Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Winter Sun Doesn't Have To Be Expensive

Dear Readers,

Here we are again, and to continue our series on winter sun, we thought we’d bring you some ideas that, unlike Barbados, don’t break the bank.

The Canary Islands have long been a destination renowned for sunshine all year round…Once supremely exotic, the Canaries have suffered what one might call the “Magaluf” effect of late.  Today we’re going to investigate, dear Readers, whether this is really the case, or indeed, like the “Magaluf” effect, has it just tarred the whole place with the same brush but indeed the reality is very different?

First, as usual, we like to have a few statistics and background (mainly because your Hapless Blogger is a bit of a nerd…).  You find the Spanish archipelago 62 miles West of Morocco in the Atlantic.  They are made up, from biggest to smallest, of Tenerife, Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura, Lanzarote, La Palma, La Gomera and Le Hierro.  They have an amazing diversity of landscape, from deserts, to woods to sandy beaches.

Tenerife, being the biggest, attracts 5 million tourists per year, all coming for the whale-watching, walking and nightlife.  Tenerife also houses one of the biggest volcanos in the World.  Mount Teide measures 3,718m and is the highest peak in Spain.  It is also one of the most visited national parks in the World.  The biggest city, Las Palmas, is found in Gran Canaria which itself enjoys some of the best weather out of all the islands.  It is often referred to as a “continent in miniature” due to the diverse nature of its landscape.  Lanzarote boasts 300 volcanic cones and has a much more desert-like appearance.

Historically, interestingly enough, the Canaries were considered much like Barbados and the Caribbean, certainly amongst the upper-middle classes, as an excellent spot for recuperation from illness for the self-same reasons:  the climate and the healthy, refreshing sea breezes.  Tourism began in the 1880s, with 350 Brits arriving in 1885 and 5000 by 1890 arriving in Tenerife alone.  After the World Wars, tourism grew once more, and as we have discussed in previous Blog posts, the cost of flying dropped significantly.  Package holidays and the now troubled Thomas Cook opened the market for affordable winter sun for all.

This is the background, but we’re bored of history and statistics, Hapless Blogger, I hear you cry, we want to get going!  Well, dear Readers, in typical style, I am going to give you personal experiences, warts and all…no topless moped-riding this time though…

Now, when I was young, and that was a very long time ago, “the Canaries” were hugely exotic.  As most people went about as far as France and Spain, certainly in my circle, or occasionally the rich people down the road went to Disneyworld in Florida, the Canaries were far-flung and mysterious.

Fast forward to my early twenties and a boyfriend of mine insisted we went to Lanzarote…which by this time had, again, certainly in my circle, gained the nickname “Grotty Lanzarote”…Maybe I am a snob, but the thought of going there in March did not set my world on fire.  I distinctly remember him booking it in a travel agents in the high street (pre-internet of any particular use, so, dear Readers, as I am sure some of you remember, it was either the travel agent or teletext!) and I also distinctly remember not believing him that it would be hot.  On arrival, with a drunk boyfriend in tow (why do some people play “how-many-beers-can-I drink-on-the-plane”?) it was raining.  This is what I expected.  We got onto the coach (yup, one of those “I hope this isn’t my hotel, ah, thank God it’s theirs” jobbies) and headed to Puerto Del Carmen.  Hoorah. 

Fortunately, on getting up the next morning, the sun was shining and I was proven totally wrong.  I couldn’t get over the weather, it was amazing.  The accommodation I don’t really remember, except the window in the loo smashed, missing me by millimetres…Puerto Del Carmen itself?  Well, dear Readers, your Helpless Blogger at that time was very sheltered.  I had been looking forward to trying some tapas as this was my first time in Spain.  Long story short, I found nowhere to even try it…but I could have fish, chips and “real Heinz beans” to my heart’s content.  Now, I don’t want to do it a disservice, and I did enjoy the weather, but I think the words “never” and “again” may have been spoken out loud…But that might have partly been down to the company.  I have been told that Costa Teguise is delightful…

Many years later, and I found myself with the opportunity to visit Gran Canaria.  Well, what a difference an island and perhaps more importantly, the company makes.  Readers, if you’ll permit me to be slightly philosophical for a moment:  putting the hypothesis out there:  does it really matter where you go, as long as you have good company?  Or the other way round, you could be in the most beautiful place in the world, but if you don’t enjoy the company you’re in, could it potentially be ruined for you so that you don’t give the place a fair trial?  Potentially, yes.

I insist, anyone wishing for winter sun and doesn’t want to or can’t afford to go all the way to the Caribbean, needs to go to Gran Canaria.  Interestedly, when the trip was planned, I looked on the weather app on the phone, and it said 19 degrees and some sunshine.  Undeterred, as I was looking forward to the break, I thought well never mind, it’s warmer than the UK.  Having got chatting to ironically a Professor of marine biology at the University of Las Palmas (20,000 students no less) he explained to me that yes, Las Palmas and the North of the island has that sort of weather, but the South is protected and much, much warmer.  Indeed, he was right (of course he was) and as we got into our hire car (no queue for the hire car at the airport which was amazing!) we watched the temperature, even at 8 o’clock at night, rise so by the time we got to our accommodation, it was 24 degrees! 

I am jumping ahead, however, and I wanted to make a couple of points beforehand.  Our journey caused us to fly into Bilbao in Northern Spain and thence to Gran Canaria.  I don’t know if you’ve been to Bilbao, but it is just lovely.  Not that I saw much of it, but I studied it from the aeroplane on arrival and departure and it is so pretty.  Very lush and green and mountainous.  Another epiphany was had at Bilbao airport as we had a few hours to kill.  My generous travel companion usefully had a pass for the VIP lounge.  He had spoken about this to me before on several occasions, but I guess it never really sank in as I don’t usually have time to kill at airports.  However, dear Readers, welcome to a totally new way to travel.  You have to have an Amex card or something similar I think, but it is out of this world.  Almost all airports in the world have a VIP lounge (who knew?!) and you just show your card and are billed £15 each on your next credit card bill, and in you go.  It doesn’t matter if it’s Bilbao or Dubai, you always pay the same. 

Oh, Readers, what a place.  There is a comfortable lounge with nice seating, or bar type seating and staff to help you.  There is a buffet and fridges packed full with every possible drink you could imagine.  There are spirits, wine, sparkling wine, beer, sushi, sandwiches, hot food the list is endless.  It is a very, very civilised and chilled way to pass a couple of hours and I am very thankful to my travel companion for giving me the opportunity.

Now, at the risk of making myself look stupid, and as a lesson to you, so that you don’t do it:  when you travel from the UK to Bilbao, you obviously go forwards an hour.  Therefore getting on the flight from Bilbao to Gran Canaria, the flight time read 4pm – 6pm.  Oh, brill, we thought, 2 hours and we’ll be there.  Now, as the clock approached 6pm we looked at each other:  “why aren’t we landing?”  My travel companion was a very, very nervous flier, so he was hurtling headlong into a tailspin of over-thought to how we were all going to die…I did make the valid point, I thought, that no one else seemed in the least bit worried, but that wasn’t helping Nervous Nigel…This is when I had the bright idea of asking the person sitting next to me which happened to be the aforementioned University Professor, who kindly also furnished me with the information that the Canaries are on the same time as the UK, ergo we were landing at 6pm Canarian time which would have been 7pm Bilbao time.  Panic over.

I have mentioned the increasing warmth as we drove from Las Palmas South towards Maspalomas and thus to Amardores.  We were staying at the spectacular Gloria Palace Amadores Thalasso & Hotel.  What a place.  It was ENORMOUS!!  I could already see the differences certainly from my memory of Lanzarote:  Gran Canaria is much more diverse with impressive cliffs and all these hotels seemingly built into them.  Lanzarote is much flatter and a more lunar landscape.  But Gloria, as I affectionately called her, was a stunner.  Palatial.  So huge was it that you parked in an underground carpark and walked through the impressive entrance, lined with shops in case you’d forgotten your bikini or suntan lotion, to the reception desks.  As we were all-inclusive, we were issued with the famous bands, and, as the receptionist generously wished us “welcome home”.  A peculiar choice of phrase for a British person to hear, but endearing all the same…I think perhaps their trainer had typed the wrong phrase into Google translate…

 On getting to the room, it was enormous with a stunning and unobstructed view of the sea, with a lovely balcony and all the trimmings you’d expect.  Having changed (starting to swelter) and gone down for dinner, having never been all-inclusive before, it was an odd experience:  you just wander up to the bar and ask for a drink which they give you…weird!  The buffet, dear Readers, is quite an experience.  You have various dining options during the day, with the pool bars available to you, as well as the buffet for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  It is ENORMOUS because clearly the hotel is so enormous you need a titanic-sized buffet and corresponding dining room to accommodate everyone.  As with buffets that need to cater for a lot of people, there was an enormous selection and one had to wander round it for at least an hour deciding what to eat, finally plumping for the weirdest combination of food you have ever seen on one plate (or is that just me?).

The following day dawned bright and very hot, and after another visit to the buffet for breakfast and sitting outside in the morning sun to eat it, it was a visit to Mogan and the famous mercadillos or markets.  Readers, young or old I challenge you not to be enchanted.  Not really being a flower person, or a market person come to that, even I enjoyed it.  The markets were authentic and beautiful and the flowers, the bougainvillea and all the rest (see, still not a flower person) were one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen.  Mogan is a pretty little fishing port with a fish market still very much in use, but now of course, there are the hundreds of little, authentic, bars and restaurants, the famous market stalls everywhere and the cutest little houses I have ever seen.  It, in total, is a sight to behold and definitely not one to miss.

I won’t walk you through everything we did, but I would recommend you went to Maspalomes and onto the front to Café Del Mar.  The location is out of this world…What a meal and what a show.  Again, not really a “show” or “entertainment” type person, this was such high quality and so entertaining, that I recommend to all.  Maspalomas is really pretty as well, not at all what I expected.  Very upmarket.

Back to the hotel and the weather:  both were fabulous and just lying by the infinity pool (one of two) was a tonic to the soul.  All inclusive, quite frankly, dear Readers, is a revelation.  How cool is it to wander over to the bar and just get a drink.  I have researched the cost, and certainly if you’re going to spend a few days by the pool, all-inclusive is definitely great value. 

Other places to go?  Definitely visit the restaurant Guantanamo’s…again, what an experience!  It looks like a shack from the outside and certainly not the Ritz.  Inside, it’s all old-fashioned Canarian restaurant (kind of the exact opposite of Café del Mar) but the first thing that strikes you is how busy it is, and as we all know, dear Readers, this is a very, very good sign.  The food is excellent and the lamb shoulder and chateaubriand are worthy of a special mention.  Then, there is the coffee ceremony:  I have never seen anything like it!  The waiter comes to your table with various kitchen items including a portable gas hob and what looks like a Bunsen burner…he then sets light to some glasses and fills them with coffee and various liquors and sets light to them again, then adds whipped cream to them, and once they are placed in front of you, holds a lit cup up high and pours from afar lit alcohol into the coffee.  Sounds weird but it is quite spectacular to watch, and I am reliably informed that it is 4000 calories a glass…

The final place we visited was the Maroa Beach Club in the Anfi complex just a couple of miles East from our hotel.  If you haven’t heard of Anfi, Google it.  It is spectacular and, I’m sorry Gloria, put Gloria to shame.  It’s not even a village, it’s a town unto itself!  The beach club is lovely, and great fun.  If you haven’t been to a beach club, you should, although you should probably practice lounging beforehand.  They are very chilled places, with great food and drink and too easy to drink too much and fall asleep on a day bed (not this time but there is an outside chance this may have happened to your Hapless Blogger in the past…)…Head there for sundowners as the beautiful weather and stunning surroundings make you forget the daily grind and the fact that it is snowing back in the UK!

 For a quick idea of prices, if you wanted to go to Gloria all-inclusive next month (December being peak time, don’t forget) for 4 days Thurs-Mon for 2 people it’ll cost 858 Euros plus direct flights from Gatwick to Las Palmas for £97 each…If you wanted to stay at Anfi, you’d need to buy a timeshare there.

 Conclusion?  I should probably give Lanzarote a fairer trial, but young or old, Gran Canaria is fabulous.  Back to our hypothesis about it’s not where you go it’s who you go with, and I have to say, hand on heart, that I had a better time in the Canaries than I did in Barbados, but that’s all down to the company.


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