These volcanic islands are warm all year round and close at hand. And, as direct flights to La Palma start today, it’s even easier to get off the beaten track, says Simon Calder
The restless Earth is arguably at its most enticing around 100 miles off the north-west shoulder of Africa, where a cluster of volcanic islands rises from the Atlantic.
Spain’s Canary Islands have tremendous allure, starting with a convenient location: they are south of the 30-degree line of latitude with a benign climate through the winter, yet only around four hours’ flying time from the UK and so within the range of budget airlines.
Cheap holidays are widely available at resorts on the main islands of Tenerife, Gran Canaria, Lanzarote and Fuerteventura. But the archipelago’s appeal runs far deeper than sun and fun, with natural and man-made beauty away from the coasts and the crowds.
The other four populated islands have long been overlooked by many travellers, yet each merits exploration. Today, Norwegian (0843 3780 888; norwegian.com) launches the first scheduled flight from Gatwick to the spectacular island of La Palma, making its secrets much more accessible to British visitors. Like nearby Madeira, La Palma has a wealth of natural diversity as well as colonial touches that give a distinct New World flavour.
To the south, rocky El Hierro sometimes feels like the far end of terra firma, where land crumbles into an infinite ocean – and for a good few centuries, it was recognised as the end of the world. A prime meridian, by which mariners could calibrate their progress east or west, was established at the extreme west of the island.
Flights between El Hierro and the Canaries’ main air hub, Tenerife North, provide a spectacular view of La Gomera: a corrugated cone rising from the ocean, over which a green cloak has casually been draped. Despite the ease of access from the main resorts of southern Tenerife, few travellers make the journey to a quiet island where hiking in the hills is the main pursuit.
So far, then, seven islands – all of them with their own airports, as well as boat connections. La octava isla, the “eighth island” of the Canaries, is often used to refer to the nation of Venezuela. Because many islanders sought their fortunes in South America, family connections run deep, and local newspapers often have a page devoted to goings-on in Caracas and beyond. But for the purposes of this Traveller’s Guide, the eighth island is Lanzarote’s little sister, Isla Graciosa. Take the short boat trip across a treacherous strait (known as “The River”, El Rio, because it is so difficult to navigate) to find a hidden world of quiet simplicity.
Elsewhere, the historic secrets of the larger islands are also to be found inland – where early settlers tended to live, seeking protection against piracy. On neighbouring Fuerteventura, the former capital, La Oliva, dozed off for a couple of centuries but has now been revived with the Centro de Arte Canario (00 34 928 371 266; centrodeartecanario.com). On Gran Canaria, the village of Aguimes is only five miles as the falcon flies from Las Palmas airport, yet is full of 15th-century grace and tranquillity.
Just south, the dunes of Maspalomas were declared a National Park 20 years ago, and provide an eerie desert experience all the more remarkable for the proximity of high-rise hotels. The island’s capital, Las Palmas, is also a secret for many of the travellers – it is a big, vibrant city with great seafood restaurants and a colourful old quarter, Vegueta, which looks a prototype for New World settlement. Fittingly, Christopher Columbus stayed here en route for the Indies, and you can visit his residence, the Casa de Colón (00 34 928 312 373; casadecolon.com), on Calle de la Herreria. Close by is the futuristic art gallery, the Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno (CAAM; 00 34 928 311 800; caam.net).
Vegueta’s counterpart in the north of Tenerife is La Laguna, which resembles a miniature Havana because of its exquisite colonial architecture. Handily, it is now connected to Tenerife’s capital by a tram, making access easy.
Indeed, the excellent, low-cost transport system is one of the Canary Islands’ best-kept secrets. Tourism has brought many blessings, including subsidised travel, which benefits the visitor as much as the locals and makes exploring beyond the beaten track more affordable and accessible. For more information, visit turismodecanarias.com.
San Sebastian on Gomera travel tourism
La Gomera’s easy access from Tenerife’s biggest resort, Playa de las Américas, makes it the ideal day escape from the tourist hordes. The high-speed ferry takes you from Los Cristianos to La Gomera in only 50 minutes, during which time you may be lucky enough to see dolphins play in the ocean.
You arrive at the capital, San Sebastian, a tranquil location where it is tempting to remain – with interest provided in the form of the Columbus trail, visiting locations where the explorer reputedly stayed, worshipped and provisioned for his first journey to the New World in 1492.
More challenging trails are on offer in the ancient Garajonay forest, which covers a tenth of the island – though a swathe of it was destroyed in forest fires two years ago.
Many visitors are content simply to drive across the spectacular landscape, which is riven with gorges and speckled with villages that are centuries old. But for a more energetic experience, Explore (01252 883 710; explore.co.uk) is offering an eight-day small-group hiking tour, taking in La Gomera as well as Tenerife and La Palma. The next departure, on 15 November, costs £810 including accommodation, local transport and guiding but not flights. Other dates are available throughout the winter.
La Graciosa, Canary Islands, Sand Dunes of Maspalomas, Grand Canaria (press image from Paula Muñoz/Picasa)
To the far east, Isla Graciosa (above) is little more than a sand-dune off the northern tip of Lanzarote. It is difficult to make the case for a long stay here, but it is certainly worth a day trip.
Take the ferry (00 34 928 842 585; biosferaexpress.com) that departs every 90 minutes or so from Orzola in Lanzarote to the lively little town of Caleta del Sebo. The fare is €20 return.
Caleta is home to around 800 people and one bike shop, where you can rent a cycle for a couple of hours of exploration. Be warned though, there are no sealed roads, so you will find yourself cycling on sand.
It’s a couple of heavy-going miles from the port to Playa Francesa, which is both one of the finest beaches in the Canary Islands, and one of the emptiest.
Back in Caleta del Sebo, you might wish to find a bar by the quayside and contemplate the fact that you are on the closest populated Canary island to the UK, but the furthest from reach.
Hierro Landscape, Canary Islands (Karol Kozlowski)
This is both the southern and westernmost point of the Canary Islands and Spain as a whole. Even on the map, El Hierro looks dramatic: a three-pointed Napoleonic hat, with each side nibbled away. The three-dimensional reality is even more impressive. You arrive, by sea or by air, in the north-east – within easy reach of the settlements of El Tamaduste and La Caleta. These coastal villages have instant appeal with cottages compressed beneath the cliffs, and every opportunity taken to create pools suitable for safe swimming. Valverde – high and modestly mighty – emerged as the capital thanks to its natural protection against piracy.
The north of the island (above) looks as though it has had pieces scooped out, leaving a serrated ridge above a near-vertical cliff. Around 100,000 years ago, one-third of El Hierro slid into the ocean.
The south is a complete contrast, scattered with woodland and feeling like some rural backwater in mainland Spain. But it has plenty of drama, too, with the Mirador de las Playas revealing a delicate arc of shoreline punctuated at the northern end by the Roque de La Bonanza, and at the south by the island’s best place to stay: the simple calm of the Parador (00 34 922 55 80 36; parador.es; doubles from €120, B&B). It faces towards Africa, shaded by dragon trees and coconut palms.
Observatory over clouds (Quintanilla Gomez/iStockphoto)
The size of the Isle of Wight, but rather more rugged, La Palma is the most complete island of the entire archipelago. A volcano rises from the ocean, with high ground that catches Atlantic storms to nourish the island; this is the dampest of the Canaries. The summit is almost 8,000ft, yet you can drive to it – there is road access because of the number of astronomical observatories (above) at the top.
At lower levels, La Palma offers spectacular high-altitude hiking and mountain-biking through lush forests. Hills and plains tumble into the sea, with a corrugated shore, bestowed with some good beaches and a scattering of fishing villages. The capital, Santa Cruz de La Palma, has some lovely architectural touches such as elaborate galle-ries attached to hand-some townhouses.
Many thousands of migratory birds pause here during intercontinental journeys, but human tourism is still modest compared with the other, larger islands.
Even though Norwegian is opening up the island to independent travellers, Thomson (020 3451 2688; thomson.co.uk) continues to offer excellent-value package holidays. A week at the pleasant Las Olas resort, departing from Gatwick on 12 November, costs just £289, including transfers, accommodation and breakfast.
view from Mirador del Rio in the far north of Lanzarote by architect Cesar Manrique (press image from Paula Muñoz/Ruben Acosta)
At the far north of Lanzarote, you can gaze across to Isla Graciosa from the the Mirador del Rio lookout (above). This landmark, which has a bar and restaurant attached, was created by Canarian artist-architect, César Manrique, whose signature is found across the islands. He harnessed natural structures and voids created by flowing lava. On El Hierro, he created a restaurant with one of the world’s finest balconies: the Mirador de la Peña, perched above El Golfo, the dramatic northern bay. He was responsible for similar look-outs on La Gomera, the Mirador del Palmarejo, and on Tenerife, at Puerto de la Cruz and Santa Cruz.
On the island of his birth, Lanzarote, he lobbied for less intrusive development. His home, in the middle of a lava field north of the capital, Arrecife, blends with the raw rock: Taro de Tahiche. He died in a car crash outside the gates in 1992, and it is now a museum run by the César Manrique Foundation (00 34 928 84 31 38; fcmanrique.org). It shows his influences (Matisse and Picasso) as well as his unique mastery of the volcanic landscape.
Norwegian (0843 3780 888; norwegian.com) is the pioneering carrier for flights to La Palma, although Thomson has a long-run charter from Gatwick. Tenerife, Gran Canaria, Lanzarote and Fuerteventura all have frequent flights through winter. Besides Norwegian, the main carriers are British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), easyJet (0330 365 5454; easyjet.com), Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com), Monarch (08719 40 50 40; monarch.co.uk) and Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com).
The Canaries’ main “domestic” airline, Binter Canarias 00 34 902 39; bintercanarias.com), has its hubs at Tenerife North and Las Palmas. It is in competition with CanaryFly (00 34 902 808 065; canaryfly.es), which has a less extensive network but is often the cheaper option.
One added challenge for Brits is that all UK flights to Tenerife serve Reina Sofia (Tenerife South), while inter-island connections depart from Los Rodeos (Tenerife North), an hour away. Some direct links are available at Las Palmas on Gran Canaria.
You can take the more relaxed approach by sea, with ferries operated by Fred Olsen Express (00 34 902 100 107; fredolsen.es) and Trasmediterranea (00 34 902 45 46 45; trasmediterranea.es). For an example fare take the three-hour voyage from Los Cristianos on Tenerife to La Palma; this costs €42 if you book online in advance with Fred Olsen.
On each island, the default option for getting around is car rental; Cicar (00 34 928 822 900; cicar.com) is the leading local company and delivers good, reliable value. If you are unwilling or unable to drive, bus services on the islands are cheap and dependable; the one exception is on Isla Graciosa, where the only option is to rent a bicycle.