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Mellow yellow: the Canary Islands

In the Canary Islands, time is anything but of the essence, as Tim Pile discovers on a stroll through Fuerteventura and Lanzarote

 

Several months ago, just as the weather was turning bleak and wintry, Norman locked up his house in England and set off for Fuerteventura. And he's still here.

The sunburnt senior citizen has transformed his poolside holiday apartment into a home from home. Shelves are stacked with well-thumbed paperbacks, he has accumulated an impressive inventory of kitchen equipment and his cupboards are filled with "a few little treats my sister sends".

I'm booked into the apartment next door and after tea and chocolate cupcakes with my new neighbour, I'm ready to explore Fuerteventura. Norman isn't tempted to join me but as I head to my hire car, he looks up from his newspaper and grins.

"Minus two in London. I know where I'd rather be," he says.

As any pub quiz aficionado will tell you, the Canary Islands were named after dogs ( canis being the Latin for dog), not small yellow birds. In fact, the canary was named after the islands. Situated a hop and a skip from Saharan Africa, the Spanish-owned islands - there are seven main ones - are ideal for a multi-centre holiday. Flights and ferries between them are plentiful and each landmass has its own distinctive scenery and personality.

Fuerteventura is the second largest island, after Tenerife, and has a rugged interior dotted with hidden villages, whitewashed windmills and almost 300 kilometres of coastline. The tourist office describes its 152 beaches as the best on the Atlantic Ocean.

At the popular resort town of Corralejo, endless dunes give way to turquoise seas and sand as white as washing powder. Nudism is all the rage among geriatric Germans and leads to inevitable misunderstandings when I attempt to photograph the inviting waters.

Corralejo is suffering from growing pains. Deep blue skies and dazzling sunlight help to airbrush the blemishes but on a less forgiving morning, many of the apartments would look tired and forlorn. Overbuilding in the heady days prior to the global financial crisis is to blame. Some properties look as if they've never been lived in.

Goats outnumber people on Fuerteventura so I have the rural roads almost to myself. After long spells of radio silence, a German station crackles into life, serenading my arrival in El Cotillo. There are more wetsuits than windmills in the old port. Cafes and bars are thronged with a young, bohemian crowd, drawn by near-perfect surfing conditions.

The churning ocean is no place for novices, however. Giant waves curl their lips malevolently before thundering ashore in frothy sets. According to the lifeguards, red flags are regularly hoisted and fatalities are not unusual.

Levels of testosterone are significantly lower in the hilly village of Betancuria. Here, visitors busy themselves in handicraft shops and cafes, but things weren't always so peaceful. In the 15th century, pirates were the foreign adrenaline junkies. Swashbuckling Berbers from Morocco frequently attacked and eventually demolished the former capital.

I get back to find Norman demolishing the all-you-can-eat buffet. Between mouthfuls, he's busy explaining to Gerald from Wales how he can spend the entire winter in Fuerteventura on just his coal miner's pension.

They're still discussing reciprocal medical arrangements and potential savings on electricity bills when I say my farewells the following morning. My leathery-skinned friend offers a final British weather update ("freezing rain coming down sideways") and waves me off to the ferry terminal.

It's a 40-minute crossing to Lanzarote, which looms up like another planet. A series of volcanic eruptions beginning in 1730 left much of the island charcoal coloured. Even today, scalding geysers spout skywards and steam hisses out of hot rocks, if you know where to look.

Thanks to the foresight of Lanzarote's most famous son, the island is refreshingly free of tower blocks. Two generations ago, artist and eco-warrior Cesar Manrique fought to prevent the fledgling destination from embracing a high-rise tourism model. He won his share of planning battles but since his death, in 1992, the war is gradually being lost.

Puerto del Carmen is the alpha resort - a bustling settlement that sprawls along the coast. It remains low-rise for now but in other respects is indistinguishable from holiday hot spots on the Spanish mainland.

Tattoo parlours are located perilously near bars offering "all you can drink for 20 euros". Pubs such as the Flying Dutchman, the Dog and Duck and the Blarney Stone serve homesick northern Europeans familiar fare in a familiar language. And it's easy to satisfy a craving for egg fried rice or sweet and sour pork.

The Chinese have a presence in town - as restaurateurs and retailers. There are a number of competing establishments and, curiously, each has found room for the words "Hong Kong" somewhere in its name.

Keen for some snippets of SAR news and gossip, I venture into the Hong Kong Shopping Center and greet the proprietors in halting Cantonese. Blank looks follow. It turns out that Lanzarote's Chinese are actually from Xiamen, in Fujian province, although they're reluctant to admit it.

"Tourists trust Hong Kong so that's why we use the name," a waiter at Hong Kong Buffet explains. "You're the first person to realise that we're from China. Don't tell anyone - or if you do - please say that our Cantonese food tastes very delicious."

Unlike in Hong Kong, buses on Lanzarote are infrequent and timetables a vague concept. It's best to adopt the locals' relaxed attitude - you'll get where you want in the end. There are services to off-the-beaten-track places on which passengers all seem to know each other and, by the time we reach Manrique's house, I feel part of the extended family.

Built amid an otherworldly landscape of bubbly petrified lava, the stylish residence was designed to be in harmony with its surroundings. Part home, part museum, the property incorporates underground volcanic chambers, sunken gardens, a naturally fed swimming pool and an art gallery with works by Picasso.

Outside, a crowd has gathered at the bus stop and it's getting dark. Our chances of a speedy return to Puerto del Carmen aren't looking good. A man in uniform says he has no idea when the next bus will leave - before admitting that he's the driver.

 

Getting there: Cathay Pacific and British Airways fly to daily to Britain, from where Ryanair and Easyjet connect to both Fuerteventura and Lanzarote from a number of regional airports, including Gatwick.

 

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