By Inntraveller Brian Baker
For more than 30 years I have referred to this Canary Isle as “Lanzagrotty” and shied away. I should not have been so disparaging.
Yes, there are a number of displaced ex-pats who appear to be idle and rudderless; yes, there are far too many tourists from North Europe. The latter, however are mostly accommodated in three relatively tastefully developed resorts: Costa Teguise, Puerto del Carmen and Playa Blanca… and this is all by design.
After our recent holiday with Inntravel I have had to rethink my view of Lanzarote. Those who have travelled widely and believe they have “seen the world” should consider a visit to Lanzarote and see another. For indeed to drive, walk or ride around or through the National Park of Timanfaya is other-worldly.
Barren it may appear, but the stark lunar landscape, painted in basalt black with fascinating etchings in ferrous brown and olivine green, touched here and there with white traces of calcium carbonate, is stunning. Formations of solidified lava, which fire the imagination with mystical images, are interspersed with grey dune-like craters of desert.
Apart from 10-15 centimetres of rainfall per annum, and some overnight condensation, the island lacks fresh water. As a consequence, the landscape has remained unchanged since the last volcanic eruption 300 years ago, and has only been partially reclaimed by vegetation since the great eruptions of 1730. (These lasted for 6 years, destroyed all wildlife and covered 195 square kilometres of terrain in lava and volcanic ash.)
Because of this lack of water, tourism only came to Lanzarote with the introduction of desalination 30-40 years ago. Fortunately, the insightful artist and architect, César Manrique, was at hand to guide the authorities into the tastefully developed tourist infrastructure on which the island is now entirely reliant. There are no ugly advertising hoardings, no high-rise hotels and – mercifully – none of the eyesores you might see elsewhere. The island is strikingly clean, rubbish-free and cared for: inland villages are almost clinically pristine.
The scenery of the Timanfaya park might be the most striking and memorable on the island, but don’t assume that Lanzarote offers a uniform volcanic landscape. On this walking holiday, Inntravel have provided notes for 14 rambles, and you can choose from them all, thanks to the hire car provided. We nonetheless elected to start our first walk straight from the hotel’s front door, heading away from the National Park over some of the oldest hills this relatively youthful island has to offer, to reach the nearby village of Femés. Our route climbed out of a cultivated valley and passed a ruined windmill, taking us onto a ridge with views back down to the white village of Yaiza, where we were staying, and the volcanic park behind. We climbed further towards the radio-mast-crested Atalaya, Lanzarote’s second-highest peak, trading the slopes of a sparse yellow crop for those of barren brown, dotted with wildflowers and riven by shallow and dry streambeds.
Views stretched from the volcanic cones far to the north across hills to the nearby sea in the south, west and east. We dropped down to the village of Femés for a leisurely tapas lunch at the 450-metre-high mirador, with views down to Playa Blanca, before returning on lower slopes along a fertile valley and over a small ridge back to Yaiza.
Probably our most varied day of the trip – and the greatest contrast – was provided by a trip to La Graciosa, a small, golden sand island to the north-west of Lanzarote. We drove on quiet roads to Orzola, where we parked the car, bought a ferry ticket, and had time for a coffee before embarking in a grey, murky wind out into a rough, white-crested sea. We rocked past Lanzarote’s most northerly point, Punta Fariones – austere and pounded by surf beneath the daunting El Risco de Famara cliffs, looming some 500 metres above – before cruising into Caleta de Sebo, La Graciosa’s tiny port, to a surprisingly sunny, if hazy, welcome.
Here, we felt as though we had gone back in time: there was a settlement with streets of sand, virtually no vehicles, some simple holiday villas, a few bars and cafés, and plenty of beaches. Of these, Inntravel recommend the idyllic cove of Playa Cocina, and our walking route there – using their notes – revealed a striking and dramatic setting, backed by golden cliffs.
Unfortunately for us, catamarans bringing tourists from Caleta to nearby Playa Francesa intruded on our serenity on that particular day. More enchanting, though, was the deserted beach of Playa Salado, with its calm, saltwater lake fed by the tide, guarded by a rock-and-sand spit, and overlooked by the Famara cliffs on the mainland. We returned to Caleta for a late lunch at El Girasol, a friendly and lively restaurant offering delightful and great-value seafood. Before catching the ferry, we spoiled ourselves with an ice cream on the quayside, then rejoiced in a bumpy and spray-splashed 30-minute boat trip back to Orzola.
Lanzarote’s culture may not boast the ancient roots of mainland Europe, but César Manrique’s legacy is not confined to tourism. Together with Jesus Soto, he transformed geological novelties into architectural wonders: lava tubes have become underground restaurants, concert halls and dance clubs, interspersed with pools and with openings to the outer world via jameos (collapsed roofs in the lava crust). Manrique pursued similar ideas in a couple of restaurants and houses, combining art and nature, and using extravagant amounts of glass in unique designs whose concepts seemed decades before their time. They are bedecked with sculptures and paintings by Manrique and his many artist friends. All are worth visiting.
The island is beset by winds, including the occasional Calima bringing dust and sand from the Sahara, but if you can find a sheltered spot and limit your exposure to tourists, it is certainly not grotty!