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Why Gran Canaria is perfect for a winter vacation

The name has nothing to do with the birds, ”says the only other Englishman at the Grand Hotel Residencia, Maspalomas. It is clearly an authority in the Canary Islands.

“Theo, honey, you don’t know for sure,” replies his wife, Annabel, busy on FaceTim with her grandchildren in Wiltshire. His skin is the color of teak.

‘Yes. Bad translation of Pliny. I was writing about sea lions. Of the dog. Canary Islands. Dogs, see? And Theo goes back to his crossword.

Bright and beautiful: the dazzling houses of Las Palmas.  The city features entire streets of fine 19th century architecture.

Bright and beautiful: the dazzling houses of Las Palmas. The city features entire streets of fine 19th century architecture.

The Islands of Happiness, the Romans called them. Dogs, sea lions, you name it, the Canary Islands marked the end of your known world. A penal colony, yes, but a long time ago.

Some 60 miles off the coast of Africa, this unusual volcanic archipelago (there is a volcano erupting on the island of La Palma at the moment) has remained a winter getaway that is still legitimately accessible. A low Covid rate and rigorous monitoring have saved the worst.

Can you come here. It should.

Scraping the dirt relentlessly, Antonio, the hotel gardener, conjures miracles with black gravel. Ah, but it is absorbent. Release water slowly. He prides himself on enjoying what meteorologists consider “the best weather in the world.” Tempered by the trade winds, the year-round sun keeps the thermometer dry and steady in the mid-20s (or mid-70s on old money).

The Grand Residencia is the only five-star hotel by the sea in Gran Canaria that remained open during the pandemic. Owned by wealthy Germans, it stands unobtrusively in Antonio’s spectacular garden of palm trees (a symbol of the Canary Islands) and tall, pointed candelabra cacti.

Beautiful by day or night, it sets a gold standard in sloppy luxury. The one-bedroom suites are generous, their private terraces overlooking the dazzling pool and whirlpool tubs that at the push of a button explode into a dizzying underwater light show. Parrot prints aren’t an interior designer cliché, not when macaws and parakeets screech outside.

The Seaside Grand Hotel Residencia (pictured above) 'sets a gold standard in neglected luxury,' according to Kit

The Seaside Grand Hotel Residencia (pictured above) 'sets a gold standard in neglected luxury,' according to Kit

The Seaside Grand Hotel Residencia (pictured above) ‘sets a gold standard in neglected luxury,’ according to Kit

My guide, the vivacious Maria, is a fan of Jane Austen. She says the British came to the island long before the 1970s – 19th century doctors recommended spending the winter here, establishing tourism the same way we did in Nice and St Moritz. You gave us the spanglish. Our word for cake is cake, and for potato, quinegua. Quinegua, King Eduardo: did you understand?

In 1891, the British were kind enough to equip Gran Canaria with golf, and although English football was scoffed at by the locals, it is now central to their culture. Both Antonio and I support Norwich. Canary Islands. Of course.

Maria and I envision English women in pointy hats stumbling across the cobblestones of Las Palmas, the island’s beautiful old Spanish colonial capital. Entire streets of fine 19th-century architecture are enlivened by balconies of carved Canarian pine, the fire-resistant triple spire species from the center of the island, known as the ‘milker of the clouds’ for its abilities to produce rain.

British merchants of the late Victorian era were here in such numbers that Alfonso XIII, whose predecessors had ruled the islands since the conquest of Spain in the 15th century, became concerned that Britain had quietly added Gran Canaria to his own empire. He came to see what was going on. Legend has it that the mayor winning contracts was having a scandalous affair with the madam of the local brothel. She successfully distracted His Majesty, who did not leave unknowingly.

The elegant yellow hotel the king stayed in is still in the old town. Next to it, next to a beautiful opera, is the monastery of San Francisco. “From there,” says María, “the first banana was exported to the Caribbean. Yeah it was like that. It was a fruit from the Far East.

Kit reveals that St Anne's Cathedral, pictured above, 'serenely presides over a square as dignified as any other in Bath'

Kit reveals that St Anne's Cathedral, pictured above, 'serenely presides over a square as dignified as any other in Bath'

Kit reveals that St Anne’s Cathedral, pictured above, ‘serenely presides over a square as dignified as any other in Bath’

The original port of Las Palmas was replaced by a public garden known as Doramas Park (pictured above)

The original port of Las Palmas was replaced by a public garden known as Doramas Park (pictured above)

The original port of Las Palmas was replaced by a public garden known as Doramas Park (pictured above)

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

  • You must have proof of being fully vaccinated or a negative Covid PCR test taken within 72 hours of travel or a negative antigen test taken within 48 hours of travel when visiting Gran Canaria (under 12 years exempt) .
  • You will also be asked to complete a Health Form in Spanish (spth.gob.es).
  • More information about the entry requirements to the Canary Islands at hellocanaryislands.com.
  • The Canary Islands are currently on the ‘amber’ travel list. This means that those who have a double puncture must book and take a PCR test on the ‘second day’ of their return to the UK. A passenger locator form must also be completed before returning home and an antigen test with proof of a negative result must be performed before flying back. These rules will begin to be relaxed as of October 4. Watch gov.uk.

The original dangerous and smelly harbor was replaced by a public garden, Doramas Park, where a heartbreaking monument to the island’s Berber aborigines now stands. Targets of slave traders from Roman times onward, they would jump into the Bandama, the huge dormant volcanic crater, instead of enduring captivity.

The neoclassical front of St. Anne, the island’s cathedral, serenely presides over a square as dignified as any in Bath. Behind it, the Casa de Colón has stone slabs, a cool interior courtyard, and fascinating exhibition galleries. For Columbus, the Canary Islands was a starting point for the New World. His fleet is said to have taken fresh water from La Charca de Maspalomas, the southern lagoon, as well as flocks of collared pigeons that undertake their own migrations. (Maspalomas, as I’m sure Theo knows, means ‘more pigeons’).

Now a protected reserve, the lagoon marks the entrance to the stupendous golden dunes that stretch for three miles to Playa del Inglés.

On the candlelit balcony by the lagoon, the gourmet dinner served nightly at the Grand Residencia is of a seemingly impossible standard on a remote island. German dishes, apfelstrudel and prinzregententorte, sit curiously alongside exquisitely presented native food. Try the local catches; Roasted sea bass, prawn souffle or speckled sea bass – not an unholy hybrid of Covid and corona, but a sweet-fleshed fish reminiscent of turbot.

There are imported German wines, but local wines, smelled by some for their fiery taste, have a better price: Gran Mogaren Valsequillo drank to perfection.

Local cheeses are usually goat or sheep. Neighboring Fuerteventura produces a smooth and creamy variety that, together with cumin-filled zucchini, reminds that Morocco is beyond the horizon.

During the day, guests sunbathe around the pool, their every whim is cared for by a quiet staff. Some Germans venture to the nearby beach to play basket in the nude. They are so sunburned that they look like the Mulberry duffle bags at the duty-free shopping centers around the Lighthouse – the lighthouse at the end of the world. What I like the most is the spa complex, exclusively for hotel guests. A pool of thermal minerals shoots jets of bubbles around the tired limbs of tourists.

Gran Canaria is back in business. At the Las Palmas market, José’s tapas bar, Piscos & Buches, is open again for cochino negro (black pork) and queso con marmaladia (cheese with pepper jam).

The large agave stalks are cut like Christmas trees. On the beach of Las Palmas, the vast manger carved in sand is being prepared: the only concern is the politically correct answers to the figure of José. Last year, Maria says, she attracted disapproval for not doing her fair share of changing Baby Jesus’ diapers.

Composer Camille Saint-Saens, whose statue protects the old town, came here incognito from Paris to escape personal tribulations. Hearing a grand piano play from a balcony in the Belle Epoch, he fell under the spell of its interpreter, Dona Candelaria, and wrote the Valse Canariote for him. Leonard Bernstein, it is said, composed much of West Side Story while on the island.

I am also a musician. After dinner, with a glass of guajiro, the local rum and honey liqueur, I find the popular Canarian song of Nolle Ortega inexpressible moving. Despite having to sing through a face mask, his sweet and pure soprano, accompanied by the five-string timple, a local form of ukulele, comforts me enormously. “Even in a cage,” he says with smiling eyes, “the canary will continue to sing.”

My budget won’t last for another week at the Grand Residence, but can I really skip some balconies? So, Playa del Inglés, you better get this party started. I stay in the Islands of Happiness.

TRAVEL FACTS

Sovereign luxury travel (sovereign.com) has a seven-night B&B stay at the Seaside Grand Hotel Residencia from £ 2,069 per person, which includes private transfers, access to the airport lounge and return flights from London Gatwick. Based on January 19, 2022 departure. More information, grancanaria.com.

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