Lanzarote - 'If Apple designed islands, they would look like this'

Lanzarote is an iLandscape of white villages set against black lava. It owes its unique look to local artist Cesar Manrique, says Sankha Guha

The newest parts of Lanzarote look the oldest. The scorched earth of the Timanfaya National Park, which covers 20 square miles of the south-west of the island, needs only dinosaurs and pterodactyls to complete the Jurassic illusion. And where nature has failed to provide, Hammer films has made good populating the island with roaring rubber beasties (with the added bonus of Raquel Welch in a furry bikini) for the 1966 movie One Million Years BC.

The lava fields and calderas are so unearthly that a footling million-year time shift hardly does it imaginative justice. Think of any number BC, double it, add a dozen noughts and you are there transported to the very cauldron of creation.

In reality, though, Timanfaya is a geological baby. The Montañas del Fuego (Fire Mountains) of the national park were born in a seismic rage between 1730 and 1736. The tierra is no more than 277 years old.

The visual appeal of Lanzarote belies its tender years. Even the populated parts of the island have a stark glamour about them; set against the near universal black lava, human habitation is denoted in dazzling white-cube villages. If Jonathan Ives (designer of the iPod) designed desert islands, this is what they would look like. Black, white, sinuous, minimal an iLandscape on which you can project your fantasies and desires.

The design credits, however, belong not to Ives, but to the home-grown magus Cesar Manrique (1919-1992). The architect/artist comes second only to the explosive power of nature in shaping the island. He is credited with pushing policies that have prevented high-rise development and resulted in the rigid any-colour-as-long-as-it-is-white code for the island's buildings. All points of the compass on Lanzarote bear his imprimatur including the El Diablo restaurant of the Montañas del Fuego in the west, the Mirador del Rio in the north, the Museum of Contemporary Art in the south-east and the Monumento al Campesino slap in the middle. Manrique is ubiquitous.

His style is unique, as fantastical as it is a rational response to local conditions: low profile against the north-east trade winds, subterranean to exploit caves created in the volcanic flows by lava bubbles and open to the elements because of a near absence of rain.

His influence is evident even in buildings he did not design. The Finca Malvasia where my friend Paul and I are staying is, in part, a tribute to Manrique. The low-rise apartments, the bare lava-rock walls contrasted against the liquid lines of painted white concrete that shape the pool and the benches, the cactus, bougainvillea and palm-tree landscaped gardens and, not least, the extraordinary expanse of volcanic emptiness beyond all suggest the presence of a benign architectural ghost.

It is a long way from Stoke Newington from where the current owners of the finca, Tarnya Norse-Evans and her surf-dude husband Richard, relocated. The young couple, with two-and-half-year-old son Joss, took over the property back in July and set about creating what they describe as a "boutique" guesthouse. Tarnya has brought Spitalfields retro-chic to the apartments; personal touches include 1960s designer items borrowed from her mum's home. During our stay we discover that under cover of a business, Tarnya and Richard are really running a rather dippy house party.

We are inland near the village of Masdache a world apart, but only 10 minutes by car, from garish Puerto del Carmen. This is the epicentre of the pile 'em high, sell 'em cheap tourism that tends to dog the image of the Canaries. For those who don't want to step out of a tribal Brits-abroad bubble, it serves its purpose. The poster outside La Dolce Vita caf on the beachfront promises the "pizza English breakfast" and just in case punters are having difficulty with the concept, a photo depicts two fried eggs, bacon and baked beans on a pizza base.

Later we find ourselves in Nikki Beach a bar-disco with an all-white theme furnished by Ikea. The "DJ" is on a busman's holiday from Phoenix Nights. It is early yet and he is working the punters with a music quiz. Then it's time for the "Anyone here from Barnsley/ Sunderland/Solihull/Glasgow (delete as appropriate)?" routine. Followed by "HELLO BARNSLEY/ SUNDERLAND/SOLIHULL/ GLASGOW (delete as appropriate)? ARE WE GOING TO GET PISSED TONIGHT?"

We roll on to the capital Arrecife, where the nightlife, as in the rest of Spain, has a strict reverse curfew don't bother venturing out until 1am. We are properly abroad now; some kind of informal tourist apartheid seems to keep the majority of Brits happily contained in their holiday ghettos.

Arrecife's bars and clubs are crammed into an unassuming back alley called Calle de Jos Antonio. The crowd, overwhelmingly Spanish, ebbs and flows freely between bars and clubs including Tsunami, Masai and El Convento, which line the street. The music is Latin-inflected house, salsa, mixed and matched with predictable R&B chart-toppers. As in most Latin cultures, alcohol abuse is not perceived as heroic or smart. The partying is relaxed and relatively decorous compared with the frenetic booze-fuelled parade of Puerto del Carmen. Which does nothing to stop Paul and me from flying the flag for Britain and getting disgracefully hammered.

The resulting hangovers need emergency treatment. Thank Dios it is Friday the only weekday on which Las Cadenas restaurant in La Vegueta serves its signature dish, cochinillo (suckling pig). The restaurant is an islanders' secret and it is due only to Tarnya and Richard's tip off that we find it. The garlic soup, the fluffy shrimp omelette and the suckling pig all have the sure touch of a restaurant that relies on a loyal but demanding clientele. The hangover is dissipating slowly when Paul, with startling irrationality, decides that right now what we need is a burst of fitness.

Shortly I find myself on a hired bike toiling uphill from Costa Teguise to Guatiza. By car the route looks innocuous enough. On a bike the nine-mile ride becomes a succession of receding horizons that refuse to level out. It is relentless.

This is no fun in the way that drowning is no fun. My lungs are bursting; my throat is tinder dry; my head is pounding and my body is a swirling pool of perspiration. It occurs to me that the previous night's beer-lifting in Arrecife, compounded by a slab of suckling pig for lunch, was not the best training regime for this ride. Arrival at our destination, the Jardin de Cactus in Guatiza, is nothing short of deliverance.

The area is the centre of one of Lanzarote's pre-tourism industries cochineal, a red dye derived from a parasitic bug that lives off the prickly pear cactus. The Jardin stands opposite the commercial cactus fields. It is another Manrique project his last major work and possibly his most elegant. The trademark white-painted concrete is no longer in evidence; visitors enter through a gateway of hand-carved black basalt.

Within, an amphitheatre has been created in the remnants of an old quarry. The descending terraces display more than 1,400 different species of cacti from across the world: some are fluffy; some are wickedly, lethally spiky; some are ground hugging while others stand in upright groups like a meerkat clan.

Back at base we discover that Tarnya has nearly demolished the family homestead with their 4x4 battle wagon. The double garage doors which received the brunt of the impact are a write-off but the structural damage is limited. Tarnya blames her flip-flops.

Unfazed, the couple invite us to join them for a bonfire later in the five-acre vineyard in front of their home. After dark we are sprawled on blankets amid the zocos circular dugouts that shelter and cultivate the vines. The sky reveals the Milky Way sprayed across the night sky. I think I see a shooting star.

Wine bottles are opened including those made from the local Malvasia grapes that surround us. Tarnya insists that we should lie back and ogle the heavens. "Just look at that that is it," she giggles with the cosmic satisfaction of someone who has swapped Stoke Newington for the Precambrian.

Aside from the crackling of the fire the silence is almost unnerving. The volcanoes are silhouetted against the light pollution of the coastal belt but around us, apart from the finca, there is no evidence of human existence. The lava fields, bathed in moonglow, seem alive with shuddering shifting shapes. By midnight we are all seeing shooting stars regularly. Bring on the dinosaurs.

How to get there

GB Airways (08950 850 9850; gbairways.com) flies to Lanzarote from Gatwick from 65 single.

Carrentals.co.uk currently offers one week's car hire in Lanzarote from 84.

Finca Malvasia (00 34 928 173 460; fincamalvasia.com) offers apartments from 110 (80) per night, based on two sharing, minimum two-night stay. Up to two extra guests can be accommodated in the larger apartments for 10 per night each. The whole property, sleeping 14, is available for private hire, priced 530 per night, minimum four-night stay. Gourmet breakfasts can be prepared at 8 per person. Gastro barbecue evenings from a choice of Canarian, Indian or Moroccan styles and picnic lunches are also available.

Further reading: Cesar Manrique by Fernando Ruiz Gordillo, published by Fundacion Cesar Manrique

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