In 1492 Columbus made his final stop in the Canary Islands before crossing the Atlantic to “discover” the Americas, and this volcanic seven-island archipelago 100 km off the Moroccan coast have lured travellers ever since.
Not only did the islands quickly became a vital stop on trade routes to the Americas, but in the 19th-century they became a darling of Europe’s pioneer tourists – a gentry that delighted in the islands’ near perfect year-round climate. The tourist industry has rarely looked back since. These two influences have had the greatest hand in shaping the islands: on the one hand this is probably the most Latin American destination outside Latin America, on the other much of it has been colonized and tailored to the tourism tastes of Northern Europeans – particularly British and German visitors.
As with touristy island destinations the world over, finding a sea-sand-surf package holiday is easy in the Canary Islands: hotels and resorts for every budget are scattered around most islands.
But things start to get more interesting when you leave the resorts, which reveals a group of islands that could barely be more geographically different and in some senses unique – since this far away from other land masses biodiversity takes its own evolutionary journey. Certainly all the islands deserve a couple of days exploration by rental car, which are ubiquitous and relatively cheap. Public transport around the islands – including ferries between them – is also reasonable, making it possible to create an island-hopping itinerary too, though few visitors do.
The largest and most famous island is Tenerife, which attracts more visitors than any Canary Island, but is equally famous for being the most geographically varied. The key reason for this is the presence of Mount Teide, a 3718m Volcano (and Spain’s highest point) at the center of the island. Its sheer altitude results in several climatic zones, while at the same time creating weather patterns that make the north of the island – particularly around Puerto de la Cruz – relatively wet, while the south – including the key resort Playa Las Americas – bakes in dry dusty heat. But the most interesting towns are dotted around the island and include Santa Cruz, the capital which is famed for its fairly insane carnival celebrations, along with a series of quaint colonial-era towns, particularly La Laguna, La Orotava and Garachico. Meanwhile island extremities provide forested backwaters for hiking as does the very centre of the island where a barren but beautiful volcanic environment beckons.
The other really popular Canarian destination is Gran Canaria, a slightly smaller island some 63km southeast of Tenerife. The likeable town of Las Palmas, its capital, lies in the greener north along with the more upmarket resort developments. But most visitors are drawn to the warmer south of this round island, where the hotels gather around the resort town of Maspalomas.
The three small islands to the west of Tenerife, and connected to it by ferry or flight, are La Gomera, El Hierro and La Palma. These have few resorts of any size and relatively few outsiders travel here – those who do are precisely here for the feel of quiet isolation. Yet all three have become low-impact and ecotourism destinations beloved of liberal Germans who populate all their minor hotels and guesthouses, with a good number often staying for good. The largest and most accessible of the three islands is La Gomera, 29km southwest of Tenerife. The land rises quickly from the sea on this small (20km wide) round island which is truly spectacular for its natural inaccessibility. It has the sort of terrain that caused locals to create a whistling language to communicate between the steep narrow valleys, and develop a method of pole-vaulting to quickly descend slopes. To drive anywhere on the island you’ll need to conquer some narrow winding roads that use countless hairpin bends to climb to the island’s apex around the lush laurel forests of Garajonay National Park.
The two islands in the far east of the archipelago, Lanzarote (see our Perfect Day Itinerary) and Fuerteventura, are a little different to the other Canary Islands but more similar to each other. Both are relatively low-slung, dry and fairly shadeless volcanic affairs with their own brand of stark beauty. Their shallower slopes and abundant loose rock has given them dunes and helped make their beaches generally superior, while also producing better waves and winds for surfing of all types.
Unspoiled and Green Lanzarote
Unspoiled and relatively unaffected by modern tourism, Lanzarote, along with nearby Fuertaventura, are the easternmost Canary islands, just off the coast of North Africa. As a consequence, it boasts a very pleasant year round climate. Together with great beaches, pretty white villages, an active volcano and its own distinct culture it attracts more than 2.5 million visitors per year.
Lanzarote has a deserved reputation for its model of sustainable development thanks to the renowned Cesar Manrique. Working with the Island Government, Manrique helped to ensure the absence of worst excesses of modern tourism. Therefore, high rise hotels don’t exist and over two thirds of the islands surface is devoid of any touristic development. As a result, this model was declared one of six ideal examples of best practice by the World Tourism Organisation in 1987. Moreover, in the early 1990s UNESCO declared the island a Biosphere Reserve.
Lanzarote – a Blessed Island
The agreeable climate inspired the Greeks to call the Canaries the ‘Blessed Islands’. The Majos, related to the Berbers from North Africa, inhabited the islands around that time and probably came from Sicily.
It was not until the fourteenth century that Europeans began to settle the islands. Many believe that the name of Lanzarote came from the Genoese Nobleman Lancelotto Malocello who built a fortress near Teguise. At the beginning of the fifteenth century, a Norman Knight Jean de Bethancourt conquered the Island for the Castillian crown. However, despite some protests from the Portuguese it has remained Spanish ever since!
Over half of the population lives in the capital Arrecife and the rest of the island is quite sparsely populated. In the Canaries people from Lanzarote are known as Conejeros, or rabbit hunters, which in years gone by was presumably a major industry along with agriculture. Nowadays tourism is hugely important. Many Lanzaroteños earn their living from the one and a half million visitors who come each year from the UK, Germany and mainland Spain.
More itineraries and reviews of Canary Island attractions will follow shortly. Why not drop us a line to let us know what you’d like covered?
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Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We donât want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in â¬.
See & Do
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Sleep — Out of town/rural
â¬ => Rooms less than â¬60 for a double
â¬â¬ => Rooms â¬60 – â¬100 for a double
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Sleep — Large Cities
â¬ => Rooms less than â¬100 for a double
â¬â¬ => Rooms â¬100 – â¬150 for a double
â¬â¬â¬ => Rooms â¬150 for a double
â¬=> â¬5- â¬10 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
â¬â¬ => â¬10 – â¬25 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
â¬â¬â¬ => â¬25 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
N/A => Not applicable
â¬ => Tickets less than â¬25 per person
â¬â¬ => Tickets â¬25 – â¬50 per person
â¬â¬â¬ => Tickets â¬50 per person