If the Canary Islands were a rock band, I like to think that they’d be the Rolling Stones – they’ve been around a pretty long time, have a similar rugged charm and their line-up hasn’t changed in years (1.2 million to be precise). Yet unlike Mick, Keith and co., this year the Canaries gained a new member: the tiny, white-sand isle of La Graciosa.
Lying half an hour’s ferry ride north of Lanzarote, this tranquil isle was officially admitted to the archipelago in June, following years of campaigning by residents who were keen for the island’s “extraordinary natural values” to be properly recognised. If you’re unsure as to what these values might be, you’re not alone – at only 29 square kilometres and with just over 700 inhabitants, La Graciosa slips easily under the radar. And although it’s relatively straightforward to reach by boat, there is no airport on the island, and very few places for visitors to stay overnight. It’s also one of the only places in Europe without any real roads or cars; locals prefer to navigate the dirt tracks by bicycle, and the only motorised vehicles on the island are the distinctive jeep taxis.
There are, however, two very good reasons why you may have heard of this sandy paradise. The first is because, well, it’s a sandy paradise! Peaceful and unspoiled, the beaches on La Graciosa are among Spain’s best, including beautiful Playa de las Conchas – a pristine strip of white sand backed by the reddened slopes of Montaña Bermeja and bordered by lively turquoise waters. Although swimming isn’t permitted here, due to the strong currents and high waves, there are plenty of other more sheltered bays nearby where conditions are perfect for a dip.
La Graciosa’s second claim to fame is that it is said to have been the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous novel, Treasure Island. This goes back to the 18th century, when ships would regularly pass through the Rio straits (the waters that lie between La Graciosa and Lanzarote) on their way to the West Indies. One of these vessels was a British galleon, laden with spoils from a recent battle at sea. Realising that they were being tailed by a boatload of pirates, the ship’s crew decided to drop anchor at La Graciosa and hide their gold on the island before the buccaneers could catch up with them. This turned out to be a wise decision, as the pirates soon reached the island, captured the British sailors and tried to force them to reveal where they had buried the treasure. The sailors bravely refused, and the secret of the hidden gold followed them to their graves. Or did it? In another version of the story, one of the crew escaped – a wily cabin boy, no less – and managed to make his way back to England, where he only shared the location of the buried treasure on his own deathbed…
It’s easy to see why any island would want to be known as the inspiration for Treasure Island, and both Isla de Pinos near Cuba and Norman Island in the British Virgin Islands also have strong claims. Yet La Graciosa’s link to the novel is more than just wishful thinking. One of the central characters in Treasure Island, the notorious Long John Silver, is described as having once served on a ship commanded by an Admiral Hawke. Although this one-legged pirate exists only in the realms of fiction, Admiral Hawke was a real-life figure who was involved in many naval skirmishes, including a battle that took place just off Lanzarote in the 1760s. A mere coincidence, perhaps… Or something more?
Now, I could wrap this up by suggesting that it doesn’t really matter whether or not La Graciosa is the inspiration for Treasure Island, whether the treasure ever existed, or indeed whether it still lies somewhere beneath La Graciosa’s sandy surface, because the island’s beautiful beaches, gorgeous views and rare sense of tranquillity are infinitely more precious. But where would be the fun in that? So, if you do decide to visit lovely La Graciosa, keep your eyes open for mysterious objects glinting in the sand, and if you happen to find anything, remember who first told you this story!