Not so grotty Lanzarote

There's far more to Lanzarote than lager louts and cheesy clubs. Rhiannon Batten discovers an island littered with stylish new haciendas and lively villages

T ell someone you're going to Lanzarote on holiday and you can almost guarantee the look of horror that will appear on their face. When you explain that you really like the island, that it's the second time you've been there in a year, the look of sympathy turns to outright concern.

Oddly, the only person who didn't react with shock when I told her about my last trip was the friend I'd had a Canaries package holiday with when we were in our early twenties. We'd flown south during one university break - in her case, to mend a bruised heart, and, in mine, in the futile hope that if I got a tan, I might look half-decent in my all-in-one rowing kit. Piled on to a coach at Fuerteventura's airport and deposited in a still-being-knocked-up hotel, miles from any beach, we spent our days jostling for space among Union Jack-draped sun-loungers and battling gales in an attempt to climb a neighbouring volcano.

Not everything has changed, of course. The big resort hotels are still there, the cafés flogging English breakfasts and cheap beer. But, in Lanzarote, at least the development is restricted to three relatively compact, low-rise areas. Venture beyond those and this speck of Spain moored off the coast of West Africa has one of the world's most striking landscapes, a conglomeration of volcanic piles of pimento, chilli and saffron hogging the horizon like a giant spice-seller's stall. Elsewhere, bucolic, palm-filled valleys shelter little clusters of whitewashed buildings, and huge arcs of salt-and-pepper sand-dust the coast. Which is pretty good going for somewhere a cheap, four-hour flight away.

A bit like a hotter version of Iceland, Lanzarote's weird volcanic landscape looks like it's been put together by Andy Goldsworthy. As well as the south's volcanoes, the north-east is home to an abstract, felt-covered landscape of knobbly, lichen-coloured lava fields, while even the onions that take root in the valleys seem to have been crafted by some sculptor in the sky, their rows of skinny, green shoots bursting up dramatically from pure black soil. By far the coolest part of this strange picture, though, is La Geria, the island's wine-growing region.

A surrealist's dream, this valley is overlooked by towering black mountains and, between the odd remote hacienda, cradles vast numbers of bright green vines. These are planted in circles, each one hollowed out of the soil to encourage dew to form overnight and irrigate the grapes in this otherwise arid environment. It's spectacular and spooky. The best time to visit is the early evening, when the wine-tasting groups have left for the day and the fading light casts shadows across the pock-marked soil.

One of the most atmospheric places to admire the scenery is the friendly, German-owned bar El Chupadero. Its small terrace sits just above one of the vineyards and serves tapas carefully matched to offset the dry local Malvasia wines, from tasty meatballs and garlicky prawns to the local delicacy papas arrugadas - salt-crusted baby jacket potatoes served with a spicy mojo sauce. An evening here makes a good antidote to the loud expat bars and nightclubs of the big resorts. The owner takes up DJ duties in the late afternoon, overseeing a gentle chillout soundtrack for the adults, while producing bubbles from a machine by the door for children.

That this quirky landscape looks so carefully designed isn't surprising; it was the artist César Manrique who set the blueprint for its development. He was responsible for the building regulations restricting the resorts to two storeys and dictating that all buildings should stick to traditional, white-painted exteriors (he even decreed that all the shutters had to be green). He called the concept "nature art".

Manrique didn't just work as a landscape architect, though. Most of the big attractions on Lanzarote are the buildings, gardens and spaces he designed between 1966, when he returned to Lanzarote after living in New York, and his death in a car crash in 1992. What sets Manrique's legacy of projects apart is that they all incorporate the natural features of the landscape into their intergalactic-style structures.

First stop on the Manrique trail should be the Castillo de San Jose, just outside the capital, Arrecife - and not just because this old, castellated tower on the waterfront is the best of his work, with its Wallpaper-style, funky restaurant and huge, wraparound windows. But because the contemporary art museum it holds above the restaurant shows very clearly why Manrique was right to give up art for landscape architecture. His paintings were dire.

The main Manrique attraction is his former house, now an extraordinary museum and gallery, where the surrounding lava fields seem to spill in through the windows and cascade across the floor. He also used his talents to forge a theatre and nightclub hidden away in a partly exposed cave, a weird cactus garden set in the remains of an old quarry, and a bug-eye-shaped lookout point spilling over the edge of a mountain in the north of the island. In the sleepy, rural village of Nazaret, he also designed the ultimate bachelor pad for Omar Sharif.

Supposedly lost by the actor in a spectacularly unsuccessful game of bridge, Lagomar is now a restaurant, though not a particularly good one. People come here for the setting rather than the food. It's perched, nest-like, on the ledge of a cliff face, the bar and restaurant set around an organic, white puddle of a pool, with tunnels, cosy seating areas and even some bedrooms positioned, James Bond-like, over stepping stones inside the rock. With its lush palm trees and luxury troglodyte style, the effect is part desert oasis, part Grand Designs.

Today, Manrique's philosophy lives on in the shape of several new luxury hotels that have opened on Lanzarote over the past few years. Rather than turning to brash, new-build development, the owners have, instead, converted some of the landscape's most characterful old haciendas, farms and town houses. First came Finca Las Salinas, in Yaiza, a colourful Arabic-style farmhouse with the kind of brightly coloured garden that would have given Frida Kahlo a run for her pesos. Casa Tegoyo, outside Conil, also boasts a Mexican vibe with its balconied courtyard, atmospheric, old wooden structure and cactus plants. Then there's Villa Lola y Juan, in the centre of Haria, a lively village tucked in a deep valley in the north of the island and surrounded by pale gold grass and palm-scattered hillside.

I booked in at the Caserio de Mozaga. A whitewashed former dairy, right in the centre of the island, in the village of Mozaga, it is run by a Canarian woman and her brother who returned from Madrid a few years ago to turn their grandmother's home into a hotel. One of the island's most successful renovations, its contemporary-country aesthetic is enhanced by quirky, arid gardens and elaborate courtyards. Though the interior décor is soothingly neutral, a nicely chosen collection of family heirlooms and laid-back staff give it plenty of character. Caserio de Mozaga also has one of the best restaurants on the island.

If only all the tourists appreciated it. While "Lanzagrotty" might have moved on, some of its British visitors obviously haven't. When the waiter ran through the night's menu - a different selection announced at the last minute every evening, to make the most of locally available ingredients - a couple at the next table balked at some of the more adventurous suggestions. "Watermelon soup? What the heck is that?" they spluttered.

Maybe a decade hasn't changed some things on the island much after all.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Charter and scheduled airlines fly from a range of UK airports to Arrecife, including Thomson (0800 107 1517; www.thomsonflights.com), First Choice Airways (0870 850 3999; www.first choice.co.uk), Globespan (08705 561522; www.flyglobespan.com) and Monarch (08700 405040; www.fly monarch.com). GB Airways flies on behalf of British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com).

GETTING AROUND

One-week's car hire in Lanzarote with Holiday Autos (0870 400 0100; www.holidayautos.co.uk) costs from £85.

STAYING THERE

Caserio de Mozaga, San Bartolomé (00 34 928 520060; www.caseriodemozaga). B&B from €80 (£60).

Casa Tegoyo, Calle Conil-Asomada 3 (00 34 928 834385; www.tegoyolanzarote.com). B&B from €125 (£100).

VISITING THERE

Castillo de San Jose Museum, Puerto Naos, Arrecife (00 34 928 812321). Opens daily from 11am-9pm; admission free.

MORE DETAILS

Arrecife Tourist Office (00 34 928 801517; www.turismolanzarote.com).

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