Tim Pozzi offers an essential cultural guide to Las Palmas, a city with the best climate in the world.
In 1996 the climatologist Thomas Whitmore of Syracuse University published his Pleasant Weather Ratings and declared Las Palmas de Gran Canaria the city with the best climate in the world. But apart from the fact that it's autumn, there's sea air in your nostrils and the temperature is a very comfortable 21 degrees Celcius, there are other reasons to visit. Spain's ninth-largest city has for centuries been a bridge between the old world and the new, and its cosmopolitan character is the legacy of a unique maritime history.
When Christopher Columbus stopped by on his way to the Caribbean in 1492, Las Palmas had been founded just 14 years earlier on the north-eastern tip of the roughly circular island. The historical centre, known as Vegueta, is a delight, with handsome colonial buildings lining its narrow streets, and papayas, bananas and cacti rising above its courtyard walls.
Our first stop had to be Columbus House, formerly the governor's residence and where the explorer is said to have stayed. Its small courtyards, fountains and balconies made it a lovely building to explore; the free museum, with a replica of Columbus's quarters, original letters in Columbus's hand and 15th-century maps, was terrific.
A short walk took us to Santa Ana Cathedral, the construction of which began in 1500. There is a lift up the bell tower, but we chose to climb the 216 steps for views of ships cruising into the harbour and of pretty Plaza de Santa Ana below. Established in the 16th century and surrounded by military, religious and legal buildings, it is said to have provided the template for town squares all over South America.
The hills beyond the square are covered with a patchwork of multicoloured houses built by South American settlers as the city began to spread. And spread. And spread. Disappointingly, the city's other main area of interest, Las Canteras beach, is separated from Vegueta by a long chunk of fairly anonymous development.
We discovered more vibrant colour along Triana, the city's most enjoyable shopping area, adorned by gorgeous Art Nouveau and Art Deco buildings. Do pop into the tiny Ermita de San Telmo at the end of Triana. This sailors' chapel once stood on the harbour's edge, and model ships hang from its rafters.
Halfway between Vegueta and Las Canteras is the excellent Nestor Museum, dedicated to the artist Nestor Martin-Fernandez de la Torre. The highlight, among designs for jewellery, costumes and textiles, are the eight panels of the fantastical Poem of the Sea.
We also enjoyed a 20-minute drive out of the city for lunch at the Real Club de Golf, the oldest golf club in Spain (1891), adjacent to the Bandama volcano crater. The attached 25-room hotel (vikhotels.com) makes a fine base if you fancy getting in a round or two; our gentle hike to the floor of the crater was exhilarating.
Based in Las Canteras, we spent the rest of the time on the beach and in the shops, cafes and bars along the promenade. Las Palmas's cultural attractions have a flavour of their own, but the chance to combine them with a bit of sea and sand make it a destination with something for everyone.
Many European airlines fly to Gran Canaria Airport outside the city, including KLM, Ryanair and Iberia. Buses depart for Las Palmas every 20 minutes; taxis cost around euros 25 ($A32) for the 18km journey.
- Thanks to its historical connections with the New World, Carnival is celebrated as riotously in the Canaries as it is in Brazil or Trinidad - fun, but not good if you're looking for a quiet break in February.
- Many shops stock aloe vera products, from anti-cellulite cream to sunscreen to shampoo and pure juice (euros 15/$A19 a litre). The florist at 22 Calle Sagasta claims to have more than 100 products, and is very cute.
- Prices are generally lower between April and August.
- For a taste of folk music and dance head for the craft shops of the Canarian village next to the Hotel Santa Catalina: free performances every Sunday morning.
- Santa Catalina Square is a wonderful place to people-watch, especially the old men who gather to play dominoes, cards, chess and ludo.
Hotel Madrid It is said that General Franco finalised plans for the 1936 coup d'etat from this hotel (photographs of the dictator festoon the bar), when he was military commander of the Canary Islands. Little seems to have changed since; if you want to stay in his favourite, very pleasant room, ask for number 3 (0034 928 360664; doubles from euros 45/$A56 per night).
NH Imperial Playa
The pick of the waterfront hotels has a slightly corporate feel but the rooms are smartly furnished in dark brown and cream, with balconies offering superb views of Las Canteras and that all-important sound of waves lapping on the beach (928 468854; nh-hotels.com; doubles from euros 77/$96).
Hotel Santa Catalina
If it's marble floors, polished brass, glittering chandeliers and old-fashioned gentility you need, this is the one (928 243040; hotelsantacatalina.com; double b&b from euros 84/$A105).
Fancy tapas by the beach? This modest-looking place stands out for its fabulous papas arrugadas (boiled potatoes) with coriander and chilli relish, cheesecake, and salmorejo, a refreshing variant on gazpacho topped with shredded egg and flakes of ham (Paseo de las Canteras, Zona el Charcon, 41; 928 490375).
There are dozens of restaurants along Las Canteras promenade, but a good option is to saunter past them all to La Marinera, the last restaurant on the drag, serving everything from scorpion fish and seabream to deep sea canary damsel. If you can't decide, the three-course menu with wine is good value (C. Alonso Ajeda s/n, Plaza de la Puntilla; 928 468802).
Glimpse the tiny courtyard of this 16th-century house, lush with potted vegetation, and it's hard to imagine it was a ruin when it was bought 25 years ago. Gorgeous, romantic, and the choice of King Juan Carlos when he's in town (Montesdeoca, 10; 928 333466; casamontesdeoca.com).
WHAT TO AVOID
- Tap water - it's mostly desalinated seawater and doesn't taste great.
- Driving about the city - it's easier to use taxis, with most journeys costing just a couple of euros.
- Don't imagine you can walk from one end of the city to the other either - it would take extraordinary stamina.
- Leaving your passport at your hotel - the Canary Islands have lower sales taxes than mainland Spain, but you'll need your passport to take advantage when paying by credit card.
The Telegraph, London