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Gran Canaria, a continent in miniature

The Maspalomas sand dunes are like being in a scene from Lawrence of Arabia.
The Maspalomas sand dunes are like being in a scene from Lawrence of Arabia. / A. Forbes
  • Plenty of surprises. This holiday island favourite is a destination of unexpected diversity

The adventure begins before you even arrive at LPA airport. If you're lucky and sit on the right side of the aircraft, you get to see the cluster of volcanic islands that make up the Canaries, stretch out before you. The typically cloudless skies make for a memorable landing.

Flying start

At first, Lanzarote comes into view, with its Timanfaya National Park and the 'mountains of fire' clear to see. Then Fuerteventura passes below the wing. If you look carefully you might make out the vast dunes of Corralejo.

Then as the plane banks to one side to begin its final approach to LPA international airport, the island of Gran Canaria fills the aircraft window. An almost circular island, it rises to nearly 2,000 metres, at the peaks of Morro de la Agujereada, and Pico de las Nieves.

The beauty of coming from the Spanish mainland is that arrival formalities are limited, even in the age of Covid-19. Within a few minutes I was through arrivals and at the Cicar car rental desk.

I wasted no time in getting to see the island. The airport is on the east coast, south of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. It's easy to join the new six-lane motorway that runs north to the capital, or south taking you to the popular resorts of Playa del Inglés or Meloneras in about 20 minutes.

Agüimes old town boasts narrow stone-cobbled streets lined with traditional Canarian whitewashed homes.

Agüimes old town boasts narrow stone-cobbled streets lined with traditional Canarian whitewashed homes. / A. Forbes

Spanish colonial

Alternatively, you can take a detour and meander through winding country roads to discover historic rural villages like Agüimes. Within half an hour of arrival, I was mooching around the restored old town, a collection of narrow stone-cobbled streets lined with traditional Canarian whitewashed homes with distinctive wooden balconies, and dark volcanic stone detailing around pastel-painted windows and doors.

Towering above the modest buildings is the neoclassical Church of San Sebastián, its twin towers and dome reminiscent of the Americas. A few voices from a café terrace are carried on the warm breeze, bougainvillea and bird of paradise flower in the square. It's an idyllic scene that's at odds with the outdated package holiday image the island has been working hard to discard.

It's a joy when travel delivers truly unexpected experiences and Gran Canaria promises to do just that. I have to admit that before my recent visit, I had a few misconceptions of this, the third largest of the Canary Islands, the volcanic archipelago that lies off the north west coast of Africa. Yet my visit delivered plenty of surprises.

Sand dunes and beaches

The holiday resorts are predominantly focused in the south, with of course Playa del Inglés the most well-known. This area, to the east of the imposing Maspalomas Dunes, wasn't what I was expecting. It is very well maintained and has a friendly, inclusive atmosphere, popular with gay and straight holidaymakers of all ages. The resort is updating many facilities and some of the iconic vintage hotels have had hip make-overs. The beach is vast, predominantly nudist and LGBT+ friendly - it has a relaxed vibe.

There are plenty of well-marked hiking routes.

There are plenty of well-marked hiking routes. / A. Forbes

Then of course there are those Maspalomas sand dunes. It really is like being in a scene from Lawrence of Arabia. Understandably the dunes are a favourite for film, TV and advertising shoots. During my visit last November, they were filming a fashion show with models deftly negotiating the crests of the drifting dunes (walking on ingeniously positioned temporary pathways that had been hidden in the golden sand that's streaked with dark volcanic dust).

To the south west Gran Canaria shows the modern face of the island's hospitality scene with upscale resorts and hotels in the well-planned district of Meloneras. If you're looking for a world-class five-star resort in the sun, then this is the place.

That said, the reason I was here was to understand why so many consider Gran Canaria a miniature continent. It just takes a day exploring the interior of the island, heading for the north and the capital to discover why.

Island road trip

From the desert landscapes of the south, and the rugged volcanic cliffs of the west that hide pristine beaches and coves, one can drive through dramatic scenery of canyons and mountains. This impressive landscape is of cacti, succulents, and small palm forests in narrow valleys.

The spectacular Fataga gorge is unmissable - a natural wonder with such a scale and impact that it's evocative of the canyons of the southwestern US. Continuing on, the mountain roads will take you into subtropical pine forests. Despite the logging of past centuries, and recent forest fires, the heart of the island is very green. The local authorities have invested in well-signposted hiking trails that take you through natural parks and to fascinating villages and towns.

Las Palmas

The Casa de Colón in Las Palmas.

The Casa de Colón in Las Palmas. / A. Forbes

Reaching the north of the island is to reach yet another climatic zone and countryside of lush ferns and delicate flowers, shaded by rare laurel forests, pines and chestnut trees. The air is often damp and humid, the weather changing rapidly in the winter months from bright sunshine to light rain. It was like being in northern Europe.

The outskirts of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria came into view as I meandered down to the north-east coast. Colourful, ramshackle houses cling to the steep hillsides, almost like a shanty town, before reaching the city, with its vast port and legendary surfing beaches.

Hidden behind the office blocks and hotels is an old town filled with architectural jewels, from ornate modernism and art deco mansion buildings to the historic cathedral and the restored streets of old town.

Gran Canaria undoubtedly delivers the sun, sea and sand for the perfect family holiday, but there's so much more to this miniature continent.