Though known for its thriving ex-pat community and cheap alcohol, there is a heart-warming authenticity to be found on the island of Lanzarote, writes Holly Hughes.
When you hear the words, ‘Lanzarote holiday’, I'm assuming that you, like me, don’t picture glorious coastal promenades, architectural masterpieces, or sites of Unesco-protected beauty.
Like me, I’m assuming you-picture pitchers of questionably cheap beer, laminated menus with picture illustrations on them (usually omelette in bread) and a feeling that you’ve just relocated to a sunnier part of Ireland or the UK where they happen to serve paella. You can imagine my surprise then, when a family holiday back in January became an idyllic sojourn encapsulating mesmerising sunsets, cultural intrigue and, dare I say it, a heart- warming authenticity you do not expect from an island known for its thriving ex-pat community and VAT-free alcohol.
Authenticity and history in Arrecife Playa Blanca and Puerto del Carmen, on the south western coast, are typically the lauded features of every article and recommendation about Lanzarote, known for their beaches, family-friendly resorts, and thriving nightlife, perfectly moulded to the Irish disposition. While these provide much in the way of entertainment, dining, and luxury, it was the lesser-known Arrecife, Lanzarote’s capital, on the eastern coast, that caught and held our attention.
A town boasting its own palm tree-lined beach and a bustling pedestrian centre overflowing with cafés and restaurants with terraced awnings, Arrecife is a place where tourists and locals mingle in the post-noon need for gelato. The town centre is a conglomeration of sprawling lanes designed for curious meandering, trickling down to a waterfront promenade and the impressive outline of Castillo de San Gabriel.
An offshore 18th century fortress, the Castillo is connected to the town via a cobblestone causeway and is a relic of the days of pirate invasions. Now a cultural hub boasting tours and a museum, the castle offers exceptional rooftop views of the turquoise Atlantic, making it one of Arrecife’s top attractions.
If the walk to the Castillo feels too much like work, the fort's imposing beauty can also be enjoyed from the nearby Charco san Ginés — preferably with a glass of local wine in hand.
This natural sea water lagoon nestled in the town centre is encircled by historic buildings and replete with some of Arrecife’s best bars and restaurants. If you, like my holidaymaking troupe, are a family of varying palates, dietary requirements, and mood swings, this stretch of culinary diversity is your saviour.
Catering for vegetarians, those who believe it’s really only a meal if a form of fried potato and chicken is present, and the rare martyrs who approach mealtimes with a ‘when in Rome’ optimism, this idyllic spot on the waterfront will keep everyone happy.
Call it ignorance, call it the Irish preoccupation with Vitamin D and impossible tans, but the fact that Lanzarote is an island birthed and famous for its volcanic activity managed to escape my attention until I found myself travelling through its moon-like landscape.
With slopes of terracotta, flat valleys of blackened soil, and mysterious pockets of heather-type flowers, Timanfaya National Park is breathtaking in its sheer, undulating magnitude as it rises, curves, and bends tourists towards its summit.
The park is a Unesco-protected biosphere reserve, with access to the higher peaks only possible via guided bus tours from the public car park.
Admission to the park costs €10, with an added fee for the bus tour, but the magic of witnessing geyser-like explosions, fires kindled in the heat of open craters, and an ever-rotating barbecue over a furnace of natural heat make it well worth it. Make sure to get there early as parking is limited and queues are to be expected by midday.
Albino crabs and exceptional acoustics — what else would you expect from an underground lake?
If you’d rather go low while everyone else is going high, hunker down in an underground tunnel formed from volcanic flows and now home to the gentle luminescence of tiny — and blind — albino crabs.
Jameos del Agua is a site of not just superior beauty but of exceptional acoustics, hosting concerts several times a week in its stunning amphitheatre. Emerge from the cool darkness of the lake to explore its exotic flora in a whitewashed garden and enjoy a quiet drink in this outrageously pleasing oasis. No Instagram filter necessary.
There is a distinctive theme in Lanzarote: A harmony between the natural world and man’s need to honour and respect it. I say man’s but I really mean one man — César Manrique.
Architect, designer, conservationist and local hero, he is the impassioned genius behind most of the aforementioned landmarks, spending his life creatingbuildings that celebrated andaccentuated the mountainous, rugged, and often barren topography that imbue the island with so much vibrant character.
No building encapsulation's vision better than LagOmar. Once home, now museum, restaurant, and bar,LagOmar sits nestled in a cliff — a sprawling, whitewashed villa filled with hidden alcoves, winding staircases, exotic flowerbeds, and turquoise lagoons that seem to imitate its twisted and obscure past.
Spontaneously bought by Omar Sharif (from whom it takes its name) in the 1970s, LagOmar is iconic not only for its architectural vision but the story of Sharif’s fleeting proprietorship, after he lost the house in a now infamous bridge game. Entry costs only €6, transporting visitors from sunburn and sun loungers to fantasies of Arabian adventure, celebrity intrigue, and a plot twist to rival the best Hollywood blockbuster.
Whether you are an eclectic family of seven, a solo traveller looking to recharge, or a group of friends seeking adventure, getting around Lanzarote is not just easy but rather an attraction in itself, meaning you can combine leisure with activity, culture with sun-lounging, and an eating itinerary to satisfy every abstract holiday craving. Bike or car rental is the best way to see and appreciate the diversity of the island and soak up some of its lesser-known beauty. There are any number of bikerental shops in Arrecife, offering riders regular, mountain, e-bike, or quad options, according to your desire for danger. Or, in my case, the limits of my mother’s sanity.
Providing hourly, daily, or weekly packages, as well as well-mapped routes to suit the meandering, mountaineering, or highly motivated cyclist, renting bikes is a wonderful way to explore the lush countryside.
It also means you can leave the usual fear, apprehension, and general nausea that accompanies the prospect of driving in a foreign country behind you, as you cut cleanly through blackened valleys, immaculate vineyards, and exotic vegetation en route to volcano, beach, vineyard, or dinner.
Staying in an Airbnb on the outskirts of Arrecife, in Playa del Cable, bikes were our preferred mode of transportation, made even easier by a flat cycle path running parallel to the coastline that is dotted with strolling locals,jogging enthusiasts, and the swivelling heads of fellow cyclists as they volley their gaze from beach scape to mountainous backdrop, to white-washed villages and the bustling airport, which is a tourist attraction in itself.
All-inclusive packages are abundant in busier areas like Puerto del Carmen, with hotels and apartments easily available in Arrecife, however a quiet Airbnb in between the two, replete with palm tree, outdoor barbecue area, and obligatory pool, was our casa of choice.
Our proximity to the beach in the quiet suburbs of Playa Honda also resulted in a sunrise yoga session on the strand, followed by vegan muffins (which even the vegetable-hating carnivoresdevoured) and a smugness that only adds to that elusive ‘holiday glow’.
An anomaly, a contradiction, Lanzarote is an island that somehow juxtaposes solitude with teeming resorts, and modern developments for every tourist whim with untouched natural beauty.
I expected gaudiness, a bit of sunshine, and maybe a half-decent paella or two and instead found an earnest authenticity in which an appreciation for this unusual landscape is championed above all else. One word of warning: Lanzarote will cost you any cherished hopes of becoming a travel writer, as you find yourself committing the unconscionable sin of using clichés such as ‘azure’, ‘authentic’, and ‘idyllic’ to describe it. I blame César Manrique… and the pitchers of questionably cheap beer.