Traveller's Guide: Lanzarote

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This intriguing Canary Island was once known as 'Lanzagrotty', but today offers appealing resorts set against the dark drama of its volcanic landscape, says Andrew Eames

Lanzarote must present a tremendous challenge for the island's public works department. The bare, dark landscape makes any fly-tipping or wind-blown plastic bags stand out like a sore thumb. There are no hedges to hide things behind, no walls of conifers to mask off unsightly dumps or treatment works. In short, there are no shortcuts for the authorities; they just have to take care of the place. And they do: high-rise buildings and billboard advertising are not allowed.

The unforgiving volcanic landscape, and the care lavished upon it, is still a compelling attraction for tourists, decades after Lanzarote first became a package holiday destination. It is a unique, remarkable environment.

This Canary island has the colour and texture of elephant hide, humped, wrinkled, occasionally bristled, sometimes covered in different-coloured dust where the elephant has rolled. Its villages are splodges of spilt white paint nestling in folds in the elephant's skin. And yet, amid all that sombre aridity, stuff grows, and it grows well, creating a particularly stark contrast of fresh green on black.

The island's volcanic origins and rain-free climate mean that it has a rare mix of geology and ecology, which is why it is registered as a Unesco Biosphere Reserve.

The island –is not big – 37 miles long by 12 miles wide. The relatively limited number of attractions and routes to follow mean that holidaymakers will quickly feel at home.Beaches are plentiful and temperatures benign all year. Sporting facilities are excellent, particularly for cyclists, as are the surfing and windsurfing.

The capital city, Arrecife, where cruise ships dock, is uncharismatic but welcoming. South-west of here is the main resort of Puerto del Carmen. Puerto dates back to an earlier era – in the earliest days of package tourism here, when Lanzarote was occasionally nicknamed "Lanzagrotty". It still has architectural lapses, but overall it is a buzzing place with a long, tiled promenade linking four miles of beaches and bays. It is ideal for a family with teenagers looking for a bit of excitement, or for holidaymakers who require a dose of shopping, eating out and nightlife.

Costa Teguise, on the other side of Arrecife, is a more modest and peaceful alternative which has gone steadily more upmarket in recent years. It tends to appeal to an older generation.

The more upmarket option for families is Playa Blanca, on the island's southern tip; it looks across the water to the neighbouring island, Fuerteventura, less than an hour away by ferry (visitfuerteventura.es). People here are mostly on all-inclusives or self-catering, so there's less need for a town centre.

Playa Blanca's location means that its climate is a touch warmer than elsewhere but it doesn't have the big beaches of Puerto del Carmen, and holidaymakers here tend to have their own transport with a view to exploring the rest of the island. For more information, see turismolanzarote.com.

Volcanoes

If the south is for tourism, the northern shore is where Lanzarote gets surprisingly wild and geologically unique. The big draw is the Timanfaya National Park, with swathes of lava badlands and extinct volcanoes. Most visitors go on the organised tour, where there are demonstrations of volcanic heat levels and an exhilarating coach ride.

Try Montañas del Fuego (00 34 928 173 789; centrosturisticos.com; €9pp). However, you can also experience this lava moonscape yourself, free of charge, on a track from Tinajo out to Gaviota.

The area around Tinajo is worth seeing, being a region of old cart tracks through a world of goat herders and sleeping dogs. This is a remnant of traditional Lanzarote, before tourism arrived. Agricultural machinery would be cut to ribbons by lava rocks, so donkeys still do the ploughing.

César Manrique

If there's a distinctive look to the man-made side of Lanzarote (typically whitewashed cuboid architecture, green window frames and doors) it is largely down to one man. The artist César Manrique made the island his home until his death in 1992. He taught outsiders to appreciate its peculiarities with the creation of several attractions, mostly in the north-east.

The artist's studio-home in Taro de Tahiche has become an attraction in itself, created in 1968 out of five giant lava bubbles, it comes complete with a swimming pool and dance floor. It is home to the Manrique Foundation, above middle, which this year opened the artist's last house in Haría, a traditional palm-surrounded settlement in the north of the island which contains some of his personal effects (00 34 928 84 31 38; fcmanrique.org; admission to Tahiche is €8, entry to both is €15).

Get active

Lanzarote's benign climate attracts serious and amateur athletes on winter training camps. The leader in this market is Club La Santa (00 34 928 599 999; clublasanta.com; one bedroom apartments from £616 a week). It is a large complex on its own in a fairly isolated location on the north coast, with Olympic-quality pools and running track. The recent explosion in active breaks has come in the shape of phalanxes of lycra-clad cyclists. Many accommodation providers offer serious cycling bases. Key outlets on the island such as Papagayo Bike (00 34 928 349 861; papagayobike.com) rent top-quality equipment and lead groups. Just north of La Santa is the surfer's hangout at the village and beach of Famara, a dreamy, bohemian zone. Outfits such as Famara Surf (00 34 653 989 550; famarasurf.com), also offer hang-gliding from the cliffs as an extra.

Vineyards

Lanzarote has a vineyard belt, La Geria on the road that runs up the centre of the island from Yaiza to San Bartolomé. Here there's true ecological artistry at work. The landscape is honeycombed with shallow cones, designed to catch the morning dew, each with a vine at its centre. A handful of wine-selling bodegas (dolanzarote.com) dot the road, and the wine is pretty good, if a little pricey. Bodega La Geria (00 34 928 17 31 78; lageria.com), with its Malvasia Blanco Seco (€9 a bottle), is one of those which also runs guided tours and tastings, from €8pp.

Where to stay

Several rural properties, mostly old fincas (farms), are gaining in popularity. Particularly recommended is Casa Tomarén (00 34 928 522 618; tomaren.com; B&B doubles from €84) right in the centre of the island. It has a handful of accommodation units and a superb pool. In the north-east, the British-run Lanzarote Retreats (00 34 928 826720; lanzaroteretreats.com) is a welcoming settlement of yurts and stone cottages. It is run along sustainable principles. An "eco-yurt" for two costs from €595 a week. In Puerto del Carmen, the Sol Lanzarote is a typical family-oriented self-catering property at the quiet end by the big beach of Matagorda. A week here with Thomas Cook (0844 412 5970; thomascook.com), including flights from Gatwick next Saturday, costs £351pp.

In Playa Blanca, Natural Retreats is a development of top-end villas with pools (0843 636 7573; naturalretreats.co.uk).

Travel Essentials

Getting there

Lanzarote is served from airports across the UK. British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and Norwegian (0843 3780 888; norwegian.com) fly from Gatwick. Monarch (0871 940 5040; monarch.co.uk) flies from Birmingham, East Midlands, Luton, Gatwick, Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds/Bradford. Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com) flies from Glasgow, East Midlands, Blackpool, Newcastle, Leeds/Bradford and Manchester. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) flies from Bournemouth, Birmingham, Bristol, East Midlands, Edinburgh, Prestwick, Leeds/Bradford, Liverpool, Luton, Stansted and Manchester. EasyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com) flies from Liverpool and Gatwick.

Getting around

Cabrera Medina (00 34 928 822 900; cabreramedina.com) rents small cars from €150 a week. Buses (arrecifebus.es) are frequent and inexpensive. Services between Arrecife and Puerto del Carmen depart every 20 minutes (€1.70).

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