Beauty beyond the beach

Neville Walker leaves the crowded resorts behind and discovers a very different, very dramatic Gran Canaria

When Francisco Franco Bahamonde left Gando Airport in Gran Canaria in a hired British plane on 18 July 1936, he was on his way to Morocco to start a military rebellion. It became the Spanish Civil War and brought him almost 40 years of power.

It is hard to imagine many of the thousands who now pass through the same airport every day having anything quite so ambitious in mind. Few places are so synonymous with the package tour, and in few places is the visitor's environment so artificial. Purpose-built resorts don't have charming old quarters. And the tour operators' excursions mostly visit attractions that are just as phoney.

But if many visitors to Gran Canaria are hardly intrepid explorers, first impressions as you leave the airport must take some of the blame. Join the motorway and you're confronted with a grim dusty plain. The island's rain is usually anywhere but here, which means the greenery is elsewhere too, up in the mountains. The plastic-covered tomato fields, slummy urbanizacions, and furniture stores don't add much charm. And yes, there is a branch of Ikea.

All this may be a shame for the island's image, but it's great news if you're not so easily put off. It is the paradox of Gran Canaria that, bursting with tourists though it supposedly is, many of its most beautiful and interesting sights can be enjoyed in virtual solitude.

Away from the resorts, the island hasn't been homogenised. A few miles from the McDonald's, Eurosport and English pubs of Playa del Ingles, people in the Barranco de Guayadeque still live in caves.

Guayadeque is one of the most beautiful valleys on the island. It's an easy half-day out from Playa del Ingles. But it's another world. Here, a handful of people echo the lifestyle of the pre-Hispanic Canarians, the Guanches. Sometimes, conventional house fronts are built on to the cave mouths. Halfway up the valley, you can visit a tiny cave chapel at the roadside. At the top, there is even a cave restaurant where you can enjoy a decent Canarian lunch.

Gran Canaria lacks the punch line of a single, central mountain. But it has its own drama: an up-and-down landscape which withholds views until the last minute and then hits you for six with them. In the hills south of Las Palmas, surrounded by posh suburbia, lies the Bandama golf course. If you leave the main road, you drive past with it on your right. A few yards further on, there's nothing but a gaping abyss ahead of you. You're staring into the 600ft-deep volcanic crater of the Caldera de Bandama. It must be the biggest bunker in the world.

You might decide to stop after the long climb from San Nicolas de Tolentino in the west of the island, probably stuck behind an old lorry. Pulling into a lay-by, you might buy an ice-cream, peer over the wall - and gawp at the immense cliff-face of the west coast. The view is completely

unexpected and ends in the Atlantic, hundreds of feet down below.

Sudden vertigo is half the appeal of touring. You can drive from sea level to 6,500ft - way higher than Ben Nevis - in less than half a day. The roads look hairy, but they are well surfaced and, off the motorway, not that busy. Hire a jeep and you can reach some of the most remote and peaceful parts of the interior on unpaved tracks. Only at weekends, when the locals get out and about, is it much busier.

Heading inland from the south coast, the land rises in sudden lurches. With each lurch, the landscape, climate and vegetation change - from bare rock to succulents, to orange groves and date palms, then to orchards and almond blossom. Finally, you reach a pine-clad landscape more like Yosemite than an Atlantic island. It's a surprisingly big country; you begin to understand why westerns were filmed here.

The summit of the island is at Pozo de las Nieves - the snow well. You can drive all the way. The road first allows you a breathtaking glimpse of the north coast. White dots lost in the blue haze above Las Palmas appear to be planes until you realise they are ships out in the Atlantic. The road ends at a car park, over a mile high. From here, the views extend back to the dunes on the coast at Maspalomas, 20 miles away.

Gran Canaria is not just an outpost of Spain. The architecture, fields of bananas and sugar cane, and the volcanic cones and craters everywhere remind you how far you are from Madrid. In fact it feels South America. At carnival in February, the warm streets of Las Palmas fill with crowds dancing to salsa all night, and the European winter seems far off.

Just like the island itself, Las Palmas doesn't appear enticing. It isn't quite the resort it was. Major UK operators don't offer it as an option, and some of the hotels lining the stunning Canteras beach have closed. The motorway along the harbour doesn't help. But what remains is a surprisingly big city with a real metropolitan buzz.

Chief among the attractions is the old colonial area, Vegueta. It's perfect for wandering, with streets and squares of traditional houses, some plain, others baroque. The facades hide balconied patios and lush gardens. Many are public buildings and you can look inside. The cathedral of Santa Ana is certainly worth a peak; baroque on the outside, it is austere, Gothic inside, and has been here almost as long as the Spanish. At its back door is the house Columbus is said to have stayed in.

The biggest surprise in Vegueta is an 18th-century town house in the Calle de los Balcones. Inside it is the Atlantic Centre of Modern Art. Like the Thyssen in Madrid, the classical shell hides an elegant modern space. A venue for temporary exhibitions, including art inspired by the Canaries, if you pick your time you can enjoy it with only the staff for company.

It just shows how easy it is to shake off the crowd when most of the crowd can't be bothered. Exploring Gran Canaria is a doddle. The driving isn't as scary as mainland Spain, the buses are good and you can get the night- bus back if you stay late in Las Palmas. There is not much to avoid: timeshare touts, a few areas of Las Palmas because of crime, and maybe the Kasbah area of Playa del Ingles because it is tacky and sleazy.

A little vertigo, a little sun: no one would expect to be impressed with stirring tales of your intrepid travels in Gran Canaria. It isn't that kind of place; there isn't a Chatwin book in it. But it is worth considering if you're a bit of a misanthrope - or you want more than a beach from your holiday.

GRAN CANARIA

GETTING THERE

There are no direct scheduled flights from the UK. Iberia (tel: 0171-830 0011) flies daily via Madrid. Return fares in August cost from pounds 392 return plus pounds 20 tax. Charter flights start at pounds 200 in August. Flying Colours (tel: 0870 243 0416) does charters to Las Palmas - a return from Gatwick costs pounds 194 including tax in August. Prices are lower early in December and after the New Year.

WHERE TO STAY

Magic of Spain (tel: 0181-741 0460) offers holidays away from the main package-tour destinations. A week at the Hotel Santa Catalina in Las Palmas in November costs pounds 679 per person based on two sharing, and including return flights from Gatwick. A week in the scenic north of the island, at the Hotel Santa Brigida, costs pounds 615 per person based on two sharing and including return flights.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Contact the Spanish Tourist Board (tel: 0171-486 8077).

Recommended reading: Landscapes of Gran Canaria (Sunflower Books, pounds 9.99). Mountain Walks in Gran Canaria (Open Air Publishers, pounds 5.95).

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