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El Hierro – smallest, westernmost, least-visited and best-preserved of the Canary Islands – is currently having a moment. The 2019 Netflix series Hierro, a brilliant thriller with astounding photography and a plot mixing murder, mystery and corruption, has placed it firmly on the map. The pandemic has also brought a blast of publicity: El Hierro has had only one single case of Covid-19 and is, at the moment of writing, entirely virus-free. Along with three other small islands, Formentera, La Gomera and La Graciosa, it featured in global news reports as the first Spanish territory to emerge from lockdown on 1 June 2020. We also have tipped it as one of the best places in Europe to visit in 2021.
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El Hierro knows a thing or two about social distancing. For most of its history, communications with the outside world have been precarious at best. In times of drought or pestilence, waves of emigration headed not for the Spanish mainland, but for Cuba and Venezuela (from whence many descendants of those emigrés have now returned).
The island is almost more remarkable for what it doesn’t have than for what it has. With a population of just 11,000 on a surface area half the size of Ibiza, there is very little traffic and development is thin on the ground. Herreños will tell you proudly that their island has no hotel complexes, no buildings higher than two storeys, no lifts and only one set of traffic lights. With few beaches as such (though a series of tidal pools, called charcos, make for delightful swimming spots), it missed out on the tourist boom of the 1970s that transformed the larger Canaries, with the result that its mesmerising natural beauty remains intact. Added to which, since 2018 the island has been almost entirely self-sufficient in renewable energy, thanks to a combination of wind and hydroelectric power.
It packs a lot of wildness, and a great deal of diversity, into its 103 square miles. There are peaks and plateaus, volcano cones and plunging gorges, deserts and dark humid woodlands. The island’s pristine waters are part of a marine reserve, making this a dive site of global renown.
The best plan is to hire a car and explore: El Hierro lends itself to carefree wandering. One of the best of the island’s great drives is also the most hair-raising. It takes you west out of La Frontera on a crazily twisting country road across the dark tumble of a lava field, past the black-sand beach of Verodal towards Orchilla, where the stone tower of the lighthouse blinking into the Atlantic reminds you that until 1492, when Columbus found there was a lot more world out there, this truly was the end of the line.
Getting to El Hierro is easy enough, but arriving has the thrill of a proper adventure. The regular flight from Tenerife, on a turboprop plane with burgundy leather seats, lands at the island’s tiny airport after a white-knuckle approach that sees the little plane practically skimming the ocean.
The island’s capital Valverde (population 1,800), a scatter of houses with a colonial church in white paint and black stone, feels like a country village where everyone knows everyone and folk stop in the street to enquire about each other’s health. In the cafés on the main street, the TVs broadcast the Spanish national news from distant Madrid – half a world away. Outside, palm trees rustle in a cool sea breeze.
Beyond the capital, such prettiness as there is clings tenaciously to a landscape that is often harsh, obdurate and strange. Villages of whitewashed, green-shuttered houses, such as Isora and El Pinar, are like balconies hung with flowers in splashy tropical colours, the blue immensity of the Atlantic stretching away far below. Out in the country, handkerchief-sized plots hold stunted fruit trees, figs and almonds, or scraps of pasture where grizzled shepherds keep watch over flocks of tough-looking sheep.
El Hierro is often compared to Formentera. But Formentera wishes it had these awe-inspiring landscapes – and this few people to enjoy them.
Each of the three arms of the island’s rough-cut shape has an excursion worth making. The western flank, almost uninhabited, has forests of twisted, wind-battered sabina (juniper), centuries old and a symbol of the island’s resilience. Down south, the little harbour town of La Restinga – reached by a switchback road through desert scrub and wind-blown cacti – is a charming, if rough-and-ready, seaside enclave where you wouldn’t imagine anything dramatic has ever occurred. Yet locals will tell you, over a plate of fresh prawns, about the scary days in October 2011 when an undersea volcano erupted two miles offshore from La Restinga, bringing the economic life of the island to a grinding halt.
The north side of the island, however, has El Hierro’s most astonishing natural feature. The old road from Valverde to El Golfo takes you through forests of pine and laurel drifting with skeins of Atlantic mist. Minutes later you’re peering over the edge of an enormous cliff-face, the result of a volcanic land-slip millions of years ago, running like a great dark wall along the spine of the island. Cowering in its shadow lies the coastal plain of La Frontera, where delicious pineapples are grown and richly flavoured wines made from grape varieties found nowhere else on earth.
Strung out in a straggle of white buildings along a single avenue, La Frontera itself is a jolly little town well-provided with bars and bakeries, restaurants serving Venezuelan arepas, and a weekly market where pony-tailed German hippy retirees sell homemade bread and second-hand clothes. The town would make a good holiday base camp: the coast of La Frontera has some of the loveliest charcos and passes for the island’s visitor hub.
You’d be wrong to come to El Hierro looking for sophistication. You’ll Google in vain for hip hotels or chic farmhouse stays – a well-equipped holiday flat in La Frontera or a pleasantly rustic casa rural in El Pinar might be as good as you’ll get. The Hotel Puntagrande (aka ‘el hotelito’) may be the exception that proves the rule. For many years this former warehouse building in black volcanic stone on a peninsula jutting into the sea has traded as ‘the world’s smallest hotel’ (though according to the Guinness World Records a much smaller one exists in Amberg, Germany). The hotelito has just reopened as a boutique lodging whose surprisingly sleek interior contrasts with the fierce Atlantic scenery beyond the plate-glass windows. Two talented chefs work the kitchen here – one Basque, the other Italian – producing what is certainly the island’s most interesting creative cooking.
Which, sadly, is not saying very much. El Hierro is prodigal in fine raw materials, but the local culinary scene still needs to sort itself out. It’s only a matter of time before some clever young Herreño cook starts doing interesting things with the excellent local lamb and beef, fish and shellfish, goat’s cheeses and tropical fruit. For the moment, you’re better off in village bars and eating-houses than in the handful of restaurants making a pretence at highbrow cuisine.
Gastronomically as in other ways, it’s the simplest things about this end-of-the-line island that linger in the memory. A good long look at the staggering view from the Mirador de la Peña. A large glass of fresh pineapple juice. A morning hike in the misty woods of La Llanía. And at close of play, a glass of cold Frontera white beside a deep-blue ocean pool as you watch the sun descend beyond the limits of the Western world. If ‘less is more’ might be the watchword for post-coronavirus travel, El Hierro is right on trend.
Where to stay
Parador de El Hierro
Mimicking the low-rise, pitch-roofed architecture of the island, this branch of the Spanish national parador chain stands in splendid isolation on the otherwise undeveloped bay of Las Playas.
Address: Parador de El Hierro, Las Playas, 15, 38910, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Spain
Price: Doubles from about £85
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Long-term El Hierro resident Sabine Willmann created her casa rural from a clutch of 200-year-old farm buildings on the hillside above Frontera. The seven rustic casitas (sleeping two or three) are brightly decorated with a touch of hippy chic.
Address: El Sitio, Calle la Carrera, Spain
Price: Casitas from about £35
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The famously diminutive ‘hotelito’ (four rooms and a suite) has an unmatchable romantic setting on a wave-lashed outcrop. It was recently reopened by an Italian and Spanish/Colombian couple in a cheerful mash-up of contemporary, vintage and rustic styles. The terrace restaurant is a ray of light in El Hierro’s somewhat dismal fine-dining scene.
Address: Hotel Puntagrande, Calle las Puntas, 38911 Frontera
Price: Doubles from about £225
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A stylish holiday villa for up to seven guests, in the environs of La Frontera.
Address: Villamocanes, Frontera, Spain
Price: From about £100 a night
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WHERE TO EAT
Chiringuito Charco Manso
Best-kept-secret time: this tiny beach bar beside a remote charco serves seaside food with a strong flavour of the island: try the griddled limpets with coriander and garlic, or the crisp-fried chunks of moray eel.
Address: Carretera el Charco Manso, Valverde
Website: Contact Nico or Rosario via Whatsapp on +34 661 781255 (closed Monday and Tuesday)
Founded in 1973, this is a classic among La Restinga’s fish restaurants. Specialities include lapas (limpets) a la plancha, shellfish soup, and prawns crisp-fried Andalusian style. The plain, white and grey dining room is a delight.
Bar Cafetería Cruz Alta
You´ll be rubbing shoulders with local builders and farmers, but this bar-restaurant on the main drag in La Frontera is a winner for Herreño specialities such as carne fiesta, ropa vieja and fried calamares. The fresh pineapple juice (from the sharp and sweet locally grown fruit) may be the best you’ve ever tasted.
Address: Bar Cafetería Cruz Alta, Calle Cruz Alta 13, La Frontera
Restaurante Mirador de la Peña
Come for the classic César Manrique architecture and, most of all, for mind-expanding views of the island’s northern flank. Don’t risk anything too fancy: a plate of the traditional papas arrugas with their two sauces, verde (coriander) and rojo (red pepper), some island cheeses and a bottle of local wine should do the trick.
Address: Restaurante Mirador de la Peña, H-10 40, Guarazoca
Telephone: +34 922 550300
Restaurante La Tafeña
A friendly Venezuelan-run restaurant in Valverde where the menu runs from El Hierro to Italy and Japan, viz: carne fiesta (pork marinated in spices and fried), queso asado (griddled cheese with coriander and red-pepper sauces), red tuna carpaccio, octopus tempura.
Address: Restaurante La Tafeña, Calle Quintero Ramos, Valverde
Telephone: +34 822 050676
WHAT TO SEE
Centro Etnográfico Casa de las Quinteras
This ethnographical museum, in a foursquare Herreño farmhouse of brown volcanic stone, showcases the rich heritage of pottery, basketry, weaving, wood- and ironwork. The traditional pots, which are still made and on sale have a simple elegance that recalls nearby Africa.
Address: Centro Etnográfico Casa de las Quinteras, Calle Armas Martel, Valverde
Telephone: +34 922 552026
Parque Cultural de El Julan
The Julan rock engravings, a heritage of El Hierro’s pre-Hispanic bimbache peoples, were discovered in a remote area on the island’s south coast. This new museum sets the enigmatic engravings in their cultural and historic context.
Address: Parque Cultural de El Julan, HI-400, El Pinar
Telephone: +34 922 558423
Centro de Interpretación de la Reserva de la Biosfera
This information centre throws light on El Hierro’s remarkable and unique biodiversity, recognised by the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve scheme in 2000. The upstairs section explains how the island’s reliance on clean energies saves an estimated 18,700 tons per year in CO2 emissions.
Address: Centro de Interpretación de la Reserva de la Biosfera, Calle Ferinto 32, Isora
Telephone: +34 922 554109
Hiking the Camino de la Llanía
Spooky and magical, the two-hour walk meanders among lichen- and moss-covered trees, emerging at a viewpoint with thrilling views over the great cliff.
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