After years in the shadow of neighbouring Tenerife (sometimes literally, thanks to the 12,198 ft peak of El Teide), the Canary Island of La Gomera, Spain, is finally showing up on mainstream traveller’s radars. Tipped as one of 2017’s top up-and-coming destinations, this little island offers far more than it’s 14-mile diameter would suggest. So much so that writing about the island as a whole simply doesn’t do it justice. I had the pleasure of calling the southern seaside town of Playa de Santiago my home for a year, and through this experience came to know this part of the island as a true Gomero.
Get to La Gomera
As a visitor to this emerald island, you’ll arrive at either the island’s ferry port in the capital, San Sebastián, or on one of the two daily island-hopper flights from Tenerife Norte. While the flights land you right onto the southernmost tip, a 40-minute drive or ride on the island’s guaguas (small green buses) is needed to get you southbound from San Sebastián.
As with all road trips here, it bends, winds, skirts along cliff edges and requires a steady head for heights. But uncover your eyes for a second and you’ll be greeted with views straight from an aeroplane window as you soar over 3,000 ft above the surrounding ocean.
Playa Santiago: Sunshine and Gastronomy
Before you know it, you’re winding down into the former fishing village and my former home, Playa Santiago. The island’s lofty interior shelters this area from cool, humid Atlantic weather fronts, gifting it more than 350 days of sunshine a year in the process.
Dwarfed by towering cliffs on either side, Santiago enjoys a pace of life as consistently pleasant as its climate. Locals skirt the small town square from dawn to dusk; beer-bellied pensioners and housewives by day, schoolchildren and families by dusk. The village boasts a larger array of restaurants than merited by its modest population, thanks to the Tecina and Santa Ana resorts perched high on the cliffs above.
The excellent Junonia serves some of the most sophisticated dishes on the island, while Bar Tasca Tomás is a local favourite. This is the place to enjoy a few cañas of local Tenerife brew, Dorada, whilst feasting on an irresistibly greasy shredded beef arepa – a Venezuelan speciality well-established on the Canarian fast food scene.
Whales, waves and weight-watching
Santiago offers a partially sandy dark beach well worth a day of snorkelling in the crystal clear waters. The small harbour, long-taunted with the promise of ferry service to San Sebastián, is a calling point for many of the island’s whale and dolphin watching tours. Instead of fighting northern Europeans for a good photo spot, consider climbing aboard the smaller, Santiago-based Halcón Blanco.
Captain Ugo, an eccentric seafaring Italian, puts his little fishing boat at your complete disposal for three hours out on the waves. While the larger tour boats might offer loungers and barbeques, nothing ever compared to dangling my feet off the Halcón Blanco‘s bow, just inches above a pod of wild dolphins.
Back on dry land, replenish some lost sugars and get a caffeine fix at the island’s best (an unofficial but unanimously agreed-upon title) bakery: Pasterleria Lelo. Those who have sampled Portuguese pastries will be delighted to know that it’s owned by a family from Lisbon, so expect to be greeted by a cake selection to rival any café along the Tagus River. Traditional pasteis de nata and the liquor-infused barraquito especial are particular highlights.
Hike to Benchijigua and lunch in Pastrana
Santiago is located in one of many long, rocky barrancos that make up La Gomera’s southern coastline. Wandering east along the town’s promenade, you’ll soon enter the neighbouring valley of Barranco de Santiago, where a sea of bananas and imposing views of the island’s centre meet you. For those who enjoy a hike, take the bus to Las Toscas and follow the gravel track towards the hamlets of Benchijigua and Lo del Gato. An ideal route for beginner hikers, this four-hour walk is a proverbial all-in-one La Gomera experience. It winds through acres of pine trees as they slowly merge into palms, clings to the side of vibrantly green gorges swathed in succulents, passes through derelict villages left to crumble, and drops you right at the door of one of its finest restaurants; Tasca Pastrana.
Also known by the name of Tasca Parilla de Carlos, I first came across this place after naively attempting the aforementioned hike in 30c summer sunshine. Instantly understanding my foolish predicament, the staff welcomed me in at closing time and sat me down with a menu. I’m glad this experience took place so soon during my stay on La Gomera, as it meant I could return again and again throughout my time here.
The restaurant itself is set in a small, traditional house with a slightly larger terrace overlooking the impressive gulley below. While the food is sublime at any time of day, eating here with the backdrop shrouded in darkness would be giving up something for nothing. The only thing here better than the food – everything from Argentinian sausage, stuffed peppers, muscles with delectable Canarian mojo sauce, and the entire specials menu – is the value. You’ll leave Pastrana not only wondering if you’ll be able to walk again, but also if they left a zero off the price.
To Playa El Medio!
The perfect end to a Gomeran day lies, unsurprisingly, beyond another barranco. El Medio beach is found a few ravines east of Santiago and can be accessed along a dirt track or undemanding hiking trail. The rocky beach lacks the sand dunes of other Canary Islands’ playas, but it also lacks rent-a-loungers, beach umbrellas, overpriced bars and just about everything.
Like so much of La Gomera, this place looks exactly as it would’ve done years, decades, and even centuries ago. With nothing but a warm sea breeze and your thoughts for company (and potentially a German nudist if you’re unlucky), there’s no better place to appreciate this emerald island’s raw, untouched beauty from. The looming figure of El Teide across the water reminds us that a true escape on this archipelago gets harder with every resort built, but also that perhaps the most exquisite one is hiding right here, in plain sight.