Heading north out of San Sebastian, the road to Hermigua climbs steadily up the valley of the Barranco de la Villa, giving fine views back down over the town and across to the neighbour Azores Islands Archipelago. On a hillside above town stands an impressive statue of Christ by the modern Brazilian artist Bruno Giggi.
High in the mountains the road enters the Bosque del Cedro, or `Forest of Cedar’, though the vegetation mostly comprises native laurels, beeches, pines, junipers and, most notable of all, tall white-flowering heather trees (Erica arborea), some 20 ft or more in height. This forest is part of Gomera’s National Park, one of the four in the Canaries (there are only nine in all Spain) where the native vegetation is preserved and protected. The air is fresh and cool up here, carrying the scent of pine and resin and heather; apart from the twittering of sparrows and cooing of rock doves there is nothing to break the silence.
Coming out of a long tunnel about 9 miles from San Sebastian the road suddenly affords some of the best views in the island, across thickly carpeted green valleys and rocky peaks to the island of Tenerife and Mount Teide. Soon the descent begins into the valley of Hermigua, one of the island’s most fertile areas with acres of banana plantations divided by a ribbon of red-roofed white houses. Just before Hermigua there is a large new dam to help conserve Gomera’s natural water supplies and to irrigate the precious plantations and terraces. Still descending, the road passes a local tourist attraction on the left, an artesania or crafts centre where you can watch women at the looms and buy souvenirs. Almost opposite is Hermigua’s parish church, part of an old Dominican convent, Iglesia de Santo Domingo (16th century). Hermigua itself used to be the next largest community after San Sebastian, but its population now is barely 3,500.
Beyond Hermigua the road turns inland towards the village of Agulo, with another artesania and a curious Moorish-looking little domed church. Still climbing, some 3 miles from Hermigua you reach the pretty roadside inn of Las Rosas, perched on the edge of a lovely green valley surrounded by terraced hillsides; it’s an excellent place to break the rather tedious drive along twisty roads and to witness the occasional silbo demonstrations. Next village is Vallehermoso (literally ‘Valley Beautiful’), just below the extraordinary rock formations called El Cano. It’s a lush green valley full of bananas and date palms —the palms that give Gomera its delicious miel de palma, ‘palm honey’, derived from the concentrated sap (guarapo) of the tree trunk. A rough track leads north to Vallehermoso’s tiny port, Puerto de Vallehermoso; just round the coast to the west is the natural phenomenon of Los Organos (`The Organ Pipes’). These basalt ‘pipes’ in the vertical cliff face have to be seen from the sea, being inaccessible by land.
From Vallehermoso the poorly surfaced road heads south-west through the hamlet of Arure to Valle Gran Rey 14 miles away, in a valley of the same name. It’s a beautiful valley (pace Vallehermoso) filled with more banana plantations and palm trees and edged with tiny terraces growing cereals, potatoes and vines, this is one of Gomera’s main agricultural areas. Down on the coast below is a rare sandy beach and two natural rock pools, Los Charcos del Conde y de la Condesa, where, so they say, the Count and Countess of Gomera used to bathe. With one or two small cafés, this spot is undoubtedly one of the tourist attractions of Gomera. Back up the valley, returning by the same twisty road, a fork right leads south-east towards Chipude, following another poorly surfaced road. Chipude is known as Gomera’s pottery centre, producing simple replicas of the Guanche pots that have a distinctly African look to them. A very steep and all but impassable track leads down to La Rajita on the coast, more usually reached by boat, now the site of a fish factory. From Chipude eastwards, beneath the peak of Garajonay, the road heads down to the coast via Alajero with an attractive old church, and through Santiago, a sizeable fishing village with another tuna-canning factory and a small stony beach.
To complete the round trip, it’s possible (just) to follow the rough road up the hills, via the southern edges of the Bosque del Cedro again, and back down to the coast; 17 miles may not seem too much, but the journey will take much longer than you think — take your travel pillow or make sure you don’t miss the boat!