La Gomera: Plenty of star quality

In search of Oscar-worthy spring sunshine? Linda Cookson's visit to this usually sleepy isle coincided with the filming of a blockbuster

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.

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.

Shore thing: a black-sand beach Shore thing: a black-sand beach 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!

Travel essentials

Staying there

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.

Seeing there

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
booksPhotographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years - but he says it wasn’t all fun and games...
News
i100
Sport
Aguero - who single-handedly has kept City's Champions League dreams alive - celebrates his dramatic late winner
footballManchester City 3 Bayern Munich 2: Argentine's late hat-rick sees home side snatch vital victory
News
Muhammad Ali pictured in better health in 2006
peopleBut he has enjoyed publicity from his alleged near-death experience
Arts and Entertainment
Tony breaks into Ian Garrett's yacht and makes a shocking discovery
TVReview: Revelations continue to make this drama a tough watch
News
news
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
peopleSinger tells The Independent what life is like in rehab in an exclusive video interview
News
The assumption that women are not as competent in leadership positions as men are leads to increased stress in the workplace
science... and it's down to gender stereotypes
Arts and Entertainment
Inner sanctum: Tove Jansson and friends in her studio in 1992
booksWhat was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Singer songwriter Bob Dylan performs on stage
films
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Investigo: Financial reporting Accountant

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits : Investigo: One of the fastest growing g...

    Sphere Digital Recruitment: CRM Executive – Global Travel Brand – Luton – £25k

    25,000: Sphere Digital Recruitment: CRM Executive – Global Travel Brand – Luto...

    Investigo: Group Financial Controller

    £50000 - £55000 per annum: Investigo: A growing group of top end restaurants l...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Excellent opportunities are available for par...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
    Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

    Colouring books for adults

    How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
    Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
    Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

    Call me Ed Mozart

    Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
    10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
    Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
    'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

    'I am a paedophile'

    Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
    Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

    From a lost deposit to victory

    Green Party on the march in Bristol
    Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

    Winter blunderlands

    Putting the grot into grotto
    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

    London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital