Chris Paling, The Daily Telegraph, April 13, 2012
As the crow flies it's only five and a half miles (9km) from the port of San Sebastián to Playa de Santiago where we stayed. This being La Gomera, however, the journey takes 40 minutes along the vertiginous road that snakes up the barranco (valley) and back down the steep gorge on the other side to the coast.
This cake-shaped island is only about 15 miles (25km) across and 14 miles (22km) from north to south, but the central peak of
is 4,869ft (1,484m) and from it the steep
radiate to the sea. The terrain has been the major limiting factor in the development of La Gomera, sparing the island the ravages of tourism and preserving it as the gem of the archipelago.
There's a small local airport on the island but it closes at 6pm so the majority of visitors arrive by ferry and are met by a typical Gomeran townscape: a hard-edged mountain silhouette softened by the pastel-coloured houses ranged over the slopes. The introduction of a daily service from Tenerife in 1974 had a huge impact on La Gomera. Christina Kilfitt, a "guest adviser" at Hotel Jardín Tecina, said: "That was the point when everything changed. The Franco period soon ended, electricity came, water pipes, finally the modern world."
Christina arrived on the island 31 years ago, fell in love with the place and stayed. For two days we toured the island by car and soon came to understand why. La Gomera is more demure than the brasher islands that have earned the Canaries their reputation. It doesn't have the boisterous nightlife or miles of beaches. Instead, the spectacular scenery and wildlife attract a different kind of holidaymaker – birdwatchers, hikers and walkers or those who just want some civilised peace and quiet and a decent climate for a few days.
There are no extremes here – temperatures average a springlike 70F (22C) in the winter and 80F (27C) in the summer. Climate aside, life on the island was traditionally hard for the inhabitants. Drive down the wide barranco into the Valle Gran Rey and you see the evidence of this: the man-made terraces created from hundreds of dry stone walls on which a few meagre crops could be grown. These ledges add rather than detract from the natural beauty. The stone walls are mimicked in the retaining walls built alongside many of the island roads. It's a nice touch and symbolic of the way the island has been cautiously modernised. There is a healthy respect here both for tradition and the environment. A small point, perhaps, but there's almost no litter or fly-tipping, or the ubiquitous plastic bottles that strew the highways in much of the modern world.
It was the Valle Gran Rey that attracted the first visitors in the Seventies and it's the closest to a traditional beach resort, although the development is small scale. We left there in search of the local road to Las Hayas where we intended to call in at a famous bar/restaurant called La Montaña-Casa de Efigenia. This is a highly garlanded place famed for its traditional Canarian vegetarian dishes. It has the feel of a small English tea shop, the shadowed bar dominated by a pair of old grocer's scales.
We could stay only for coffee but talked to two German hikers walking the island with the aid of a hand-held GPS device. They'd eaten there the night before and praised the food. La Montaña is presided over by the famous and slightly bemused Efigenia, who made a point of offering us a bag of almonds to take away with us. We found this courteousness typical of the islanders.
Our best meal was in El Meson de Clemente, a small family-run restaurant in Alajeró (see "Essentials" below) where the host took a genuine delight in what he served us and a real interest in how we received it.
Leaving Las Hayas by the narrow road to the north, we were soon in the west of the Garajonay National Park, described to us as by locals "our treasure". This subtropical rainforest is one of the world's largest areas of laurel, covering about 10 per cent of the island. Some 450 floral species have been recorded here, the fecundity down to the moisture-bearing trade winds blowing over the island.
We took a break at La Laguna Grande, one of the numerous stopping places in the park. All have well-signposted walks of various lengths and character. Unfortunately, we found the park cloaked for days in cloud, the temperature several degrees lower than the coast.
Alex Stomberg and his mother run Ibo Alfaro, a small rural hotel in Hermigua with spectacular views up and down the valley. Over coffee, Alex told us that Hermigua was once the centre of the sugar cane trade on the island, but when that trade collapsed, bananas – La Gomera's "yellow gold" – took its place.
That trade has also now shrunk. Four huge concrete pillars on the beach remain, the foundations for a crane that was never built. But the village, with its mix of small plain local houses and the more ornate Spanish baroque villas of the merchants, is worth visiting. Close by, Playa de La Caleta is reputed to be the best beach on the island.
There is more to do – to explore the places Columbus stayed when he stopped off to re-provision his ships en route to discovering the New World; to seek out one of the speakers of "el silbo", the ancient whistled language used by the inhabitants to enable them to communicate across the ravines. But we wanted to make the most of the early spring sun thawing our bones and enjoy the feeling of relaxation staying on the island has given us.
On our last night we visited a small restaurant close to the hotel. The restaurant's docile dog, Shiva, greeted us when we arrived and positioned herself at our feet. As we ate a group of young travellers came in carrying instrument cases. The owner brought out food and wine, the musicians ate and laughed. Afterwards, a young woman stood and began to sing a Croatian folk song while the others played along.
We stayed for an hour or so. It was utterly transfixing. On our way out I asked the owner if the musicians are Spanish. "I don't know where they come from," he said. "I thought I'd give them a chance."
His attitude seemed typical of this magical island. Give La Gomera a chance. It will find its way into your dreams.
EasyJet (0871 244 2366; easyjet.com ) offers flights to Tenerife South from £69.49 return. There are three express ferries a day to La Gomera from Los Cristianos, a 20-minute drive from Tenerife South. Turn up and pay.
Sovereign (0844 415 1936;) offers a seven-night b & b package at the four-star Hotel Jardín Tecina (see “The Best Hotels”, below) from £741 per person, based on two sharing.
The inside track
Head to the south side of the island to increase your chances of sun. The two largest hotels are on the southern coast.
A number of hikers we encountered used GPS to navigate the island. There are a couple of unofficial internet sites where you can download info specific to La Gomera.
Pack some decent walking shoes and a coat for your visit to the Garajonay National Park.
Unless you need the space it’s pointless hiring a large-engined car. We drove around for two days using mainly second and third gear. There are few lengths of flat, straight road. Autos La Rueda (autoslarueda.es) offers reasonably priced car hire. A Nissan Micra is €32/£27 plus insurance for one or two days. Petrol on the island is relatively cheap.
The best hotels
Ibo Alfaro £
A 20-room traditional manorial country house in Hermigua, in the north of the island. Unbeatable views up and down the valley. Hugely popular with walkers. A car is essential (0034 922 880168; hotel-gomera.com ; double b & b from €80/£66 per night).
Hotel Jardín Tecina ££
Attractive four-star village-style hotel on a cliff top above Playa de Santiago (there are two lifts to the beach). Wonderful gardens, three restaurants, fitness club, golf course and tennis courts (222140; jardin-tecina.com ; doubles from €163/£135 per night).
Parador La Gomera ££
This a traditional four-star overlooking the port of San Sebastián. It has traditional dishes on the menu; furniture combines Castilian and Isabelline styles (871100; paradores.es ; double b & b from €137.20/£114).
The best restaurants
El Meson de Clemente £
A friendly, family-run restaurant/bar in Alajeró. Generous meat dishes simply and beautifully cooked. We ordered one starter between us and were served with a huge sizzling skillet of tasty mushrooms beautifully cooked and seasoned. A half chicken is €7/£6 and served with fries and salad. Steak dishes cost around €15/£13. The house wine is good and only €1.20/£1 a glass – and the second glass is replenished generously (895721).
La Montaña-Casa Efigenia £
A rare vegetarian restaurant in Las Hayas specialising in traditional Canarian recipes. A very reasonable €10/£8.30 per head per meal (plus wine). Rooms are also available close by (804077).
La Cuevita ££
Built into a cave overlooking the harbour in Playa de Santiago, this is an atmospheric gem. Fresh fish and an equal number of meat dishes. Expect to pay €15/£13 for a main dish, around €7/£6 for a starter (895568).