La Gomera: The Canary Island that mass tourism forgot
... or never knew in the first place. This beautiful patch of volcanic land welcomes visitors – but has not sold its soul
Sunday 29 April 2012
Where is La Gomera? It could be the million-pound question on a TV quiz. The correct answer will surprise many. La Gomera is in the Canary Islands archipelago and as such it should be as familiar to us as Great Yarmouth. But it remains relatively obscured by the glare of its larger and noisier neighbour – Tenerife. The crowds seem to be drawn to the larger Canary. In this instance, small is not only beautiful but a blessing.
Geography has been kind to La Gomera. The vestigial volcano rises dramatically out of the Atlantic to a height of nearly 5,000ft. The island is a mere 15 miles across but seems to possess more microclimates than a continent. At its heart is a cloud forest – luxuriant, green, dense – while down at the coast you find another world of deep canyons, date palms and desert.
La Gomera is too precipitous to build runways long enough for international jets. The airport can only service the turboprop planes that hop between the islands. And there is just one incoming flight per day. The current terminal has been operating for more than 10 years but shows virtually no sign of wear. While Tenerife's airports process nearly 13 million passengers a year, La Gomera's handles 32,000.
Tourists also arrive by ship. The ferry between Los Cristianos and La Gomera's capital, San Sebastian, is the main conduit to the island but even though the connection is quick, just 40 minutes, it nevertheless deters the vast majority of Tenerife's holiday hordes from extending their journey. As my Gomera-raised guide, Ricardo, puts it: "The ferry is our filter."
The resulting state of grace allows La Gomera to conduct life at its own unhurried pace. While tourists are clearly important to the economy, the island has not sold its soul. Most of La Gomera is serenely untouched by industrial tourism.
Playa Santiago for example lies on the south coast, which boasts the highest sunshine hours on the island and is just minutes from the airport. Nevertheless it remains, by and large, the fishing port it always was. If Santiago was transplanted to one of the more developed Canaries, the waterfront would likely be a sorry succession of chippies and raucous bars. Instead, there is only a smattering of souvenir shops, some family-run restaurants and small hotels; the balance remains tipped firmly in favour of local life.
Today there is a national general strike. Children on a bonus day off from school are hoofing a ball around the triangular plaza. A young female activist proffers a flyer, soliciting support, and a cabal of striking elderly men are sitting it out under a broad canopied tree, grumping about the terrible state of everything.
The harbour wall from the Punta del Espino protects a few fishing boats from the Atlantic swell while a solitary sailing yacht has weighed anchor in the bay. A dozen or so bathers are scattered carelessly around the black sand beach.
At the eastern end of the bay smoke rises from the open grills of a couple of snack shacks. One of them, La Chalana, has claimed a patch next to three palms – demarcated with a boundary of large pebbles painted salmon pink. Brilliant splashes of colour zing out against the black sand – a low wall is cobalt blue, the plastic chairs are banana-leaf green and the sofas are covered in red and orange prints.
Everything seems cheerfully lashed together – a table is improvised from a giant cable reel, planters from oil drums. The food, too, is equally casually thrown together. The sardines may well be locally sourced from the sea a few yards away, but the less appetising chicken thighs seem equally likely to be locally sourced from the freezer cabinet of the Spar up the road. The café was probably a pop-up intended to last a single season some 20 years ago but has somehow become a fixture. It will be a sorry day for Santiago if a planning bureaucrat ever decides to smarten up the municipality.
After dark the town simply shuts up shop. Unlike most of Spain where eating late is the national habit, the restaurants here are done by 10pm – tardy diners will be lucky to find a slice of pizza. The bars are also low key and clubbing is non-existent. But there is seaside entertainment of sorts. I become aware of a shrill noise carried on the breeze. Out of the darkness it comes – an angry Punch and Judy show of competing yelps – "ouw, ouww, ouuww" – the howls echo around the steep cliffs. They are answered by more rage and pain – "ouw, ouw, ouw. Aaargh!" This cabaret is performed nightly by cory's shearwaters, a sea bird that nests in the cliffs and is particularly garrulous after dark.
La Gomera's principal attraction is wildlife rather than nightlife. In the morning, Ricardo takes me on a tour of the island. The outstanding beauty of La Gomera is only revealed by taking to the road, or indeed off the road for anyone with the time and fitness to tackle the hiking trails that connect the hundreds of ridges and ravines here. Any road journey on the island is a seemingly endless succession of hairpin bends. As we climb to La Gomera's central spine, every corner reveals a new and eye-popping view.
It could be argued that the defining landmark of La Gomera is not even on the island, but next door on Tenerife. On any clear day Mount Teide, the highest mountain in Spain, dominates all views eastwards. Sometimes the 12,000ft volcano appears to be hovering on a featherbed of clouds, sometimes it peeks over the shoulder of a ridge, sometimes it is simply an immovable object planted in the ocean.
The best viewpoint is from Ermita de las Nieves (the shrine of Our Lady of the Snows) at 3,600ft – where a huge car park suggests it is a favoured stop for coaches carrying day trippers from Tenerife. But their schedule is tight and they have moved on by the time we arrive. We have Teide to ourselves, with just the wind blowing through the pines for company.
From the high road connecting San Sebastian to the west coast we plunge down into the Unesco-listed Garajonay National Park. After the arid landscape of the coast, the lush forest that blankets the mountainsides is startling. This is laurisilva (laurel) forest – a type of sub-tropical vegetation that was common in Mediterranean Europe in the Tertiary period. At Las Mimbreras the canopy made up of myrtle and heather trees is so dense that the sun has difficulty penetrating to ground level. Here giant ferns that dwarf humans confuse the scale of the forest floor.
It requires little imagination to picture Jurassic Park beasties emerging from the half light. Ricardo assures me that the fauna of La Gomera is almost entirely benign: "We have no snakes, no deadly spiders or creepy crawlies. Only the occasional mosquito that is a nuisance."
Returning from Agulo on the north coast, later in the day, we get an insight into how the forest is sustained. The track climbs up to a ridge within the national park and we are enveloped by clouds. Moisture clings to everything and drips off the leaves on to the mulchy soil: the water rushes down the sides of the barrancos (ravines), emerging eventually in streams and springs lower down.
On the road down to Alajero we dip out of the dense mist and everything changes again.
The trees have gone and given way to an almost barren landscape. Gold-leafed shrubs glimmer in the evening sun. Dramatic shadows fall across the canyons, and the lava dykes and roques (domes) take on an extraterrestrial glow as the light emulsifies.
The Hotel Jardin Tecina, where I am staying, occupies a prime position on top of a cliff at one end of the bay of Santiago. It was built in 1987 and has had time to settle into its spectacular location. Seventeen acres of gloriously landscaped gardens mitigate the industrial scale of the 434-roomed, five swimming-pooled, golf-coursed and tennis-courted resort. Despite its size, Jardin Tecina markets itself as "an oasis of silence". The claim is somewhat compromised tonight by the tacky evening entertainment spilling from one of the bars. But the sea-facing rooms are sufficiently far away to be insulated from the noise, and on my balcony I can only hear the infinitely soothing rhythm of the ocean crashing and retreating at the foot of the cliff.
Out on the dark water the fishermen of Santiago pull in their nets by lamplight. Maybe it is the same fishermen I find celebrating a family birthday in Bar El Tarajal on the beach the following day. It is Sunday and there are about 20 family members of all ages in the party. They are tucking into a mountain of pollo a la brasa (barbecued chicken). Wiping the grease from their fingers the men pick up guitars and a mandolin – and the singalong begins. The older folk take it in turns to run through their repertoire while the teenagers do what comes naturally – jabbing away at their keypads swapping texts with absent friends.
A boy of seven or eight is pushed forward to sing. His voice sounds reedy and fragile up against the mature tenors of the men. Losing confidence, he drifts in and out of tune, and then gives up – bursting into tears. Various family members comfort him and encourage him to try again. As he starts singing everyone joins in – primos, tias, abuelas, uncle Tomas Cobley, and finally a caged canary – trilling along lustily with the merry band, adding to the happy chaos of the moment.
Getting there and staying there
Sankha Guha travelled with Prestige Holidays (01425 480400 ;prestigeholidays.co.uk), which offers seven nights' B&B at Jardin Tecina in La Gomera from £617 per person including breakfast, return flights from Gatwick to Tenerife South with easyJet, private taxi transfers on Tenerife and La Gomera, return catamaran crossings to La Gomera. Price is for May departures.
You can also fly to Tenerife South from airports across the UK on a wide range of airlines; a bus transfer operates to Los Cristianos, from where you can make the crossing to San Sebastiá de La Gomera.
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