Let’s look at your next-trip wish list. You want to visit an island where you can relax at a beach resort one day, take a mountain trek with spectacular views the next, and the day after that get insider looks—and tastes—at what locals grow and create. You also want to devour fantastic food, discover new wines, and explore narrow-street villages. And you want that island to be close to other destinations—Europe, maybe, or Africa … you can’t decide.
That’s quite a list. But I’ve got quite a destination for you, one you probably haven’t visited. This place has everything you’re asking for, and it’ll be a new feather in your travel cap: It’s Gran Canaria.
Gran Canaria (sometimes called Grand Canary Island) is one of eight main islands of the Canary Islands, an autonomous community of Spain. The archipelago is in the Atlantic Ocean, closer to Africa—62 miles west of Morocco—than to mainland Spain. I visited Gran Canaria in mid-September as part of a press trip for a half-dozen bloggers, influencers, and, um, me. We were hosted by Gran Canaria Tourism, but the observations and opinions in this story are all mine.
The weather during my visit was spectacular, and that’s to be expected. Trade winds and the Gulf Stream lend the island a wonderfully mild climate year-round, with daily highs averaging just above 80 degrees in August and just below 70 in January. The island has 4 million visitors a year, and October through May is high season, especially for Northern European visitors escaping the cold.
But even on this small island—some 30 miles in diameter—the weather varies. You can think of the round isle of Gran Canaria like a clock, with the capital city of Las Palmas at 1 o’clock, the airport at 3:30, and the southern resorts from about 5 to 7:30. Our terrific guide, Maria Lezcano, explained the weather patterns.
“There’s an invisible wall at the airport that serves as a dividing line of weather,” she said. “It’s sunny in the south and, while the north is far from unpleasant, it’s more susceptible to clouds and rain.”
Sunny days on the south side
Our hotel for the week, Lopesan Costas Meloneras, sits at 6 o’clock on the island map. The resort boasts seven pools—no waiting—ranging from a gorgeous and enormous infinity pool (I call it Lake Lopesan) to a “quiet pool” and one that’s part of the spa. My upgraded status, termed Unique, gave me a better room and access to exclusive areas, including a Unique pool and a lounge with snacks.
The grand and spacious lobby has no fewer than 18 sitting areas, with comfy couches and interesting chairs grouped together. Outside, too, you can find a wealth of seating arrangements—tables and chairs in the sun or the shade—to accommodate groups, pairs, or solo guests. There are loads of lounge chairs, too, some poolside and others hidden away by palms and various greenery. There’s also access to a private beach.
Taking a short drive from the resort on our first full day, we visited the Maspalomas Dunes, a thousand-acre system that has been protected as a nature reserve since 1987. The dunes are thought to have arrived not as sand from Africa or by erosion—the sediment is too “new”—but from a tsunami along the Atlantic in 1755.
Despite the Canaries’ proximity to Africa, the islands did not break off from that continent, but rather, they arose as volcanic islands. There has been no volcanic activity on Gran Canaria for 1,900 years. Spanish since 1483 (except for 10 days under Dutch invasion), the islands were first populated by Berbers, an ethnic group that predates the arrival of Arabs in North Africa. Tall, blond, and blue-eyed, they likely arrived in the Canary Islands as early as A.D. 100.
We explored some of the island’s history at Cañada de los Gatos, an archaeological site that was once a large coastal settlement. The 19 foundations you can see today are of dwellings built in three periods: by ancient islanders more than 1,600 years ago, by Spanish people in the late 1500s, and by more recent residents during the late 1800s to the early 1900s. The 16th century structures have a floor plan in the shape of a Greek cross. Later constructions, likely built on top of aboriginal ones, have a circular shape.
Cañada de los Gatos was declared a cultural heritage site in 1993 and opened for public viewing in 2012. A visit to the site requires the mobility to handle steps and uneven paths, and the stamina to make it to the top. The payoff for your trek is a gorgeous view of the archaeological site and the modern beach town of Puerto de Mogán (as seen in the large photo, top of page.)
The picturesque harbor town has a tourist side with restaurants, hotels, and beach shops, and an old town with narrow streets and Mediterranean-type homes populated by locals (with apartments available as tourist rentals). Visitors can enjoy all types of aquatic activities, from jet skis, snorkeling, and kayaks to tour boats that show off the marine life.
We took a private cruise on a catamaran, bringing aboard our swimsuits and lunch for a few hours of sightseeing and snorkeling. As clear as the water is in the harbor—a remarkable rarity—it’s even more sparkling in the open waters. We snorkeled in a cove and saw lots of fish. I’m no ichthyologist, but I can say that some fish had stripes while others had a big spot. After a warm morning hiking in the ruins and along the marina promenade, the cool water was oh-so refreshing. From the cove we could see caves where Canarians still live, but not Neanderthal style. Today’s cave-dwellers have running water and pay taxes.
Busy day in the north
If I had to pick a favorite day of my Gran Canaria experience, it would be our day in and around Las Palmas. It takes about an hour to get from the resorts of the south to the towns in the north. We traveled in a minibus, which is called la guagua by the locals. Several possible explanations abound, but I’ll accept Maria’s version: Guagua, pronounced wah-wah, is a linguistic twist on the English word “wagon.” Whatever its origin, the word is now entrenched in the Canarian lexicon.
Our first stop was in Arucas, just outside the capital city. We visited Hacienda La ReKompensa, a banana plantation that also serves as a fantastic venue for a group meal or event. Our host, JC Santana Yánez, told us the British started cultivating bananas on Gran Canaria in the 1800s because they found both the weather and the people agreeable. Starting in World War I, Spain became the primary market. Today, 20% of the crop stays in the Canaries, and 80% is shipped to Spain.
JC provided such a thorough and interesting explanation of the banana growing and harvesting process—and I took such good notes—I’m thinking of starting a small operation at my home in Kentucky. And it’s quite a process.
“Think of it like pregnancy,” JC told us. “It takes nine months to grow a bunch of bananas.”
He described the many tasks needed during the growth of the bunch, including trimming the little flower at the end of each young banana, propping up the plant with a crutch-like stick, and using a smaller stick to push the bunch away from the trunk. On delivery day, the labor is indeed strenuous: One worker cuts the bunch and another one catches it—all 150 pounds of birthday weight.
Each banana plant requires more than five gallons of water a day. Because there’s not much rain on the island, they use desalinated sea water for the 8,000 plants at ReKompensa. We learned later that while rain and natural springs provide the central part of the island with water, more than 100 desalination plants generate water used for irrigation and for all uses in coastal homes, hotels, and resorts.
After our banana-growing lesson, we gathered in a shaded portion of a large reception area that’s covered with artificial grass. A tasting had been prepared for us: Canarian cheese, prickly pear jam and two types of banana jams, along with the fruit of the farm, of course. The fresh banana is firm, with a flavor I found to be more intense and enjoyable.
“JC is the banana man,” Maria said, explaining that she often brings cruise-ship groups to the plantation. “He and the rest of the staff here do a beautiful job of hosting, and you can tell they really enjoy it.”
On our next stop, only minutes away, we visited the rum man.
Cesar Arencibia took us through the Arehucas Rum Distillery, also in the town of Arucas. This distillery was founded in 1884, primarily to produce sugar—with some cane spirits on the side. The factory closed but reopened in the 1930s as a distillery. The rum was initially produced under the name Arucas, but Spanish law prohibits naming a distillery after a town, so it was renamed Arehucas, which is the indigenous name of the city.
A 45-minute distillery tour includes a brief video and a visit to the aging bodega, or storehouse, where many of the cask heads bear the autographs of famous visitors—singers, political leaders, sports figures, and artists. The displays throughout the distillery are excellent, explaining all aspects of production and the company’s activities, including models of drag-queen-designed dresses, themed as rum bottles, created for the local carnaval.
After viewing several stages of the distillation process and the bottling plant, it was time to taste-test. During our private tasting, Cesar treated us to several samples, including honey rum, an unofficial official drink of the island. It’s typically served chilled, and Maria said she adds whipped cream and cinnamon for an after-lunch drink with coffee. Some of the rum we tasted was eye-opening for the unpracticed drinkers in our group, but Cesar said that’s an attribute of the spirit.
“Rum is honest,” he said. “When you drink it, you always know how much strength you’re getting.”
From the distillery we walked (only slightly wobbly) through Arucas, a charming old town with the youngest Gothic cathedral in Europe. Construction on St. John the Baptist Church, called simply “the Cathedral,” began in 1909, using gray-blue volcanic stone from the area; it was completed, more or less, in 1977. Our walk included a stroll through a lovely municipal park. Maria specializes in the island’s plants and trees, and she leads group tours through the municipal park and through Marquis Garden.
We boarded la guagua for a 10-minute drive to Las Palmas for lunch in the Mercado del Puerto, and the port market features food stalls that can satisfy any taste. Groups can have an organized meal, or you can walk around and sample on your own. We had several dishes we shared, and I enjoyed watching our influencers help each other out by positioning the food for a good photo or holding the camera while a colleague recorded a video. Whenever there’s food, you know, the camera eats first.
When we did eat, we shared Canarian potatoes and smoked grilled cheese with marmalade for starters, then small strips of grilled, seasoned chicken and deep fried pork. We also sampled several desserts, partly because it was Maria’s birthday and partly because we couldn’t say no.
The market is in the new section Las Palmas, which was constructed in the early 1900s, after the harbor was developed. We walked to Las Canteras Beach, formerly a stone quarry, and Maria recommends it.
“This beach area is very authentic,” she said. “The prices are better and the locals like it. But the weather isn’t as perfect. It’s not like the south, where it’s always sunny.”
Our walk through Vegueta, the oldest part of Las Palmas, was quiet, but that’s changing, as old buildings are being transformed into boutique hotels and rooftop bars. Maria told us stories about Old Town’s famous residents and visitors. Christopher Columbus, in his 1492 voyage, is said to have stopped in Gran Canaria to see a woman. What’s regarded as “his house” today was probably a common house where he might have visited briefly. The large structure now houses a museum, library, and other spaces.
For another brush with history, we walked through the lobby of Hotel Madrid, where Francisco Franco stayed (Room 3) before he left for mainland Africa to launch a coup that sparked the Spanish Civil War. Franco ruled as a dictator over Spain from 1939 to 1975.
Meals that matter
As with any tour, a multiday visit to Gran Canaria can include a lot of walking, but I found the exercise necessary for burning off the big meals we enjoyed—several courses with plenty of time to talk and digest. Gran Canaria is very Spanish in that way.
Unsurprisingly, seafood is a staple on the island, and our evening meal after our first full day of touring was at a marina near Puerto de Mogán. We were hosted by Juana Rosa Alemán of the Gran Canaria tourism office, who, like Maria, is a native of the island. Juana Rosa fussed over us as each course was served, making sure we didn’t send a single morsel back to the kitchen.
She didn’t need to twist any arms. We feasted on fresh tuna for a first course and pompano as the main course, but the highlight was the second course: a dish of octopus prepared Galician style, served over sliced new potatoes and topped with olive oil and Spanish paprika. Juana Rosa told us there are two ways to tenderize fresh-caught octopus. Her father taught her how to physically break up the muscle, and there's also a less dramatic method: put it in the freezer.
Maria hosted us the next night at La Aquarela in Patalavaca, close to our southside resort. While it’s rather oddly located amid a hotel and apartment complex, the restaurant earns its Michelin star with superb service and exquisite food. Our head waiter told us 85% of our meal was locally sourced, as were the wine pairings.
On our last day of touring, in the central part of the island (more on that below), we had lunch at the Parador de Cruz de Tejeda. We asked for an expedited meal so we could spend a little more time at the hotel, so lunch was “only” three courses. I want to address the dessert because it was divine: vanilla ice cream on top of a cream-filled cookie and a fig with raspberry sauce, all of it sheltering a purée made with almonds, honey, cinnamon, and other ingredients. The name of the purée, bienmesabe, translates to “tastes good to me.” I am here to testify.
Breakfast was also a treat each day. Because we were afforded “unique” status at the Lopesan resort, we enjoyed complimentary breakfast in an exclusive setting, with a fantastic buffet of fresh fruits and pastries, plus hot entrées available from a menu. The food, along with fresh orange juice and hot coffee, fortified us for a day of touring.
Mountain vino and vistas
Gran Canaria is wine country, with some two dozen wineries. Some are closed to the public and others handle hundreds of visitors a day. We visited Finca Escudero (finca means farm or rural property), and the seven of us were about the average number of daily visitors. Our host, Juan Escudero, comes from a long line of vintners, both in the Canary Islands and in mainland Spain.
The gorgeous estate includes 4,000 vines, an olive grove, and a spectacular garden surrounding a magnificent villa constructed in 1935. Juan currently produces 2,500 bottles a year, with a five-year plan to increase to 10,000 bottles. Juan can host group tastings or meals, and he’ll open his villa to guests.
The garden, only 20 years old, is a sensory treat: chirping birds, gorgeous flowers and trees, and fragrant aromas wafting about as you walk on a super-soft carpet of grass. And the sense of taste? Yes … let’s! We sampled three wines, a white made from a grape common to the island, and two reds—one aged in an oak barrel and another, new, wine. The cheese Juan served was made with a mixture of cow and goat milk that he gets from shepherds in the southern part of the island.
We departed Finca Escudero for the center of the island. Our driver, Juan Carlos, guided la guagua around tight corners on narrow roads to deposit us at Nublo Rural Park, which is at an elevation of nearly 6,000 feet. The 100-square-mile park, the largest natural space on the island, is recognized by UNESCO as a biosphere reserve.
There are trails throughout the park, and we took a short hike past a pear orchard and Canarian pine trees to a spot with a fantastic view of a large valley that sits where a long-ago volcano collapsed. To the left we saw Roque Nublo, a 250-foot monolith that stands as a beacon. In the distance we could see Mount Teide on the next island, Tenerife; at 12,200 feet, it’s the tallest mountain on Spanish soil, and one of the highest volcanoes in the world.
With rain and fog always a possibility in the mountains, Maria will assess which side of the mountain to visit to give her group the best views.
Mentioned earlier, we had lunch at Parador de Cruz de Tejeda, built in 1937 as a hostel. It’s named for a cross in the middle of town that marks the center point of the island. After that fantastic dessert, we headed down the mountain with a final stop in Teror. While it may sound threatening to English speakers, the name of the old town translates to red soil. Maria took us there to shop for souvenirs, preferring its selection and prices of island-made goods.
When we returned to the hotel, my colleagues made their second visit to the spa; they were infatuated with the variety of hot and cold treatments in the self-paced experience. I opted for another swim in Lake Lopesan, all the way to the edge that reaches out—and seems to touch—the Atlantic Ocean.
A group in Gran Canaria
Gran Canaria is a popular destination for travelers from the United Kingdom, Germany, and the Nordic countries (especially Norway), yet this interesting island is a paradise yet to be discovered by most North Americans. The destination is ripe for leisure groups, including mature travelers.
“More than 3 million clients from Europe visit us every year,” said Juana Rosa Alemán. “It’s totally a senior-friendly destination.”
Air lift has been a concern for U.S. and Canadian tour operators, but Juana Rosa told me that, starting in May 2024, Gran Canaria will have direct flights to and from New York City. For now, the simple workaround is to package a visit to the island with a continental destination, which could continue after direct service to the States begins.
This is something that destination management companies in the Canaries routinely arrange, said Mauricio Alemán of inSuite, one of several Canarian DMCs. (Mauricio and Juana Rosa are not related. I asked.)
“Normally you fly to Madrid or Barcelona for a few days and then continue to the Canary Islands. We have also direct flights to Lisbon in Portugal or Marrakech and Agadir in Morocco, and several other destinations in Africa,” Mauricio said.
For a weeklong program in the Canaries, Mauricio recommends the activities our group enjoyed plus a few other adventures, including an off-road jeep tour and a visit to Gran Canaria’s coffee plantation, the only place in Europe where coffee is grown. Mauricia can also arrange island-hopping visits to Tenerife, Fuerteventura, Lanzarote, and other islands.
I will admit that before I was invited, Gran Canaria was not on my radar as a destination. Now that I’m the only one on my block who’s been to the island and experienced its allure, though, I’m a fan forever. It’s the bright yellow feather in my travel cap.
For more information about Gran Canaria, including contact information for DMCs, email Juana Rosa Alemán at email@example.com. For extra insights from Maria Lezcano, read "The gift of a guide."
This story was updated on Oct. 13, 2023, with information about direct flights to and from the U.S. starting in May 2024.
Photos by Bob Rouse