The Greek writer Homer called the islands Elysium–where the good and great spent an idyllic afterlife. Hercules visited the daughters of Atlas here, in their paradisiacal island home. The Romans bestowed the enviable name “Fortunate Islands” on them. Even Shakespeare sang the praises of the isles, gushing that Canary Island wine “perfumes the blood.” So what are these Canary Islands that are so deeply ingrained in the European consciousness, yet their mention draws a blank stare from Americans? Are these mythical isles of Africa, of Europe, or simply of the Atlantic? Why did every gay European speak so highly of their queer allure? Had they in fact found an Elysium that had eluded me in my journeys?
My revelation began when my British Airways flight landed on a dry, rocky field on the western shore of Gran Canaria island. I was in the center of a seven-island chain that begins a mere 60 miles off the coast of Morocco. Having been well-versed in African travel, I anticipated bucolic scenes of dark women carrying impossible loads on their heads and feeble donkeys pulling carts of hay. Instead, I was shocked as freeways, shopping malls, and neon signs sprung into view. The taxi driver had on the latest techno pop music from Madrid, and beaches flail of topless white women in thongs floated past my air-conditioned window. Was I really over 700 miles south of Europe, or right in the middle of it?
The highway curved around a sloping, arid mountainside as we headed to the dry southern tip of the island, to the main resort centers of Playa del Ingles in Maspalomas. Here, I had been told thousands of European holidaymakers spend their extraordinarily long (by American standards) vacations via inexpensive air-hotel packages. We cruised through a town of cement low-rise hotels, with glimpses of deep rocky valleys behind. I checked into the all-gay Club Tucanes resort (the nicest of the several all-gay resorts in the area), where tanned guys in bikinis lounged by the pool drinking cocktails. By then, I knew I was as far from the rustic African mainland as I could get.
“You Americans have Palm Springs or Key West, but this is totally unique for us Europeans,” explained Carl, a Brit who worked for Man Around Tours, the travel company that also owns the resort, as we settled down at the pool’s outdoor cafe. “This is the only year-round sun destination we have. And the only place with these kinds of all-gay resort complexes. Not even gay islands like Ibiza or Sitges or Mykonos have the gay infrastructure that Gran Canaria has.”
To prove the point, Carl later towed me along to the adjoining Yumbo Centre–a large concrete outdoor mall built around an open plaza. It overflowed with T-shirt kiosks, camera shops, and eateries. In the fading sunlight, the sterile place looked like it had seen better days.
“This is part of what all the Euro gays come for,” Carl stated.
“For a shopping mall?” I knew the Canaries were a tax-free shopping zone, but it seemed to me you’d have to be a pretty desperate shopaholic to fly to the coast of Africa for this. “Just you wait,” is all he said.
Sure enough, as the night drew around us, the T-shirt racks were locked up and little neon signs began to blink awake around the four-tiered mall, announcing not-so-cryptic bar names like “Macho Macho,” “Diamond Ladies,” “Men’s Garage,” and “Buddies.”
“You mean. …?” I asked.
“Yes,” Carl said. “The Yumbo is all gay at night. Look around. There are almost 60 gay pubs and discos just right here.”
It didn’t seem to me like my home of New York City could even compete with that number. And you had to cab it between them all. Here at the Yumbo you could stumble from one gay bar to another all night long and never find the end of it. We swung into the Centre Stage pub, where tambourines were handed out upon arrival to assist patrons in sing-alongs to Hollywood musicals playing on the large plasma screen. There was Toby’s cafe, where we sat next to straight elderly German ladies playing bingo, led of course by a drag queen in a unitard. We passed Prison, where a bartender sold drinks through cell-block bars. It was all a bizarre gay Euro Disneyland. No wonder gays from the other, more subdued Canary Islands came to Gran Canaria for vacation.
The next day we headed to the gay Beach Number 7, which was marked like a territorial conquest with a huge rainbow flag flapping in the breeze. To get there we crossed a small sea of high rolling dunes, where gay tourists laid out nude in sun-drenched liberation. Along the sandy trail echoes of Brits speaking Castilian Spanish and Spaniards speaking the Queen’s English could be heard. By the time we got to the wide beach, passersby had greeted each other in five or six different languages, until they found one that stuck. Babel had nothing on Gran Canaria. It was like the Eurovision Song Contest without the singing.
As the apparently token North American on the island, I felt like an exotic plant species that had washed up on shore. As the outsider, I realized what I was witnessing was a happy–even giddy–new pan-Europeanism that the Dutch, British, German, French, and Spanish tourists seemed to be partaking of. It was a European Union of gay brotherhood. Even the Germans and Brits refrained from bickering over lounge chairs on the beach. Maybe it was the Canary sunshine or maybe the ever-present cocktails, but if these ancient feuding nationalities could get along on this island, I had hope for the long-bickering continent of Europe and its struggle to unify itself.
The formation of the new Europe also brought fresh residents to the shores of the Canary Islands (whose burgeoning population is now close to 2 million). After all, the islands are a full-fledged province of Spain and the southernmost part of Europe–meaning any E.U. citizen can move here. Michael Snailham, the owner of the island’s largest nightclub, Heaven, told me he had permanently moved to Playa del Ingles a few years back, where he met his local boyfriend. “I feel more open and accepted being gay here than in England. In Manchester or London, I wouldn’t feel nearly as comfortable holding my lover’s hand as I do here. I don’t see myself ever going back to live there.” Homer wasn’t the only one who had found Elysium.
But then outsiders have always shaped the destiny of the Canary Islands. There is controversial evidence that Cro-Magnons were the first immigrants to the islands–despite no indication of oceangoing vessels. The periodic volcanic eruptions that shaped the jagged islands (the latest one in 1971) were the only thing of concern–until the Spaniards came to set up shop in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Christopher Columbus was the first to realize the islands’ geographical importance when he swung by Gran Canaria on his way to the Americas in 1492. Soon the Spanish dominated the transatlantic trade by using Gran Canaria as the perfect base to catch the ideal winds and currents to sail to the New World, making the island one of the most prosperous of the era. In the 1930s, Franco launched the Spanish civil war from here, and the ’60s saw the birth of mass tourism to the then poverty-stricken island, with waves of gay tourists setting up camp in Playa del Ingles in the ’80s and ’90s.
“I think it’s our history of foreign visitors that has helped make our culture so tolerant,” Carmen Diaz of the local tourism board reflected. We were strolling around were she grew up, in the old Vegueta area of Las Palmas, located in the northeast of the island (just 45 minutes’ drive from the Playa del Ingles). “You know, Lopez Aguilar, our minister from Gran Canaria, was the one who really pushed for gay marriage in the Spanish parliament. And even one of our island presidents in the ’80s was openly gay. I just think we are even easier-going than people in Madrid or Barcelona.”
As we walked along Vegueta’s cobblestone streets and theatrical Spanish architecture, Carmen’s friends would pop out of shops or stop us along the street with a double-cheek kiss and a robust smile, launching into a sunny chat. What struck me most of all was a genuine warmth and camaraderie that the islanders had with each other and foreigners alike. It seemed to arise from more than just the perfect weather.
The city of Las Palmas, Spain’s seventh largest, was the “real” Gran Canaria. It was where you’d find the old museums, ornate historical buildings, and a local beach scene at Playa de las Canteras. Whereas the resort south was slightly artificial-feeling, Las Palmas was thriving with natural city life. Most of the pale-white tourists seemed to be unable to budge from the intoxicating beach and bar scenes in Playa del Ingles and Maspalomas, with their persistent sunshine. But I discovered the rest of the island was the real draw. Beyond Las Palmas the interior was a rich maze of rock canyons, bluffs, pinnacles, and valleys, eroded from prehistoric volcanoes. Caves dotted the landscape, giving it a Swiss-cheese look, and some of them have been ingeniously crafted into modern dwellings. Everything from towering palm trees to pine forests inhabited the island’s varied ecosystems. Winter snow dusted its highest peaks, even though the island is parallel to the Sahara Desert. The entire western coastline was nearly a fjord system that rivaled any Hawaiian landscape.
I drove the zigzag roads past stucco villages up into the central mountains, climbing up for better and better views, until I reached the jagged crown of Roque Nublo. This rocky outcrop looks like a defiant finger to heaven, undeterred by the centuries of erosion or foreign conquest, or by the African dust and sand that frequently blew across the vista. Like its people, the island itself seemed to stay perpetually spirited.
I met Carmen later at her friends’ small ranch that overlooked the sunny mountains. Horses neighed as we sat under plum trees to a lunch spread of local wine, fish, olives, papas arrugadas (small potatoes cooked in seawater), and gofio (a grain paste similar to polenta). The gregarious mother served all of us, including her teenage son with a mohawk, an older peasant man with a fedora and a cane, and a small assortment of neighbors. Everyone laughed and chatted as they passed the dishes, a soft breeze from the ocean wafting up the mountainside. It all seemed so healthy, and simply and utterly happy.
I leaned over to Carmen. “I don’t think I ever want to leave here,” I whispered.
Carmen grinned. “Do you see how we are here on this island? We believe that life can be very kind.”
More info about Maspalomas and Gran Canaria Here.
Credit: Story written by Out Traveler .