6 reasons to visit Gran Canaria
A 'Continent in Miniature'. It's the sort of slogan tourist offices love, but the type that can all too often fall flat on its face on closer inspection.
Fortunately this is not the case with the holiday isle of Gran Canaria*. As the third largest of the seven Canary Islands boasts an impressively diverse treasure trove of landscapes, world class food and drink, a thrilling cultural scene, the only real city in the archipelago, and one of Europe's hottest new family tourist attractions.
On Gran Canaria, you can wake early to walk on sands blown in from the Sahara, before a bountiful seafood lunch overlooking 1,000m-high cliffs, then spend the afternoon hiking through lush subtropical rainforests.
Dinner is served in a city that in many ways is Europe's Rio. For once the 'Continent in Miniature' epithet rings gloriously true with Gran Canaria.
1. Beaches galore
Gran Canaria is, for many people, first and foremost a beach destination, and it does not disappoint when it comes to glorious strips of sand.
The highlight for me is Maspalomas*. No mere simple beach, the sand dunes and beaches here form a protected 400 hectare nature reserve that sweeps on for mile after mile.
You can find your own slice of beach paradise, hike up the soaring dunes (they look their best at sunrise and sunset) or strip off on the sections where clothing is very much optional.
The resort of Puerto Mogan* also boasts a cosy family friendly stretch of sand with shallow waters that are ideal for meandering little ones.
2. Europe's answer to Rio
Las Palmas* is both the largest city on Gran Canaria and the only real city in the Canaries. It has one foot in Spain and another foot firmly and deliciously entrenched in South America.
Stroll its famous 2km-long Las Canteras Beach and you could be in Rio with the lifeguards, posing locals on the promenade and swathe of bars and cafés. The beach's hinterland is alive with superb places to eat and drink, while just a few miles away lies another world.
Vegueta forms the gloriously atmospheric old core of Las Palmas. It is awash with grand churches, cute little squares and grand civic architecture.
If it looks familiar it's because Spanish colonial architects honed their skills and ideas here before moving on to forge the cities of the Spanish New World. It's a fascinating quarter in this city and island of many faces.
3. Poema del Mar
Only opened early in 2018, the Poema del Mar Aquarium comes from the mercurial team behind the wildly popular Loro Parque and Siam Park on neighbouring Tenerife.
I visited just after it opened and already I could see how popular it is going to become. Deservedly so. It is no mere aquarium, as before you reach the tanks you expect to find you weave around a verdant subtropical oasis of flora and fauna that assaults the senses.
Then it's time to delve into the main aquarium, where the massive tanks await full of every kind of exotic marine life imaginable from darting turtles and elegant seahorses, through to shimmering rays and hulking sharks.
I really like that the bar and restaurant areas overlook the most impressive tanks. Real thought has gone into how the aquarium works for all types of visitor and heading here is now a must on any trip to Gran Canaria.
4. World-class food and drink
This continent in miniature certainly delivers on the plate and in the glass too. Many of the island's red and white wines are superb these days, with the ultra dry Malvasia white wines particularly gaining global attention.
Another highlight is the deliciously sweet ron miel (or, rum honey), an ideal digestif or nightcap on a balmy Gran Canarian evening.
Then there is the island's palm honey, which is perfect with the island's soft, young cheeses.
If it's seafood you are after you will not be disappointed with local fish like cerne joined by all manner of bass and bream - my favourite is a fish that needs no sauce or garlic, the delicious bocinegro.
The wee fishing port of Puerto de las Nieves is the place to head for a slap up seafood feast overlooking the ocean and a towering sweep of 1,000m-high cliffs.
5. Incredible hiking
Don't forget your boots if you love hiking, as this volcanic landscape could have been sculpted with walkers in mind. There are coastal adventures, but for me the most spectacular trails burrow through the high pine tree clad mountains and rugged ridges of the interior.
You can tackle Pico de las Nieves, which at 1,949m is the island's highest peak, but I prefer Roque Nublo, which handily lies only around an hour's walk from a car park.
You can easily work longer routes into an ascent of this otherworldly Tolkien-esque craggy mountain if you prefer.
At lower level, a glorious volcanic route takes you around the crater rim at Bandama, and then right down a steep path into the heart of the volcano itself - a unique experience for anyone who remembers learning about volcanoes at school.
6. Picturesque villages
It's not all about glitzy cities and bustling resorts on Gran Canaria. Hire a car and the wee towns and villages of the hinterland await.
You'll see mineral water from Teror in many of the island's restaurants - you can head here to its source, which is a church studded wee gem that pleases camera lenses.
Then there is Fataga, which is the site of an old Gaunche settlement. The Gaunches inhabited the island well before the arrival of the Spanish. Today its most striking feature is that it sits in a sea of palms.
I also thoroughly recommend Arucas in the north. It's worth visiting for its vaulting Church of San Juan Bautista alone. This lavish gothic gem is like nowhere else in the Canaries and more like something you'd expect to find gracing a major city on the European mainland. This 'Continent in Miniature' is constantly full of surprises.
Does Gran Canaria sound like your kind of island escape? TUI has countless great value holidays and late deals to Gran Canaria all year round, so finding that perfect break shouldn't be a problem. Remember you can also check out the weather in Gran Canaria, and see when we think is the ultimate time to go.
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