November is considered in Sweden to be the worst month of the year weather-wise. I agree. It is often cold, wet and dark. Daylight is scarce and the impression of darkness is increased by having changed from summer time to winter time during the last weekend of October. In December the Christmas lights (and often snow) make the darkness cozier, but November is just bad. This makes it the perfect month for an escape somewhere warm and sunny. Our November getaway this year was the island of Gran Canaria. The Canary islands are considered to have one of the best climates on the planet. Tenerife is even called the Island of eternal spring. Our destination was not Tenerife, though, but the adjacent Gran Canaria. Not that we had a strong opinion about which Canary island to pick, but SAS had a great deal for tickets to Gran Canaria – it is hard to beat 225€ per person for a return flight (5.5 hours one way) with a non low-cost airline.
Gran Canaria has it all – from a big city, through completely artificial resorts built for mass tourism, to small cozy villages that still keep the essence of the island. Even though the island is quite small, only 30 kilometers in diameter, its scenery is dramatic – from Sahara like sand dunes to 2000 meters high mountains (which is impressive, but dwarfed by Tenerife’s 3718 m high volcano). In our seven days on the island, we managed to drive 1100 kilometers, which means we covered it quite thoroughly (as I said it is quite a small place). The majority of the visitors head straight from the airport to the hotel-dense south coast, but we are not the type of family that can spend several consecutive days on the beach. That might be relaxing for the body, but definitively not for my mind, which quickly goes into “who knows what you are missing while just lying on the beach”-mode and gives me a guilty conscience. I might be simplifying things a bit by claiming this, but the sea, beaches and hotels are the same everywhere; villages, cities, culture, history and people are not. And it is the latter category that interests us.
Here are some highlights of the trip.
The nature is impressive. Even though there is not much vegetation, and yellow and brown tones dominate the scenery (granted, the island might be greener during other periods of the year), the nature is amazingly dramatic, thanks to the volcanic origin of the island. We made a road trip in the southwest of the USA three years ago, and Gran Canaria reminds me a lot of Arizona. Imagine the scenery from western movies and you will not be far from how Gran Canaria looks like.
Gran Canaria is relatively close to Sahara, but it also offers a piece of Sahara on the island – the sand dunes of Maspalomas. It is hard to explain, but seeing and experiencing proper sand dunes live was exhilarating. I was never so excited about a bunch of sand before. And I don’t recall that other deserts I visited (in Israel, near Dubai and in Arizona), although beautiful and interesting, left such an impression on me as this one did.
The sea is quite rough around the island. The constant strong wind in combination with roughly 23 degrees Celsius in the air was not very inviting for swimming, especially in the company of a three year old. But the island boasts many different kinds of beaches: natural sandy with yellow sand, natural sandy with black sand, artificial sandy with white sand (imported from the Bahamas), pebbly, rocky, you name it. Great diversity in such a small place.
I was amazed when I learned that more than two million people live in the Canaries. More than 800 000 on Gran Canaria alone! The biggest city of the island, Las Palmas, has roughly 400 000 inhabitants. The highlight of the city is a 4 km long sandy beach, Las Canteras, with its long promenade. The promenade is nice only if you look out to the sea, because the buildings that flank it are quite ugly. Ugly is also the impression I had about most parts of the city, apart from the city center.
Another aspect of the island I did not enjoy much is that almost the complete south coast is exploited for turism. Hotel after hotel, summer house after summer house, resort after resort. Nothing authentic. Some parts were particularly bad (like Puerto Rico or Playa del Ingles around the Anexo II shopping mall) – an endless line of questionable restaurants where you are pestered by the personnel to choose their particular restaurant, exactly the same as the one next to it, where you get pestered again, and where you immediately know that you will get the best value for money and the best culinary experience at McDonald’s. Mass tourism at its worse. Other parts, like Meloneras, were a bit nicer, but still artificial and soulless. Puerto de Mogán was the only place on the south coast that felt pleasant. The south coast got me thinking of how anybody could enjoy all inclusive – you are stuck in a hotel paying a premium for mediocre food, and around you there is nothing than hotels. Every day is the same – food, pool, room, food and so on. At the end of the vacation, all days just blend into one big mess, there is no way to tell them apart. I guess what attracts people is that it is easy, you don’t need to think about anything. Of course, we are all different, I respect that somebody can enjoy it, but for me this type of vacation is nothing but scary.
To continue with the negative, here is one more aspect that bugged me the whole time – the level of English spoken by the personnel working in hotels and restaurants. Sure, simple things are fine, you will be able to check in and out, you will be able to order food. But don’t count on trying to engage in deeper conversation. I wanted to ask things like what attracts people to move to the islands and whether they consider themselves in the first place Spanish or Canary. Not being able to do that made the whole vacation less personal and it felt like we did not get the full experience of the island. Fortunately, this impression was improved during our last night by the lovely owner of a restaurant called La Bodeguita de La Villa in the charming town of Agüimes. We spoke more with her during one dinner than to all other people together during the whole vacation.
One of my favorite aspects of the island are its many unspoiled villages which provide the completely opposite spectrum from the exploited south. These are typically located some kilometers away from the coast and up in the mountains. Agüimes, Artenara, Teror (cool name, right?) and Tejeda are great examples. Three out of our seven nights on Gran Canaria we spent in Agüimes. The town gives a good glimpse into how the island might have looked like a couple of hundreds years ago. There was a sense of calm in the air, I enjoyed every minute there. At the same time as being tranquil, it was not in any way dull, each night there were people out in cafe bars and restaurants, and kids were running around playing.
Tourist trap restaurants made Gran Canaria generally get a bad reputation when it comes to cuisine, but this seems to be changing. There are some gems where you can find great food at quite low prices (for example, La bikina in Las Palmas and the aforementioned La Bodeguita de La Villa in Agüimes) and there are some quite good (but very pricey) restaurants on the south coast. We had two nice lunches by the pool at a restaurant called La Aquarela, where the staff was amazing with Emili, they made special dishes for her that were not present in the menu. Sea food and tapas understandably dominante the island’s cuisine.
So to wrap it up, it was a very enjoyable trip, with amazing nature, beautiful charming villages and quite good food (as long as you are careful), but also with some less nice aspects, such as mass tourism and English spoken at a worse level than I would have liked.
Here are some spontaneous comparisons to similar islands we had visited before. Despite liking Gran Canaria a lot, I cannot claim that we were blown away by it as much as we were by nearby Madeira. It could be because Maderia was our first encounter with extreme diversity packed in a small island. In addition, it was much greener. Also, on Madeira you could drive through a waterfall!
The roads on Gran Canaria were great. Even the narrow, windy mountain roads have pristine pavement. Most of the island is connected by a modern highway. The airport is big and modern. The infrastructure here is great, it is everything that Santorini’s infrastructure is not, which makes me wonder what the Spanish have that the Greek do not.
Having now both visited the Canaries and the Caribbean (Aruba), both seem to offer the same thing – escape from winter to more or less guaranteed great weather – the former for the Europeans and the latter for the Americans. This trip has confirmed our love for small, exotic, far away islands. Hopefully some of our future travels will take us to more of these, for instance Tenerife, Azores or Cape Verde.