sight of bird species endemic to the Canaries, taste the juice of one plant, while avoiding an identical one that is poisonous. I savour a fresh prickly pear: utterly delicious. It is just an appetiser for lunch – a remarkable tasting menu served by the family at the Restaurante Casa Romántica, who have their own coffee plantation, winery and orange plantation. I taste all their fruits in an unmissable gastronomic experience, whether you’re hiking or not.
I often see connections between Scotland and Gran Canaria and I don’t just mean the thistles I find after lunch. We come to the Maipés de Agaete. Guillermo talks of how people thrived in the valley before the arrival of the Spanish. All that lingers in the valley today are tombs, volcanic echoes of a people wiped from the earth. I think of Morvern. And Knoydart.
My hiking base proves ideal. The totally revamped Occidental Roca Negra
(www.barcelo.com) welcomes walkers and has a spectacular location set into the cliffside. I wake to the sound of the Atlantic as I peer across to Tenerife. Their rooftop bar provides a cocktail-tinged amphitheatre for enjoying the ocean and back to the hills I hiked.
I’m bound for the capital now, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, my favourite Canarian city. Think Rio, with a sweeping golden sand beach, a seriously riotous annual Carnaval (February 10 to March 5 this year) and architecture as reminiscent of South America as Iberia. Local guide Maria Lezcano evokes the city’s spirit: “We are an African people with a European mind and a South American soul. You can really feel that on the streets of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria.”
I enjoy another ideal base, the Santa Catalina, a Royal Hideaway Hotel (www.barcelo.com). This stately dame dates back to 1890, mirroring the city’s history, the tartan in the staff uniforms testament to the role Scots played. A colossal recent rebirth has injected new life, snaring the award of best hotel in Spain last year. It’s certainly now my favourite Gran Canaria hotel with gorgeous rooms, lavish public spaces, a great spa and a rooftop pool with views that turns into a bar by night.
The restaurants at the Santa Catalina excel too. At 1890 La Bodeguita, I dine on local octopus roasted with spicy Canarian mojo sauce and melt-in-the-mouth squid. My second night brings one of the best meals I’ve had
It is easy to see why Poemas by the Padron brothers was awarded a Michelin star last year. Service and the setting are sublime and the tasting menu a thing of rare beauty – the sweet local black pudding works brilliantly dusted with chocolate and an almond praline; the oyster spiced with green curry a daring but successful experiment. Even the pool bar serves top-notch lobster rice.
There is lots to explore in Las Palmas, but after a morning revisiting the bustling Triana quarter and old-world Vegueta, Maria guides me to Telde. I’ve never visited the island’s second city, but soon wish I had. The old core has been lovingly preserved with a sweep of trim streets dotted with palms and ornate churches. We stroll back through time unfettered by the crowds that can descend elsewhere in the Canaries.
On my last day, I visit Senorio de Cabrera, an artisan wine producer. The lovely couple here cultivate wine with passion, serving it on a terrace amid the vines accompanied with delicious home cooking, with their herbs, fruits and vegetables working into dishes that have been passed down for centuries.
In Gran Canaria, the old and the new often gloriously interweave to create a present that is ideal for a holiday year-round.