beach lanzarote
Mon, 26 June 2017

Pack Up Your Preconceptions: Lanzarote’s Wild North Offers Volcanoes, Wineries, Architecture and Adventure

The mark of any truly successful trip is that we find ourselves transported not purely in a geographical sense, but to a different time, a different lifestyle, a different mindset. Tour operators and macho TV presenters might tell us that adventure travel is about travelling long distances to remote corners of the earth, but it’s time we called bullshit on this. Get your destination and itinerary right, and adventure can be right on your doorstep.

 It’s with this in mind that I travel to Lanzarote, one of the first destinations to embrace package holidays and all-inclusive resorts in the 1970s – along with Mallorca, Crete and the Algarve – and which many people still snootily dismiss as a tacky tourist trap. And are now being rediscovered by a new generation of more open-minded, intrepid and independent travellers.

We are travelling to Lanzarote in search of volcanoes, wineries, adventure and architecture. Yes, architecture. Dismiss any images of towering tacky hotels pock-marking the coast. (There’s just one solitary high-rise building on the entire island, and it only stretches a lame 17 floors high.) This is one of the few places in Europe where there’s no billboard advertising and no tacky hotel complexes, but where whitewashed villages sit in lush valleys or contrast against dramatic black volcanic landscapes, and where spellbinding 1960s Bond-villain-worthy lairs are built into cliffs and caves.

This is down chiefly to one man, Cesar Manrique, a visionary artist and architect who successfully lobbied the government to embrace responsible, environmentally sensitive “intelligent tourism” and dotted the landscape with mind-blowing public buildings and public sculptures. Manrique was born in Lanzarote in 1919, spent his youth years studying and then teaching at Academia de Bellas Artes in Madrid and the 1960s hanging out with New York artists and glitterati, before returning to his native island with a blueprint for the island’s future as a cultural hub and creative idyll. Manrique campaigned tirelessly to preserve the buildings and architecture of Lanzarote, arguing that the traditional colours of bleached walls and green shuttered windows and doors should be retained. And in the late 1960s, he began work on a series of wildly ambitious Centres of Art, Culture and Tourism, designed to meld the natural surroundings with artistic manmade flourishes. What Frank Lloyd Wright is to American architecture and Oscar Niemeyer is to Brazilian, Manrique is to Lanzarote.

Perhaps his most inspired and beguiling legacy is the Jameos Del Agua, a subterranean disco lair housed in a series of natural-occurring caves transformed with breathtaking ambition and decadent glee into one of the most unique cultural venues on the planet. There are playful flourishes everywhere our eyes land; a rock-hewn DJ booth, bubble skylights at the bar offering a peephole into the toilets below, a man-made turquoise-hued swimming pool that only the King of Spain is allowed to swim in, three bars and an underground lake filled with blind albino crabs. Oh, and a casual volcano research centre.

We also explore the cliff-hugging viewpoint and cafe Miramar del Rio, and LagOmar, a villa briefly owned by Omar Sharif until he lost it in a game of bridge. Visit LagOmar at cocktail hour to miss the crowds, and dodge the entrance fee by buying a mojito. And the Jardin de Cactus, a small but sumptuously surrealist botanical delight set in a former quarry. If you enjoy retro visions of the future, and I do, then Lanzarote is like wandering through a 1960s Kubrick movie.

Aside from preserving these architectural wonders, Lanzarote has smartly launched an island-wide initiative to encourage cycle tourism, signpost walking trails and promote rural accommodation. This comes after Fernando Clavijo, the islands’ president, warned in 2015 that the archipelago could face the “Magaluf effect” if it didn’t shift focus from mass tourism. Sure, 30% of Lanzarote’s visitors each year are still staying at all-inclusive resorts at Puerto del Carmen and Playa Blanca, but this makes it ridiculously easy to bypass the resort towns and depart without glimpsing a single English-themed pub.

If the architecture and cultural heritage didn’t already elevate Lanzarote far beyond its reputation as a summertime package holiday destination, the thrilling list of ways to challenge your body and mind sure would. There’s world-class surfing and kite-surfing at Famara beach in the north, one of the wildest, rugged and most beautiful beaches I’ve ever set eyes on. (Manrique was raised here.) Then there are volcanoes to hike amidst the cinematic moonscape of national parks. And for cyclists, Lanzarote’s network of pristine tarmac roads, combined with a relaxed, respectful attitude to cyclists, has made this rugged island a dream.

Far from the resorts, a new wave of independently-owned B&Bs, fincas and eco-resorts are springing up, catering for the new demographic of travellers. Our base is the utterly charming El Jallo, a beautiful 17th-century farmhouse that feels like a suitably chic base on an island that I am fast realising is one of the most stylish in the Atlantic. It’s been painstakingly restored by a model-entrepreneur couple named Frederico and Chiare, founders of the travel app Conauta. After a day out pounding volcanic terrain, in the scorching sun, returning to El Jallo feels like stepping into an oasis, with its plant-filled courtyard dotted with battered vintage leather Chesterfields, designer lamps, contemporary artwork and exposed beams.

A bottle of local Malvasia wine in our room inspires us to visit some of the 13 vineyards (bodegas) nearby, where vines are grown in volcanic craters. In the 16th century, “Canary wine” produced from the malvasia grape was the tipple of choice for European royalty and once provided the islands with their chief source of income. William Shakespeare supposedly accepted barrels of Malvasia as payment for his work. Bodega El Grifo recently celebrated its 240th birthday, making it the oldest bodega in the Canary Islands and one of the ten oldest in Spain. But the bodegas are nothing if not progressive, offering tastings, tapas and even a free app to help you find your way around the sunken vines.

Canarian food is a highlight. From organic vegetables grown in small-scale beds nestled in black, fertile volcanic gravel, to fresh seafood and meats marinated in a fusion of rich Spanish smokiness and heady Moroccan spice, eating out in Lanzarote is always a treat. We get our first serious introduction to Lanzarote’s tapas scene at the buzzy La Cantina in Teguise, housed in a historic building in a shaded alleyway. After a steep volcanic hike on the islet of La Graciosa, we tuck into an Argentinian-inspired meat feast at Los Aljibes, which does double duty as Lanzarote’s favourite microbrewery.

Throughout our trip I can’t shake the sensation that we’re exploring a film set – and then I learn that Lanzarote is quite literally cinematic, having served as a backdrop in countless films and TV shows, from One Million Years BC (1966 – picture Raquel Welch in a fur bikini) to Dr Who. Oh, and it also stars in a string of recent sexed-up car adverts. Much of the landscape is the colour of rhino hide, surreal grey-black lava fields dotted by 300 rust-hued volcanic cones. There’s the occasional verdant, palm-filled valley, and this island of geological extremes contrasts starkly to the ferociously blue skies and seas.

As a colour palette, it’s an uncompromising one, but exactly what my eyes needed to be bathed in after weeks of dull grey drizzle. We visited in April, craving blue skies, sun-kissed skin and adventures outdoors, and Lanzarote delivered a dramatic change of scene from sombre London. I leave convinced that we mustn’t leave Lanzarote to the tourists. This island has so much to offer travellers.

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