Head off the beaten track: Active families will find plenty to do in the western Canaries
Saturday 31 October 2009
So your kids are fluent in email, texting and Twitter. But could they master the art of cross-country whistling? Silbo, a Clanger-like system of tonal whistles, is one of the oddities which make the western Canaries intriguing. It was invented by the early islanders as a means of communicating over vast tracts of roadless, mountainous terrain. Skilled whistlers claim a vocabulary of more than 4,000 words a revelation sure to impress the parents of intractable teenagers.
The residents of La Gomera, who are passionate about Silbo, used to worry that mobile phones would wipe out the art. But now it's earned a place on the local school curriculum and on the Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage list, it seems set to survive. Book a guided tour of La Gomera through your hotel, or hop across from Tenerife and hire a car, and you can hear it for yourself.
La Gomera has several appealing beaches, particularly near to Valle Gran Rey in the west and Playa de Santiago in the south. However, aficionados tend not to arrive in the western Canaries with a bucket-and-spade holiday in mind. Some delve into island culture by trying traditional martial arts or learning how to make gofio, the finely ground toasted cereal which Canarians love to dollop into puddings and stews. Others, those who really "get" La Gomera, are outdoor types with a sense of adventure: think hiking sandals and daypacks rather than flip-flops and beach bags. With your own wheels, you can join them in negotiating the hairpins which wind up to the prime walking territory of Parque Nacional de Garajonay. The park's misty laurel forests comprise another Unesco-listed asset.
Back on the coast, budding sailors will be in their element. Canary Sail (UK enquiries 01438 880 890; canarysail.com ) offers RYA courses in the safe waters close to San Sebastián, and will happily train children as young as nine if accompanied by a parent or guardian. If that seems too much like hard work, try a relaxing cruise: boats based at Valle Gran Rey cover the south-west, a favourite haunt of bottlenose dolphins and Bryde's whales. Excursiones Tina (00 34 922 805 885; excursiones-tina.com ; adult 40, child aged 5-10 20) runs four-hour trips, while Oceano (00 34 922 805 717; oceano-gomera.com ) offers week-long itineraries including three boat trips, a land-based tour and self-catering accommodation from 680 for one adult and one child, excluding travel to La Gomera.
On El Hierro, La Gomera's south-western neighbour, your kids will be bonding with the locals in no time. Head for Tamaduste, a tiny north-eastern resort where they can tumble about in the waves or search the rock pools for crabs. La Restinga in the south is another good hangout. An easy-going village, it has a clutch of fish restaurants and a few places offering mountain bike hire, kayaking or diving and snorkelling lessons. Buceo El Hierro (00 34 922 557 023; centrodebuceoelhierro.com ) provides introductory underwater training for youngsters aged eight plus, and will take qualified junior open water divers out to explore the Mar de las Calmas marine reserve, which is usually as placid as the name suggests. Its clear waters teem with fish; in the summer, manta rays and loggerhead turtles cruise by.
Inland, history and geography lessons come alive. Legend has it that the Orchilla lighthouse at El Hierro's western tip stands on the prime meridian line proposed by Ptolemy around 150AD; for more than a millennium, this marked the western limit of the known world. Young geologists will be fascinated by El Hierro's cliffs, caves and bizarre rock formations. At just 800,000 years old, El Hierro is the youngest Canary Island, but its emptier landscapes look Mesozoic; they're peppered with more volcanoes and lava tubes than anywhere else in the archipelago. For inspiring views, head to one of the lookout points along the spine of the island, or visit the primordial-looking forest at El Sabinar in the west.
There's a tinge of prehistoric drama to wildlife-watching on El Hierro, too. Just as Madagascar has its lemurs, the Canaries have their lizards: several species are found nowhere else on the planet.
El Hierro has adopted its own endemic subspecies, the Hierro giant lizard, as its emblem. Sadly, this tough-looking reptile is very rare, so you may not spot one in its natural habitat, the Tibataje cliffs north of Frontera. However, you're guaranteed a close encounter at its nearby sanctuary, the Lagartario (00 34 922 555 056; Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday 10am2pm and 4-6pm, adult 7.50, child 2.50), where a healthy mob is bred and prepared for release. Despite the scary-sounding name, most are well under a metre long, and as docile as a family tortoise.
Travel essential: Family Canaries
*This winter, the Canary Islands will have better links than ever from the UK. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com ), easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com ) and Monarch (0871 940 5040; flymonarch.com ) are expanding links from a range of UK airports to the main airports of Tenerife South, Las Palmas (Gran Canaria), Arrecife (Lanzarote) and Fuerteventura. Thomas Cook (0871 230 2406; flythomascook.com ) and Thomson (0871 231 4787; thomson.co.uk ) operate a wide selection of departures that can be booked as seat-only flights or as part of package holidays. In summer, there are also direct flights to La Palma, and there is some prospect that the link from Gatwick to Tenerife North may be re-established.
*If you prefer a terrestrial journey, a good approach is from Cadiz on the regular ferries of Acciona Trasmediterranea (00 34 902 454 645; trasmediterranea.es ). You can travel by rail from London to Cadiz in under 22 hours, using Eurostar to Paris, a TGV to Poitiers, an overnight train to Madrid and an express from there to the port.
*Binter Canarias (00 34 902 391 392; bintercanarias.com ) is the main airline for the archipelago. The biggest hub for local air links for the eastern islands is Las Palmas, and for the western isles Tenerife North (Los Rodeos). La Palma, La Gomera and El Hierro have connecting flights. The secondary airline is Islas (00 34 902 477 478; islasnet.com ).
There is also an excellent range of inter-island ferries, operated by Acciona Trasmediterranea (00 34 902 454 645; trasmediterranea.es ), Fred Olsen (00 34 902 100 107; fredolsen.es ), Naviera Armas (00 34 902 456 500; naviera-armas.com ). On top of these are some smaller ferry links, such as those linking Lanzarote's northern tip with Graciosa.
Spanish Tourist Office: www.spain.info/uk
Turismo de Canarias: www.canarias.es
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