Travel: Gran Canaria spas
- Credit: Archant
Katie Jarvis attempts not to make us all green with envy as she heads to Gran Canaria for a luxurious spa break
There’s something deliciously exotic about being on a small island in the middle of the Atlantic, I think to myself, as we queue for tickets for a dolphin-spotting trip. In front of us, waves bob on a blue-green sea; behind us is Gran Canaria’s Puerto Rico. Once a simple fishing port, its reputation as the sunniest spot in Spain attracted the myriad apartments and villas that now bask on its slopes.
As we get to the front of the Spirit of the Sea boat queue, a chap with a Mohican hands us two journalist passes. “Who are you writing for?” he asks, in perfect English.
“C-o-t-s-w-o-l-d L-i-f-e,” I pronounce, carefully.
“You need to write about my brother Ian,” Mr Mohican says. “He’s a tree surgeon in Wotton.”
Oh, all right, then: let’s start again. There’s something so exotic about speeding across the Atlantic on a quest to find dolphins. We bounce along an ocean so playful, it’s impossible to stand upright: the crew hand out discreet bags and tissues for the more fragile on board. As we leave the harbour far behind and head into the wide blue nothingness, we pass Pico de Teide, neighbouring Tenerife’s fearsome summit, which rears out of clouds as if to make a point: the third highest volcano in the world.
Suddenly, as all signs of human life dissipate, I spot something yellow below the surface of the brine: a sea turtle, lazily paddling by. A few seconds later, someone calls out in surprise. As if from nowhere, we find ourselves surrounded by a school of Atlantic dolphin: so many, we’re lost in a silent crowd.
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“Look! There’s a mother with her baby!” another guest shouts, as a tiny dolphin flicks by, sticking like glue to the adult beside it.
Magically, they play, leap and splash around our boat, effortlessly racing us out to sea. Just as we think life can’t get any more exciting, a sailor calls our attention to flocks of greedy gulls skimming the water’s surface ahead, fishing for sardine. But the squawking, squabbling gaggle means something else, too. Sure enough, as we stare, a gargantuan black mound blows and rises majestically: 80,000kg of Finn whale.
There’s a mystery about the Canary Islands, tourist guide Juan Carlos tells me, as we wander alongside the dry depths of the canal in Maspalaomas. The canal’s aridity isn’t the mystery: it was built to channel the water that cascades, at certain times of year, from the misty mountains in the north, where the almond trees shine with blossom and rich lichens hang from trees.
No: the mystery is this. The first people known to have set foot on these islands came from North Africa in around 300 BC. How did they get there? “By sea, of course. But,” Juan Carlos adds enigmatically, “most researchers think they didn’t reach the islands on their own.”
He shrugs. “Because, once they arrived, they stayed isolated until the 15th century and the conquest. They didn’t even get in touch with each other – each island remained alone. It doesn’t make sense: it’s as if they’d suddenly forgotten how to sail.”
Strange. So strange. Because the islands love the sea nowadays, their peoples floating around these seven mini-paradises like guests on lilos in a warm hotel pool. Just four hours’ flight from the UK gets you wall-to-wall sunshine all year round, courtesy of hot winds from the Sahara – and you don’t even have to adjust your watch.
If we’re going to speak euphemistically, then the Canaries have long been known for their relaxing qualities: full of discos, nightclubs and bars that never seem to close. (If you’re out before midnight, you’re just not hip.) For sequined, glitzy fun, Playa del Ingles, a few minutes’ taxi ride away, hosts some of Europe’s most popular gay hotspots.
But I’m here for relaxation of a different kind, for Gran Canaria is marketing itself as one of the great spa centres of Europe. And in many of these spas, the healing qualities of the sea that surrounds them is an essential part of the treatment. As I’ve already alluded, the idea of a luxury spa break might seem an oxymoron: since the boom of the 60s, the Canaries have become synonymous with images of big-bellied Brits in knotted hankies, soaking up cheap sun. If that’s still your view, you’re missing a trick. It’s true that slopes in the tourist areas are steeped in how-could-they-build-that monstrosities; but sacrilege in concrete-form came to an abrupt halt in the 1980s when the island rebelled. As the last unspoilt beach was threatened, ecologists launched the Salvar Veneguera – Save Veneguera – campaign. Since then, artists such as the late César Manrique took over the architecture, designing low-lying vernacular resorts, camouflaged by trees, garnished with whorls of oleander. Even now, counter-intuitive as it may seem, tourist areas account for just 3% of the island’s surface; even now, the Canaries rank third in the world for regions with the largest number of native plants; even now, almost half the island enjoys nature-reserve status.
We begin our intensive spa itinerary in the Corallium Thalasso of the 5* Lopesan Villa del Conde resort built in the style of a traditional village and set close to Meloneras beach. Just down the road are the island’s famous 65m former lighthouse, and its vast protected sand dunes with their salt-water lake and palm groves. A sight straight out of the Arabian Nights, alive with rabbits and lizards, they can only be crossed on foot or by camel.
While the name Lopesan indicates opulence (this local family owns a handful of the best of the island’s hotels), the word ‘thalasso’ indicates seawater therapies; the theory is that heated brine opens up the skin’s pores to health-giving minerals. (The downside is the cold shower deemed necessary to seal them in. Personally, I’d be happy for them to leach away.) We’re shown how to use the facilities of this stunning spa by receptionist Lucia Sanchez, an island native (“Sunshine? I always go somewhere cold for my holidays!” she exclaims); once we’ve got the hang of it, we embark on a delicious regime of immersion, sauna, salt pools and rainforest showers that culminate in a lunch of salmon sandwiches and honeyed yogurt on a terrace that seems to float on the glinting sea. Afterwards, we have an outside Jacuzzi to ourselves – the pool melting seamlessly into the ocean - before an aloe vera wrap, peeling dead cells from the skin, topped by a soft massage. It is, quite simply, bliss.
It’s difficult writing about the next few days without hacking off a whole plethora of readers. There’s nothing more unpleasant than reading about someone else having an unadulteratedly nice time – I’m pretty sure of that. But turn to the business section as you will: there’s no getting away from the fact that we are spoiled rotten. There’s the massive saltwater swimming pool at the hotel in which we’re staying, the Gloria Palace San Agustin, which pummels different parts of your body with (sometimes surprisingly-placed) jets of water: great fun once you’re over the initial shock. The Palace group were pioneers of health tourism in the Canaries and are among the largest thalassotherapy centres in Europe.
Indeed, the range of specialist treatments is as vast as the ambience of the hotels we visit. In the gorgeous Hotel Bohemia Suites and Spa, we brace ourselves for a Thai treatment that’s as fierce as the muscle knots it unravels. This hotel took a tired 70s building and remodelled it into adults-only high-end boutique, which prides itself on personal service. The crowning glory is its 360 degree-view restaurant high at the top, offering unparalleled views and superb, seasonal food prepared by Steffen Schenk, one of Gran Canaria’s top chefs.
For a family-friendly hotel (excellent family suites, though the balance of guests still tends to swing towards couples), you might try the Cordial Morgan Playa with its sub-tropical gardens (it’s on the site of a former plant nursery), and fruit and vegetable plots where peppers, papaya, mango, tomatoes, banana and coffee flourish. There’s even an archaeological site – Las Crucecitas – where the relics and remains of the Guanches, the first settlers – are preserved.
If you think a spa break means egg-white omelettes and juice-only dinners, you couldn’t be more wrong. The hotels offer buffet-style meals, alongside more expensive a la carte restaurants, where fellow guests manage eye-poppingly-large platefuls. (I’m transfixed by a robust gentleman who accompanies each meal with a side-order of a full loaf of bread.) At the Sunshine Palm Beach, set amidst a 1,000-year-old palm garden, we sit with Ulla Isasi eating Canarian delicacies, before embarking on a Pantai Luar treatment (herbs heated to 120 degrees, with a fragrant oil) in the spa. “Try the potatoes with red pepper sauce,” she urges us. Later, she sends me a recipe for this spicy mojo, using dried red peppers, stale bread, garlic, cumin, red pepper flakes, salt, oil, chicken broth and Spanish sherry vinegar. Delicious – as are the goats’ cheeses and fresh, ocean-plucked fish.
Had I been staying longer, I’d love to have ventured into the mountains, shrouded by mists and carpeted with flowers: for such a small island – just 50km across at its widest – the variety of its geography is startling. I’d love to have visited the capital, Las Palmas, with its city beach, and sampled its rich cultural life of opera, orchestras, and theatre. I’d love to have cycled the coast, or even visited the horse whisperer, Arucas A Caballo. But there will be another time... I’d never have thought so, before I went. Gran Canaria spa visits, it seems, are designed to wash away impurities, stresses, and – above all - misconceptions.
For more information on Gran Canaria spa, wellness and health, visit www.grancanariawellness.com