Neil Braidwood discovers the red island.
It’s always nice to get some winter sunshine, so last December, my wife Maureen and I headed to the island of Lanzarote, the most northerly of the Spanish Canary Islands.
The temperature in the Canaries averages between 18º and 24º C pretty much all year round, so it is a popular winter destination, however, on the day we arrived we were greeted with torrential rain. “We only get around 20 days of rain a year,” explained Josh, from Lanzarote Retreats, who collected us from the airport. “It just so happens you arrived on one of those days.”
The downpour was over almost as quickly as it had begun, and we settled back in the mini-bus with a complimentary glass of Cava while we were driven the 20 minutes to Lanzarote Retreats’ property in the north of the island, Finca de Arrieta. Actually, more of an eco village, Finca de Arrieta comprises a number of stone built villas and yurts along with communal areas to meet and eat. Just a short walk from the beach and the former fishing village of Arrieta, the complex is off grid, harnessing electricity from wind turbines and solar panels.
We were staying in Chiquitita yurt, (actually two yurts), with a semi-outdoor kitchen area and shower room within a boundary fence. The bigger yurt had power points, a large comfortable double bed, a wardrobe and a chest of drawers. There are no windows though, so the effect is quite womb-like when you are inside. There are lights, but they are quite dim, and (not for the first time) I cursed not bringing a head torch to seek out elusive socks from our suitcase. The second yurt has a bed for kids, and we imagined how magical this place would be to come with a young family.
There is a small farmyard area with donkeys and chickens (when we visited them we were lucky enough to find an egg – still warm). There is a lovely cacti garden, and guests are encouraged to plant their own (available in the honesty shop near reception). It’s easy to find your way around the site, and there is a communal meeting area with a small swimming pool.
Included in the cost of our accommodation, and in line with Lanzarote Retreats’ eco credentials, we had the use of a hybrid car. This is an essential for getting about – during our stay we saw very few buses and there is no rail network on the island. We did see a huge number of cyclists, however, mainly due to the pristine roads. There are no potholes, and many roads have lanes for bikes. Many triathlon teams choose Lanzarote as a training destination for this reason (along with the great weather).
It’s fair to say that the landscape of Lanzarote is otherworldly. You feel like you have stepped onto another planet. This is mainly due to the hundreds of volcanoes on the island – some dormant, some extinct. There was a major eruption between 1730 and 1736, with the last recorded eruption happening in 1824. The site of these – Timanfaya National Park – is really worth a visit, and there is a coach tour winding in and out of the dramatic lava fields and volcano caps. You can have lunch here in a circular building atop a volcano, with steak on the menu barbecued over a hole in the rock. Yes, that’s right, the heat from the volcano cooks your food. Lanzarote isn’t called the “red island” for nothing.
If you haven’t heard of Cesar Manrique, then you really should look him up. Regarded by many as the saviour of Lanzarote, this multidisciplinary designer fought against the hotel developments that began to spring up on Lanzarote in the 1960s. His efforts were successful, and high-level building was outlawed on the island, preserving much of the landscape and the views.
We visited his first home, now the Fundacion Cesar Manrique, and we were blown away by the futuristic architecture of this ‘party house’ in the middle of a jet black volcanic lava field. Manrique also designed colourful wind sculptures, many of which can be seen on roundabouts throughout the island.
After our visit, we had lunch in nearby Teguise, where we found a lovely restaurant called the Cantina. We shared a platter of local goat’s cheeses, olives, cured meat and bread. I was driving, but it was Maureen’s chance to sample some of Lanzarote’s famous wine. For a landscape so barren, the malvasia grape vines are thriving due to the fertility of the soil here. The land used for growing is covered with lapilli (literally little stones in Latin), the black volcanic debris left behind after an eruption. This gravel helps to lock in moisture, and helps the vines to flourish. Consequently, everything looks black, and it’s amazing to me that the wine produced here is so delicious.
Take a hike
If you like walking, Lanzarote has plenty of off-road trails to discover. We signed up to a walk with Blackstone Treks and Tours, a local business specialising in guided trips around the island. The walk was billed as easy and on natural trails, however, at the start, Raquel from the company promised us spectacular views, and I know that to get those you usually have to climb.
Fortunately, it wasn’t too warm as we climbed the 500m or so to the cliff edge, to gaze down on Gracioza Island, to the north west tip of Lanzarote. Raquel explained that you can get a ferry to this island and walk around it (there are no proper roads and cars are banned).
Our descent took us through the village of Haria, where there is a market every Saturday morning. Local artisans sell their own produce here, and it is considered one of the last authentic markets on the island.
Also in the village is Cesar Manrique’s second and final house, also a museum. A restored and updated farmhouse, it sits in a palm grove – in contrast to his first home. It’s still a party house, with a pool and secluded seating areas. Manrique’s studio is also here – a purpose-built structure a short walk from the house. Everything is as he left it, paintbrushes, paint and overalls. He was a fascinating man, and a great ambassador for the island.
Our trip couldn’t be complete without a visit to another Manrique masterpiece, and in some ways the embodiment of Lanzarote. The Jardin de Cactus. This monument to the succulents that thrive so well on this island, is home to more than 10,000 specimens. All shapes and sizes are here, in a circular walled garden constructed from black volcanic stone. It’s a dramatic way to end our holiday, and one that we will remember for a long time.
Fly to Lanzarote from Edinburgh with Jet2. Lanzarote Retreats has a number of properties on the island, see lanzaroteretreats.com