In late December of 1997, I took advantage of an award ticket on Swissair to travel to the Canary Islands, a collection of small volcanic islands 100 miles off the coast of Africa. I was really looking forward to a vacation, having been out of the country on business trips for the entire month of November, missing the Thanksgiving holiday for the past three years! As I prepared to leave home early in the morning, I not only packed my bags, but also wrapped my Christmas gifts and posted all my Christmas cards. When the morning of my departure arrived, it felt more like the beginning of another business trip, rather than the start of a vacation! On the ride to the airport, there were gorgeous views of the snow-covered San Gabriel Mountains under clear blue skies. The flight to Atlanta was very comfortable in First Class, and the hot breakfast of Mexican scrambled eggs, peppers, potatoes, and sausage was most welcome. After landing in Atlanta, I spent some time enjoying the atmosphere and amenities of the new International Business Class Lounge before boarding the SwissAir 747 for the 9 hour flight to Zurich. Just after takeoff, I relaxed with a cold gin and tonic, along with a delicious appetizer of grilled shrimp, smoked fish, and very tender roast beef. For the main dinner course I chose a superb, very delicate, poached Norwegian salmon, served with new potatoes, steamed carrots and broccoli. The meal was very fresh and delicious, accompanied by a chilled glass of Swiss white wine from the Fendant du Valais region. After dinner, the dessert and cheese cart came by with a selection of Swiss cheeses, dried fruits and nuts. A cup of expresso soon followed, along with a glass of port. I finished the evening with a glass of Cointreau on ice, feeling very relaxed and well on my way to enjoying my vacation! Several hours later, I awoke to a beautiful sunrise over the French Alps, and soon we were landing in Zurich, where the entire countryside was covered in a blanket of fresh snow. As I walked out of the airport terminal, the freezing air made its presence felt immediately on my nose! It was a short ride on the shuttle bus to the Airport Hilton Hotel, a place I was already very familiar with from many past business trips. After checking in, I took a much needed nap for a couple of hours, before going downstairs to the Swiss Tavern Restaurant for an early dinner. The restaurant was a very authentic replica of a typical Swiss village tavern, and offered very traditional fondue, a uniquely Swiss dish. My server highly recommended the “Farmer’s Cheese and Ham Fondue”, and it arrived as a large boiling pot of melted cheese and chunks of ham, along with a huge basket of crusty bread. The taste was incredible, and by the time I reached the bottom of the pot, I was pleasantly stuffed! Seated next to me was a table of locals enjoying a special “Fondue Chinoise” (Chinese fondue). At the end of their dinner, all the men ordered large snifters of French brandy and Cuban cigars, selected from a large wooden chest. Nearby, at another table was a young American gay couple who had recently passed the dating stage and were now living together for the first time. One of them ordered the fondue, to which the other remarked, “are you going to make a meal of just bread and melted cheese?” His partner was a bit more worldly and replied that he had done this before, and it was very good. After a fabulous dinner, I went up to the lobby lounge for a Swiss beer and listened to some very nice, relaxing music by an Italian musician playing piano and synthesizer.
The next morning I was awake at 3:00am, but avoided getting up until 6:00am for the return trip to the airport. After checking in for the flight to Las Palmas on Gran Canaria Island, I had coffee and pastries in the SwissAir Business Class Lounge before boarding was called. The MD-80 aircraft was almost completely full, but I was lucky enough to have an empty seat beside me for the 4 ½ hour flight. Gran Canaria Island lies to the southwest of the European continent in the Atlantic Ocean, 100 miles from the coast of Western Sahara.
The first two hours were pretty bumpy, as we flew through the strong Jet Stream, and unfortunately that was also during the breakfast service! (coffee cups were spilling into the aisle) But at last, the pilots found smooth air over southern Spain, and it was a pleasant flight after that. The skies began to clear as we approached the Canary Islands, and we landed under brilliant sunshine and warm temperatures – dramatic contrast to the snow and cold of Switzerland! As I walked out of the terminal and looked for the hotel shuttle bus, which the guidebook said would be meeting arriving flights, it was no where to be seen. So I asked the airport welcome desk for the hotel’s phone number and received two different numbers. The first number I called turned out to be a private residence, but the man who answered was kind enough to give me the correct number, which turned out to be a “transposition” of two digits. He sounded as if he received calls for the hotel on a daily basis. Once I connected with the hotel front desk, I was told to take public bus #61. I made an attempt to find bus #61, but to no avail, so I finally ended up taking a taxi to the hotel.
After checking in to a lovely room overlooking the ocean, I took a long walk along the beach, before enjoying a wonderful dinner at the “El Senador Restaurant”. Dinner began with sumptuous grilled shrimp sizzling in butter and garlic, followed by the main course, grilled filet of Sea Bream, served in a luscious garlic and lemon sauce. Then I finished dinner with a fantastic burnt custard dessert and a cup of espresso. Back in my hotel room, I enjoyed a glass of Spanish wine and a gorgeous sunset, as I sat on my private veranda – a beautiful, relaxing end to the day!
The following morning, I began the day with a delicious breakfast buffet outside by the pool, under warm, sunny skies. Later, I joined a group of German tourists for a day long tour of the island. There were five mini-vans, filled with people mostly over 65, all of whom were very nice, but a very quiet group. I was very lucky to be able to sit in the front seat, next to the driver – perfect for taking photos. Our tour leader was Herman and our driver Carlos, a real “ladies man”, who was constantly whistling and singing to himself – mostly for his own entertainment! He was very nice, and very flamboyant, in contrast to the very staid German tourists. His favorite saying was “Mein God”! We drove high into the volcanic mountains on very steep, narrow roads, where vehicles had to reverse many times on tight switchbacks to ascend the mountain. We travelled from the dry, barren south side of the island, over the high summit, to the very wet, heavily forested north side – an incredibly dramatic change in a very short distance. It was almost as if we had suddenly crossed over to a totally different island!
Along the way, although the dominant language of our group was German, Spanish was the official language of the island. During our tour of the island, we passed through many small coastal towns and villages, built on steep cliffs overlooking the sea, the houses being a brilliant white with deep purple trim. In many of the steep, narrow canyons were large reservoirs called “Barancos”. At one point, we turned off the coastal road and headed up the “Grand Canyon of the Canarias”, on an incredibly steep and twisting road.
Near the top of the canyon, we stopped in a tiny village to visit a small church carved out of a cave. We were greeted by the mayor (Burgermeister), Don Juan Carlos, who had emigrated from Cuba many years before. After viewing the church, he invited us into his house, also partially in a cave, for fresh cactus fruit juice from his garden. Then we watched as he ground corn meal by hand on an old stone wheel. Meanwhile, a local program played on his old B&W TV inside the cave! Just outside his house was gorgeous, huge Poinsettia bush with spectacular deep scarlet blooms. Looking around, the whole mountainside was a collection of small fields laid out in a series of terraces that climbed up the steep slopes.
Further down the road, we stopped for lunch at a small hotel restaurant, situated in another steep, narrow valley on the north side of the island. The restaurant was well known for serving a unique dish consisting of thin slices of various meats and fresh vegetables that each of us could cook as we wished on our own “hot volcanic rock” in the center of the table. Along with the delicious meats and vegetables came lots of local red wine, and a fabulous thick cream pudding topped with cinnamon and sugar. The whole meal, including the wine, was very inexpensive, costing each of us only 1500 pesetas (roughly $5.00).
Leaving the restaurant, we drove down the narrow valley on another incredibly steep, one-lane road, past fields of bananas, papayas, cabbage, carrots, eggplant, corn, and avocados – a very lush, green landscape, in stark contrast to the south side of the island. Eventually we reached the coast again, and soon were driving through Las Palmas, the island’s largest city. As we drove past the heavily developed and industrial area, I was very glad to be staying in Maspalomas, a much more beautiful part of the island. As we arrived back at the hotel, we were rewarded with a spectacular sunset that silhouetted the mountains beautifully. For dinner that evening, I had a delicious dish of sizzling garlic shrimp at El Senador again. After which I had a beer at the “Piano Beach Bar”, where a local singer was performing classic lounge songs. He had a good voice, but he kept hitting off key notes on the keyboard – perhaps he was “tone deaf”? Meanwhile, I watched the waves pounding the rocks on the beach below, listening to their eternal rhythm – a beautiful evening! I finished the night in the hotel lobby bar, listening to an English band called “Sweet Home”. They played everything from Frank Sinatra and classic Viennese waltzes to 50’s Rock-n-Roll! And to top off the night, they played the current popular hit, “Macarena”, to the delight of the German tourists!
The next morning, I was awakened at 8:00am by a phone call from the local “Hertz” man, who wanted me to come down to his office to pick up the rental car I had booked for 12 noon! He claimed it was not possible to wait until noon, so we settled on an 11:00am pickup. Following another wonderful breakfast buffet by the pool, I grabbed my camera, water bottle, sunscreen, and headed into an extensive expanse of sand dunes not far from the hotel. Along the way, I passed a corral where camels were kept for “rides through the desert”. The northern edge of the area had several, large stable dunes covered with a thick forest of Juniper brush. But as I walked south toward the sea, the vegetation quickly became sparse as the dunes became more unstable.
Soon I came to some very high dunes, and as I reached the crest, I suddenly found myself overlooking a large group of nude men sunbathing and “parading” among the dunes! I managed to seek an alternate route toward the coast. On the way I spotted lots of tracks in the sand from lizards, snakes, and small animals, but during the entire time, I saw only one lizard. (so I suspected they were all nocturnal) Just before I reached the coast, I had to climb one of the highest dunes, but my struggle up the steep soft sand was rewarded with a spectacular view – craggy, volcanic mountains to the north and golden rolling sand dunes to the south. And on the eastern edge of the dunes was the “Palace Hotel”, a massive, pure white structure, gleaming in the bright sunshine! To the west was an old lighthouse, standing tall against the deep blue sky. From the coast, I trekked further west, up and down what seemed liked endless dunes, under the brilliant mid-day sun, before finally reaching a long stretch of beautiful white sand beach and pounding surf!
As I sat on the edge of the dunes, a constant stream of people strolled along the beach – all manner of bodies passed by, beautiful and otherwise. I couldn’t help but notice quite a few women going topless, though in all honesty, most would have looked better had they kept their tops on! I took off my hiking boots and walked along the beach, my bare feet playing “tag” with the surf. It was a lovely feeling every time the water flooded over my feet, amid the warm sunshine – very peaceful and relaxing. As I continued walking west toward the lighthouse, many young families frolicked nude in the surf – so many that I soon wondered if I had inadvertently walked into a nudist camp! But everyone seemed to take my presence in stride, so I didn’t feel at all uncomfortable. But at one point, I passed a couple of little old English ladies, who must have been more than a bit shocked, as several men strolled by them with everything “flying in the wind”! It was a long but enjoyable walk along the beach back to the hotel, and a wonderful way to enjoy the beautiful sunshine, the roar of the ocean, and the spectacular scenery.
When I reached the far end of the beach, I found a perfect place to stop for a cold beer – the “Café Bachstueben”. It had the original Budweiser beer from Budvar, Czechoslovakia. As I sat on the terrace, overlooking the beach, it didn’t take long to realize, with so many people nude, just how few are really attractive! But it’s great to see that they feel OK to “let it all hang out”, whatever it is and whatever it looks like. Back at the hotel, I relaxed on my veranda with a glass of wine and watched a gorgeous sunset. Later, I strolled through the small town of Maspalomas and stopped at “La Bodega Terraza” for a fantastic dinner of fresh grilled fish and vegetables, along with a cold pint of German beer. Meanwhile, a young guitarist played old rock and classic jazz tunes, sometimes very good, but all the time competing with a couple of Spanish guitarists at the restaurant next door!
The next morning, after another incredible breakfast buffet on the terrace, under clear blue skies, I savored my last day in the Canary Islands. I packed my bags and loaded them into the Hertz rental car – a very little red car, with just enough space behind the seat for my bag. Then I got directions from the hotel concierge about how to get to the road that would lead to the small villages of San Bartolome and Santa Lucia, high up the steep mountains in the center of the island. As I drove up the steep, narrow, twisting road, I found the little red car was perfect for driving in the mountains. There were times when it was a bit scary though, even with guard rails on the edge of the road, especially when approaching oncoming traffic. Soon I reached the summit of a high ridge, where I was rewarded with a spectacular view of a massive rock headwall, looming high above the deep valley below. In the distance, clinging to the incredibly steep slope, at the base of the thousand foot high headwall, were the two small villages. Brilliant white washed houses clung to the mountainside, neatly stacked one on another – a gorgeous scene under the clear blue skies and radiant sunshine.
As I followed the narrow, sinuous road, it dropped sharply into the deep valley of the “Barranco de Tiranja”. When I finally reached the valley floor, I came to the tiny village of “Fataga”, where there was a large oasis and a small herd of camels. (the village was famous for “camel safaris”) As with so many other traditional villages on the island, all the houses were white washed and topped with roofs of red clay tile that gleamed in the mid-day sun.
All too soon, I had to make my way to the airport for my return flight to Zurich. The 5 hour flight was very pleasant, with a delicious dinner of pork tenderloin in a wild Morel mushroom sauce, along with a chilled glass of Swiss white wine. I reflected on the trip to a beautiful place that I would remember for a long time, and that in two days time I would be sharing Christmas with my sister Lynn, Nils, and Leslie – by way of Zurich, Cincinnati, Salt Lake City, and Boise. From warm, sunny beaches to snow covered mountains – such is the pleasure of travel!