Postcard from the edges: Stick to the coasts of the Canaries and you'll find spectacular scenery, deserted beaches and a touch of the Caribbean

Charles Darwin was impressed: shortly after the great naturalist began his five-year voyage on which his theories evolved, he sailed past Tenerife in January 1832. "The first of many days never to be forgotten," he declared, even though he was banned from landing because of fears that HMS Beagle might bring cholera.

The view that Darwin enjoyed in the early 19th century is remarkably similar to that of the early 21st century. Tenerife is dominated by Teide, Spain's highest mountain, whose towering silhouette fills the view from the ocean. The snow and sunburned lava close to the summit of this volcano merges into a belt of forest that encircles most of the island, bestowing a certain Alpine freshness to upper altitudes. Closer to sea level, though, you need to focus in on the detail: the raw edges of rock that are mostly tickled, but occasionally tormented, by the ocean. In the aeons since the Canaries emerged from the sea, the Atlantic has sculpted shorelines that range from gentle beaches to soaring cliffs.

Generations of travellers have subsequently shared the view of the coast that Darwin witnessed – from emigrants in search of a new life in the New World, whose ships happened to pause for replenishment in the Canaries, to inquisitive pre-jet age adventurers taking a slow boat to these Atlantic fragments of Spain.

My appreciation of the shores of the Canaries was a little more prosaic; I bought a £399 hop around the islands in the first wave of budget cruises that was launched in the mid-1990s. Cheap, cheerful and enlightening: the arrival in Arrecife in Lanzarote was one of those great travel moments when the muddle of houses in primary colours gradually took shape as the Sundream approached the shore and the morning mist melted away. And on every journey to the Canaries since, I have sought to combine my terrestrial explorations with marine meandering, using the excellent network of ferries that link the islands (see page VII for more details).

The southern shore of Tenerife is a place of constant fascination for me. Certainly, the rocky coastline has been much built-upon. Yet even around Playa de las Americas and the other resorts that cluster together, you can find patches of shore where shoulders of rock shrug off man's attempts to colonise the island. And another conurbation, Los Cristianos, provides options for escaping the crowds and enjoying the coast from the best perspective: the sea. Frequent fast ferries shuttle between Los Cristianos and San Sebastiá*de la Gomera. In less than an hour, you are transported between the intensively developed shoreline of southern Tenerife and the diminutive main town of La Gomera – virgin territory for many visitors to the Canaries, with virgin forest draped over the hillsides. Even if you delve no deeper than the nearest bar in San Sebastian before hopping on the next sailing back, you will develop an appetite for the archipelago's shores. And, should dolphins opt to race the boat back to Tenerife, you get an aquatic wildlife experience added on as these mischievous mammals jive in the bow wave.

Way over east, take the opportunity to contrast the shores of the unidentical twin islands of Lanzarote and Fuerteventura. The main resort in the north of the latter, Corralejo, has a certain harsh beauty – and a handy jumbo-sized catamaran waiting to grant you a seaborne perspective. As Fuerteventura retreated, I could properly appreciate the meaning of the word "windswept" – and why, with rocky shores washed by sparkling seas, the island is such a hit with watersports enthusiasts. Ahead, Playa Blanca provided a welcome to an island that still has a secret shoreline: Playa Papagayo, almost deserted when I was there, is protected by a barricade of rock and is hard to reach by road.

The best approach, as the astute yachtsman who drifted into the bay demonstrated, is by sea. Nevertheless, for the land-based shore explorer, Lanzarote's resorts are compact and artfully arranged around the coast, especially the exquisite Puerto del Carmen – where cafés and restaurants perch on the very edge of the shore, while palm trees trespass on to the fingers of rock that extend towards the ghostly shape of Fuerteventura. You can see where César Manrique, Lanzarote's late, great artist in residence, found much inspiration.

At the top end of Lanzarote, a very different vessel and vista awaits. The island ends with something of an exclamation mark, a thrust of rock that rises dramatically above the ocean. At the top is the most agreeable Mirador del Rio, a restaurant with a sweep of glass for you to enjoy the view. You should be able to spot the small boat that shuttles across the often-lively El Rio strait to La Graciosa, the largest of the Archipelago Chinijo: the sprinkling of islands that could be labelled Canaries Junior. From Orzola, the port on Lanzarote, the craft must round the needle-like Punta Fariones before docking at Caleta del Sebo, the "capital" of Graciosa. Prominent among its enterprises is the bike-hire shop, which is the best way to sample the sandy extremities of an island where nature is still very much in control.

How different it feels to Las Palmas, the largest city in the archipelago and the capital of Gran Canaria. But Las Palmas possesses that most agreeable of concepts, a long stretch of city beach. The Playa de las Canteras boasts a well-kept promenade, from which you can admire the poseurs and kite-surfers catching the sun, the wind and the waves. Also enjoy the architecture and ice-cream artistes, and treat yourself for lunch at the dramatic waterside La Marinera.

Las Palmas (the city) and La Palma (the island) may be linguistically similar, but they are very different concepts. La Isla de La Palma is the furthest from a continental land mass, almost 300 miles from the coast of Africa. The shape on the map always reminds me of an uncut diamond, but the three-dimensional reality as you view la isla verde from the one proper stretch of coast road – down the east side of the island – is even more dazzling. The northern part of the island, with dense vegetation and banana cultivation, is the closest you get to a Caribbean seaside in the Canaries. And I sensed similarities with the coast of la Octava Isla, as Venezuela is known in the Canaries because of its ethnic links with the archipelago: the exposed hills in the south of La Palma resonate with some of the harsher shores of that South American country.

Santa Cruz de la Palma is perhaps the prettiest and most immediately accessible of the Canarian ports, a town whose colour scheme is a pleasing mix of cream and tobacco. And even more pleasingly, it is the place where you can take a cruise from Santa Cruz to Santa Cruz, the latter being the capital of Tenerife. Mine was aboard one of the mighty Trasmediterranea fleet, big roll-on, roll-off ferries that are so well equipped that I paid a little extra for a cabin on the 120-mile voyage.

This is a particularly appealing crossing, since it hugs the northern shore of Tenerife: a terrace of terrain from tiny coves to rugged mountainsides, before the blinking Faro de Anaga signals the sharp turn to starboard as it runs down beside the popular Playa de las Teresitas (a quick bus ride from the capital, incidentally) and into the busy port of Santa Cruz. Somewhere behind the coastal fringe lies the ancient city of La Laguna, where the first Spanish colonists located their capital to be safely away from the dangerous coast in the years of post-Columbian expansionism.

One distant shore has so far eluded me: the coast of El Hierro, the island that Ptolemy decreed nearly two millennia ago as the end of the world. Indeed, it remained the prime meridian until the late 19th century when the line was moved to the more humdrum surroundings of London SE10, better known as Greenwich. Meantime, hardly anything has happened to El Hierro apart from its being elevated to the status of "biosphere reserve" by Unesco (in the company of Lanzarote, Fuerteventura, La Palma and Gran Canaria). I hope to get there in the next year or two. When I do, I shall make the journey from Puerto de la Estaca (the port close to the capital, Valverde) across to the Faro de Orchilla – the lighthouse that marks the far end of the Canaries. Next stop South America; now, what time's that ship?

News
Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
News
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
news
Life and Style
Former helicopter pilot Major Tim Peake will become the first UK astronaut in space for over 20 years
food + drinkNothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
Life and Style
Buyers of secondhand cars are searching out shades last seen in cop show ‘The Sweeney’
motoringFlares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Bid / Tender Writing Executive

    £24000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in Manchester, Lon...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Executives / Marketing Communications Consultants

    Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a number of Marketi...

    Recruitment Genius: Marketing Executive

    £20000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This well established business ...

    Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester

    £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester...

    Day In a Page

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own