When I was a teenager, my granny went on holiday every year to Lanzarote. It provoked much mirth in our family to imagine her sitting in a packed resort, surrounded by loud British tourists and even louder music.
As a result, I long assumed that Lanzarote was a grim place to go on holiday. But, then, a few years ago I saw pictures in National Geographic showing it looking stylish — with dazzling white buildings, coal-black lava fields and spiky cacti.
That’s what I was after, not least because the Spanish film director Pedro Almodovar used Lanzarote as the backdrop for his film Broken Embraces starring Penelope Cruz (who has since holidayed on the island many times).
Striking: The white houses of Lanzarote which traditionally have green or marine-blue doors
My moment finally came this year, which happens to be the centenary of the birth of 20th-century artist, sculptor and architect Cesar Manrique, who shaped the landscape of present-day Lanzarote.
He dedicated the last 25 years of his life to fashioning art and architecture from the volcanic landscape.
Not only did Manrique persuade locals to preserve the traditional architectural style (low building, white paint, green or marine-blue doors), he also collaborated with its tourism authorities to create magical attractions (wind toys, wall mosaics, giant mobiles) inspired by the volcanic scenery.
We opted to stay in the capital, Arrecife, rather than the tourist resorts.
When our four-hour BA flight touched down on the island at 6pm, my travel companion Peter was still convinced we were about to be mown down by screaming families. But, in fact, as we took a 15-minute taxi to the port, the tourists melted away on their buses.
Arrecife itself has a gentle independent atmosphere (there are only three hotels).
We stayed at the elegant Arrecife Gran Hotel & Spa, right next to a golden expanse of beach with palm trees.
After being shown to our minimalist sea-view suite, with full-height glass windows, we headed for the hotel’s top-floor restaurant, Altamar, to sample Canarian delights such as grouper with vanilla oil and shiitake mousse, followed by Toffee volcano desert and Lanzarote cheeses.
Gazing out over the azure sea and Arrecife’s castle ramparts, we congratulated ourselves on taking the road less travelled. Next day, after a grand buffet breakfast, I insisted we start our trail. Peter looked longingly at the beach, but I bundled him into a taxi and headed for the sprawling Volcano House compound in Tahiche, once Manrique’s home, now a dedicated museum (Fundacion Cesar Manrique).
Plunging into tunnels and underground spaces, we found bright Manrique canvases, a jewel-like pool and a chill-out area with white sofas, straight out of a Bond villain lair. Apparently, the artist was passing a barren field of basaltic lava when he spotted trees sprouting from holes, and set about converting the giant volcanic bubbles into a bachelor pad.
Spanish film director Pedro Almodovar used Lanzarote as the backdrop for his film Broken Embraces starring Penelope Cruz (above)
On the way back we stopped off at Arrecife’s contemporary art museum housed in an ancient fortress, co-designed by Manrique.
Then it was time for a swim in the hotel’s pool, which few people seemed to know about. Most nights we wandered to the Charco de San Gines, a lagoon of natural seawater in the heart of Arrecife, surrounded by white fishermen’s cottages.
Here we found fun bars and some surprisingly good restaurants. We feasted on tapas with a contemporary twist — Canarian potatoes, fish tacos, stuffed peppers — at Catalan chef Luis Leon’s new venture, Cala.
On two evenings we walked 25 minutes to the Marina (a new waterfront with restaurants, boutiques and yachts).
Lilium, with its minimalist decor and El Bulli-trained chef, offers dishes such as grilled scallops with banana, coconut and lime.
But I was still on Mission Manrique and insisted we take a taxi north to the Palm Grove House at Haria — where Manrique lived and worked for the four years before his death in 1992.
You feel like he’s still in the next room. Unfinished canvases line his studio; splattered overalls are draped over chairs, and a tear-shaped pool is set with orange sci-fi chairs.
Almodovar also visited Manrique at Palm Grove House. And if you watch his current film, Pain & Glory, starring Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz (yes, her again) you’ll see how influenced the film director was by Manrique’s maximalist decorating style.
Later, we took a cab to Manrique’s Jardin de Cactus in the small town of Guatizea, to admire the giant succulents.
So, yes, Lanzarote is a great independent place to visit, with a bit of planning.
The only time we heard an English accent all week was when we visited the famous Timanfaya National Park (‘You can’t miss it, it’s like venturing to the dark side of the moon,’ a friend told me).
Driving over the landscape of slumbering volcanoes is extraordinary, though I wish we had booked a guided hike rather than a coach.
Charco de San Gines is a lagoon of natural seawater in the heart of Arrecife, surrounded by white fishermen’s cottages
Driving back to the capital, our guide pointed out the lava fields of the wine-growing region La Geria (we sampled the home-grown wine that night) and Manrique’s towering Lego-like sculpture El Monumento al Campesino (Monument To the Fieldworker).
In the Seventies and Eighties, the artist highlighted the pollution and destruction he was beginning to see on his island.
He warned his homeland was dying, but insisted ‘good and enthusiastic people can save what’s left’.
It wasn’t always a popular fight. But today you can find his legacy: Lanzarote’s sustainable tourism policy sets it apart from the major developments enveloping the larger Canary Islands. In 1993, Lanzarote became the first island in the world to be designated a UNESCO biosphere.
If you have time after your Manrique trail, I’d recommend a detour to Tias to see the charming house of Portuguese Nobel-laureate Jose Saramago.
It’s so nice to find that granny was right after all.