Gran Canaria is a prime choice for the 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. Expect sunny days, warm water and an average annual temperature of a mild 69 degrees. Gran Canaria gets just about 10 days of rain each year.
Like most Canarian cities, Las Palmas owns a distinctly Spanish feel and a rich history (the Canary Islands are an autonomous region of Spain). Conquistadors -- attracted by palm groves and a broad bay -- founded the city in 1478, and Christopher Columbus called there during his famous voyage of 1492.
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 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.
The port also lies close to the internationally famous sea resort Playa del Ingles and the spectacular desert scenery of Maspalomas. Both are popular 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.
Ships dock at the Santa Catalina terminal, a major hub both for inter island ferry services and cruise ships.
The terminal is equipped with seating, bathrooms, bank outlets, bus stops and taxi ranks. The huge El Muelle shopping complex opposite the port gates is worth a stroll. Besides international shops like Benetton, C&A and Mango, the mall has offbeat stores like Whatever Floats Your Boat and Bijou Brigitte 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 carnival was being celebrated with life-size Carnival Queen dolls at either end of the ground-floor walkway, while in the middle, glass case after glass case of Barbie dolls in different outfits, were on display.
Pickpockets roam the tourist areas. Be particularly vigilant during the high season and at crowded events, such as Carnival festivities.
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, 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 Elder Museum of Science and Technology. Go left again along Calle Luis Morote -- the main street for ATMs and camera and electronics shops -- and follow your nose to the sea. The beach itself is a long stretch of 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 quayside or outside the dock gates, but be prepared to negotiate. Trips within the city boundaries are usually metered (check for this), but beyond that, you're on your own. Taxis are inexpensive for short trips, though are generally pricey if you're going around the island. Expect to pay approximately 450 euros for one to four passengers for a four-hour island tour, depending on how good a haggler you are (and how busy the driver is).
Editor's note: Allow plenty of time to explore on your own. You can run into traffic jams when visiting popular tourist haunts. And never let a cab go without fixing a pickup time to get back to your ship.
The currency is the euro, and you'll find plenty of banks, Bureaux de Change (exchange bureaus) and ATMs, both in the terminal and in the main shopping districts. For updated currency conversion figures, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com.
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.
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.
La Bikina: Casual atmosphere and good food at a reasonably priced beachfront location. (Paseo de las Canteras 63; 828 06 53 57; open noon to midnight Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday and noon to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday)
Restaurante Tehran: This restaurant serves up meals for vegetarians, including hummus, falafels and pinchos de carne vegetal. Its menu also will satisfy carnivores, too. (Bernardo de la Torre 1; 928 222 817; open noon to 11:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday)
Ristorante Pizzeria Paparazzi: The Italian-inspired eatery, located along the boardwalk of Playa de Las Canteras serves pizza, salads and grilled meats. Enjoy al fresco meals for about 12 euros per person. (928 26 05 91; open 8 a.m. to 1 a.m. Monday to Saturday)
This is a good place to pick up a bottle or two of delicious Canarian wine; try Muscatel if you've got a sweet tooth or Vino del Monte if a rich claret is more to your taste.