Known as the ‘micro continent’, Gran Canaria’s landscapes range from lush valleys to sweeping sand dunes, from rugged mountains to sunny beaches. Admittedly, there’s also a macro system of tacky tourist trappings on this island, the third largest of the Canaries. You may want to avoid the south around the Playa del Ingles unless you’re into 4-storey shopping centres, massive hotel complexes, totally irrelevant theme parks (Sioux City, anyone?) and other plastic thrills. However, it's Europe’s premier gay winter playground, and the magnificent sand dunes of Maspalomas are worth a look…
The dramatic mountains and seacliffs of the north are a world away from the teeming, touristy south and definitely worth visiting (although the region can be chillier than the south in winter). Highlights include the cliffside drive between the towns of Aldea and Agaete on the north-west coast, the village of Arucas (the 'pearl of Gran Canaria'), and the beaches of Puerto de las Nieves, from where you can take a ferry to Tenerife.
Port city Las Palmas is the capital of Gran Canaria, as well as Fuerteventura and Lanzarote - its historical centre, Vegueta, isn't short on sights and supper stops. Head inland, through the green plain (vega) of San Mateo, and you'll find rich agricultural land that fades gradually as you climb upwards to the very centre of the island, marked by a medieval cross.
Photos by Tourist Board of Gran Canaria
Puerto de Mogán is a charming fishing village (its harbour not yet turned over to mass tourism) and it's the island’s best diving spot, with caves and wrecks just offshore. For something a bit different, try a night dive or do an underwater photography course with Gran Canaria Divers.
Start by following the road southeast (away from Agaete) past San Pedro, to its very end at Magrelagua. From the roadhead, a trail heads south then climbs through old farmland to reach the church of El Hornillo clustered beneath a cliffface. Follow the lane southwest up from there to the dam and lake of Lugarejos (1 hour 30). Turn right to cross the dam, and follow the trail zigzagging steadily up through Canary pines. Within an hour you cross the mountain road GC-216, then bear left to reach the 1,200m summit of Tamadaba, with spectacular views to the jagged silhouettes of the inland ranges and down to the sea. Return the way you came (5-6 hours in total).
There are some spectacular mountain roads in the interior - any of the routes around Artenara and Tejeda will reveal pine-clad mountains dotted with white villages and culminating in saw-toothed skylines. But the single most impressive viewpoint is on the northwest coastal road, about a third of the way from Aldea de San Nicolás to Agaete, where you look over a line of sheer cliffs tumbling into a foamy sea.
We loved the surf-pounded coves of the northwest coast - the part-pebble, part-sand beach at Guayedra (pictured) is gorgeously secluded, though big waves can make swimming difficult. The loveliest swimming spot is at El Manantial, 10km down a rough dirt road midway between Puerto de Mogán and Aldea de San Nicolás.