Madrid - Until we had our son, our preferred Canaries were La Gomera and La Palma — vertiginous and green walkers’ paradises blessed with black sand and no direct flights. We would not have given Lanzarote a second thought.
But with a three-year old, steep mountain paths, crashing rocky beaches, plane-changes and ferries are just not sensible. We’ll take Zac walking in La Gomera when he is older, but for now we need something more user friendly.
Lanzarote — damned by some as ‘Lanzagrotty’ — was, to me, redolent with spray-tanned golfers, Costa-Horror tack and grim, ersatz Irish pubs.
The truth is that 99 percent of this lovely, arid island, around four hours of grin-and-bear it charter flight away, comprises one of the strangest, most spectacular and surreal corners of Europe. It’s a classy outpost of Spain around 100 miles off the coast of the Sahara with no crowds, no traffic, brilliant food and a rich artistic heritage courtesy of one prolific genius.
You can’t go far in Lanzarote without running into Cesar Manrique, or rather his works (the man himself was killed in a car crash 20 years ago). Manrique’s art and architecture define this island.
Thanks to him, Lanzarote has resisted high-rise despoilment and urban grot. The settlements are a tribute to his simple, Cubist whitewashed style and his respect for architectural tradition.
Even in the newest resorts, the apartments and bungalows feature Manriqean/traditional touches — the green doors, onion-dome chimney pots and blinding white set against the black volcanic soils and blue skies.
“This looks like the set of The Prisoner,” said my wife Elena, as we drove past another colony of moon-unit buildings, wind-sculptures and baked lavafield wineries, each vine protected by a little semi-circular pebble windbreak.
Lanzarote does look like a film set — think of Luke Skywalker’s desert house in Star Wars.
We stayed in Coloradamar, a cluster of bungalows just outside Playa Blanca; clean, unfussy architecture, supremely comfortable and, above all, quiet.
With the black lava ‘garden’ and stark whiteness, it did feel a bit like holidaying on the Moon, but in a good way. In fact, Lanzarote is a Sixties vision of the future.
An hour’s drive away, on the other side of the island is a subterranean fantasy: Jameos del Agua — Manrique’s homage to the volcanic forces that shaped this island — has the feel of a Bond villain’s lair, with huge, underground pool filled with thousands of tiny albino crabs —eyeless primordial creatures.
Next to the pool is a nice cafe where we ate wrinkly, salty potatoes and drank crispy rose wine. There’s even a by-royal-appointment swimming pool, where allegedly only the King of Spain can swim.
Half-a-mile down the road are several miles of underground natural tunnels, formed a few thousand years ago when trillions of gallons of molten rock flowed down to the sea, the lava freezing solid on the top allowing the molten stuff within to slither out, leaving vast hollowed- out tunnels.
The underground tour finishes with a great — and heart-stopping — joke, but as all visitors are sworn to secrecy, you’ll just have to go and see it for yourself.
There’s more volcanic action at Manrique’s villa, near Tahiche, now a museum, where Picassos line the walls and you can see where he entertained artistic grandees around pools and barbecues built into volcanic vents and bubbles.
He appears again at the Timanfaya national park, the site of an 18th-century volcanic eruption, one of the largest in history, that devoured much of the island.
On one of the still-steaming vents is a restaurant, designed by the great man, where you can eat chicken and pork barbecued by the fires of hades itself.
It’s corny, but good, and the volcano-men will entertain you by creating an instant geyser or two courtesy of a bucket of water and a hot vent. All around are hellish fields of aa and pahoehoe, which are both different kinds of lavas and excellent emergency words in a game of Scrabble.
What else can Lanzarote offer? Some spectacular coastline — particularly the wild shores of Caleta de Famara (where we ate wonderful fish) and along the cliffs and beaches of Papagayo in the south of the island, next to the sleepy, low-key resort of Playa Blanca. Inland attractive towns; the old capital Teguise is soporific and pretty, a place to snooze and dawdle in cafes.
There are few real crowds, even on popular beaches such as Playa Dorada, a well-managed sweep of sand in Playa Blanca.
Yes, there are a couple of Irish pubs and places showing the footy, but proper Canarian restaurants outnumber the gruesome stuff many times to one, even in Costa Teguise, a purpose-built resort near the capital Arrecife; Benidorm this is not.
What to do? See the Manrique sites. Go to the volcanoes, swim (the sea is clean and warm all year round) and eat fish, papas arrugadas potatoes, spicy mojo sauce and rabbit.
If you are feeling fit and do not have a three-year-old in tow, go biking: these are some of the finest, emptiest, most well-surfaced roads in Europe (courtesy of the EU). On some stretches expensive Specialized and Bianchi road bikes outnumber the rentacars three to one.
If you do have a three-year-old, hire a pedal-powered quadricycle and tour the promenade of Costa Teguise.
Most of all, revel in the scenery. If you have ever been to Iceland, Lanzarote will be strangely familiar. The love of decent seafood. The classy architecture. Most of all, the mad geology. But not the weather. - Daily Mail
If You Go...The Coloradamar self-catering two-bedroom bungalows start from £63/R750 a night (00 34 928 519 257, coloradamar.com).