SÉAN Mac CONNELLhad never visited Lanzarote. Now he knows what all the fuss is about
It seems to me virtually every Irish person I know has visited Lanzarote at one time or another over the past 40 years and I was part of a tiny minority which had never been there.
Every member of my own family has been there. My neighbours and friends were all familiar with it so when I received an invitation to go and view the alternative Lanzarote, I grabbed it.
The 60km by 25km volcanic rock island, 125km from the African coast, has a population of 150,000 residents and it came as no surprise to me that nearly three per cent of the residents are Irish.
The prices, I am glad to say, are not Irish on this duty-free island and I noted on my way from the airport, after a three-hour-plus flight from Dublin, petrol could be purchased for as little as €1.24 per litre.
I mention this because the part of the island our press group targeted would be most easily reached by car, even though there are coach services to Timanfya National Park.
It’s an astonishing place with a landscape so unique it would make images we got back from the surface of the moon look like the Garden of Eden.
This was created by a series of volcano eruptions in the 1730s which destroyed 11 villages, most of the fertile land and left the island, which has only 11 days rain every year, impoverished.
Despite that, the local farmers quickly discovered the volcanic ash, which is a poor description of the gravel-like substance it is, can hold whatever moisture is in the air and very quickly they were cultivating tomato, vines, onions and other vegetables.
Around these plants they built stone walls in a semi-circle to protect them from the wind so, apart from the natural disturbance, you now see thousands of eyebrows of rock dotting the landscape, creating an amazing sight.
Our tour guide, a former National Parks employee, was an expert on how the landscape was formed and how it should be protected. That protection involves not leaving the paths created through it for the visitors.
A boot imprint takes a month to disappear. We had been warned to bring trainers or walking boots.
I had custom-made walking sandals. That was a mistake because it was impossible to keep the gravel out of them. So beware.
Remember the phrase, “as hot as the hobs of hell”? Well, we found them too, an experience I thought would not take place this side of death.
They were located at the El Diablo restaurant in the volcanic landscape where the food is cooked with geothermal heat from the volcano.
It is an extraordinary experience to stand at that cooking site over a volcanic vent and feel the heat and eat a steak cooked – literally – on the hobs of hell.
The restaurant, designed by the famous Lanzarote architect, César Manrique, who grew up in the area of San Ginés lagoon and protected the island from the high-rise destruction visited on the other Canary islands, sits like a schoolboy’s skullcap on top of the Islote de Hilario volcano.
All the experts on Lanzarote I had met before travelling had advised me it would be dry and warm but windy. One of our days was dry, but then it began to rain, adding to the fact I was experiencing a different Lanzarote, not the beach and suntan visit beloved by most visitors.
The rain had no real impact on our hosts at the La Era restaurant in Yaiza, who had to cross an open, partially flooded courtyard to service the tables from the kitchen. Each course of traditional Canarian food was served by a humorous but very wet waiter.
The food was local fare: goat and lamb stews and of course, the wonderful salted potatoes, papas arrugadas, tiny spuds boiled in sea water and served with mojo, a traditional local sauce made of garlic and herbs or paprika.
Yaiza, a mountain village, is home to the island’s camel population and every family has at least three of them which are hired to visitors to travel through the park on specially created paths. Bookings can be made on laera.com.
The wind meant the cancellation of one of our planned journeys, out to the island of Gracosia, but we had already had an excellent day out on the sea on the Catlanza Excursion.
This involved a trip on a cataraman from Porto Calero and anchoring offshore to allow the travellers to swim, snorkel or go for trips on jet skis, or simply sit on deck drinking beer and eating.
Our party spent the first night in the Morramar apartments at Matagorda which were clean, compact and provided a great view of the sea and the area around.
For the rest of our stay we were at the five-star Melia Volcan Hotel in Playa Blanca where the main reception area was housed in a building in the shape of a volcano. Luxurious almost to the point of intimidation, the hotel has 255 rooms in traditional buildings spread over the 30-acre estate. It has five swimming pools and restaurants and bars.
* Sean Mac Connell was a guest of Thomas Cook Ireland
ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW . . . LANZAROTE
Thomas Cook flies direct to Lanzarote from Dublin all year and from Shannon during the summer months. The Hotel Volcan is available from May from €829 per person sharing on a half board basis or from €2,349 for a family of four for seven nights from Dublin. The price includes flights transfers and accommodation.
Thomas Cook’s Flexitrips can cater for shorter breaks or midweek returns. They are contactable at thomascook.ieor on tel: 01-5140328.
The guided ecological walking tours of the park, Famara and Chinijo archipielago cost €37 for adults and €29 for children. Book through canarytrekking.com.