In a lava over Lanzarote, Playa Blanca
The island has exchanged its ‘Lanzagrotty’ image for something more chic.
The other-worldly emerald lake at the centre of Lanzarote’s El Golfo wolcanic crater
There can’t be that many two year olds who have burned their feet on a volcano. But my youngest son, Freddie, who is always kicking his shoes off and running at speed in places he shouldn’t be, is one. I’m glad to report his gorgeous little tootsies were fine, just the colour of a ripe Canarian tomato for a few hours after their close encounter with Timanfaya, Lanzarote’s largest and still smouldering volcano. And the episode has already become part of Freddie’s traveller’s tales.
But you can’t visit Lanzarote and not expect a little drama during your stay. After all, the island is swathed with syrupy black lava flows, mammoth boulders and vast red dust bowls, remnants of when Timanfaya last spewed up its guts back in the 18th century.
If a T-Rex suddenly materialised you wouldn’t be too shocked — it’s that kind of landscape and it is where Raquel Welch slipped in to her famous fur bikini to do battle with the dinosaurs in the film One Million Years BC.
For the past six years I’ve spent a week in February chasing away the winter blues at Playa Blanca. Although the third largest resort on Lanzarote, it is wonderfully relaxed, with a sheltered, crescent-shaped golden sand beach, an old port with a string of seafood restaurants and holiday-kit shops at one end, and a chic new marina, complete with a smattering of designer boutiques and a few trendy restaurants, at the other.
We stay at the Princesa Yaiza Suite Resort with its generously proportioned, two-bedroom, two-bathroom family suites, large enough for my three boys to kick a beach ball around in. We each have our reasons for wanting to return each year. For men it’s a few stolen moments floating in the Thalassotherapy Spa.
The lagoon in the centre of the capital, Arrecife: One of many on the island
The kids love Kikoland, the free kids’ club, hosted by Kiko the duck (and, yes, some poor helper does have to dress up in a duck costume each day in temperatures reaching 90 degrees). While Neil looks forward to swimming lengths in the icy freshwater pool and tucking in to tasty sushi at the hotel’s Japanese restaurant. From here it’s just a few miles east to Papagayo Beach where you’ll find the loveliest, unblemished sands on the island. They’re a no-go with little ones in buggies due to the steep climb down the rocks, so rather than driving, get a taxi boat to drop you off and pick you up. Arriving by boat all adds to the sense of being castaways for the day and the kids will love playing pirates.
Because of the getting-back-to nature feel of the beach, you do get the sporadic naturist strutting their stuff, but I found “Oh look boys is that a shark out there in the water?” was enough of a diversion.
It’s a shame that the island hasn’t quite yet shaken off its “Lanzagrotty” label because, apart from a couple of cheap-as-chips resorts with the usual quota of discos and eggs-and-bacon cafés, there’s not much to turn your sun-kissed nose up at.
But it wasn’t the town planners who put a stop to the rot setting in. That was down to the native artist Cesar Manrique, who campaigned for 20 years for laws to prohibit the construction of high-rise buildings on the island.
Manrique also adorned the island with his curious, futuristic sculptures and created other worldly experiences by enhancing natural features such as the stunning Jameos del Agua.
We made our way down steps carved out of natural rock, accompanied by ethereal music, in to a cave of luxuriant foliage and then on to a second cave where a breath-taking, electric-blue lagoon makes a striking home for hundreds of tiny, blind, albino crabs.
Ben and Josh thought these minute crustaceans looked like twinkling stars as we marvelled at their luminosity. But the atmosphere was soon lost and the mood music drowned out by my boys laughing their heads off when Daddy momentarily became confused and walked straight in to the lagoon soaking his shoes and sending the poor little crabs scuttling away.
At the Jardin de Cactus I must have screamed, “Don’t touch!” to Freddie a hundred times as I was in no hurry to add “impaled on large cactus” to our catalogue of holiday mishaps. Another of Manrique’s creations, this pudding-basin garden has more than 10,000 specimens of the prickly flora, and a working windmill that produces gofio, a finely ground flour.
It’s quite a sight: the white-washed mill set against a sea of bright green cacti in all forms, from Mickey Mouse ears to caterpillars and sea urchins, rising from the blackest of soil. Back on the Manrique trail there’s also the Mirador del Rio, which gives dramatic views over the cliffs to the island of La Graciosa; and Fundacion Cesar Manrique, situated over a river of lava and built out of — what else — but five volcanic bubbles.
A trip to the Montanas del Fuego — or Mountains of Fire — at the National Volcano Park is a must, especially when travelling with children with over-active imaginations. The ever-present reminders that Timanfaya could erupt again, such as the angry vents that regularly hiss out steam and a ground hot enough to roast a chicken over (as Freddie discovered), thrilled my three boys.
They were particularly wide-eyed when a guide poured water into a fissure in the earth and seconds later a geyser erupted. During the half-hour coach tour that cuts through the lava tubes and gives a birds eye view of the craters, we marvelled at the lava and the way it had rippled so smoothly over the earth. We each had opinions as to what it looked like. But Ben’s was unbeatable: “Like liquorice flavour Mr Whippy ice-cream,” he declared.
Teguise town, the capital until 1852, is a charming place full of meandering cobbled streets, palm-fringed squares, and whitewashed buildings.
A sleepy hollow for much of the week, its streets come alive on Sundays, brimming over with craft stalls selling a variety of local and imported items from traditional lace tablecloths to fake Crocs, from cactus jam to timples (Canarian ukuleles). We supplied our boys with 10 euros each and they had a ball buying up a whole host of useless items (including the ukulele).
We’re all big tapas fans; even Freddie who can polish off a whole portion of tortilla and adores olives, so we fought greedily over a plate of locally produced cheeses and bread at the grandly named Palacio del Marques, just off the main square.
Lanzarote’s volcanic soil is remarkably yielding, with thousands of vines, each protected by a pretty horseshoe of stones, planted in mesmerising patterns across the land.
Salt pans are another familiar sight, and the mountains of white salt at Las Salinas de Janubio are dramatically juxtaposed with the black sands of Playa de Janubio. Much of the coast remains untamed, no more so than at Los Hervideros, an inlet where waves smash together in a cauldron of bubbling surf. And the eerie, luminous green lagoon at El Golfo, formed from half of a volcanic cone, is spectacular at sunset.
But finally, if you still need convincing that Lanzarote is a treat, head for Puerto Calero, where the King of Spain regularly moors his yacht and where gorgeous people gather to pose on the terrace of Restaurant Amura.
Park your hire car out of sight and mingle. My three boys squabbled happily for hours about which Sunseeker they’d cruise off in given the chance, while Neil and I tucked in to fresh fish and papas arugadas — wrinkled potatoes — tiny baked spuds rolled in rock salt. Believe me, February doesn’t get much better than this.
Monarch Airlines (www.flights.monarch.co.uk) fly from Gatwick to Arrecife in Lanzarote from £110 return. The Princesa Yaiza Suite Resort (www.princesayaiza.com; 0034 928519222) has double rooms from 138 euros (£123) per night. Cadogan Holidays (www.cadoganholidays.com; 0845 615 4390), offer 7-night packages at the Princesa Yaiza Suite Resort from £551 per person (based on two sharing) including breakfast and flights. Autos Reisen Lanzarote (www.autoreisen.es) offers car hire from around £80 for seven days.