JOHN INGHAM finally learns to switch off on the holiday island of Fuerteventura, with its white-sand beaches, extinct volcanoes and rare birdlife
THERE are many things I'm hopeless at: maths, DIY and shopping to name just three.
But if there were prizes for not being able to relax, I would be the Manchester United of fidgeting.
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I came to Fuerteventura, the second-largest of the Canary Islands, with my wife Christine, teenage son Tom, and firm plans in mind.
I was going to climb the highest mountain to get stunning views of the other islands to the west. I was going to drive down to the extreme south to a vast white sandy beach. And I was going to find birds normally only seen 60 miles to the east in the Sahara
Instead I rapidly surrendered to the volcanic island's endless sands and the luxury of our majestic bolthole, the Gran Hotel Atlantis Bahía Real near the popular British resort of Corralejo. Here, I finally learned how to chill out.
I was not alone. We watched stressed-out businessmen checking in, all hunched up, only to unwind and within days be reclaimed by their families.
A major source of the relaxation was on our doorstep - the dunes of Corralejo. We've all been on beaches of golden sands that stretch for miles but you would be hard-pressed to beat this mini Sahara.
It extends five miles along the shore and for miles inland.
You also get a clue as to how Fuerteventura got its name.
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Dotted along the beach are black corrals, man-made circular stone walls constructed from volcanic lava in which you can sunbathe sheltered from the wind. From these, sun worshippers pop up from time to time like bronzed meerkats.
The corrals are there because Fuerteventura means "strong winds". This has turned the island into a mecca for surfers and windsurfers.
The other reason I finally learned to "chillax" was our five-star hotel with its Moorish deco and wide choice of places to eat, including a Spanish and Japanese restaurant.
On the roof was La Cupula, run by a Michelin-starred chef. All were excellent.
A lot of hotels have bolt-on spas simply as a way to get another star. The one here, the Bahía Vital Spa, couldn't be further from this. It has it all: sauna, thalassotherapy, steam room, aromatherapy and a large swimming pool. Christine and I opted for a massage.
After nearly an hour I was so relaxed I had trouble walking and had to lie down!
It would have been a crime to just loaf about at the hotel or on the dunes, appealing as that was. So we explored this island of extinct volcanoes, rising flat-topped from the arid plains, and we visited the colonial-era House of the Colonels in the town of La Oliva. There were also the wild beaches at El Cotillo, the beautiful little church with supposedly Aztec-inspired doors in Pájara, stunning white cliffs and caves carved out by Atlantic rollers at Ajuy and, my favourite spot, Betancuria.
Tom refused to believe this was a city and its tiny church a cathedral. It used to be Fuerteventura's capital, built by a Norman conqueror in a valley in the belief that pirates would sail past without realising it was there. Alas, Moorish pirates did find it and ransacked it. Now it is a pretty, flower-filled village next to a small river.
The best bit is getting there via mountain roads with two breathtaking viewpoints.
The first features two giant statues of Majorero warriors, representing the island's ancient northern and southern kingdoms. A little higher, the second is a café with terraces looking down on this desert island. Here we watched Berthelot's pipit, a rare drab brown bird, and Barbary ground squirrels (below), which looked like big fat chipmunks.
Another day Tom and I rose to the challenge of the volcano, which taunted us across the sea from the balcony of our spacious room.
We caught a boat full of 20-something surfers from Corralejo for the choppy 15-minute trip to Lobos Island (Wolf Island), named after the monk seals, or sea wolves, which once lounged about on its shore.
They are long gone but the island is now a nature reserve. Tom and I took the path across the lava fields and up tight, zigzagging paths to the rim of the crater some 400ft above sea level. One half of the crater collapsed into the sea millions of years ago but there's enough left to reveal a semi-circle sloping sharply down to the sea.
We were too early in the year to see the stars of the island, the Cory's shearwaters, northern relatives of the albatross but we were watched the whole time by yellow-legged gulls and ravens, while lizards scuttled underfoot. Yet no matter how hard I looked I could not see those Saharan birds I had vowed to track down.
As I pootled round the spa pool and dined in La Cupula, I simply didn't care. They will still be there when I return. At last, I'd learned how to relax.
Classic Collection Holidays (0800 294 9329/www.classiccollection.co.uk) offers seven nights at Gran Hotel Atlantis Bahía Real from £970pp (two sharing), B&B. Price includes return flights from Gatwick and private transfers. For May departures. Car hire can be arranged from £110 for seven days. Bahía Vital Spa offers a (50-minute) full-body massage from £56, a (25-minute) Indian head massage from £38.
Canary Islands Tourism: www.turismodecanarias.com
Spanish National Tourist Office: 0207 486 8077/ www.spain.info