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Las Palmas Overview
Though its scenery is not as dramatic as that of Tenerife or La Palma, Gran Canaria is a prime choice for 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 -- one of the best in the world, according to a Syracuse University study. Expect sunny days, warm water and a mild average annual temperature of 69 degrees. According to residents, Gran Canaria has just 10 days of rain each year.
Like most Canarian cities, Las Palmas has a distinctly Spanish feel and a rich history (the Canary Islands are an autonomous region of Spain). Christopher Columbus called there during his famous voyage of 1492, and the conquistadors -- attracted by palm groves and a broad bay -- founded the city in 1478.
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 even 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.
For those in search of action in the shape of more varied bars and restaurants, the port also lies close to the internationally famous Playa del Ingles and the spectacular desert scenery of Maspalomas. Both are popular holiday 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.
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Other Canary Islands Cruise Ports:
Fuerteventura • La Palma • Lanzarote • Las Palmas • Tenerife
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. Just to get by: Hola and adios (hello and goodbye); por favor and gracias (please and thank you); cuanto cuesta? (How much?); and, possibly the most useful of all, habla usted Ingles? (Do you speak English?).
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The local currency is the euro (see www.oanda.com or www.xe.comfor latest conversion rates), and there are plenty of banks, Bureaux de Change (exchange bureaus) and ATM's, both in the terminal and in the main shopping districts.
This is a good place to pick up a bottle or two of rather good Canarian wine; try Muscatel if you've got a sweet tooth or Vino del Monte if a rich claret is more to your taste.
Where You're Docked
Ships dock at the Santa Catarina terminal, a major hub both for intraisland ferry services and cruise ships.
The terminal is equipped with seating, toilets, bank outlets, bus stops and taxi ranks. The huge El Muelle shopping complex opposite the port gates is worth a stroll through. Besides international shops like Benetton, C&A and Mango, it has offbeat stores like Whatever Float Your Boat and Bijou Brigette, 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 local carnival was being celebrated with life-size Carnival Queen dolls at either end of the ground-floor walkway, while in the middle was a little girl's delight -- glass case after glass case of Barbie dolls in different outfits.
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 is just 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 Science and Technology Museum. Go left again along Calle Luis Morote -- the main street for ATM's and camera and electrical goods shops -- and follow your nose to the sea. The beach itself is a long stretch of honey-colored 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 at a rank on the quayside or outside the dock gates, but be prepared to negotiate; trips within the city boundaries are usually metered (do check this), but beyond that, you're on your own. Expect to pay upwards of 25 euros for an island tour, depending on how good a haggler you are (and how busy the driver is).
Editor's note: Always remember to allow plenty of time when you go off exploring on your own, as you can run into traffic jams when visiting popular tourist haunts. And, never let a cab go without fixing a pick-up time to get back to your ship.
Watch Out For
Take care with pickpockets in the tourist areas. Be particularly vigilant during the high season and in events where there might be crowds, for example, during Carnival festivities.
The city's main square, Plaza de Santa Ana, 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.
Also worth visiting -- and just off the cathedral square -- is the 15th-century Casa de Colon, a 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.
Las Palma's atmospheric Vegueta and Triana 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.
Stroll the lovely Parque Doramas in the 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 towards town). Not only will you see traditional Canarian flora, including dragon trees, but the park also contains the Pueblo Canario, a traditional Canarian village established in 1939.
Playa del Ingles, Gran Canaria's largest international resort area, is an hour's bus or taxi ride from the port. (Expect to pay about 5 euros by bus, upwards of 25 euros by cab.) 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 -- now a nature reserve and the place to make like an extra from "The Desert Song."
The Science and Technology Museum (Museo Elder de la Ciencia via Tecnologia) is crammed with elaborate Heath Robinson-style contraptions. The 5 euro entrance fee (3.5 euros for children) includes unlimited use of the Internet cafe inside, 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 from the exit.
Been There, Done That
The country town of Teror, 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 the Virgin said to have appeared miraculously in a pine tree. The church is closed on Monday mornings.
Enjoy spectacular views on a taxi ride up the Arucas Mountains, 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.
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."
A better bet for a quiet sun and swim, though, is Maspalomas Beach, 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.
Lunch with a View: La Estacion Restaurant is set next to an old steam engine outside the Science and Technology Museum and overlooks a pretty park and children's play area in the Calle de Eduardo Benot. It's less than a 10-minute stroll from the port gates. And did we mention it's affordable? Suckling pig with egg and fried potatoes, crunchy French bread and garlic mayonnaise, washed down with a glass of wine and a small bottle of mineral water cost only 8.70 euros. It's open from noon until 3 p.m. for lunch.
For Local Seafood: For a good local seafood lunch, visitors to the Playa de Las Canteras should make their way to one of three waterfront restaurants: El Cerdo que Re in Avenida Las Canteras, La Marinera or Casa Carmelo, both in Paseo de Las Canteras. All are open from noon until 3 p.m. for lunch.
For Value Dining: If you want a quick, easy and low-cost option, try the Italian-inspired Paparazzi, located along the boardwalk of Playa de Las Canteras. With al fresco dining, you can enjoy a pizza or a Caesar salad for about 7 euros per person. It is open for lunch and dinner daily.
Best for Active Travelers: Take a "coach and walk" tour to the north of the island to see the craggy scenery of the Bandama volcanic crater and visit the quiet hill villages of Arucas and Teror. The tour includes a visit to the lovely Marquesa Garden in Arucas -- arguably the prettiest of its public gardens -- for a stroll and some banana liqueur. This tour takes three and a half to four hours.
Best for Water-Lovers: The Submarine Dive tour is comprised of a coach trip to Puerto Mogon, Gran Canaria's most westerly resort; free time to explore the shops and cafes around its lively marina; and a trip down to the seabed with a local submarine company aboard a craft equipped with large porthole windows and TV monitors. This one will take you about four and a half hours.
Best for Families: Head to Aquasur, the Canary Islands' largest water-based theme park, which has slides and rides ranging in style from the slow and serene Lazy River to the hair-raising Kamikaze. Lunch is not included on this tour, but restaurants and snack bars abound at the park. Plan to be gone for six hours.
Best for Nature Lovers: Take an excursion to Palmitos Park, located about an hour from the port. The park, which sits in the mountains in a desert-like canyon behind the tourist resort of Maspalomas, is a haven for birds, reptiles and other animals. The park was devastated by a fire back in 2007, but it reopened to the public in 2009. The stunning scenery offers a fantastic backdrop for attractions like the humorous Parrot Show (think parrots sunbathing, flying planes), an aquarium of tropical fish and a butterfly house. This one will take about five hours.
Staying in Touch
Head for the Science and Technology Museum, where a 5 euro entrance fee includes unlimited Internet access.
For More Information
On the Web: Spanish National Tourist Office and Canary Islands Tourism
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Spain Forum
Independent Traveler Message Boards: Spain & Portugal Forum
--by Maria Harding, Cruise Critic correspondent; updated by Kelly Ranson, U.K. Editor.
Image of beach appears courtesy of www.grancanaria.com. Images of Casa de Colon, Santa Ana Square and Teror appear courtesy of www.spain-grancanaria.com.