Ikea-on-Sea: the resort that shows why your family should start holidaying like the Scandinavians, by William Gray
First published in the Telegraph
I’m not normally the ‘Bootylicious’ type. But this is how Scandinavians like to kick-start a day on holiday in Gran Canaria. And as I’m staying at the Ocean Beach Club – a sleek, stylish family resort on the island’s southwest coast that, until this summer, has been sold exclusively to the Scandinavian market – I feel obliged to subject my legs, buttocks and core (whatever that is) to the 30-minute Bootylicious workout.
“OK, here we go,” enthuses our irrepressible personal trainer from Sweden. “You can do it.”
No, I don’t think I can actually. In fact, I may need a stretcher rather than a sunbed to recover. Next to me, my 16-year-old daughter, Ellie, breezes through the tortuous regime of squats, jumps and planks – even while simultaneously controlling fits of hysterical laughter at watching her father flounder in the wall-length mirror opposite.
“That was great, see you at aqua aerobics at 11.30,” says the Swedish dynamo when the brain-pummelling music finally stops. If I can make the breakfast buffet and manage to lift a plate of sausages, eggs and bacon I’ll be happy. But Ellie won’t hear of it. She’s obviously got Viking blood in her and we end up having freshly-squeezed orange juice, granola and natural yoghurt.
Ocean Beach Club – or OBC as it’s known locally – occupies a prime spot at Le Playa del Tauro, about a 30-minute drive from the airport. The contemporary four-star resort sprawls across the beachfront in an immaculate swathe of white limestone, a square pool studding its terrace like a giant sapphire. In stark contrast to the surrounding holiday apartments – stacked like mega-blocks on rugged cliffs – OBC’s main building is low-slung with wrap-around floor-to-ceiling windows, wooden floors and cream leather sofas. White sun loungers and matching parasols complement the restricted palette, while the rooms and suites beyond the pool terrace are equally refined.
Ikea on Sea? Actually, it’s OBC’s Spanish manager, Manolo, who mentions the ‘I’ word. Mostly Swedes come here, he tells me. When the hotel was renovated in December 2015, it was given a makeover with more than just a touch of Scandi chic.
But there’s got to be more to holidaying like a Scandinavian than a touch of Ikea and a Bootylicious fitness class. As tempting as it is to flop by the pool and browse the vast lunchtime smorgasbord of smoked salmon, salads, cheeses and pastries, I decide we need to explore. According to the Scandinavian team from Thomas Cook who are responsible for launching OBC to UK holidaymakers this summer, ‘Scandinavians like to feel like locals when they travel’.
There’s nothing wrong with that you might think, until you discover – with mounting alarm – that just about every local on Gran Canaria is a fanatic cyclist. There’s enough lycra on this island to stretch to the moon and back. Everywhere you look, densely-packed pelotons of hardcore road racers clad in dazzling, skin-tight all-in-one bodysuits are zipping past, their leg muscles writhing like mating pythons. They could probably do Bootylicious in their sleep.
Before we hire bikes, Ellie has one condition – that I’m not, under any circumstances, to wear anything made from lycra – and I stipulate that, due to various Bootylicious-induced issues – we rent e-bikes.
I feel a bit of a fraud, engaging ‘e-motion’ – an electric motor that makes you feel epic – but you have to remember that Gran Canaria is essentially a huge volcano rising out of the Atlantic. The moment you venture inland from its narrow, built-up coastal strip the only way is up.
Stopping for a slab of Milka chocolate and a 7UP at the village of El Horno (after all, you still have to expend energy pedalling in order for e-motion to work), we find ourselves sitting outside with a gaggle of lycra-sprayed Danes.
“Are you on your way up too?” I ask one of them, gesturing towards the hazy ridges looming above the Barranco de Arguineguín.
“Yes, yes, up, down, up,” he replies airily.
“Ah, right,” I murmur and then, before I can stop myself, the confession is out. “We’re actually cheating; you see, our bikes have electric motors.”
“It’s OK,” says the Dane, his voice thick with pity or scorn, I’m not sure which. “Some say they’re just for old people, but I think they’re for everyone. What I don’t like, though, is that you’re leaving the European Union.”
Shame heaped upon shame, Ellie and I saddle up and engage e-motion, even though it’s a flattish stretch. The valley pinches and soon we are riding switchbacks high into the mountains – sheer cliffs striped with ancient lava flows; ridges crimped into surreal parapets of chimneys and spires. We buzz past other cyclists, their heads bowed as they sweat through the relentless succession of hairpin bends. And we enjoy the views – and the cycling – without fear of cramp, heartburn or lycra failure. At Soria, we reward ourselves with ice creams in the shade of a grove of orange trees. Bougainvillea and pelargoniums cascade crimson and magenta from whitewashed walls, while lime-green euphorbias dot the slopes below like a rash of grounded candelabras.
“It should be hard. Nature is hard!” A few days later, Rocky Adventure hiking guide, Bjorn, is indignant when I tell him about our e-biking exploits. We’re following a spectacular 11km trail high above the terracotta rooftops of Santa Lucia, a 700m vertical gain before descending 500m into the Guayadeque canyon. With long, sun-bleached blond hair and quartz-chip eyes, Bjorn is another infuriatingly Bootylicious Swede. I resort to botany in order to disguise my panting. The slopes are festooned with wild lavender and white-blossomed almond trees; leathery spears of agave thrust skywards, while flouncy palms nuzzle in deep ravines… it all demands frequent pauses to be fully appreciated.
Bjorn refers to Gran Canaria as the ‘Galapagos of Europe’. He tells me there are over 100 endemic plant species here. Only 3% of the island is used for intensive tourism, most is mountain wilderness speckled with villages and laced with some 800 walking routes – including the ancient Caminos Reales (Royal Pathways) that were constructed in the 1400s to link plantations.
It’s perhaps not surprising that a Swede should make his home here. “A big part of nature is to be alone, be quiet. Today we won’t meet anyone.” says Bjorn. “They should call this ‘Adventure Island’ – not ‘Sit-on-a-Sunbed-by-the-Pool Island’.”
I half agree. With Ocean Beach Club as a base, the Scandinavians have found the best of both worlds when it comes to holidaying on Gran Canaria. I’m sure they won’t mind sharing it with the odd Brit – even the non-Bootylicious kind.