A boutique hotel haven is Neil Sowerby’s base to explore beyond the island’s clichés
‘FALLING in love again, never wanted to’, Marlene Dietrich sang in Der Blaue Engel, that 1930 movie of obsession still watchable in its grainy print. On the Playa del Ingles beachfront we are merely rekindling an old love affair – with König Pils, bouncy Europop and live relays of Schalke vs Borussia Dortmund.
The food is equally spectacular, fish dominating, but fine raw materials are treated throughout with a rare delicacy owing much to the new wave of Spanish cuisine
Yes, a quarter of a century since our last visit to the Gran Canaria resort German expat bar Zum Blauen Engel (The Blue Angel) is reassuringly stuck in a Zeitsprung (time warp). Back in November 1991 it was only two years after the Berlin Wall fell, reverberations still felt by the Angel’s target clientele.
As we sit overlooking the sunny plaza in 2017, saying Nein, Danke to passing hawkers (there are only so many leather accessories a man needs – unless you are here for Fetish Week, of which more shortly) we determine to seek out the all-inclusive Thomson hotel we brought two excited youngsters to back in the day. It hadn’t changed much either.
Our current holiday lodging is far more upmarket – and adults only. It’s easy to rhapsodise about the Bohemia Suites and Spa, offering a secluded bubble of sophistication just five minutes up the hill from the gaudy beach bars and bargain stalls. With an amazing (but unobtrusive) ratio of 80 staff to 67 rooms it won the 2016 Conde Nast Traveller’s Award for Best Service in Europe and the Mediterranean… and from the welcoming glass of Cava by the pool on our arrival to the final nightcap in its rooftop Atelier cocktail bar, the island’s best, we felt the canny warmth of this boutique experience.
Flash back to our first Gran Canaria visit and Bohemia was then the Apollo, just another Seventies block rushed up to accommodate the boom in winter sun packages for those Germans, Scandinavians and cost-conscious Brits.
That all changed after 2009 when it was acquired by its current design-savvy owners and given a radical overhaul. This involved creating its most distinctive feature, the rotunda clamped onto the eighth and top floor to house the 360 Degree restaurant with its vivid panorama of the town, beach and the astonishing Maspalomas dunes, 100 acres of billowing sand ridges.
The food is equally spectacular, fish dominating, but fine raw materials are treated throughout with a rare delicacy owing much to the new wave of Spanish cuisine, innovative without leaping into pretension. Local wines feature on a fascinating list, though I am yet to be convinced that a recommended Tenerife red, Atlanticum, did gain in complexity from being matured on the ocean bottom.
The light blue walls and lilac and red chairs are just a supercharged version of the hotel, a riot of playful design. Terrace windows open to entrap the vivid light and ocean breezes; later in our stay they were shut to fend off the Calima, a hot dust-laden wind that swept in from North Africa.
The bane of those here just to soak up the rays, it didn’t overstay its welcome. We merely retreated to another of Bohemia’s great plusses – Siam Spa on the first floor. It’s dark tranquillity is in contrast to the rest of the hotel but the standards are equally high, focusing on ingenious Thai and Balinese treatments; even a simple hourlong 69€ massage, using the all-natural essential oils of Pañpuri, left me feeling healthy and in harmony.
It was the perfect reviver after a couple of hours’ walk along the southern coast’s great glory, the Playa del Ingles beach. Stride out beyond the massed ranks of loungers and there’s exhilarating room for everyone. OK, as you start to fringe the great dunes you are confronted with increasing amounts of flesh. The nude beaches are frequented by a wrinkly demographic. Maspalomas itself is more restrained than Playa del Ingles town; there’s been a lot of swish investment, beyond the lighthouse, along the Paseo del Meloneras, a glorious sea wall walk.
Swish is not the word to apply to Yumbo, a 10 minute walk along the Estados Unidos from Bohemia and again another world away. It’s a pile ‘em high shopping mall by day but come dark the substantial gay population, residents and global visitors, come out to play. The scene ranges from self-parodying tourist trap, The Sparkles Show Bar, to some hard core cruising joints. Our visit coincided with the annual Fetish Week with much latex, thongs and piercings in evidence – and that was just for evening drinkies before the back room fun really kicked in all the way to dawn.
Maspalomas sunsets were much more our thing. A beautiful high path, the Paseo Costa Canaria, leads all the way to a viewing platform near the Hotel Riu Palace. Bohemia provided a picnic and a bottle of Cava and after the blazing orb sank into the distant ocean we frolicked on the spectacular dunes. Alas, the prospect of some serious birdwatching in the nature reserve failed to materialise as dusk fell quickly.
Bohemia Suites as a base for discovery
These ramblings made us hungry to see more of the island, routinely described as a ‘miniature continent’ because of the variety of landscape packed in. And it would be wrong not to discover the charms of a capital with a long history, Las Palmas, little over an hour north. The airport is ideally placed in between – the flight out proved once again that in difficult times for low-cost airlines (culminating in the demise of Monarch) jet2.com, TripAdvisor-ranked No.1, really is the pick of the bunch, not least because of the friendliness of the staff.
The Camino Santiago
Yes, this is much the least-known of the pilgrimage footpaths devoted to St James. This one’s a three-day north-south hike across the island’s rugged interior. We walked perhaps the most beautiful stretch, parking near the Roque Nublo, the Canaries’ most famous rock formation (volcanic chimney) then taking a link path to join the Camino below the island’s highest point the 6,300ft Pico de la Nieves. You can’t miss the ‘radar ball’ on top, part of the military base that restricts access to the summit. We stuck to the Camino which after a calf-straining initial ascent offered a rolling, heady lope down, eventually though pine forests to the hill town of San Bartelemeo de Tirajana and lunch. The yellow path markers weren’t always obvious; we were glad to be with our guide, Nina Hoogland, a knowledgeable Swede working for adventure operators Climbo.
Las Palmas – the big city
These days it’s the big cruise ships that dock in this vibrant city of 400,000 folk, but in the late 15th century it was Christopher Columbus who called in on his first voyage to America. That epic discovery is commemorated by a fascinating museum in what was formerly the governor’s house, believed to where Columbus stayed. The ornate, courtyarded Casa Calon features a life-sized recreation of his cabin aboard the Santa Maria and many remarkable New World artefacts. It is situated in UNESCO World Heritage Site Vegueta, the 16th century colonial core of a city, whose later links with Britain can be traced in the tropical gardens of the monumental Santa Catalina hotel and at the British Club.
In a city that is a delight to walk around our favourite spot was the urban beach, Las Canteras with its ambitious sand sculptures and multitude of buzzing cafes. Most spectacular view of this 3km sandy cove with its reef was from the rooftop terrace of the Reina Isabella Hotel, lacking the five-star chic of Bohemia but with a menu of equal sophistication.
That couldn’t be said of the Cafe Madrid in the Plaza Cairasco (we just had a coffee there), but what a back story it has as part of the Hotel Madrid. General Franco stayed here in 1936 and launched the coup that started the Spanish Civil War from room no 3 (and reputedly left without paying), while in the 1950s the whole Moby Dick film crew stayed here and had a whale of a time!
We lunched in the Mercado del Puerto, no longer a working market but, as is the trend in Spain and beyond (think Manchester’s own Mackie Mayor) a bar and food and drink hub. Here you can sit on a stool with a glass of local white (ask for a Teneguia Blano, rather than the semi-sweet Fronton de Oro) and nibble on papas arrugadas (wrinkled potatoes) with a spicy mojo sauce or some dish made from salty gofio (a milled grain resembling whole grain flour and best described as an acquired taste). Perhaps stick to fish, which is always delicious here. As are the local Queso de Flor cheeses.
Jardin Botanico Viera y Clavijo
Spain’s largest botanical garden www.jardncanario.orgnestles in a ravine four miles outside Las Palmas and it is one of the greatest free shows on earth. It was a blazing day when we dropped in via the lower entrance to cut straight to the chase – the 2,000 varieties of cactuses and succulents on display in this section represent a third of the world’s total. Counter-attractions include the ‘Laurel Forest’. Until the last Ice Age much of Europe was covered in laurels; today, the only forest survivals are in the Canary Islands and Madeira. Equally rare are the ‘Draecaena tamaranae, a sub-species of the legendary dragon tree, which was discovered on the island in 1972. Its sap runs re and is known as ‘Dragon Blood’.
Neil Sowerby stayed at the Bohemia Suites and Spa, Av. Estados Unidos, 28, 35100 Las Palmas, Spain. Nightly rates at Bohemia Suites & Spa start from mid-season €182 pp for a Deluxe Double room; and from €237pp for a Junior Suite, including breakfast and VAT. Call +34 928 563 400 or visit www.bohemia-grancanaria.com.
For full tourism information on Gran Canaria visit this link.
Leading leisure airline Jet2.com offers friendly low fares, great flight times, and a generous 22kg baggage allowance to Las Palmas, Gran Canaria from Manchester Airport. Flights run four times a week all year round and prices start from £73 one way including taxes. For more information visit www.jet2.com or call 0800 408 5599.
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