It might only be the Canaries’ third biggest isle, but for somewhere the size of Greater London, Gran Canaria packs a lot in. With soft sands in the south, lush forests in the north and huge mountains in the middle, it's is a place that covers all the bases.
Playa del Ingles in the south is the island’s most popular holiday spot. Along with a big golden beach, the resort has the lion’s share of shopping malls and neon-lit bars. And on top of traditional places to eat, you’ll find loads of restaurants that cater for the British crowd. Maspalomas, just next door, moves at a slower pace. Its beach is a bit of a legend thanks to the miles of Saharan-style sand dunes. And it’s backed by a strip of smart hotels and open-air restaurants. There’s a handful of bars, too, although it’s more about cocktails at dusk than rip-roaring nights on the tiles.
If you’re keen to get away from it all, Puerto Rico, also on the south coast, makes a great base. With its horseshoe bay and waterpark, it’s a bit of a family magnet. Plus, it lays claim to the best sunshine record in the whole of Spain. Bahia Feliz, meanwhile, may not have the soft sandy beaches but it makes up for it with charm and character. It's spread out nicely with gardens and parks, and there's a 7-kilometre prom running from top to toe.
Things to See and Do in Gran Canaria
Every type of beach
If you’re looking for sand, sea and year-round sun, Gran Canaria ranks pretty highly. Size-wise, you’ve got swathes of sand that stretch for miles in resorts like Playa del Ingles and Maspalomas, as well as smaller bays like Puerto Rico Beach and Puerto Mogan Beach.
The big beach
The big cheese on the island in terms of beaches is Playa del Ingles. It’s a wide, three-kilometre strip of dark golden sand that runs along the south coast, eventually meeting up with the Sahara-like dunes at Maspalomas. Life is all about fun in the sun on this beach. You’ve got a head-spinning number of watersports to choose from, plus the sand is backed by a prom packed with cafés, bars and restaurants.
The secret beach
If you’d rather just share your stretch of sand with the seagulls, make tracks for Playa Guigui. Tucked away on the west coast of the island, it’s all dark sands and jagged volcanic cliffs. You can get here by boat from Puerto de las Nieves and Puerto de la Aldea, or you can don your walking boots for the 2-hour hike from the village of Tasartico. Apart from a small café, there’s nothing in the way of facilities here – the major activities are swimming, snoozing and sunbathing. And if you’ve walked down, you won’t be up for doing much more anyway.
If only the crème de la crème will do, or you just fancy upmarket window shopping, there are a few smart shopping hubs to head to. Plaza Maspalomas, in the resort of the same name, is designer-label heaven, as are the shops along Meloneras' prom.
Make the most of the duty-free outlets while you’re here. They aren’t hard to come by. Playa del Ingles probably has the best selection, including the Metro Centre and the Yumbo Centre in the streets behind the beach. Puerto Rico’s Centro Civico is a good bet, too. You’d need a month here to get round it all.
Gran Canaria’s markets are a great place to pick up a bargain, and good buys include African carvings and leather. Puerto Mogan’s Friday market is arguably the best. An open-air job, it fills the two plazas by the marina. A close runner-up is the massive jumble sale at Maspalomas' Faro 2, running 8 'til 2 on Sundays. Souvenir shops are in every town, though, so you can pick up a few take-homes in smaller resorts like Bahia Feliz and Playa Taurito.
Go-slow spots aren’t hard to find in Gran Canaria. The seafront in Playa Taurito, and Bahia Feliz's pretty town square are both good places for pavement cafes and low-key bars. The area around the lighthouse in Maspalomas, called Faro, has a lovely cluster of al fresco restaurants. And along with beachfront bars, there's often traditional jazz music on the bandstand in Puerto Mogan.
Playa del Ingles is the place for nightlife that carries on well into the next morning. The bars and clubs tend to be in the malls. There’s the Kasbah Centre where the young and beautiful meet, while the Plaza is dance central, pumping out all the latest hits. And a newcomer to the resort is the famous superclub, Pacha – you'll find it on Avenue Sargentos Provisionales.
This seafood speciality is a pot of soul-warming satisfaction. It's a mouth-watering salt fish stew cooked in the local spicy mojo sauce, and is often served with equally moreish dumplings made from maize.
You’ll see these wrinkly-skinned potatoes on pretty much every menu. More often than not, you'll find them smothered in mojo sauce. The most common fixtures are mojo picon, made from peppers and chillies, and mojo verde, made from coriander.
You can’t go wrong with this typical Canarian pud. In a nutshell, it’s a delicious mix of honey, almonds, cream, eggs and rum. For a really special treat, pour it over ice-cream or fresh island fruit like mango or papaya.
Granted, you might not be able to name any local wines off the top of your head, but that's because they're hidden treasures. In fact, Canarian wine has been exported since the 16th century. The best variety is said to be from the Bandamas region, so look out for the name on wine menus.
For a shot of something traditional, order a glass of mejunje. A local liqueur, it’s a mix of lemon, honey and rum. It’s tasty, but potent. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
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Where we go in Santo Tomas