Gran Canaria’s original winter sun resort with an evolving food scene

I’m sitting on the terrace of the Hotel Santa Catalina, savouring an energy-boosting leche y leche (condensed milk, espresso and hot milk) as I look out over the well-manicured grounds with their soaring palm trees and the hotel’s intricate wooden balconies.

The original property dates to 1890 and was one of the first built on Gran Canaria. The architect, a Scottish man called James MacLaren, designed it for the increasing number of British visitors that flocked to Las Palmas by the early 1900s.

Long before the package holiday tourism boom of the 1960s and 1970s created the now well-known resorts of Maspalomas in the south of the island, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria (to give the city its full name) was the holiday hotspot for discerning British travellers.

They were ushered here by relatively cheap ship passage (from both Liverpool and London, first-class fares were about £12 single or £21 return), for the year-round temperate climate and by the reputedly healing waters.

These days, the capital is a regular spot for cruise passenger day-visitors, who hop off their ships in Puerto de La Luz. But, I think, perhaps it’s time for the city – the ninth-largest in Spain – to reclaim its holiday credentials.

It’s been 17 years since I first visited and was bowled over by this city-by-the-sea’s charms, and I’m glad to see some parts remain delightfully unchanged and others refreshingly rejuvenated – particularly the food scene.

Last year, lauded Spanish chefs Hermanos Padrón said that Las Palmas probably has the most exciting culinary scene in Spain right now. It is one of the reasons they chose the Hotel Santa Catalina to open their Michelin-starred Poemas restaurant.

They’re in good company. The Canary Islands’ first Green Michelin Star – given for sustainable cuisine and practices – was awarded to Muxgo by Borja Marrero, with its 0km food philosophy. It recently took up residency in the hotel, too.

The brothers’ sentiment is echoed by chef Óscar Dayas as we sit on the terrace of his restaurant Mar Gastrotasca, which overlooks Las Canteras, arguably one of the best city beaches in the world.

The beach is protected by a natural reef that makes the water close to shore almost like a pool. It’s about 1.9-miles (3km) long and backed by a promenade.

“The city’s food scene has developed more in the last eight years than it had over the past century,” Dayas says.

“Young chefs who left the island have returned and gone back to basics with their food, creating beautifully simple dishes that showcase and give credit to the incredible ingredients we have in the sea around us and in the natural larder we have on land.”

I’m eating one of Dayas’s dishes, a sort of fish pie made with fresh cherne (local fish that tastes a bit like cod). It has a layer of yellow sweet potato grown on the island and is topped with creamy gofio (toasted corn/wheat flour). It tastes like Gran Canaria on a plate.

“Mar is like that rebellious child who wants to do things differently. We want to make food that’s playful and enjoyable,” says Dayas. “And with this incomparable view of the sea.”

Las Palmas offers stunning views and near-perfect year-round temperatures (Photo: Andrea Comi/Getty Images)

The city has always been a fan of reinvention, whether fending off plans to drill for oil off the coast and instead using the port to repair rigs and sea platforms, or integrating customs from north Africa, Europe, and Latin America to form a unique Canarian culture, language, and cuisine.

This is obvious in the city’s old districts of Vegueta and Triana. The architecture is recognisably Spanish, but you can spot intricately carved wooden privacy screens of Arabic origin alongside sturdy Canarian pine wood balconies. And a wander down the buzzy Triana high street packed with shoppers will lead you over old tram tracks, laid by the British for La Pepa, the tram that once ran the length of the city to connect its once “new” port with the old town.

It’s approaching late afternoon, so I decide to stop for a slice of the best tortilla in the city at Cafeteria Midway, an unassuming little cafe that’s been serving slices of eggy-potato goodness since the 1980s. Suitably sated, I head to the Museo Canario via the quiet backstreets to learn more about the island’s original pre-Hispanic inhabitants.

The museum is filled with artefacts of these cave-dwelling people, such as pintaderas (geometric patterns that identified the different tribes), and a rather alarming room of skeletons. There are many indigenous remnants across the island – including burial sites, painted caves, and ritual symbols – that are easy to get to by guagua (bus) from the city’s bus station.

Cathedral of Santa Ana in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, capital of Gran Canaria, Canary Islands, Spain. Construction started in 1500 and lasted for 4 centuries.
Santa Ana Cathedral, which has foundations that were laid in 1500 (Photo: Getty)

My next stop is a Las Palmas icon, the Santa Ana Cathedral. Its foundation stones were laid in 1500. I take the lift to the bell towers to peer out over the city. The bracing Atlantic is to the east, the roofs of the city down towards the port are to the north, and the painted houses of the San Juan district on the hillside are west. I decide to walk back down the stairs to work up a thirst as there’s a new rooftop bar on the square that I’m keen to try.

It sits at the top of a new boutique hotel. The property is one of several from the Cordial group, which has sympathetically restored and refurbished palacitos (mansion houses) in Gran Canaria into quirky places to stay.

Terraza Belvédère has views of the cathedral façade, which is glowing almost pink in the early evening light. A waiter in rolled-up sleeves and chinos brings me a glass of local wine, giving me just enough time to plan dinner: a visit to the Mercado del Puerto gastromarket at the other end of the city, where I’ve been promised I’ll find exceptional local dishes, wine and live music.

I guess I can always sleep it off tomorrow on Las Canteras.

Getting there
Several airlines fly direct from the UK to Gran Canaria. The flight time is around four and a half hours.

Staying there
Hotel Santa Catalina has double rooms from £120 per night,