I didn’t know much about this volcanic island when I booked my flights. In fact, while the name “Lanzarote” is pretty well known, since returning to London I have discovered that very few of my friends know much about what it’s really like.
I’ll be honest—I expected Lanzarote, the easternmost of the Canary Islands, located about 125 km west of Morocco, to be reminiscent of southern Tenerife or western Mallorca. I foresaw beaches lined with high rise hotel blocks, cafes dishing up fried English breakfasts or fish and chips, and tourists convening drunkenly on a neon-lit strip by night.
Just like Tenerife or Mallorca, I expected there to be a beautiful side to the island as well. The side where locals live and where restaurants serve up local food and the menus are written in Spanish. Where the beaches are undeveloped and the architecture is traditional. I thought Lanzarote would offer all that but that I’d need to work hard to find it.
I was wrong.
An island of surprises
Instead, on arrival in Lanzarote I was greeted with the most unrelenting moonscape punctuated only by traditional little houses painted bright white. The mass of eerie black volcanic rubble and sand appears to just go on and on, a furious and completely infertile landscape that leaves you willing any cacti or palm trees to stand up and grow, even if the odds are stacked against them.
Many of the rocky black “fields” are being used as most unlikely vineyards, with little semi-circular walls of rock protecting the grapes from the elements. This manual form of making wine is so rarely seen, yet in Lanzarote it’s a real feature of the landscape, breaking up the intense blackness with little spots of green. It’s not beautiful in a typical sense, but there is something totally and utterly mesmerizing about it. I couldn’t believe it just kept on going, rolling black hill after rolling black hill.
When arriving at our accommodation (we found a great deal at the Gran Castillo Hotel in Playa Blanca), I expected to see the traditional architecture fade away to be replaced by fast food chains and an endless sea of hotels. But once again, I was to be proved wrong. In both Lanzarote’s tourist hotspots, Playa Blanca and Puerto del Carmen, while there is a vast selection of accommodation meaning it’s fairly easy to bag a bargain, it’s all thoughtfully planned stuff in traditional Canarian white-washed style – another well-kept Lanzarote secret that nobody seems to know about until they actually arrive!
This was a relief but it also left me flummoxed. How on earth has such a tourism-dependent destination managed to avoid the fate of so many other sunny holiday spots? And why doesn’t anyone back home seem to know about it?
It didn’t take me more than a couple of days on the island to discover Lanzarote owes much of what it is today to one artist with a huge vision, Cesar Manrique. I’d heard of Manrique before, but had no idea how instrumental he had been in developing it as a tourist destination and preserving the traditional customs of the island.
Manrique had seen Tenerife transform into a lucrative tourist hotspot and watched in dismay as high rise after high rise block was thrown up on the coastline. The fact that tourism didn’t start in Lanzarote until 1966 allowed Manrique the chance to spearhead a campaign to stop unsightly developments on the island.
He lobbied for height restrictions on buildings and for traditional colors to be used on houses. He believed in sustainable tourism well before it became a buzz word and dedicated the latter part of his life to designing the island’s most fascinating tourist attractions, from the dream-like Jameos del Agua, to the “Route of the Volcanoes” in the Timanfaya National Park. He created all these attractions by embracing the volcanic destruction on the island and turning the rubble into something spectacular.
Manrique died in 1992 leaving a trail of lava tunnels and houses hidden in volcanic craters behind him. To this day, it is against the law in Lanzarote to paint your house anything other than white or beige and windows and doors must be green, blue, black or brown. The only building over a couple of stories high is the Grand Hotel in the island’s capital, Arrecife.
I wasn’t sure if Manrique’s influence would have managed to stop the spread of typical seaside tourist tackiness invading the beaches, but it was pretty easy to find an entirely untouched white sand beach. Papagayo was spectacular. We had a fairly steep climb over rocky terrain to get there (more difficult than I suspected in a pair of flip flops), but our efforts were rewarded.
Playa Papagayo is a vast stretch of white sand, so despite its popularity, it’s still easy to find a quiet spot to put your towel. Do take supplies as there isn’t even anyone trying to flog you drinks on the beach, but it does make a change and was yet another thing I didn’t expect to find in Lanzarote.
Explore the island:
Last Minute Transfers run excellent value tours across the island. David was an exceptional guide! Gran Castillo offers very generous double rooms from €100 per room per night, all-inclusive. For more information on Lanzarote, visit www.turismolanzarote.com.