Canaries: Go island hopping in the warm islands
January 15, 2004
For those seeking winter warmth without jet lag, the Canary Islands are the place to go.
Seven volcanic islands tossed off the northwest coast of Africa, the Canary archipelago boasts miles of beaches, a backdrop of rugged mountains and a summertime climate year-round. The islands, actually part of Spain, lie in the same time zone as London, just a five-hour flight from mainland Europe. Best of all, they offer some of the cheapest eating and sleeping in Europe.
The seven major Canary Islands — Tenerife, Gran Canaria, Lanzarote Fuerteventura, La Gomera, La Palma and El Hierro — are relatively close together, but the differences between them are stark.
The magnificent seven
In the west, Palma has been dubbed the “pretty island” for its lush, green forests, exotic flowers and dramatic mountains. On the other side of the archipelago, Fuerteventura is Sahara-like in its desertscapes and rolling sand dunes. In between are the cliffs of La Gomera, the busy resorts of Tenerife and the cosmopolitan capital city of Gran Canaria.
The landscapes of each island are as distinct as the lifestyles of its residents, and trying to sum up the archipelago in a simple phrase is as difficult as trying to visit all seven islands in a single trip.
Though the islands themselves vary tremendously, Canary culture is similar from one to another. With up to 600 miles of ocean between the islands and the Iberian peninsula, Canarios have a proud regional identity and see a marked distinction between themselves and mainland Spaniards.
In some ways, islanders have more in common with South America than with Spain; in the mid-20th century, many Canarios were forced to immigrate across the Atlantic, and today’s Canary culture has been heavily influenced by South America in its food, music and Spanish accents.
Tenerife and Gran Canaria
When the tourist boom hit the Canaries in the 1960s, they quickly gained a reputation as a playground for sun-starved northern Europeans. No islands deserve the label more than Tenerife and Gran Canaria. Home to the largest hotels, the hottest nightlife, and the greatest number of foreign-food restaurants per capita, these two islands receive the bulk of the Canaries’ visitors.
The largest island, Tenerife, is also the highest; the peak of El Teide rises to 12,270 feet, the tallest mountain in Spain. Tenerife is a land of contrasts, known as much for its discos and long nights as for adventure sports like hiking, scuba diving and mountain biking.
Though its capital, Santa Cruz, is in the far east, most people head down south, where the mammoth resort area of Los Cristianos and Playa de las Américas tempts with cheap package holidays and non-stop activity. The golden beaches are made with sand imported from the Sahara, but no one seems to mind.
Tenerife’s northern coast is not quite as warm, but the atmosphere there is much less frenzied than in the south. Beach resorts such as Puerto de la Cruz sit near pretty colonial towns like La Orotava, Icod de los Vinos and La Laguna. It’s there, in Tenerife’s inland towns, where you’ll see the real character and culture of the island.
Gran Canaria, a perfectly round island lying directly to the east of Tenerife, draws a large number of sun-loving visitors, too. Known as a continent in miniature for its varied terrain, Gran Canaria has both golden beaches and a striking, hilly interior.
The Playa del Inglés and Maspalomas area has some of the island’s most popular beaches and a backdrop of impressive sand dunes. This is the island’s major tourist center, so it’s no surprise that it’s also a hot spot for nightlife. Gay and straight clubs get full at around midnight and stay hopping until morning. The scene is intense, with strip clubs and drag shows, so leave the kiddies at home.
Days are spent recuperating on the beaches, or touring the island’s interior. It’s a paradise for bikers and walkers, especially in the island’s arid center, where you can enjoy the majestic mountain ridges in relative solitude.
Fuerteventura and Lanzarote
These two islands beyond Gran Canaria are known for their golden beaches, too. Both offer world-class surfing and windsurfing, and many people are drawn to them for the watersports.
Smaller and a bit calmer than the larger islands, the east is a largely dry, sandy area. Though not pretty in a traditional sense, the landscape is impressive for its stark bareness. Fuerteventura is dominated by sand dunes, while Lanzarote is known for its unusual volcanic landscape.
In Lanzarote’s Montañas de Fuego (Mountains of Fire), boiling magma lies near the Earth’s surface, heating the land so that the pebbles lying about are almost too hot to touch.
La Gomera, La Palma and El Hierro
In the far west of the archipelago lie three small islands. These are the three quietest islands, perfectly suited to hikers and outdoor enthusiasts, though resort towns are starting to pop up, too.
La Gomera, which is just a 45-minute ferry ride from Tenerife, is crowned with a lush laurel forest in its center, and there are beautiful hikes that wind through it.
The island itself is rocky and scored with gorges, but it also offers beautiful green valleys full of vineyards, palm trees and banana plantations. The most popular area is Valle Gran Rey, a lush valley that pours into the ocean.
La Palma, farther west, has beautiful black, volcanic beaches on its western coast and an imposing mountain range running down its center. In the south, volcanoes attract most of the attention; the last eruption here was in 1971, and you can walk up to the some of the volcanoes’ craters.
The island is also known as one of the world’s best places for stargazing, and Europe’s largest astronomical observatory, El Roque de los Muchachos, sits at the island’s peak.
El Hierro is the westernmost island, the last speck of land before the coast of America. This was once the end of the known world, and even today it feels remote. There is little tourism here, and locals are stoic and hardworking.
Go to El Hierro to escape the stress of daily life; there is little to do there except walk, fish, swim or scuba dive (it’s one of Spain’s best areas for scuba diving).
If you can’t pick just one island to visit, island hopping is easy. Most flights from mainland Europe land at the airports in Gran Canaria (called the Aeropuerto de Gando) or Tenerife (Tenerife Norte or Tenerife Sur), though all islands have airports from which island-to-island flights come and go.
While flying is convenient, it’s usually cheaper to catch one of the ferries, which sail regularly between island ports. The connections between Tenerife and Gran Canaria are good, as are those between Tenerife and the western islands.
If you go
Several airlines fly to the islands from most European countries, and the Internet is loaded with sites claiming to have the best deals. Look also at travel companies for fly-and-hotel packages. They often offer good packages, although they may be a little restrictive in your choices.
For information about regional flight times and prices, check out www.bintercanarias.es, the Canary Islands’ airline. For information about inter-island ferries, learn about ferry operators Fred Olsen on the Web at www.fredolsen.es or Trasmediterranea at www.trasmediterranea.com.
Where to stay
There is no shortage of rooms in the Canaries, but finding the right one at the right resort can be tricky, especially in mid-winter or around holidays. The nationally run Parador hotels (www.parador.es) are dotted around the islands and are always a sure bet. Other favorites are:
• Hotel Marquesa: (www.hotelmarquesa.com) in Puerto de la Cruz, Tenerife;• Hotel La Quinta Roja: (www.quintaroja.com) in Garachico, Tenerife;• Hotel Maspalomas Oasis: (www.riu.es) in Maspalomas, Gran Canaria;• Hotel Los Fariones: telephone (+34) (0) 928-510-202, in Puerto del Carmen, Lanzarote;• Hotel Corralejo: (+34) (0) 928-535 -246, in Corralejo, Fuerteventura;• Hotel Jardín Tecina: (www.jardin-tecina.com ) in Playa Santiago, La Gomera;• Hotel Taburiente Playa: (www.h10.es) in Los Cancajos, La Palma;• Hotel-Balneario Pozo de la Salud: telephone (+34) (0) 922-559 561.
For more information
Check out the following Web sites:
• www.el-hierro.org• www.fuerteventuraturismo.com• www.gomera-island.com• www.lapalmaturismo.com• www.turismolanzarote.com• www.webtenerife.com• www.ecoturismocanarias.com
for loads of information on rural tourism and rural homes across the island.
— Sarah Andrews