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Traveller's Guide: Gran Canaria

This Canary Island has long attracted visitors, from ancient navigators to beach-bound tourists. With hiking trails and vast sand dunes, it makes an ideal winter escape

Round as a ball, Gran Canaria appears to have been bounced from the coast of West Africa 130 miles to the east. The third-largest of the Canary Islands (after Tenerife and Fuerteventura), it's roughly the same size as Greater London. It was "discovered" in 999AD, when the Granada-based navigator Ibn Farrukh landed (and introduced the wonder plant aloe vera to its shores). However, before the Spanish arrived in the 15th century, the Canarii occupied the island. These Berber-descended people had no knowledge of shipbuilding, which has led historians to conclude they were exiled landlocked slaves.

The capital is Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, in the north-east. It was established by Juan Rejón, an Aragonese captain in the Castilian navy, on 24 June 1478. It has grown into the ninth-biggest Spanish city and the largest in the Canaries, with a population of around 400,000.

Following in Rejón's wake was a rather better-known explorer. In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, pulling into Las Palmas's Puerto de la Luz (Port of Light) for a pit stop. His time was mainly spent haranguing shipwrights to repair his fleet. He spent his days in Vegueta, the city's oldest district, at Casa de Colón (00 34 928 312 373; www.casadecolon.com), the residence of the then Spanish Governor. It commemorates the occasion with a small museum (admission €4).

Agatha Christie also visited the capital. After a miserable week in Tenerife where she complained of the dearth of beaches, Christie took the ferry to Gran Canaria, staying at the city's elegant Hotel Santa Catalina (00 34 928 24 30 40; www.hotelsantacatalina.com; doubles from €105, B&B). She raved about Las Palmas, labelling it her favourite winter getaway. Christie was equally complimentary about Agaete, the pretty north-western port. By law, any new house here has to be painted white to fit in with existing buildings.

Both Agaete and nearby Sardina del Norte are more popular with locals and Spanish visitors than with tourists from other countries. Playa del Inglés, despite its name, is as much the German Beach as an English one. Neighbouring San Agustín's has become a magnet for Swedes, while Arguineguín attracts Norwegians.

Two million tourists now visit Gran Canaria each year, with Maspalomas and Playa del Inglés in the south replacing Las Palmas in popularity. At this time of year there are plenty of good deals. Thomson (0871 231 4691; thomson.co.uk) has an all-inclusive week at the Riu Palace Maspalomas from £660pp with flights from Gatwick on 7 December. From Manchester on the same date, Thomas Cook (0844 412 5970; thomascook.com) has a self-catering week at Altair Apartments in Puerto Rico from £569pp. However, prices double over Christmas and New Year.

Landmarks, natural and man-made

Although not particularly noted for its architecture, Gran Canaria does flaunt some grand designs. Las Palmas cathedral, for example, took some 400 years to complete, and you can enjoy a pigeon's-eye view from its tower (00 34 928 331 430; diocesisdecanarias. org; €1.50).

The aboriginal Canarii were cave dwellers. You can experience their world at the Museo y Parque Arqueológico Cueva Pintada (00 34 928 895 5746; www.cuevapintada.org; €6). Alternatively, get up close and personal with Roque Nublo, Gran Canaria's iconic Clouded Rock. A two-hour round trip leads you from La Goleta car park, situated on the road between Pozo de las Nieves and Ayacata, to the rock itself.

To save your soles, you might want to consider taking the Jeep Safari Adventure (00 34 666 124 776; animalencounters.info; €38) instead, which allows you to explore the island rather more lazily.

Magical Maspalomas

Maspalomas, at the far south of the island, has some impressive Sahara-style dunes which, some have speculated, might have been caused by a tsunami emanating from Lisbon back in 1755.

However, the area is greener than you'd imagine. Next to Maspalomas's golf course is its botanical garden. Parque Botánico de Maspalomas (Avenída Touroperador Neckermann 1; 00 34 664 864 867; www.maspalomas.com) houses a huge array of plants, from pretty bloomers to medicinal herbs. Of course, there's plenty of sand to choose from too. At a mile and a half long, Maspalomas is the second-longest beach on the island after the impressive city beach, Las Canteras, in Las Palmas.

Coast to coast

Beaches make up more than a quarter of Gran Canaria's 147-mile coastline. The north coast is largely rugged. Try El Puertillo, a mere 10-minute drive from Las Palmas along the shoreline-hugging GC-2.

If the beach is too busy here, there's always space in the free saltwater pool along the promenade.

The east coast offers predominately sports beaches with international windsurfing competitions held at Pozo Izquierdo. Pozowinds Windsurf Center (00 34 928 155 009; pozowinds.com) offers kitesurfing and surfing classes, as well as windsurfing lessons.

Most south-coast playas are linked to resorts, which can mean you see more skin than sand. For extra towel room, head to Montaña de Arena. "Sand Mountain" rewards with what feels like a private beach.

The west's beaches are wild and free, particularly the remote beach of Güigüi – accessible only by foot or boat. Travel there on the Aphrodite yacht from Puerto Rico harbour (00 34 668 815 281; canaryexperience.com; €67 return).

Walk this way

As well as packing your bucket and spade, consider bringing hiking gear. New from Inntravel (01653 617 002; inntravel.co.uk) is a seven-night self-guided walking holiday that begins at San Bartolomé de Tirajana in south-central Gran Canaria. "Canyons, Caves & Coast of Gran Canaria" costs from £598pp including B&B, evening meals and luggage transport. Picnic lunches are provided on three days.

Gran Canaria's two nature parks are greener than you'd imagine, particularly the west's Parque Natural de Tamadaba. Meanwhile, the more southerly Parque Natural de Pilancones varies from pine forests to cactus fields. A good guide to exploring these areas by foot is Rambling Roger Bradley (00 34 928 798 150; ramblingroger.com) who's done more than most to promote Gran Canaria as a hiking destination.

Where to stay

There's only one parador – government-run historic hotel – in Gran Canaria. It's set in one of the most enchanting areas of the island too, in the Cruz de Tejeda (00 34 928 012 500; www.parador.es). It has excellent views of volcanic cone Roque Bentayga (where Bentejuí, last of the aboriginal kings, retreated with his men), and it offers doubles from €169 including breakfast.

For a reassuringly expensive stay, look no further than Arguineguín's Radisson Blu (00 34 928 150 400; radissonblu.com), with doubles from €320, including breakfast. After entering the cliff-top reception, enjoy the Atlantic views as you whizz down to the rooms and swimming pools below.

For self catering, try the hiking spikes and mountain bikes at the Valle de Agaete's Casa Rural La Asomadita, above (00 34 617 533 223; asomadita.com). A week costs from €1,400, with space for eight adults, two children and two infants.

Travel Essentials

Getting there

Gran Canaria is served from across the UK by British Airways (0843 493 0787; ba.com), Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com), Monarch (0871 940 5040; monarch.co.uk), Norwegian (00 47 214 900 15; norwegian.com), and package operators such as Thomas Cook and Thomson.

Getting around

Gran Canaria has three motorways. The road most travelled is the GC-1 which links capital Las Palmas in the north east to its most distant resort, Puerto de Mogan in the south west, via the airport. The coastline-hugging GC-2, joining the dots between Las Palmas and the north-west port of Agaete, is worth taking, if only for the views. The GC-3, meanwhile, offers a quicker getaway to the likes of Tafira (handy for the Botanic Garden) and Gáldar.

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Next week: Lanzarote