Right, that’s it. I’ve had enough! Never again will I be taken in by the rubbish written in any of the holiday tour guide brochures; I will remember that they all did their apprenticeships as estate agent copywriters! So today I am launching the Diogenes Holiday & Travel Column – Hon President Mycroft Holmes (deceased). Its objective will be to find holiday destinations where other Brits don’t go – or better still, haven’t discovered. Where, if it says it still has the feel of its origins as a little fishing village then it bloody well still smells of fish and you can buy them direct from the boats as they come in. In the way that San Antonio in Ibiza was somewhere where only the early hippies had straggled into when we went there in the early ‘70’s but the unwashed masses were yet to discover. Where one memorable night we sat in a piano bar and listened to a young kid singing his way through the Bee Gees catalogue and only afterwards found out it was Andy Gibb; San Antonio where a drunken old fisherman waved a clasp knife under my nose because it was HIS bar and he didn’t like foreigners taking it over.
That is my kind of get away holiday destination.
Or the time I picked up a hitchhiker in deepest Somerset who had just come back from a holiday in a Spanish fishing village where the middle class Spaniards had their holiday homes. No one – literally no one – spoke English. So we went there – a little place called Puerto de Mazarron – year after year for idyllic remote holidays where all the Spanish I learned enabled me to order beer, fresh sardines and bread. Then the tourist trade discovered it and we moved on. We went back there once, thankfully for only a week, and where there had been desert and cactus now there were villas and discos. All the original cheap tapas bars where closed and instead tourist trap bars with blaring music lined the streets.
And, as the 80’s and 90’s came and went, so it became harder to find these little unspoiled gems without involving serious long haul travel and multi inoculations against everything from mundane malaria to exotic Dengue fever!
Look at the holiday we have just had in Playa Blanca, Lanzarote. We had booked for a week in Club La Santa, the fabulous sports camp in the north west of the island but, in deference to our years and creaking joints, forwent the normal two weeks and made it a two centre break with the latter half in a villa with pool. Now, seasoned travellers that we are, we knew about the hot spots to avoid on Lanzarote notably Costa Teguise and Puerto Del Carman. So when my wife read about Playa Blanca on the very southern tip “Quieter”, “Developed from a small fishing village” jumped out at us. Wonderful, we thought, the other two resorts will soak up the 18 – 30’s and sun and chips brigade and we’ll enjoy a week of sipping gin & tonics in a harbour side bar, haggle over the price of a brace of freshly landed sardines and sun ourselves in a secluded cove . . .
The drive down the west coast from La Santa took in the volcanic landscape of the National Park of Timafaya with its harsh and forbidding terrain of jagged, black volcanic lava and a stop at its superb visitor centre had the unexpected pleasure of free parking (take note English resorts – the feel good factor of not being fleeced at every parking opportunity is worth its weight in consumer goodwill). Amazingly the entry to this instructive and comprehensive centre was free as well! The whole park, which covers about 25% of the islands land mass, is a macabre yet fascinating sight. With no animal or bird life evident; even the hardy cactus has yet to re-establish itself 200 years on from the eruptions.
And so, we continued past the salt deposits at Laguna De Janubio and down into Playa Blanca. We were a little surprised that our villa was built in the middle of a sizable sprawl of identikit housing about a mile back from the coast but put the sinking feeling in our tummies down to the excess of food and vino the previous night.
And then we walked down to the front. And we walked and walked; past blocks of villas, over an outer relief road, through a hotel belt and down to a shopping precinct complete with its Burger King and Irish Pub where every night was karaoke night there was even an ‘authentic’ British fish & chip shop.
A small, but I have to admit, beautifully formed, man-made sandy cove sat under the promenade with rows of sun worshipers lying sardine fashion on their sunbeds. We turned right and walked past shops full of designer labels, past parades of restaurants – Italian, Chinese, Mexican and inevitably ones advertising “English Cuisine: Full Sunday Roast only €8.50” – in this climate? – and on to shops full of kiss me quick hats and T-shirts with slogans to make a vicar blush.
Eventually we reached the harbour, the few remaining fishing boats being dwarfed by the gigantic Fred Olsen inter Island car ferry, and stopped; defeated. Not a bar or restaurant in sight. Just roll on, roll off facilities and acres of pre-formed concrete. In despair we turned up a side alley and – Eureka! – we stumbled upon Café Puerto a tiny, dingy but original bar with slightly rusting metal tables outside and cave like dinginess within. If there is one thing I look for on holiday it’s a bar where the locals drink and this was it. A couple of work-soiled customers in dusty denims sat outside smoking and drinking coke. Partially blocking the door was the blubbery wreck of a latter day hippie – greasy ponytail in evidence – with a bottle of Dorado beer in his paw watching the England versus Moldova match. He clearly wasn’t an England supporter by his expression as the score was then 2 – nil to England. We sat outside and had coffees and warm chocolate muffins – really fresh coffee and a float away cake and the cost – €3! Local prices obviously!
We went back the following day, when we paid I left €4 on the bar as a tip, only to have the bar girl chase me down the road to tell me in broken English that I’d overpaid! What honesty. That bar (Cafe Puerto) gets the 1st of the Diogenes Holiday & Travel Column Stars for authenticity and a complete lack of fellow Brits!
By the 2nd day we realised that Playa Blanca is in fact a resort, quite literally, of two halves. One side of the bay is kiss me quick hats, English Pubs and fish & chip shops with tomato ketchup bottles on every table; but the other, newer side is a fabulous new marina with sophisticated bars and restaurants. The attention to detail in the architecture and build of the marina is incredible; the mixture of dark heavy stone for the official harbourmasters building juxtaposed with the high wooden boardwalks and whitewashed shops and bars is the canvas for a realistic network of saltwater inlets and rocky pools where fish swim freely to the delight of adults and children alike.
An offshoot of the fabled Teguise market takes over the back lanes of the marina on Saturdays and Wednesdays and I’d recommend missing both days if possible. Tacky, tired and predicable . . . .
We were tempted by and tried Lani’s Tex-Mex Grill and Steakhouse, particularly as they displayed the day’s catch of local fresh fish on a bed of rice at the entrance. Red Snapper took my fancy and I started with prawn cocktail to ensure I had room for the meaty fish. But, as the late Radio 2 presenter John Dunn was want to say “WRONG!” What came was the largest and most beautifully presented prawn cocktail I have ever had. A perfect 6-inch tower of king prawns on a bed of shredded avocado garnished with sliced apple. Whilst absolutely delicious, it was a meal in itself. Luckily, and undoubtedly because each dish was individually prepared, there was a considerable gap between courses. You don’t get fast food here, although you are treated to the fastest moving waiters on the island! Perhaps to distract dinners from the time lapse between ordering and eating, the waiters move at breakneck speed around the restaurant creating an atmosphere somewhere between controlled mayhem and organised panic. Waiters approach the table at high speed with a full tray held high with overflowing drinks only to come to an abrupt halt while the tray and glasses carry on through a 45% trajectory to return to level stability without a drop spilt – much to the relief of every dinner within soaking distance. Plates of food are transferred from kitchen to table in a similar manner – quiet entertaining in a strange way.
Oddly, given the high proportion of Brits, there was a definite language barrier, which manifested itself in a comedic exchange between a family on the next table and a puzzled waiter. The conversation went something like this:
Husband: I’ll have an iced coffee and the kids want chocolate ice cream.
Waiter: A nice coffee but only vanilla ice cream.
Husband: No – an iced coffee and two chocolate ice creams (pointing to chocolate ice creams on the adjacent table)
Waiter (doubtful): You want coffee with ice cream?
Husband: NO! ICED COFFEE . . . SEPARATE CHOCOLATE ICE CREAM
Waiter (who we were expecting to say “me from Barcelona” at any moment): Si, Si.
Five minutes later he returned beaming and triumphantly placed a cup of black coffee and a pint glass of ice cubes in front of the husband and two dishes of vanilla ice cream plus bars of Cadburys chocolate for the children. He departed amidst a stunned silence and the Husband speechlessly picked up the coffee and solemnly poured it over the ice cubes.
Day 3 and we found a second bar! You would think that it wouldn’t be difficult but Playa Blanco is designed for eating so if you just want to go out for a couple of drinks and indulge in a spot of people watching you are hard pressed to find somewhere where the price of a meal doesn’t come with the chair. But, just one street back from the promenade, we found one that had the added bonus of having a local singer/guitarist plus sensibly priced cocktails.
Other places to visit
If you can navigate the Swiss alp like bends near the top, go up the mountain road to a village called Femes which overlooks the whole of the coastal plain. There is a restaurant perched on the edge of the drop, which has an outside terrace and is worth the drive just to view the spectacular sunsets from it.
On the other hand, the long and twisty drive to El Golfo is not worth the bother as the green ‘lagoon’ which is billed as its main attraction is hardly more than an oversized dirty puddle. A tiny hamlet, it has more restaurants than houses (we counted at least seven plus a boutique hotel) so the publicity must be working!