Full of friendly people and balmy weather, visiting The Canary Islands with Inka means many of us will be adding them to our list of great places to travel.
I always think of the Canary Islands as a box of jewelry; full of precious gems to suit every mood and occasion. There is the emerald green of the Orotava Valley in Tenerife and there are the black diamonds and onyx of the volcanic Teide and Lanzarote; the sapphire blue of the Atlantic is joined by the topaz yellow of vast banana plantations. The jeweled necklace of the 7 islands is made even more dazzling with tiny pearls,smaller islands sprinkled in between.
Where are the Canary Islands?
Continentally speaking, Tenerife, Gran Canaria, Lanzarote, Fuerteventura, El Hierro, La Palma and La Gomera belong to Africa, but as far as culture, history and geographical borders are concerned, the islands are Spanish. The location, some 70 miles from the Western Sahara in Africa at the closest point, and in a subtropical zone of the same latitude as Orlando, Florida, accounts for the fabulous climate year around.
I love visiting the Canary Islands because each and every one of them because there is so much to do and see. There are white beaches, black beaches, volcanic mountains and lush valleys; there are elegant towns and romantic fishing villages. Hiking, horseback riding and getting pampered in a luxurious spa are options for things to do, and let’s not forget the exquisite Canary cuisine and (tax free) shopping in the designer boutiques of Santa Cruz de Tenerife.
Then there are the exquisite details: Gazing at a 1000 year old dragon tree, watching whales or exotic birds, or listening for the distinctive whistle which is a means of communication in La Gomera. Before I get any more carried away, let’s take the islands in turn, starting with the two biggest which can be ‘base camp’ from where to go on day trips by ferry to the smaller ones.
The islands in the jewel box
Tenerife is the **second biggest island and my favorite. There are two international airports, one in the north and one in the south which connect with the rest of the world, either directly or via Madrid. I love Tenerife because of the interesting extremes in landscape and climate.
The mountain range of the Teide, a World Heritage Site, is dominated by the Pico de Teide, which at over 12,000 feet is Spain’s highest mountain and the third highest volcano in the world. Bizarre lava formations spread for miles and for those who like to hike, it’s a great adventure to climb up. The climb is not a very trying one; insiders start in the afternoon, then spend the night in one of the cabins half way up getting up at dawn to watch the sun rise over the top of the mountain.
The mountain range is also a dramatic climate divide. South of it, the vegetation resembles the African desert; in the north rains fall often, which accounts for the fertile Orotava valley with miles of banana and potato plantations, orchards and vineyards. The great explorer Alexander von Humboldt reportedly fell to his knees when he caught sight of the valley and declared the place a ‘paradise on earth.’
Beaches are in the south around the tourist resorts of Los Gigantes, Playa de las Americas or Los Christianos. Formed from pulverized lava, almost all of these beaches are black. I prefer to stay in the capital, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, a singularly beautiful town, which besides having the white beach of Las Teresitas, offers marvelous art deco buildings, parks, a thriving port, and many Spanish designer boutiques. It’s easy to reach the rest of the island either by local bus or hiring a car.
The **biggest island also has an international airport and there are lots of flights to Gran Canaria. As in Tenerife the south is flat, whereas the north is dominated by mountains. Gran Canaria’s south is most famous for its wide and white beaches, with the dunes of Maspalomas being the most popular one, featuring tourist resorts such as Playa del Ingles. Rock formations in the northern part are quite bizarre and hiking tours along the canyons of Agaete will delight the heart of those who are into this kind of exercise. Galdar is the location of the fabled Millennium tree (but there is another one on Tenerife too.) Here you’ll also find caves with prehistoric polychrome wall paintings.
Las Palmas, the capital of the island invites to walks and visits to the cathedral and the beautiful Columbus House Museum, a folklore museum where you can enjoy the customs and costumes of the original inhabitants, called Guanches.
Travel Belles love to pamper themselves and the Sheraton Salobre in Gran Canaria is just the place. Rather big, but with a beautiful spa which offers a great variety of treatments. After a few days of that, you may be ready to go on a daytrip or two to visit the smaller islands.
Stepping onto Lanzarote, I always think about the moon. This is the most volcanic of all the Canary islands, with craters and lava formations adjacent to the two mountain rages. Lanzarote is closest to Africa and south of the Famara mountains, a veritable African desert stretches out. It’s also the island which is most exposed to the occasional sand storm coming from the Sahara and called Calima. Far less touristy than Tenerife and Gran Canaria, Lanzarote is for those who like quiet and enjoy dramatic landscapes. In order to do so, you can go on camel treks and forget that you are still in Europe. The most typical Canary villages are to be found in the interior of the island, whilst the coast boasts a mixture of white beaches and pebble beaches. Although some tourist centers have sprung up, everything is more sedate.
The second smallest of the Canary islands is best reached by ferry from Los Christianos in Tenerife. Of volcanic origin, there are two interesting details which can only be found here: Bay leaf forests which have survived nowhere else in the world and which can be enjoyed with walking tours. And communication is done by whistling, a singularly effective ‘language’ called El Silbo. The five star Hotel Parador de la Gomera, surrounded by tropical gardens and with stunning views across the water to Tenerife. Gomera is also the starting point for whale watching tours.
The oldest of the Canary islands is often called ‘The silent island’ or ‘A piece of Africa in Europe’. This is due to a vast expanse of dunes and beaches, most of them white but with a few black ones too. As opposed to the Orotava Valley, there is a distinct lack of vegetation in Fuerteventura. The climate is ideal for aloe vera plantations which are cultivated here, the black Canary potatoes and not much more. Goats are everywhere and a very tasty speciality are the goat cheeses.
In November, El Hierro made minor headlines, because of an underwater volcanic eruption that threw fountains and lava into the air. Anywhere in the Canaries one can never forget the volcanic origin of the archipelago. Mountains dominate El Hierro together with fertile soil which allows bananas, pineapple, mangos and other tropical fruit to grow.
The Canaries: a land of “happy people”
The Spaniards call the Canary population “happy people” and with good reason .On the one hand the moniker refers to their luck in living in such a balmy climate year around. On the other it refers to the happy-go-lucky nature of the ‘Canarios.’ They are an extremely friendly, hospitable and laid back people, open and welcoming to foreigners, an attitude which makes it an ideal destination for women travelers. If, like me, you travel on your own, you’ll never be hassled and, if desired or needed, you’ll always find company and/or a helping hand.
Last but not least the delicious Canary cuisine needs to be mentioned. The dishes combine Spanish food with elements from Africa and even South America. Black potatoes known as papas arrugadas are a specialty. They are small tubers with very aromatic yellow pulp and cooked in salted water and even sea water. Mojos, piquant sauces based on red or green pepper go with it.
Fish is another specialty. It’s prepared either baked in a salt crust, grilled or sun dried. If you prefer, you can have any kind of meat with rabbit stew being a favorite. Deserts are often based on honey, raisins and ground almonds, not unlike the baklava of Arab fame. Macaroons from Gran Canaria and marzipan round out the image.
The Canaries produce their own wine, both red and white, much of it coming from the Orotava valley in Tenerife. And then, there are liquors, a particular sweet and potent one being banana liquor or honeyed rum.
*Today’s post was brought to you by Thomas Cook Travel.
** 2/13 – Correction: Tenerife is the largest of the islands and Gran Canaria is the third largest. We’ve added a Canary Islands map for clarification.