In 1974 Chris Bird was the only tourist on Gomera. The beaches are crowded now, but it is still magical

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The Independent Travel
In 1974 I finished my finals, packed up my books and hitched south. Two weeks later, after scrounging a ride on a freighter out of Barcelona, I found what I was looking for. A clear blue sea, palm-fringed beach, banana plantations beneath towering volcanic cliffs, a tiny fishing harbour with a few cheap restaurants and, most important of all, no tourists. I stayed for five weeks.

Most evenings I ate in a small bar run by two sisters, Anna and Maria. Sometimes a local fisherman would play his guitar, someone might sing, the wine would flow. Often they would cook fish I had caught from the rocks nearby, charging me only for the wine and vegetables.

Just before I left Anna came and sat down at my table with a serious look on her face. "Have you enjoyed it here?" she asked, knowing what my answer would be. "When you go home will you do something for us? Please, don't tell your friends about our village."

Twenty years after I said adios to Anna and Maria, I returned.

My seaside paradise was Valle Gran Rey, the Valley of the Great King, on the island of La Gomera. This is one of the smaller Canary Islands to the west of Tenerife.

In 1974, shortly after I left Gomera, a daily ferry service started from Los Cristianos on Tenerife to the island's main town, San Sebastian. The tourists liked what they saw and came back. Restaurants and apartments sprang up to make money from this alternative to growing bananas and catching tuna. This process is still underway, but, without an airport, Gomera remains "off the beaten track".

Travelling with my three children, I flew to Tenerife and collected a hire car from the airport. A few hours later we were watching dolphins from the deck of an almost empty Transmediterranea ferry.

San Sebastian seemed twice the size I remembered. The newly built road that snaked up the hillside above the town soon gave us magnificent views across the sea to Tenerife. Within an hour Valle Gran Rey was beneath us. In 1974 this journey had taken five hours in a bus over dirt roads with hairpin bends and sheer drops. We left the car to look down at the village some 2,000 feet below. There were the sheer volcanic cliffs, and beneath them a patchwork of banana plantations. White houses lay like scattered sugar cubes and palms lined the road. The black sand of the main beach made a long, gentle curve, separated from the blue sea by a thin white line of surf. From a distance Valle Gran Rey 1994 matched my memories but what would a closer look reveal?

Twenty minutes later, we reached the village below. A quick enquiry at the first supermercedo, actually a very small shop, lead to a two-bedroom house with beautiful views across the valley and agecko in the toilet. Hardly stopping to unpack, we grabbed bathing gear and drove down to the beach.

Now reality set in. Where I had camped in on my last visit, there were lines of apartment houses. The Playo de Ingles, a small beach where I had often spent days without seeing another soul, was littered with naked Germans. A whole new village had sprung up at one end of the beach.

But the valley soon worked its magic on me. Floating around with a snorkel and mask, surrounded by brilliantly coloured fish, was a real delight. And Valle Gran Rey's beaches are separated by stretches of rock pools guaranteed to keep any child happy for hours. Fantastic shapes created by molten lava make the perfect habitat for a rich variety of sealife: giant sea-slugs which squirt out purple ink when disturbed, spiky sea-urchins and the beautiful shells they leave behind, octopuses, starfish, sea anemones and shy crabs.

A second look at the apartment blocks revealed them to be low level and tastefully sited, hidden from from the beach and most of the valley. As for all the people - well, now that I thought about it, I had sometimes been a little lonely with a whole beach to myself - and the valley was far from crowded.

Within a few days I had no regrets about returning. Sitting on the balcony of our house, glass of wine in hand, I watched the rocky valley sides pass through a sequence of colours as the sun went down. The dark evenings brought more stars than my children had ever seen.

Local shops provided everything we needed except veggieburgers and books in English. I found no trace of Anna or Maria but there are still numerous small bars and restaurants catering for all tastes and wallets - and the sea food is marvellous.

As I handed back the keys to our rented house the owner gave me a slip of paper: "This is our phone number, tell your friends about us."

Transmediterranea and Ferry Gomera both have offices on the dock at Los Cristianos in Tenerife. Southern Ferries in Piccadilly, London (0171 491 4968) can make ferry reservations but it's cheaper to buy tickets locally.

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