Travel: The winter sun is Canary coloured

In search of good food and a chic tan, Simon Owers set out for Gran Canaria

Imagine a palmy island where the sun shines all year; where Saharan dunes, backed by dramatic mountains, lead down to a crystal sea; where the hedges are of hibiscus, and scented bougainvillaea hangs from every bower. On to this image of subtropical perfection, superimpose the vision of sprawling suburban development, run-down shopping centres, and seemingly every white-collar German over the age of 55. These views make up a winter break in Playa del Ingles and Maspalomas, on the south coast of Gran Canaria.

The south coast is the younger cousin of the resort of Las Palmas, in the north-east corner of the island. Curiosity took us there for the day, but we were disappointed. I can remember more and crazier traffic only in Naples. We should have been warned when our guidebook drew particular attention to a tiny, tiled cafe in a leafy square, and described it as a building "whose charm is not exceeded by any other in the city". We did have a pleasant drink there, but it was no more charming than many other drinks drunk elsewhere.

More interesting was the huge, cool market, of the sort that hot Mediterranean countries do so well: juicy slabs of meat, heaps of glistening fish and colourful vegetables. My favourite stall was one devoted to herbs; aromatic bundles of dried twigs and leaves filled the shelves at the back of the shop, and pottery-jugged bunches of bitter-sweet greenery lined the counter at the front.

How different to the four unbelievably ugly Centro Commerciales in Playa del Ingles. One is geared towards the Germans, another to the Irish, another to gays; the last is full of everyone else. Here tourist shops are ghettoed, with bars and restaurants with names such as the Benny Hill Pub Cafe, the Boney M Disco Bar, and the Schweizzer Sausage Grill. It is where people staying in Playa or Maspalomas go in the evening - maybe because they would be even more unbearable by daylight.

We stayed at Maspalomas, just a short taxi ride down the hill. It has little more than the famous dunes, some attractive villa developments, two large hotels, and a renowned golf course (bad golfers beware - you must provide proof of a handicap of no more than 36). It is quiet and smart, and I would recommend a holiday there in one of the excellent value complexes, using Playa del Ingles only for the diverting, end-of-the-pier night-life.

I would also recommend holidaying with Germans. Not only do they love their beer (therefore no man need suffer the usual hideous embarrassment when exposing a 34-inch waist) but they like their accommodation to be clean and efficient. A bonus is that many of them also disappear to the naturist dunes during the day, leaving the pool for those of us more modest.

By public bus or hired car, travelling west along the coast road is dramatic. Playa and Maspalomas are relatively young developments and soon give way to stony virgin hillsides that drop steeply to hidden coves. Plots are already being laid out with boulders, and no doubt will be sold and built over within a decade, but at the moment it is untouched. The resort of Puerto Rico is something of a discovery to those of us who had become accustomed to Playa. It is in fact rather attractive, with regular rows of white villas climbing steeply from the marina and beach. Although also new, Puerto Rico has a more established air - something like that of Cap Ferrat in the Fifties.

We did not stop at Puerto Rico, however, for our destination was the little town of Puerto de Mogn. Mysteriously nicknamed "Little Venice", Mogn has no canals, no art and no smells. It does, however, have narrow lanes of flower-decked houses, pretty squares, and attractive bars alongside a marina of luxury yachts.

Being lovers of uniformed flunkeys, we opted for lunch on the terrace of a small, smart hotel. With the water almost lapping at our feet and a view of the bluest of bays, we could have been millionaires for a meal that cost only pounds 20 a head. Drinking the crispest of white riojas, we feasted on tortilla, octopus fried in tempura batter, whole grilled and sweetened green chillies, and sole studded with crispy shallots and garlic.

For little more than the price of a new winter coat, you can enjoy an excellent holiday on Gran Canaria. The locals are charming, the food delicious; and the island's duty-free status means that drink is cheap. With temperatures in the eighties, you are guaranteed a tan - and a winter tan, to my mind, is so much more glamorous than a new winter coat.

Getting there

The writer paid pounds 230 for a week in Maspalomas at the beginning of this month, through First Choice (0161-745 7000). The price included flights from Gatwick.

Access from the UK to Gran Canaria is easier on a charter flight than on scheduled services. Outside the Christmas period you can find a flight for around pounds 150. Scheduled flights via Madrid on Iberia (0171-830 0011) cost around pounds 200.

More information

Spanish Tourist Office, 22-23 Manchester Square, London W1M 5AP (0171- 486 8077).

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