La Gomera Island Life

Island life!

Redefining the term �unspoiled’, La Gomera is a tiny (less than 25kms across) island-paradise, whose rugged coastline – of rock-strewn bays, and black-sand beaches – belies a starkly contrasting interior, wherein subtropical florae jockey for attention with prehistoric volcanic plugs.

While most of the larger tour operators offer trips to Gomera, the island is still very much an �alternative’ destination � due largely to its lack of traditional beaches, and other commercial distractions: although there are bars and restaurants aplenty, the 24/7 dance clubs of the Balearics are conspicuous by their absence.

That said, Gomera is warm all year round � usually sunny, with temperatures ranging from a winter low of around 20-degrees, to a summer high of 28-degrees+. And it offers myriad attractions � appealing principally to holidaymakers who seek a conducive year-round climate, yet eschew the tourist crowds.

Getting there
There are no direct flights to Gomera: the European Union-funded airstrip is suitable only for the short island hops – to Tenerife North and Gran Canaria – that depart twice-daily. You are therefore left with two choices: to fly into Tenerife North, in hopes of catching a connecting flight. Or to take to the sea.

The Garajonay Express high-speed catamaran from Los Cristianos (a 20-minute, EUR 20 taxi ride from the airport) reaches Santiago � the island’s southernmost town, and my chosen destination – in a little over an hour. Unfortunately, however, the service is somewhat unreliable: a light breeze is all that’s required to restrict the vessel to port.

This being the case, you’ve an equally enjoyable contingency: the Fred Olsen ferry to San Sebastian (La Gomera’s capital town).

Secure a window seat and watch Gomera, just 30kms distant, rise up out of the mist, the choppy sea refracting the golden sun, creating rainbows at the vessel’s hull. Or stay out on the sundeck and savour the sea air – eyes pealed for bottlenose dolphins and pilot whales�

On arrival in San Sebastian, you have two choices: bus or taxi. The former are regular and reliable; the latter: ubiquitous and underemployed. Santiago is roughly 30kms west of San Sebastian. A taxi is therefore likely to cost around EUR 75,-. However, the majority of luggage-laden tourists prefer to book their travel arrangements in advance � ensuring seamless taxi, boat and coach connections from the airport to El Balcn.

First impressions
The 40-minute drive to Santiago is a revelation: your introduction to Gomera – carrying you heavenward along giddying mountain roads. Then plunging back down through sweeping terraced valleys scattered with cacti, prickly pear and eucalyptus. The experience triggers a kind of sensory overload – of almost unbearably vivid colours, and unfamiliar scents. To one side you encounter towering basalt cliffs. To the other: deep, dark laurisilva forests; almond and orange groves; banana plantations � a wealth and diversity of florae and vegetation that simply cannot exist elsewhere.

Then before you know it… you are sweeping down into the refreshingly undisturbed village that is to be your temporary home.

Around and about
For walkers, Santiago represents an ideal base: numerous footpaths criss-cross the island. They are � almost without exception – brilliantly signposted, with routes to suit all levels of fitness and ability.

And a number of accompanied walking tours – such as the Rain Forest Walk, which takes place each Sunday � are available, offering coach-collection from the Santiago. Just one note of caution, however, before you set off�

Take along good walking boots, water, a camera, with plenty of spare memory or film – for the infinite number of inspiring views that you’ll want to capture � and a waterproof jacket. Yes, a jacket. As you bask in the Canarian sun, contemplating your first peripatetic adventure, you’ll most likely mock the very suggestion. Don’t. The temperature can drop, dramatically, following even a short drive into the mountains. And rain is not unusual. You have been warned.

Less athletic visitors will be pleased to learn that cars are available for hire, and fuel is cheap (EUR 10,- will comfortably cover your diesel costs for a full circuit of the island). The roads, though narrow and winding, are quiet and recently tarmacced, making this a great way to explore Gomera’s hidden nooks and crannies. (Just remember to sound your horn, as you navigate those all-too-common blind corners.)

You might also consider joining the full-day island excursion. This informative coach trip, which takes in a stay at the Garajonay National Park Visitor Centre, as well as lunch at the Castillo del Mar (a restored 19th century banana trading station, that stretches out into the Atlantic), will doubtless reveal numerous sites of interest to which you’ll wish to return.

Essential Gomera
Whatever your preferred mode of transportation, a visit to the �Parc Nacional de Garajonay’ is essential. There, the near-constant temperature and humidity has created an almost eerily tranquil 3,984-hectare environment made up of laurels and lichen, mosses and ferns, freshwater springs, streams and spectacular rock formations.

Protected since 1982, and achieving UNESCO recognition in 1984, Garajonay is home to one of the world’s largest continuous areas of laurisilva forest – a habitat that has almost disappeared from southern Europe and North Africa.

Weather permitting, a boat trip to San Sebastian is likewise recommended (though it’s best avoided, when the sea is rough). The port-town and capital was visited by Christopher Columbus, in 1492, before he set out on the voyage for which he is best known. (Indeed, a notice at the local well records how the explorer drew its water to �baptise America’.)

Like all the neighbouring towns, San Sebastian is quiet, friendly, and very well-kept: you’ll see no graffiti on the walls, few cigarette butts on the pavement. With a population of 2,000 or so, it is the largest municipality. The mountain and the hills dominate the west; the port lies in the east. And within that port, the beach, which � though rocky � is both clean and safe.

The town’s handful of shops, restaurants and bars are all within easy walking distance, making it an ideal destination for a light lunch, a revivifying glass of wine, and a spot of people-watching in the central square.

Similarly accessible via the regular ferry from Santiago, Valle Gran Rey to the west offers – on clear days – a panoramic view of La Palma and El Hierro. In addition to a popular beach, the region provides many reminders of Gomera’s fascinating past, not least the hermitages of San Nicols de Tolentino and La Adoracin de los Reyes which � though recently renovated � date back to the early 16th century.

Historically speaking
The earliest known inhabitants of the Canaries were the Guanches, a Berber people of particular anthropological interest, who were assimilated by the conquering Castilians in the 15th century. Of the Guanches, little trace remains � which is hardly surprising, as they were illiterate. That said, they did leave a rather unusual legacy on Gomera: El Silbo, the peculiar whistling language used by the farmers to communicate from mountain to mountain. (Alas, El Silbo is slowly dying out, in line with the decline in farming – not to mention the relatively recent arrival of electricity and the telephone.)

By 1495, the archipelago was entirely Spanish. And thus it remains, despite the Canaries’ proximity to Africa – and the islanders’ tongue-in-cheek protestations to the contrary. We are, they protest, Gomerans first – Canarians second. Only given these preconditions, or the onset of a high-profile international football match, do they acknowledge their Spanish ancestry and influence.

Quite unlike the more devout Spain, where Easter is all-important, Carnival is the Canary Islanders’ favourite festival � and the Carnival El Mar is its most popular, taking place usually three days prior to Ash Wednesday.

In reality, the islanders require little excuse for a party, and each town hosts its own annual fiesta. Most notable are those of San Sebastian, which is held in January, and includes street theatre, music and dancing, and culminates in a procession to the local shrine. Other worthy diary-dates include the fiesta of Guadalupe – the Patron Saint of Fishermen – in mid-July; that of Santiago, in late July; and El Paso, in September. (This latter – the largest of Gomera’s fiestas – attracts 100s of revellers from the nearby islands.)

Culinary choice
The island’s cuisine � like its music – shares much with the Spanish Caribbean. The local wine is most distinctive, complementing a tapa (snack) of watercress soup, goat’s cheese, fresh fish and roast pork or goat meat. The �papas arrugadas’ (salty skinned potatoes) that accompany most meals are quite delicious. As are the �mojo’ and �almogrote’, two piquant sauces that enrich the hunks of fresh bread that arrive, unsolicited, at your restaurant table, the moment you sit.

Those with a sweeter tooth will appreciate the Canarian specialty of �guarapo’ (sap of the Canarian palm tree) � the perfect addition to fruit salads, and other desserts – as well as the many lard cakes, buns, pastries, biscuits and roasted milk that are mainstays of Gomeran confection.

Those who prefer to cook will be pleased to learn that Santiago’s supermarkets are well-stocked and realistically priced.

In addition, the village’s many cafs, bars and restaurants, several of which are situated next to the small, picturesque port, offer a choice of anglicised, and more local, fare – enabling you to select from a light snack or a multi-course tapas meal. (Be warned: many Gomerans think of the latter, as the former.)

For a special treat, you may also wish to enjoy one of the five restaurants at the luxurious Tecina Hotel and Golf Complex, which is owned and managed by the island’s �first family’.

That family, the Olsens, is inextricably linked with Gomeran history, dating back more than a century. No one knows what prompted Norwegian Thomas Olsen, and later, his son Fred (father of the company’s current President) to begin buying land in the area, in 1904. One assumes that he simply fell in love – with the island, and its inhabitants.

Despite turning a considerable profit – by securing control of the island’s freshwater springs, and purchasing huge tracts of land at rock-bottom rates – the Olsens brought (and indeed, continue to bring) if not wealth, then at least prosperity, to the island: in those early days by, amongst other good works, establishing a functional irrigation system and opening the island’s first school. And, more recently, as Gomera’s biggest employer.

Today, the island survives and thrives almost entirely on tourism. Which is hardly surprising. For, in stark counterpoint to the more exotic pursuits mentioned earlier, it’s a place where you can also enjoy the familiar comforts of home � not least: BBC TV and Radio 4; water direct from the tap; and a high standard of accommodation.

You don’t even have to adjust your watch when you arrive.

In fact, tucked away in your exceptionally well-appointed apartment, there’d be little to remind you that you’re actually holidaying on an extinct volcano.

Save, of course, for that sublime climate.

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