When deciding where to escape the cold, grey English winter, we quickly realised that we wouldn’t be able to afford to fly to the Caribbean, South or Central America or back to New Zealand. We needed somewhere closer that was hot, where we could bask in the sun after a few dreary grey months, but the question was – Where in Europe was hot at that time of the year?
The Canary Islands
The Canaries are an archipelago of volcanic islands located 100km off the coast of Morocco and Western Sahara. Despite their proximity to Africa, they are in fact part of Spain and the islanders primarily speak Spanish. The islands are subtropical so with warm temperatures all year round, a large amount of sunshine hours and reasonably cheap flights from London, it was our most viable option for our much needed sunshine break.
It’s just that the Canary Islands for me conjured up images of drunken sunburnt Brits, package holidays and pseudo Spanish culture.
To say that this is not my scene is a massive understatement.
The more we searched for another alternative that was as cheap as the Canaries, the less luck we had. The main requirement for our winter break was sunshine so I started looking into the Canary Islands online.
What I found surprised me.
I read about La Gomera, one of the smallest islands in the archipelago. While Tenerife, Grand Canaria and Lanzarote are awash with generic package hotels and Irish bars, La Gomera sounded like a more relaxed and authentic experience and the more I read, the more excited I was to visit. I was sold on this idyllic island paradise still untouched by the commercial tourism that steered me away from the larger islands.
We booked our tickets to fly into the southern airport on Tenerife as it was a lot cheaper than flying to La Gomera. After walking past tacky souvenir shops and wandering mobs of tourists in Los Cristianos de Tenerife, we caught the fast ferry to sleepy La Gomera.
It was only forty minutes away but it felt like another world.
La Gomera is in part a lush, green island and is home to one of the largest laurel cloud forests in the world, but it is also arid and dry around the coastline, with cacti and banana palms a regular sight. It is a small island with a lot of wild landscapes. At only 24km long, La Gomera rises out of the sea like a fortress, with impenetrable steep cliffs, deep valleys and crop terraces dropping steeply down to the ocean.
The main reason that La Gomera has escaped the slippery grasp of ruthless developers is because it doesn’t have miles of coastline or white sand beaches, and it doesn’t have any direct flights from mainland Europe. This is all to its advantage and it has come away with its culture intact. La Gomera still relies on tourism but it is a different type of tourist who makes it over to this traditional island. Hikers, lovers of culture and solitude seekers are attracted to the rugged beauty of La Gomera.
San Sebastian de la Gomera is the capital of the Island and where we based ourselves during our visit. It is a quiet town with shaded plazas and indian laurel lined footpaths. Squat, white houses climb the arid hillsides surrounding the town. The town is also the main port for the island and boasts two black sand beaches.
It is said that Christopher Columbus passed through here on his way to discover the new world which is why La Gomera is known as ‘Isla Colombina’. The San Sebastian coat of arms bears the sentence ’From here, Columbus set out’ and Islanders believe that America was consecrated with water from La Gomera.
We splurged a bit for our stay on La Gomera. I found a great low season deal for boutique Parador de la Gomera, a luxury four-star hotel. This heavenly hotel is perched on a cliff edge, overlooking the town and the neighbouring island of Tenerife. It was immaculate, with gorgeous antique furniture, grassy courtyards, a lush tropical garden and an amazing pool with a view. There was nothing generic about it.
After watching the sunset over the ocean from our cliff-top vantage point, we walked down a steep path into town for dinner.
A Spanish friend in London told me about a couple of dishes that are synonymous to the Canaries that I had to try. Papas arrugadas are small wrinkly potatoes that are boiled in salt with their skins on then finished off in the oven. They are served with mojo pepper sauce, either Mojo Picon (red) or Mojo Verde (green) made with fresh peppers, garlic and spices. Mojo sauce is EVERYWHERE. Instead of bottles of tomato sauce on restaurant tables, there were little dishes of Mojo. You can add it to almost anything and it is popular to eat with bread as a starter. We loved it!
Another dish we tried while on La Gomera was a dish combining local palm honey made from the sap of Canary Island palm trees and fried sheep’s milk cheese. We also added mojo sauce to it and although it sounds like these three elements wouldn’t work well together, let me assure you: they were delicious. We also ate a lot of freshly caught seafood and zesty salads during our stay on La Gomera, and overall I was very impressed by the food.
A very unique part of the culture in La Gomera is “el silbo”, the ancient whistled language used to communicate across the ravines and narrow valleys of the island. It is an articulate language, not defined to a few short phrases, but whole conversations with unlimited content. There are still people that ‘speak’ this language and it is taught in school to keep the tradition alive for future generations. Unfortunately we didn’t get to hear it during our stay.
As we wanted to see more of the island than just San Sebastian, we hired a car. Although everything was within a short distance from our base, driving between towns on the island would take ages because of the windy roads and switchbacks. We spent a day driving to different spots around the island, firstly over to Valle Gran Rey on the western side of La Gomera, then up and around the north coast and back to San Sebastian.
To cross from the eastern side of the island over to the west, we first had to rapidly ascend up a windy road to the elevated centre of the island. We stopped near the top to take pictures of the breathtaking view of El Teide, Tenerife’s 12000ft volcano, peeking out from its halo of clouds in the distance. We drove through the cloud forest of Garajonay National Park then descended the many switchbacks down to Valle Gran Rey on the other side.
Valle Gran Rey is a beautiful spot with a pebbly black sand beach fringed with date palms and popular with German tourists. The tiny town centre is right by the beach and is comprised of attractive white buildings facing onto a cobbled seaside boardwalk.
After a leisurely lunch and some time at the beach in Valle Gran Rey, we continued our island exploration by heading to Alojera, a tiny hamlet on La Gomera’s North West Coast.
To get to Alojera, we first had to negotiate the steep road that we had driven in on before dropping back down the coast further north. Driving along dusty roads, past steep terraces of banana palms and a few ramshackle houses, there were no other people around. Alojera was pretty much deserted. A cluster of the standard Canarian white washed buildings stood to one side of the steep sided harbour, a small black sand beach curved away from the buildings, leading to a long wharf jutting out into the tumultuous waves. It was very quiet. We enjoyed the feeling of solitude and calm.
Back on the road we drove to the north of the island to Playa de Vallehermoso. Another beautiful, and deserted, black sand beach with a craggy castle built into the rocks. Palm frond umbrellas were placed along the sand but there was no one there to enjoy their shade.
Agulo was the last stop on our island road trip. A small mountain village, surrounded by banana plantations, it is considered one of La Gomera’s most beautiful places. The best way to explore is to wander around aimlessly, well that’s what we did and it worked for us. We walked the windy cobblestone roads, past dilapidated houses crisscrossed with vines and tidy, well maintained colonial buildings. Overgrown gardens were filled with fragrant and colourful flowers and roosters crowed despite the sunrise being hours in the past. The views over the surrounding valley and down to the deep blue of the ocean were stunning.
One of the main reasons we wanted to visit La Gomera was for the hiking so we set out on our second day to Garajonay National Park, in the lofty centre of the island.
The Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site as it harbours one of the largest continuous areas of laurel forest in the world. Laurel Forests are characterised by broadleaf, evergreen trees and survive in damp conditions. They were once common in Europe during the Tertiary Period but they have now almost disappeared completely from Europe and Northern Africa due to climatic changes.
There are numerous options for hiking in the park and we decided to do a 12km loop trail. The laurel forest was damp and dark with only a small amount of light seeping through the dense vegetation. There were a lot of large ferns covering the forest floor and green moss hung from the trees.
It was really cold in the forest, partly because of the altitude (1000-1400 metres above sea level) as well as the lack of sunlight. There was a viewpoint that allowed us to see the sun again, briefly, and afforded us a view over the surrounding forest.
We came to a clearing with a small catholic church then shortly after we emerged in the small village of El Cedro, where we had lunch in a cosy restaurant overlooking the northern coastline of the island, far below.
Instead of taking the loop path back to our car, we decided to carry on to Hermigua, a town below us, further north in a deep valley. After admiring the highest waterfall on the island, El Chorro del Cedro, we tackled the never ending vertical stairs that would take us to Hermigua. It was a lot tougher than we thought it would be, the continuous stairs made our legs shaky.
It was a spectacular hike with sea views as we passed banana plantations, a small reservoir and rocky outcrops. We emerged in a small village, El Estanquillo, another quiet mountain town with a few modest dwellings, some free roaming chickens and surrounded by unique pointed rock peaks.
We were pretty exhausted by this point so when we saw a taxi driving up the road towards us, we took it as a sign. Speeding up narrow mountain roads back to our car in Garajonay National Park, we were a bit nervous as our driver was being quite reckless. Only when we got out and paid him, we noticed the unmistakable stench of alcohol on his breath.
We were lucky that we got back to our rental car in one piece.
There were a couple of hours left before our ferry to La Palma, another quiet Canary where we would be spending four nights, so we visited the small beach by the Port and watched the sun set.
La Gomera is a unique paradise. It may not have the stunning beaches that most would look for in an island holiday but we loved its wild nature, friendly people and the serene calm.
We got the sunshine we were craving, and so much more.
Have you been to the Canary Islands? Would you choose La Gomera?