Isle of plenty

Away from the notorious Playa del Ingles, Caroline Kamp discovers Gran Canaria is an island full of surprises

Squinting into the sun from our vantage point on the promenade, we admired the crowds who had claimed prime beach positions, lapping up the sun and rolling in the surf. A happy muddle of families and friends lined the 3km strip of the Playa de las Cantaras in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria. With the May temperature nudging 28C, the only option was to throw down our towels and join the throng.

Squinting into the sun from our vantage point on the promenade, we admired the crowds who had claimed prime beach positions, lapping up the sun and rolling in the surf. A happy muddle of families and friends lined the 3km strip of the Playa de las Cantaras in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria. With the May temperature nudging 28C, the only option was to throw down our towels and join the throng.

It's easy to dismiss a place because you think you already know what it's like. Ask people what they think of the Canary Islands and you generally get two responses: "Never been there" or "Never going back again, eurghh!" So I wasn't alone in thinking of Gran Canaria as an island packed with lobster-pink Brits ordering fish and chips.

There's some truth in this, but it's very much confined to a small area in the south. The Playa del Ingles has gained notoriety for its all-night bars and up-for-it crowd. And if that's your thing, fine. But for the rest of us, it frees up the remainder of the island.

Gran Canaria, I was surprised to discover, is full of history, remote hilltop towns and dramatic landscapes. Home to more than 300,000 people, the capital Las Palmas is a buzzing city stretching from the beach in the north to the historic old quarter in the south. Vegueta is the name for the site of the Spanish conquest of the island in 1478, and though the city was later conquered by a succession of adventurers, including Sir Francis Drake, all the best architecture is here.

A cluster of museums, churches and the 15th-century Santa Ana Cathedral is complemented by a stylish bar and restaurant scene. It's easy to spend hours strolling the back streets admiring the buildings or sitting in a café in one of the many old squares.

Venture out of the city into the rural north, and things are a little less civilised. Take a wrong turn out of one of the small villages and the smooth surface gives way to gravel, and the roads ascend rapidly, narrowing to a car's width.

The stepped, agricultural landscape is not the only surprise. The island's south is desert, with towering palms and the dunes of Maspalomas. The interior is dry, with rock faces and deep gorges. The north receives heavy rainfall and is lush and green. It is dotted with reminders that you are on a volcanic tropical island just off the African coast. Amid the stately pines, huge cacti with spiky tentacles sprout from the ground and lizards scurry in the rocks.

A 20-minute drive from Las Palmas brings you to Arucas. With its narrow cobbled streets, shady courtyards and colourful houses, it ticks all the rural village boxes. Standing tall in its midst is the striking neo-Gothic Iglesia de San Juan, five times as tall as anything nearby, as if it's erupted out of the earth.

There are few signs of tourism: the cafés are filled with old men drinking coffee, and there's little to buy. The local rum distillery, the Destilerias Arehucas, is about the only place you'll be able to part with your cash.

The short drive steeply uphill from town to the Montaña de Arucas rewards you with a stunning 360-degree view of the north of the island. Peering towards the north-west you can spy the snow-capped Pico del Teide on Tenerife (Spain's highest peak), and to the east the glistening buildings of Las Palmas. Below are the grounds and pale pink walls of La Hacienda del Buen Suceso. Set in a banana plantation on an estate that dates back to the 16th century, the hotel was sensitively restored and modernised in 1997, retaining a colonial feel.

This is augmented when you find that it is owned by the grand-sounding Marquesa de Arucas. The Marquesa's family owns most of the land in the area, including the botanical gardens.

The 18-room hacienda is designed like a country house hotel, with a dining area looking on to a courtyard. The poolside is dotted with loungers, the front courtyard with low-slung chairs and tables. The pace is slow. In the evening, the silence is punctuated only by the inevitable cicadas. You could while away a few days without leaving the hacienda, and the emphasis is certainly on relaxation - hot tub, anyone? But there's plenty to explore beyond the walls.

Take one of the island's high points as a goal and head into the interior. The good roads wind through picture-perfect white villages, passing by Firgas, the source of the local mineral water, through Teror, climbing all the time, the road twisting and turning.

At San Mateo the scenery changes: on the road out of the village the greenery is gradually replaced by brown, the bushes become more wiry and the trees sparser. On the approach to Cruz de Tejeda, a stone cross marks the centre of the island, and here the transformation in the landscape is almost complete.

Above is a sheer rock face jutting imperiously over the road, and to the left it is completely cut away. The oddly shaped edifice that is the Roque Nublo stands out proudly in the distance.

Heading off the main road on the Ruta centro de las Cumbres and into the national park, we found local families having barbecues at the roadside. Following the twisting road, past rocks and fir trees and looking out over the spectacular valleys, the scene was reminiscent of California's Yosemite National Park.

The epic scale of the interior came as something of a surprise. So, too, did our minimal sightings of sunburnt Brits and candy-coloured cocktails. As the road wound through San Bartolome and the cliffs were behind us, the view was of sweeping meadows filled with spring flowers.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Caroline Kamp travelled with Simply Travel (020-8541 2208; www.simplytravel.com), which offers a week at the Hacienda del Buen Suceso, with return flights from Gatwick, a week's car hire and breakfast, from £539.

First Choice Airways (0870 850 3999; www.firstchoice.co.uk/flights) flies from Birmingham, Manchester and Gatwick to the island's airport, Las Palmas; both Monarch (08700 405 040; www.flymonarch. com) and GB Airways (0870 850 9850; www.gbairways.com) fly from Gatwick. In addition, charter flights operate from airports across the UK.

STAYING THERE

Hacienda del Buen Suceso (00 34 928 622 945; www.hotelhacienda.sitio.net), Carretera de Arucas a Banaderos, Km 1, Arucas, Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, Spain. Doubles start at €110 (£79), including breakfast.

VISITING THERE

Tours of the Arehucas Rum Distillery and museum are arranged by filling in the online form at www.arehucas.es.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Gran Canaria Tourist Office (00 34 928 219 600; www.grancanaria.com)

Spanish Tourist Office (09063 640 630, calls charged at 60p per minute; www.tourspain.co.uk).

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