Grotty no more: How Lanzarote upgraded its appeal

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Lanzarote has been quietly changing its fly-and-flop holiday image, discovers Andrew Eames.

Of the many myths and legends of the Canary Islands, the most often rehearsed is the story of the existence or otherwise of a mysterious eighth island, called San Borondón. Over the centuries there have been various reported sightings to the west of the archipelago, but whenever sailors tried to approach, a mist descended and the island either moved away or disappeared, according to which account you read.

Well, that legend almost came true last December, when an underwater volcano just south of El Hierro, the most remote of the Canary Islands, erupted, and the resulting outpouring of rock and solidifying lava made the sea's surface boil. Once again, there was talk of a new island, of what it might be called, and how long it would be before there were flights from Stansted.

I was reminded of all this while sitting by the pool on the archipelago's fourth-largest member, Lanzarote – the island which had seen the most recent volcanic activity prior to the El Hierro upstart. In the early 19th century, about a quarter of the island was re-carpeted in lava after the eruption of Mount Timanfaya.

Although Lanzarote has been around for ages, in tourism terms, it seems, somehow ... renewed. It is an island with a great capacity for reinventing itself.

I was staying in a new luxury villa recently opened by Natural Retreats in Playa Blanca – in an ambitious 20-villa development – and looking around, I felt as if I were playing a walk-on part in a Hockney painting from his Hollywood Hills period. The villa has been cleverly built into the hillside so that most of the bedrooms and bathrooms are below ground, albeit daylight-lit thanks to flanking excavated patios. At ground level, a large swimming pool occupies centre stage, tucked between the linens of the master bedroom, the slate-floored kitchen of brushed steel and the chrome-furnished glass-walled living area, all of which are lit by the pool's translucent, rippling, refracted light. It's a place for sun-loving sybarites – although you could be anywhere in the world.

The new Natural Retreats property is not alone, for there's a growing breed of unique rural villas in Lanzarote, as I discovered on an exploratory journey north.

The island landscape is like nowhere else I know. It has the colour, and the texture, of elephant hide, humped, wrinkled and occasionally bristled, and sometimes covered in different-coloured dust where the elephant has rolled. Its villages are splodges of spilt white paint nestling in folds of the elephant's skin, and their distinctive cuboid design and green balconies, doors and windows reflect a mixture of Lanzaroteño tradition and the influence of one man, the artist César Manrique, who saw art in their very simplicity.

Certainly it is visually unique, and as a piece of landscape art it is also very well curated. Travelling through it, I could see no abandoned cars, broken fridges, or wind-blown plastic bags. But then, with no bushes or undergrowth, there's nowhere to hide the flotsam and jetsam of life, so civic pride comes with the territory. In any case, teams of litter pickers made their way alongside the roads, removing anything that might distract the eye.

Beyond the roadside, the landscape is hand tended. Agricultural machinery would be cut to ribbons by lava rocks, so donkeys still do the ploughing. Lanzarote farmers have their own way of dealing with a land of volcanic ash and minimal rainfall, and the most visually arresting part of their industry is the cultivation of grapes for Lanzarote wine, particularly in the La Geria region, which runs through the spine of the island.

Here, it looks as if the elephant hide has been decorated with thousands upon thousands of eyebrows. These are the zocos, crescents of rock that protect cones of crumbled lava (picon), which funnel overnight condensation down to the vine at their centre. It is a surprisingly effective system, producing around two million kilos of grapes for the island's 20-plus bodegas.

In the midst of this carefully tended, hand-constructed landscape, I came across more unusual self-catering, albeit a lot more individual in style than the oh-so-chic Natural Retreats. At Casa el Morro, just outside the village of Uga, Raquel Hidalgo has converted a rambling former farmhouse into a seven-villa establishment on the side of a hill, surrounded by pepper trees, Canarian palms and jacaranda trees. The highlight is the generous hillside pool, a true suntrap surrounded by giant maharajah's daybeds, with a glass wall to preserve the view but protect bathers from the wind. There's a spiritual, meditative quality in the air here, with a massage yurt and a yoga palace for organised sessions, led by Raquel herself.

Casa el Morro has hints of South-east Asia in its interior design and that is echoed in Casa Tomarén, run by Raquel's brother Damian, at the centre of the island close to San Bartolomé. Another former farm, this one a listed building, has been converted into seven rustic cottages, with a communal pool in a sunken garden to keep it out of the wind.

These Hidalgos are well-travelled people and the unassuming Damian – who does a lot of the work around the villas himself – has blended traditional Lanzarote with splashes of Morocco and strong influences of Indonesia. (When I suggest Bali he scolds me and it turns out wife is Javanese.) As for his market, he talked of British, Dutch, Spanish, German, but all of them a new kind of visitor for Lanzarote: "Educated sorts who don't want to do mass tourism."

Further north still, I entered into the potato-farming territory at Los Valles and had a quick look at a more traditional stand-alone 150-year-old rural house, Casa Barranco, a rambling cluster of rooms around its own patio, and with its own bread oven and pool. Not far away lies El Aljibe, a unique villa with the same owner (Yayo Fontes, one of the driving forces behind rural tourism in Lanzarote), which happens to be in a former giant water cistern. This is a "special occasion" place to stay, for couples on anniversaries or honeymoon; the kitchen and bathroom, above ground, are like the bridge of a ship, while the bed is suspended down below on a platform in the middle of a softly lit vault. It is a humorous, cleverly conceived conversion, although I'm not sure I'd manage a whole week here.

My last stop, back on the coast by Arrieta up in the north, was almost as new as Natural Retreats, and has a website (lanzaroteretreats.com) which sounds confusingly similar. But this is a conversion of the former Finca de Arrieta which reflects the unbounded energy of the English couple, Michelle and Tila Braddock, who run it. Here they've created six "yurt units" (yurts of various sizes, with outside bathrooms and kitchens) with five stone cottages, all of them fed by wind- or solar-generated power, and a couple of which also include the use of a hybrid car in the rental. The pool, trampoline, donkey and chicken run (collect your own eggs in the morning) mean that this is probably the most family-oriented of all the places I saw.

The guest profile for each of these villas is different: urban sybarites at Natural Retreats; the more spiritual appeal of Casa el Morro; the eclectic Casa Tomarén; the traditional Casa el Barranco and the contemporary Finca Arrieta. But all these villas are attracting a new more discerning market of people who want to break away from the traditional diet of package tourism on an island derided as "Lanzagrotty"; they want to get active, to paraglide, to hike, to surf, to go mountain biking.

I had a crack at the mountain biking myself, putting the rental bike in the back of the hire car and heading over on the island's less populated eastern flank beyond Tinajo, where I found myself plunged into a hidden Lanzarote of quiet villages, sleeping dogs and donkey tracks. This is the Lanzarote that has gone on doing what it has always done, however many millions of tourists (5.5 million in 2011) fly in every year. The Lanzarote that Manrique realised was worth preserving, and the Lanzarote that the villa-renters come to see. The island is not to everyone's taste, and it will never be a Provence or a Tuscany, but it now has rather lovely places in which to stay.

Travel essentials

Getting there

The writer travelled with the assistance of the Spanish and Lanzarote Tourist Boards. The most numerous scheduled flights to Lanzarote are on easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com), Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com), Monarch (08719 40 50 40; monarch.co.uk), and Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com).

Car hire starts from as little as €20 a day. Try Cabrera Medina (00 34 928 822 910, cabrera medina.com). Bicycle hire from Papagayo Bike in Playa Blanca and Costa Teguise, costs from €11 per day. (00 34 928 349 861; papagayobike.com)

Staying there

Natural Retreats, Playa Blanca (0844 384 3166; naturalretreats.co.uk) has two nights in a six-person villa from £410.

Casa el Morro, Uga (00 34 928 830392; casaelmorrolanzarote.com). Doubles from €117, including breakfast.

Casa Tomaren (00 34 928 522 618; tomaren.com). Double studios from €90, B&B.

Casa Barranco (00 34 619 231 904; rural-villas.com). Nightly rental from €160 (sleeps two to six).

Finca de Arrieta (00 34 928 826720; lanzarote retreats.com). Weekly villa rental from £510; luxury yurts and cottages from £445.

More information

Lanzarote Tourism:

00 34 928 811 762; turismolanzarote.com.

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