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Best known as a banker for a winter sun holiday, Gran Canaria is as popular as ever with those who want no more from a holiday than a sun lounger, a pool or beach and a cold drink in hand. Nothing wrong with that. The resorts and hotels on the south coast of the island certainly tick those boxes and cater for all tastes and budgets. But, there is more, a lot more to the island than just a 'fly and flop' destination...

I started my exploration in the capital Las Palmas – history is all around you in this wonderful, colourful city. Its also good for shopping, eating out and, a great bonus, it has a lovely beach too. It’s an ideal winter sun city break destination but, if you only have time for a day trip, its well worth taking a guided tour to unpeel some of its many layers. The city was founded in 1478 and 14 years later Christopher Columbus arrived en route for his first trip to the Americas. The Colon House museum is named after him and is just one of the many historical buildings to be found in the old town known as Vegueta. The links between the island and the modern Spanish speaking world run deep. Over lunch at the courtyard Casa Montesdeoca Restaurant our guide was explaining how local families were sent out to inhabit and defend the newly established settlements in the US taking the names of their home parishes with them. Next thing we knew we were approached by a gentleman from San Antonio, Texas who, it turned out, was a direct descendant of the Montesdeoca family and had come to Las Palmas to explore his roots – talk about living history!

The island’s strategic location has always been vital and much later it was destined to become one of the very first destinations to offer a tourism product as we know it today. In 1851 Las Palmas was declared a tax free region which naturally attracted a lot of wealthy Europeans, but especially the British. They took to the temperate climate and loved it as much then as we still do now – pure, clean air but much warmer than at home. Many settled in the city and you can still see their legacy in British influenced architectural styles and garden design.

For another 100 years or so, Las Palmas continued to be a favoured retreat for the wealthy with the rest of the island largely untouched. Its hard to believe when you see the concrete jungle that is now Playa del Ingles that, until as late as 1964, the Maspalomas lighthouse in the south of the the island was pretty much the only building of note south of the capital. The tourist boom of the 70s of course changed all that but development since is largely restricted along the golden sand beaches of the south coast. Playa del Ingles and Meloneras sit either side of the Maspalomas Dunes and are the best known names but further along the coast, smaller resorts like Puerto de Mogan and Amadores are also popular.

In between the beaches and Las Palmas, the volcanic interior with its dramatic scenery, lush valleys, deep ravines, pine forests and multiple microclimates remains untouched and 46% of the island is protected as a Biosphere Reserve. For nature lovers, this is by far the most interesting aspect of the island – within just a day you can experience so many different landscapes. The contrasts are striking. Once again, a guide makes a tour of the interior so much more interesting. The scenery alone is worth seeing but its easy to miss the detail if you simply drive through it. At a stop at an oasis, we discovered avocado trees, pomegranates, all manner of nuts and… cochineal. Something I would have dismissed as mould on a prickly pear plant turns out historically to be one of the most lucrative sources of income on the island. Synthetic materials have reduced its importance today but it is still used as a colourant.

In the small village communities of course the local guides are well known and being their company can pay dividends as well as ease the way with translations. In Fataga for example, strolling though the narrow streets we ended up in an ancient bakery (making delicious almond cookies) whose doors might otherwise have been closed and the studio of an elderly gentleman who turned out to be the island’s best known sculptors, Luis Montull. Even having a coffee in a local bar, our status as ‘friends’ of the guide made us instant friends of the bar owner.

Rural tourism is relatively under exploited here but there is massive potential. There are actually lots of character hotels and ‘Casas Rurales’ where you can stay if you wanted an extended stay in the area, perhaps for a walking or cycling itinerary or simply to enjoy the spectacular scenery. Detailed listings can be found at www.grancanarianaturalandactive.com along with details of the annual Gran Canaria Walking festival which takes place in November.

Cathy travelled as a guest of the Gran Canaria Tourist Board www.grancanaria.com

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