Gone hiking : a stress-free way to explore off grid
I’d been hiking for 40 minutes and had found myself in Yorkshire. Except it didn’t quite resemble the neighbouring county to my native Newcastle. I was surrounded by rich forests, sea cliffs, lava features and an exuberant coat of vegetation. There was also the North Atlantic Ocean stretching out before me.
That’s because I was in a place dubbed Little Yorkshire, a vantage point nestled in a remote part of El Hierro, the least-known (and least-visited) of all the Canary Islands.
I felt a little like Reese Witherspoon in the Hollywood movie Wild. It was just me against the badlands. Except, thankfully, I wasn’t completely alone and reliant on my wits. I was joined by my dear friend Sarah, and I had a series of comprehensive maps so user-friendly that even I could follow them.
This was all part of our “slow holiday”, one of Inntravel’s new walking breaks that allow travellers to enjoy self-guided hikes alone and at their own pace. Without the help of a tour guide, visitors navigate their own way along routes that snake between pre-booked hotels while their luggage is taken ahead by taxi. We playfully referred to this as “peak chic” because it sounded like hiking-lite, but in reality it was a practical, stress-free way to explore roads less travelled.
On this occasion we were walking north-west to south over five sun-kissed days. Believe me when I say this was no accident – it was mostly downhill.
We began our journey in Frontera’s historic Los Verodes, a modest, no-frills village at the base of the island’s highest peak, Pico de Malpaso. It is sparsely -populated; only a handful of multi-coloured houses break up the vast expanse of green laurel and juniper forest.
We soon caught a glimpse of the El Golfo valley, an immense bay which, with its ragged beauty, compelled us to get started.
Appropriately, we set off from The Church of Conception, a 19thcentury landmark that’s used as the starting point of the Bajada de la Virgen festival, an event attended by virtually all of the island’s 10,000 inhabitants every four years. Stepping out from under the chapel’s shadow, we saw route lines painted on the local walls. Divine intervention? Not quite. The organisers had simply provided two alternate courses for us to choose from: the first spanning less than 31 miles (50km), the second somewhat more than this distance. Feeling ambitious, we chose the latter.
Hiking is now fashionable in certain circles, but it’s been a secret pleasure of mine for almost a decade. Contrary to my lifestyle, which regularly sees me navigating red carpets or ensconced in the comfort of my office or studio, I’d previously ditched my heels to hike along the Atlas Mountains (spanning Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia), and tackled the trails of Mallorca and the Lake District, to name but a few. Not bad for somebody who once broke both legs in the low-risk landscape of residential London.
Now older and wiser, I was keen to make up for lost time. Especially as hiking is the perfect meditation for a busy mind. Perhaps it’s the calming rhythm of walking and the high oxygen intake that I enjoy so much. Or maybe it’s simply being cut off from the outside world for a few days.
As anyone else with a 15-year-old will attest, we’re all too addicted to our smartphones in this hyper-connected age. Refreshingly, there was no danger of that here. The only messages being received were from our empty stomachs.
Despite the route being lined with bountiful prickly pear trees (and our tree became a shrine. Sadly, it was destroyed by a hurricane in the 17th century and has been replaced by a replica, but the site still exerts a fascination, perhaps because there’s a romantic story attached to the land.
Folklore has it that Spanish invaders were saved by the tree’s life-giving properties, but they killed the woman who shared its secret – burying her remains on site. Her spirit is said to be manifest in the swathes of fragrant wild flowers that surround the tree.
For such a geographically small place, El Hierro has a huge variety of poetic landscapes. In just a few miles I felt like I’d witnessed the Dales, the tall pines of Canada, the dry, dusky landscape of Mexico and the peaks of South Africa. Thus, it’s perhaps not surprising that 60 per cent of the island is a Unesco biosphere reserve.
By this point in the journey we had covered some serious ground and I was starting to walk like John Wayne, with a swaggering, wide-legged gait you simply don’t get from any other exercise. I could
Donna has company on the trail as she savours the rugged beauty of El Hierro, left and main