Gran Canaria is the third-largest island in the Canaries’ archipelago, but accounts for almost half the population. It lives up to its cliché as a continent in miniature, with a dramatic variation of terrain, ranging from the green and leafy north to the mountainous interior and desert south. To glean a sense of this impenetrable quality, head to the centre, where the sheer drama of the mountains more resembles the Tibetan highlands than a relatively small island.
Contrasting with these unspoiled peaks and valleys is a rugged coastline interspersed with white sandy beaches and, more famously (and depressingly), a garish tiara of purpose-built holiday resorts.
Beyond the sands, though, Gran Canaria can keep the adrenalin pumping, with scope for hiking, cycling and watersports, while culture-vultures can be similarly satiated, particularly in the historic cosmopolitan capital of Las Palmas.
This is Gran Canaria’s most famous holiday resort and a sun-splashed party place for a mainly Northern European crowd. That said, during the day (and out of season) it has a more upmarket appearance than you might expect. This is not Benidorm, nor even Los Cristianos in Tenerife. In the centre you are more likely to stumble across expensive hotels or smart apartment blocks than Dot-and-Alf-style English pubs. On the downside, there is virtually nothing that is even halfway Spanish here; everything is tourist-driven and the only languages you’ll need are German or English. The town plan is also undeniably soulless, with the neatly traced boulevards and roundabouts betraying all the town-design spontaneity of a five-year plan.
At night, most of the action takes place in and around the Yumbo Centrum, with the leather handbags and wallets in the stores replaced by leather gear in steamy gay bars. The vaguely wholesome, bustling family atmosphere evaporates as the discos (both straight and gay) swing until dawn, barrels and bottles are drained by the dozen in bars, and the drag shows, saunas and sex shops all do a roaring trade.
The only natural items of genuine interest are the impressive dunes of Maspalomas, which is also home to some of Gran Canaria’s most luxurious hotels and the island’s largest golf course. The dunes fold back from the beach and cover 400 hectares, and their inland heart has been declared a nature reserve with restricted access.
There are bus stops all over the resort, including a couple beside Yumbo.
West of Taurito, a couple of kilometres of rugged coastline recall what this whole southern stretch of the island must have been like 50 years ago, before mass tourism descended on the Canaries.
Finally you round a bend; below you is a tempting crescent of sandy beach and, next to it, a busy little yacht harbour and fishing port. Puerto de Mogán, although now largely given over to the tourist trade, is light years from its garish counterparts to the east. Thankfully, even the recent construction inland is more aesthetically pleasing than in other resorts along this coast.
Although its nickname ‘Venice of the Canaries’ may be a tad exaggerated, the architecture and bridged waterways are as pretty as a chocolate box, and the whole place exudes an air of opulence and charm. In the heart of the port, low-rise apartments have wrought-iron balconies, brightly coloured trim and are covered in dazzling bougainvillea.
On the downside, the place gets packed with envious tourists from the other resorts during the day, particularly on Friday morning when a street market takes over part of the town. Stalls sell the usual overpriced belts, bags and shell jewellery; if you are staying here, it’s a good day to leave.
While Maspalomas has redeeming features – the shape of its natural dunes and its superbly unnatural nightlife – its resort cousins further west are a good example of how greedy developers can destroy a coastline that shares a similar setting to Italy’s Amalfi Coast. Around every corner it seems there is yet another resort surrounded by steep banks of apartment blocks stretching into the hinterland.
Parts of the port area of Arguineguín still remain true to its roots as a small, active fishing settlement, but overall it’s a nondescript town with a couple of rather scrubby beaches. If you are here at lunchtime, check out the Cofradía de Pescadores, which, despite the plastic tablecloths and disarming six-language menu, buys its catch of the day directly from the fishing boats. Arguineguín is also home to a well-respected diving school.
Puerto Rico is a fine example of appalling town planning: the original fishing village has disappeared under a sea of concrete, with the apartment blocks stacked up like stadium seats against the mountains. The beach is pleasant but certainly not large enough to cater for the number of beds here. The only escape is the multitude of boat trips that depart from the harbour, including the dolphin-spotting Spirit of the Sea, offering two-hour trips in glass-bottom catamarans, with a complimentary second trip offered if you don’t spot any cetaceans the first time around.
The resorts further west, including Playa del Cura, Playa del Tauro and Taurito, are of a similar ilk. At least the latter has made an effort to gear itself to families, with a vast landscaped lido with lagoon-style pools, tennis courts, mini-golf, gym equipment, bars and sun beds on a grey sandy beach. The waters here are flat, smooth as glass and safe for swimming.
Gran Canaria’s fertile north presents a gently shifting picture from its rugged, mountainous interior and the southern beach resorts and dunes. Dramatic ravines, intensively tilled fields and terraces, and forests of pine trees, covered with mossy lichen, typify the landscape as you wind along twisting roads, passing myriad villages and hamlets. Only as you reach the west does the green give way to a more austere, although no less captivating, landscape: the west coast is the most dramatic on the island.
Charming as Las Palmas is, it is still a noisy and chaotic city. Thankfully, if you are seeking some more mellow, albeit dramatic, surroundings, you won’t have far to travel. Within a short drive you’ll find picturesque historic towns, misty mountain villages and the soaring sides of the verdant Barranco de Guayadeque, a ravine that’s rightly popular with both locals and tourists.