Nearly six years after my previous visit, it was time to reacquaint myself with Gran Canaria. When my friend Andrew used his impressive travel booking skills to obtain cheap flights and a bargain self-catering apartment, I was only too happy to accompany him, and escape rainy Brexit UK for a few days.
And then, as the departure date approached, I felt a little twinge of fear. Omicron COVID was still very much a thing. Gran Canaria was at Alert Level 4 (the highest level in Spain). I did not want our holiday be spoiled by the faff and inconvenience of COVID restrictions, necessary as they may be. Matters weren’t helped when the Spain Travel Health website kept giving cryptic errors as I tried to upload my vaccination certificate.
Even as I packed my T-shirts and shorts the night before, I had to ask the question: was going at this time a good idea?
As it turns out… the answer was absolutely Sí (I speak Spanish now).
A four-and-a-half hour flight from Manchester, followed by a crowded bus ride into Maspalomas, was not the best way to start, but matters improved rapidly once we reached our hotel. Our basic but comfortable room was perfectly adequate for our needs, although it lacked air conditioning, so I wouldn’t have liked to stay there at the height of summer. Self-catering, but with a well-stocked supermarket just round the corner and plenty of restaurants nearby too, and the all-important beach just a five minute walk away.
Gran Canaria also boasts a branch of the Hard Rock Café, where we ate on Friday evening. As a gesture to Canarian culture, I ordered the “Local Legendary” burger, a variation of the standard burger which supposedly has some local twist to it, although the menu was vague on the details.
As is fairly standard for the area, the apartment complex had a pool. I am not a big swimmer – in fact, the last time I was in a pool was probably the last time I was in Gran Canaria – but the cool water was too much to resist on a hot Saturday afternoon. I’m not going to give Adam Peaty a run (swim) for his money any time soon, but I enjoyed myself.
Drying off on the sunbed, I experienced something that happens all too rarely to me: I relaxed. The stresses and strains of everyday life weren’t gone, but at that moment, they seemed very far away.
The Yumbo Centre – that bizarre mashup of a 1970s shopping mall filled with gay bars – remains the centre of gay life in Maspalomas. Although some of the clubs were shut (COVID restrictions limiting indoor venues to 25% capacity, meaning it isn’t worthwhile opening) most of the bars with their open terraces were doing a roaring trade.
Saturday night started at Parrots bar, then on to Fiction (where we both fell slightly in love with the handsome waiter who served us) and then on to Eden, before finally finishing up in Coco Loco. It seemed like every bar had some sort of Happy Hour promotion on, and we got slightly carried away, finally staggering back to the apartment in the small hours of the morning. It was a good night, but I would come to regret it the following day…
On Sunday we booked a trip on a Catamaran sailing from Puerto Rico, a harbour town a few miles down the coast. We made a slight strategic error by scheduling this the day after our big Yumbo Centre night out, meaning we were slightly hungover as we clambered on the transfer bus. However, I was hoping it would be worth it, as we were promised sightings of dolphins, which are present in great numbers in the waters around the Canary Islands.
We sailed out of the harbour and headed out to sea. It was a warm day, but the breeze was refreshing and I started to feel much better. I slowly sipped a Coke and thought my stomach was settled.
About an hour into the trip, we slowed to a virtual stop. Suddenly, a cry of delight came up from my fellow passengers, as a fin appeared from beneath the surface, and a dolphin leapt up briefly, its smooth wet skin glinting in the sun. Then… another! And another! I snapped away on my phone, trying to anticipate where the next dolphin would appear to get a photo, but also conscious that I didn’t want to experience this entirely from behind a camera lens.
The crowd stood up to get a better look, and I joined them, which proved to be a mistake. It heightened the rocking motion of the boat, and this, combined with the Piña Coladas the previous night, pushed me beyond my limits. I had to make a hasty dash below decks to be sick.
That unfortunate incident aside, it was a wonderful experience, and we returned to the harbour knowing that we had seen something special.
Back in Maspalomas on Sunday afternoon, we headed to the beach for a few hours. We perhaps choose the wrong day to do this, as that afternoon was quite windy, and we got rather sandblasted as we walked along the shore.
Still, I was determined to make the best of things, and got changed into my swimming shorts, ready to run into the sea.
This was a big thing for me. I have lots of hangups about my body. My weight has yo-yo’d up and down over the years, but I have never been truly happy with the way I look. Stripping off and allowing most of my wobbly bits to be seen by the world was not something I usually do. Perhaps emboldened by my visit to the hotel pool the previous day, where no-one had run away screaming upon seeing my nipples, I was brave enough to undress.
I waded out till the water was up to my shoulders and tried to jump over the massive waves as they rolled in. They were powerful, some almost knocking me off my feet. Salty water went up my nose, and I coughed and spluttered.
Suddenly, I was ten years old again, back in Blackpool on family holidays. Except this time the water wasn’t full of sewage.
Our final full day saw us book on a Jeep Safari tour, which would take us away from the tourist traps on the coast and into the mountains, in the care of an experienced local guide.
After picking up a couple of other people, we headed out of Maspalomas. Suddenly we swerved off the main road onto a series of progressively smaller minor roads, until eventually we were on a dirt track. Our tour guide cheerfully announced that we were getting a free back massage, as we bumped and swayed our way up the mountains.
The Canary Islands are volcanic in origin, a fact which is obvious when you observe the miles of dark grey rock everywhere. I looked out of the window and enjoyed the breathtaking views, although had to look away at certain points, as our jeep travelled along narrow cliffside tracks with a sheer drop to the side.
We stopped off at certain points to get a better view. I was astonished to see villages nestled deep in the valley, with houses hugging the sides.
We made a brief stop in Tunte, where we got to see a different side to life on the island, and a glimpse into the past before package holidays and concrete hotels sprouted up everywhere. Tunte was a charming, quiet village nestled high in the mountains, 850 metres above sea level.
There was a tourist information centre, and a few shops clearly designed to flog trinkets to visitors, but otherwise this was a local village for local people. Many of the residents were elderly, our guide pointing out that younger people tended to leave the villages for a more exciting life in the resorts.
From there, it was onward to the even tinier village of Fataga, where lunch was laid on for us at the Restaurante El Labrador. A delicious meal of Roast Chicken and potatoes, all washed down with a glass or two of Sangria. This was followed up by a dessert which baffled everyone on our table – a small dish of what purported to be mango mousse, but resembled a bowl of whipped cream. Still, that was a minor quibble on what was a most enjoyable slice of Canarian hospitality.
We were soon being whisked off to our next destination. After a quick detour to “Camel Park” to drop off a couple of members of our tour group, who had paid extra for a camel ride, we got taken to… an Aloe Vera farm.
This was a slightly unexpected detour, and I wasn’t entirely sure why we were here. Still, the rows of Aloe Vera plants outside were an impressive sight. Aloe Vera is an important plant – anybody who has ever had to buy a last-minute Christmas gift for an auntie must know of its myriad uses in beauty products.
The tour groups were divided up by language and we were ushered to a table where a stern woman was ready to tell us everything we could ever want to know about Aloe Vera.
She begain by slicing open an Aloe Vera plant. “This part has antiseptic properties,” she said, indicating a yellow goo that had seeped out like pus from an infected sore. “But don’t eat it, it is also a very powerful laxative. You will be sitting on the toilet for days.”
She went on to cut out the jelly-like interior of the plant and sliced it up into cubes. “Now you are going to eat this,” she said.
It was an order, not a request. We all picked up a cube and dutifully ate it.
Just sat through a pitch from an Aloe Vera salesperson. She gave us all a piece of Aloe Vera flesh to eat – the slimiest thing I’ve tasted since
— Robert Hampton (@Hampo) February 14, 2022
She then squirted a handful of Aloe Vera gel into our hands. “Rub it on your neck.” – again, this was not a request. I did so and it immediately started to burn. I had just involuntarily deep-heated myself.
“It’s very good for aches and pains, but be careful going to the toilet” – she addressed this part to the penis-havers in the group – “because if you touch it after using this gel, you will regret it.”
She then went on about the various things Aloe Vera could be used for. Aloe Vera to treat sunburn, Aloe Vera drinks to detox, Aloe Vera cellulite remover (“Rub it on your belly and ass to get rid of ugly fat,” she said, looking at me).
By sheer coincidence, all of these products were available for sale in the shop. I looked around, but even if I was prepared to spend €15 on a small bottle of Aloe Vera moisturiser, most of the products would fall foul of the hand luggage liquid ban, so I declined.
From there, it was back to Camel Park, where we had to wait for our fellow tour group members to return from their trek. Camels are not native to the Canary Islands, but seem to have been introduced by settlers several centuries ago, so are now part of the scenery. I watched as a group came in. We were ordered to stand well back, as these camels are likely to spit and attack. Many of the animals were wearing what looked like face masks, and I briefly wondered if camels could transmit COVID, until I realised they were actually muzzles to protect us humans from being bitten.
Our final stop on the tour was at the Degollada de las Yuegas, a viewpoint overlooking the Fataga valley, offering more amazing views of this strange volcanic landscape. While Andrew set up and flew his drone, scaring a dog in the process, I settled for a panorama shot on my iPhone.
The mountains of Gran Canaria are ideal for astronomy – away from the coastal towns, there is very little light pollution, and at these high altitudes there is less distortion from the atmosphere. Perhaps in recognition of that fact, there was a guide to the night sky at the viewpoint, as well as a sign pointing to Estrella Polar (Polaris), a mere 4,228,946,521,243,618 kilometres away.
We returned back to Maspalomas, having gained a new appreciation for Gran Canaria. Away from the beaches and the loud resorts, there is another side to the island – beautiful, in a different way.
That evening it was back to Fiction, where the same waiter as Saturday night served us, and immediately recognised us, greeting us as if we were old friends.
We also found mini Connect 4 games set up on the tables for the punters to play. Naturally, my competitive streak kicked in, and I had to challenge Andrew to a match. After winning the first two games, I charitably offered to do best-of-five, which proved to be a mistake, as Andrew then won the next three games to become the overall victor. In my defence, I had drunk several Piña Coladas by this point.
Rounding off a perfect few days, we both got a hug from the handsome waiter as we left the bar (and this is why you should always tip generously).
Landing in rainy Manchester on Tuesday night and enduring an awkward journey back to Liverpool by train, I had plenty of time to ponder the trip. It was certainly good to travel abroad and have a proper holiday again, and get a feel for international travel (having dipped a toe in the water with a flying visit to Berlin back in November).
I’ve also learned the value of a relaxing holiday, as opposed to the city breaks I usually do, where I rush around cramming in as many tourist attractions as possible.
Hopefully, 2022 will be a year where I get lots of travelling done, after a pandemic-enforced gap of almost two years. I already have some thoughts about where I can go next.
For now, though, I will enjoy the memories of golden beaches, blue skies and clear water.