Lights, camera, action! The small fishing port of Playa de Santiago, on the southern tip of the Canary Island of La Gomera, had never known such excitement. Chosen as a key shooting location for Ron Howard's forthcoming film In the Heart of the Sea (due for release in 2015), its quayside was a-buzz with trailers and catering vans.
Burly cameramen were lugging equipment on to speed boats. Runners with clip-boards were rounding up a bus-load of enthusiastic extras for costume fittings. And a cluster of schoolgirls were star-spotting like mad, as Hollywood's finest, clad in 19th-century sailors' gear, made their way towards the banana yellow shuttle-boat that will whisk them out to film at sea.
Based on the same true story that inspired Herman Melville's Moby Dick, Nathaniel Philbrick's award-winning novel In the Heart of the Sea (published in 2000) recounts the tragedy of the whaling ship Essex, sunk by a sperm whale in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. A fantastic black-rigged replica of the ill-fated vessel (built in England) bobbed incongruously on the calm horizon, its masts bathed in a golden wash of Canarian sunshine.
At first sight, pint-sized La Gomera – sitting prettily in an island chain renowned for its equable climate – might seem a strange location to have settled on for a tale built around tempest-lashed heroics. Deadly waves are in short supply. The filmmakers had to construct a special infinity pool by the former tomato packaging warehouse on nearby Tapahuga Beach to simulate the full-on storm scenes.
La Gomera in pictures
La Gomera in pictures
1/5 La Gomera
The wild terrain of Valle Gran Rey
2/5 La Gomera
A pilot whale
3/5 La Gomera
Shore thing: a black-sand beach
4/5 La Gomera
5/5 La Gomera
Ship shape: boats moored off La Gomera where Ron Howard's latest film, 'In the Heart of the Sea', was filmed
But Howard and his scouts definitely knew what they were doing. As the second-smallest of the Canary Islands, a one-hour ferry-ride from Tenerife and with no international airport, La Gomera is a world apart from the mass-tourism of its larger neighbours. With only a handful of low-key resorts, there was never going to be much risk of the Essex's hapless crew fetching up on a jarring parade of neon-signed shops peddling water-wings or advertising jet-skis for hire. Instead, the island's starkly rugged coastline of awesome volcanic cliffs rippling down to the water's edge in stiff rocky folds, feels almost eerily enduring – and (crucially for the film, of course) totally undateable. Inland, the mountainous centre is cloaked in a dense, misty rainforest of ancient trees hung, Druid-like, with beards of moss and lichen. It's as timeless and unspoilt as you could hope for.
As a place to visit in springtime, La Gomera is a total delight. The tangled green groves of the rainforest are rippled with carpets of brilliant pink bicácaros, Canarian bell flowers. Mountain villages float in drifts of white broom and almond blossom. On the coast, fringed with date palms and banana trees, the sea sparkles peacefully in temperatures that seldom vary from around 20C. Don't expect the blazing heat or golden sands of Caribbean beaches. Most beaches are rocky. (There may even be a little rain!) But if you're searching for sun and serenity in a gentle, unspoilt island retreat steeped in tradition – look no further. And you can certainly be confident of a genuinely warm welcome from La Gomera's friendly locals, keen to share their homeland's special character with visitors. With the island still very much a novice in the tourism stakes, the whole ambience is refreshingly uncynical.
Such tourism as there currently is can be found mainly on the west coast. Valle Gran Rey has a stunning sprawl of wild and rocky black-sand beaches, backed by majestic ravines (Valle Gran Rey means "Valley of the Kings"). Otherwise, most visitors-in-the-know head south for unpretentious Playa de Santiago, a friendly working fishing settlement with an endearingly scruffy town beach. This is La Gomera's sunniest spot and it's where I chose to stay (along, as it turns out, with the director and most of the cast and crew of In the Heart of the Sea).
We certainly weren't roughing it. The four-star Hotel Jardín Tecina, set on a cliff-top above the town, is laid out like a traditional Canarian village in exuberant, flower-filled gardens. There are palm-fringed bars and terraces, and attentive waiters galore – giving plenty of scope for your own brand of silver-screen decadence as you lounge like a diva by the poolside. It's also a wonderfully tranquil spot. The vistas from the sea-view rooms are spectacular. You can while away hours on your balcony watching the colours of the water change from turquoise to indigo to lilac, like a roll of shot silk, as butterflies and exotic birds flit all around you.
On day four of my stay, I wandered down towards the town and discovered that my friendly local beach bar – the ramshackle La Chalana – had undergone a dramatic change of location. Its wonky tables and cane chairs were now spilling haphazardly on to the edge of an early 19th-century Polynesian village. A nearby stretch of banana plantation had been cleared for carpentry and set-building, and crew-members with blow-torches were busily distressing a fleet of rustic-looking canoes that had been carved from hollowed-out tree-trunks. A mixture of real palm trees and bright green fakes had sprung up on the beach. Tangled branches and planks of driftwood had been choreographed artfully into a photogenic array of native huts. And a derelict warehouse had been transformed into a small chapel. A set dresser perched on a ladder with what looked like a two-ton brass church bell clutched in her free hand. It was obviously as light as a feather.
La Chalana's affable host, Eric – who, with his curly black hair and earring, looked rather like a film star himself – was having the time of his life serving up tapas and beer by the trayful. He was sure he recognised some of the transplanted palm trees, he told me. They came from the schoolyard in San Sebastián, La Gomera's capital. He remembered sitting under them at break-times to smoke illicit cigarettes.
Eric was not alone in his enthusiasm. Everyone I spoke to on the island was thrilled by the filming – not least since the star, Chris Hemsworth, is married to Elsa Pataky, a popular Spanish actress who had accompanied him for the shoot. More pragmatically In the Heart of the Sea brought a crucial source of additional revenue to enable the island to address the environmental damage caused by a disastrous forest fire in 2012 – as well as much-needed employment for locals, who are mucking in happily as caterers, security guards and prop-makers.
La Gomera is also looking to the future. Although the island has been recognised for some time as a paradise for walkers, its more mainstream attractions – uncommercialised beaches and picture-postcard mountain villages – have remained a well-kept secret. There's real excitement now among Gomeros that this major, potentially world-wide, exposure will encourage new visitors to fall for their island's sleepy charms and living history. (After all, as everyone was keen to remind me, San Sebastián was the starting point for Christopher Columbus's epic 1492 Atlantic crossing. And where else in the world will you find "El Silbo", an indigenous whistling language developed so that farmers could communicate with each other across jaw-droppingly steep terraces?)
Towards the end of my visit, inspired by the filming, I decided to embrace the whale theme in earnest. I booked a trip on board José Miguel's excursion boat Tina and took to the water. I was rewarded with an entrancing marine ballet, courtesy of a pod of pilot whales and an especially obliging school of dolphins who flipped and dipped in glorious silver arcs as they rode in and out of the bow wave from our boat as it headed out to sea.
I looked back at the bulking headlands of La Gomera's proud cliffs, veined with blood-red bands of sandstone, and then ahead to the horizon, where the doughty ship Essex had magically split in two, while cameramen scudded around in dinghies, capturing the moment of its doom.
I really was in the heart of the sea, I realised. And lovely La Gomera is well on its way to becoming a film star in its own right. Don't wait for the movie – go now!
Linda Cookson travelled with Sovereign Luxury Travel (0843 770 4526; sovereign.com), which offers a week's B&B at the Hotel Jardín Tecina in La Gomera from £649pp, based on two sharing. The package includes return flights to Tenerife South, private transfers to Los Christianos ferry port on Tenerife, the ferry crossing to La Gomera and private transfers to the hotel.
A four-hour whale-watching boat trip from Playa de Santiago costs €43, inclusive of barbecued fish lunch (€23 children aged 5-10; under 5s free). See: excursiones-tina.com.