Gran Canaria is a prime choice for the sun worshippers and water babies who flock to its abundant soft-sand beaches. Its port, Las Palmas, is the biggest city in the Canary Islands chain, and it's often visited by cruise ships. The island enjoys a spring-like climate year-round. Expect sunny days, warm water and an average annual temperature of a mild 69 degrees. Gran Canaria gets just about 10 days of rain each year.
Like most Canarian cities, Las Palmas owns a distinctly Spanish feel and a rich history (the Canary Islands are an autonomous region of Spain). Conquistadors -- attracted by palm groves and a broad bay -- founded the city in 1478, and Christopher Columbus called there during his famous voyage of 1492.
The port's palm tree-lined streets are clean, well laid out and richly endowed with fabulous floral displays -- the city's gardeners make the most of the balmy climate. And you don't have to travel far to find a pleasant beach; the honey-sanded Playa de las Canteras lies just northwest of the downtown area and has the distinction of being one of the longest city beaches in the world.
The port also lies close to the internationally famous sea resort Playa del Ingles and the spectacular desert scenery of Maspalomas. Both are popular resorts year-round, so you will find plenty of dining and lazy beach options. Farther afield, visitors can discover quaint old towns like Arucas and Teror or explore Gran Canaria's volcanic interior -- a surreal moonscape of craggy gorges and gaping craters.
The terminal is equipped with seating, bathrooms, bank outlets, bus stops and taxi ranks. The huge El Muelle shopping complex opposite the port gates is worth a stroll. Besides international shops like Benetton, C&A and Mango, the mall has offbeat stores like Whatever Floats Your Boat and Bijou Brigitte selling quirky goods like character teapots and craftware.
The shopping complex is well-maintained and imaginatively presented, with regular themed displays. During my visit, a carnival was being celebrated with life-size Carnival Queen dolls at either end of the ground-floor walkway, while in the middle, glass case after glass case of Barbie dolls in different outfits, were on display.
Plaza de Santa Ana: The city's main square, is dominated by Las Palmas' 15th-century cathedral of the same name. The twin-towered cathedral was the first church in the Canary Islands. The Gothic-style building features an elaborate high baroque central altar and a display of church ornaments originally from St Paul's Cathedral in London.
Casa de Colon: Also worth visiting -- and just off the cathedral square -- is the 15th-century Spanish mansion where Columbus is believed to have stayed in 1492. Having spent many years as the official residence of Gran Canaria's Spanish governors, it is now a museum containing displays of maps and artifacts related to Columbus' voyages. (Calle de Colon 1; 928 31 23 73; open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Saturday and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday)
Vegueta and Triana: Las Palma's atmospheric old quarters are a warren of streets lined with restaurants, cafes and shops, including Spain's most famous department store, El Corte Ingles, as well as small boutiques selling high-quality leather goods and locally made pottery.
Parque Doramas: Stroll the lovely Ciudad Jardin (Garden City) region of Las Palmas (just off to the right -- up Paseo Rafael Ramirez -- as you walk along the Avenida Maritima del Norte toward town). You'll see traditional Canarian flora, including dragon trees, and the park also contains the Pueblo Canario, a traditional Canarian village established in 1939.
Playa del Ingles: Gran Canaria's largest international resort area, Playa del Ingles is an hour's bus or taxi ride from the port. A return taxi ride for up to four passengers would cost around 100 euros. It is crammed with high-rise hotels, bars, clubs and restaurants, but the main attraction is that it is a gateway to the wonderful "Lawrence of Arabia"-style rolling sand dunes at Maspalomas Beach, a nature reserve.
Elder Museum of Science and Technology (Museo Elder de la Ciencia via Tecnologia): This museum is crammed with elaborate Heath Robinson-style contraptions, and there is a fun interactive area for kids. To get there from the port, walk straight through El Muelle, and you'll find the large white and turquoise building opposite the exit. (Parque Santa Catalina; 828 01 18 28; open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday; 5 euros adults, 3.5 euros children, free for younger than 6; fee includes use of Internet cafe)
Teror: This country town, located 22 kilometers southwest of Las Palmas, is famous for the intricately carved wooden balconies of its houses, and the countryside you'll travel through to get there is simply lovely. Don't miss a visit to the 16th-century Basilica of Our Lady of the Pine, which is dedicated to a sacred effigy of a virgin said to have appeared miraculously in a pine tree. The church is closed on Monday mornings.
Arucas Mountains: Enjoy spectacular views on a taxi ride up these hills, which start only 2.5 kilometers from Las Palmas. En route, you'll see Gran Canaria's rugged north coast and visit Arucas, the island's "banana capital," famed for its quaint cobbled streets, pretty whitewashed houses and imposing Gothic church carved from volcanic rock.
On Foot: The terminal has a striking sail-effect canopy at its exit gate, so just head for that, and you'll find the city center, a five- to 10-minute walk away. Head left along the main walkway from the port gates (Avenida Maritima del Norte), and you'll get to Plaza de Santa Ana, the main square.
To reach the beach, walk straight through El Muelle, then turn right opposite the Elder Museum of Science and Technology. Go left again along Calle Luis Morote -- the main street for ATMs and camera and electronics shops -- and follow your nose to the sea. The beach itself is a long stretch of sand that's reached via a red brick-paved promenade and lined with snack joints and tapas bars.
By Bus: Regular free shuttle buses called guaguas (pronounced "wawas") operate every few minutes from the port gates to the city market. However, if you'd rather stroll into town, it's not far, and it's a pleasant walk.
By Taxi: To go farther afield, pick up a cab quayside or outside the dock gates, but be prepared to negotiate. Trips within the city boundaries are usually metered (check for this), but beyond that, you're on your own. Taxis are inexpensive for short trips, though are generally pricey if you're going around the island. Expect to pay approximately 450 euros for one to four passengers for a four-hour island tour, depending on how good a haggler you are (and how busy the driver is).
Editor's note: Allow plenty of time to explore on your own. You can run into traffic jams when visiting popular tourist haunts. And never let a cab go without fixing a pickup time to get back to your ship.
Closest to the Port: If you're feeling lazy, the Playa de las Canteras offers sun, sea, sand and waterfront cafes within pleasant strolling distance of the port. It's very popular with the locals, so it's a good place to see Canarians and their adorable children at play. Go to Playa del Ingles if you plan to pass this way just once, as it's a lively and classic Canarian "experience."
Best for a Quiet Beach Day: Maspalomas Beach is an oasis-like combination of palm trees and sand dunes. For good water sports, try the crescent-shaped Puerto Rico beach just west of Maspalomas.
Local specialties include sancocho (a salty fish dish), sama frita con mojo verde (fish in a coriander and garlic sauce) and Flor de Guia (a creamy local cheese). Many restaurants serve excellent paella.
La Bikina: Casual atmosphere and good food at a reasonably priced beachfront location. (Paseo de las Canteras 63; 828 06 53 57; open noon to midnight Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday and noon to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday)
Restaurante Tehran: This restaurant serves up meals for vegetarians, including hummus, falafels and pinchos de carne vegetal. Its menu also will satisfy carnivores, too. (Bernardo de la Torre 1; 928 222 817; open noon to 11:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday)
Ristorante Pizzeria Paparazzi: The Italian-inspired eatery, located along the boardwalk of Playa de Las Canteras serves pizza, salads and grilled meats. Enjoy al fresco meals for about 12 euros per person. (928 26 05 91; open 8 a.m. to 1 a.m. Monday to Saturday)
Ships dock at the Santa Catalina terminal, a major hub both for inter island ferry services and cruise ships.
Pickpockets roam the tourist areas. Be particularly vigilant during the high season and at crowded events, such as Carnival festivities.
The currency is the euro, and you'll find plenty of banks, Bureaux de Change (exchange bureaus) and ATMs, both in the terminal and in the main shopping districts. For updated currency conversion figures, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com.
Spanish is spoken there, and though many locals speak at least a smattering of English, you may want to carry a phrase book if you're heading off on your own.
This is a good place to pick up a bottle or two of delicious Canarian wine; try Muscatel if you've got a sweet tooth or Vino del Monte if a rich claret is more to your taste.
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--by Maria Harding; updated by Kelly Ranson, Cruise Critic contributors