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The Canary Islands will take your breath away

From sand dunes to volcanic beaches, pretty meadows to subterranean grottos

Surely the big attractions of the Canary Islands are the man-made resorts?

Yes and no. Man might have had a hand in harnessing the natural assets of these sunny islands but it’s Mother Nature who is responsible for the Canaries’ true wonders, shaping and shading each island with unique contours and colours. Avert your attention from the resort areas and you’ll easily catch an eyeful of the archipelago’s spectacular green assets.

Beyond the colour and flamboyance of Gran Canaria’s |Maspalomas, for example, with its frequent fiestas there’s a natural theatre of geological exhibitionists in the mountain tops of La Cumbre. Meanwhile, less than an hour from the bustling metropolis of Playa de las Americas in Tenerife, you’ll feel like you’re on a different planet with petrified lava flows and craggy moonscapes of Mount Teide.

In Lanzarote too, while most |of the holiday action takes place in Puerto del Carmen and Playa Blanca, volcanic stirrings are evident in the stark surroundings of Timanfaya National Park. From the emerald-green hillsides of La Palma to the flat, gilt-edged coastline of Fuerteventura, you will find deserts, snow-capped mountains, jungle-like forests and barren plains scored with rivers of black ash.

Are the beaches natural?

The black volcanic ones certainly are – and although the white sand of beaches such as the popular Playa del Duque in Tenerife is imported, there are equally white stretches in Fuerteventura and Lanzarote that are all natural.

Sand isn’t just to be found beneath the beach towels: two islands feature their own mini-Saharas. Measuring 8km long by 3km wide, Fuerteventura’s very own stretch of dunes runs from Puerto Remedio to La Salina in the island’s northeast. The shifting sands change daily thanks to the strong north-easterly wind. It looks like nothing could live here, but more than 100 species of invertebrates, lizards and birds call this patch home.

Maspalomas may be the leading resort on Gran Canaria, but it is also the location for an accessible and exhilarating experience: clambering up and down the undulating sand dunes that divide it from the resort of Playa del Inglés. These are navigable only by foot or by camel.

Despite popular belief, the sand isn’t blown in from the real Sahara desert 170km to the east – it’s a by-product of the prevailing winds and ocean currents.

Something even more dramatic?

Make straight for the ruddy red mountains at the heart of Timanfaya National Park in Lanzarote. Here guides will bus you along the Ruta de los Volcanes, winding between volcanic craters and strata of multi-hued lava (no unescorted access is allowed). You’ll also get to see the geysers in action and try meat grilled on a volcano-fuelled barbecue. The bus tour is included in the €8 admission fee to the park. Drama isn’t only visible on the surface though. Gas blowing through rivers of molten lava forced hollow passageways underground, creating one of the longest volcanic tube networks in the world. Over the years some of these lava tubes have popped open at the surface. The Jameos del Agua (00 34 928 848 020; admission €8) is part of a five-mile-long network of lava tubes near Arrieta and is home to one of the world’s most unusual nightclubs, with a dance floor and two bars built into its rocky hollows. The nearby Cueva de los Verdes (00 34 928 173 220; admission €8) is also part of the same underground lava trail.

Subterranean grottoes aren’t exclusive to Lanzarote. Tenerife’s recently re-opened Cueva del Viento (00 34 922 815 339; cuevadelviento.net ) is the longest lava tube in the EU, snaking 17km under the northern slopes of Mount Teide. Guided tours take place Tuesday to Saturday at 10am, noon and 2pm; advanced bookings necessary; adults €10, children €3.

Back in daylight, it’s worth making for the rim of La Palma’s Caldera de Taburiente. Measuring 10km across and with walls towering up to 2,000m, the bird’s-eye view down into one of the world’s largest erosion craters is jaw-dropping. Gaze upwards and you’ll see another natural phenomenon; with clear, dark skies all the year round, the Caldera de Taburiente is considered to be one of the best stargazing locations in the world. On the crater’s northern rim you’ll find the international observatory of Roque de Los Muchachos ( iac.es ), where some of the world’s largest telescopes probe deep into space. Unfortunately the observatory is not open to the public.

If you’ve ever wondered what the edge of the world looks like, hop over to El Hierro. Before Columbus’s voyages of discovery in the late 15th century, the smallest and least visited of the Canary Islands was considered to be the westernmost landmass in the known world. In fact, it defined the Meridian until Greenwich replaced it in 1884. El Sabinar, a desolate, volcanic badland of ragged coastline and arid earth, is home to a scattering of juniper trees. Not just any juniper trees though. The 300 or so centurions here have been deformed by the prevailing winds. Bent double, their branches touch the ground, as if cowering from the elements. The unique appearance of the trees is part of the reason why the whole island was declared a biosphere reserve in 2000, and their wind-tortured form is now a symbol of El Hierro.

The near-constant trade winds are about to become the island’s greatest ally. In the next few years they will be harnessed as part of a €54m project that is intended to see El Hierro become the first island in the world to be totally energy self-sufficient.

What about some natural beauty?

Gran Canaria and Tenerife contain flower-freckled meadows, lakeside picnic parks and romantic woodland walks – and the same goes for La Palma, despite the forest fire that raged on the island in August. The heights of Gran Canaria are particularly scenic – a kind of sub-tropical Canada. Driving higher up the GC605, the lonesome palm trees of the Mogán Valley soon give way to clusters of pine trees and man-made reservoirs. At the Embalse de Cueva de Las Niñas (“Girls’ Cave Dam”), sunlight sparkles on jade-green water providing an idyllic and silent backdrop to the tree-trunk picnic tables and stone barbecues.

While the south might be a little more arid and barren in La Palma, the north offers several stunning walks that show off its green assets. Although tourism plays an integral part of the economy, agriculture is still the mainstay of the islanders, with the mountainous terrain peppered with vineyards, banana and avocado plantations.

Some of Tenerife’s prettiest assets can be found in the sub-tropical rainforests of the Mercedes Mountains in the northwest tip of the island. Huge fern fronds and moss-cloaked trees line many walking trails, drapes of lichen form evergreen tunnels, and all around bright yellow buttercups illuminate the dark green slopes like flashes of gunfire. Similar verdant beauty can be found in the mist-shrouded woodlands of Garajonay National Park in |La Gomera, one of the oldest |laurel forests in Europe.

Any natural phenomena under the waves?

Although the Canary Islands’ undersea world might not have the same colourful coral reefs as the Caribbean or Australia, it does have an immense wealth of bizarre rock formations and sub-marine caves. El Hierro is one of the most popular islands for diving and has a spectacular volcanic sea bed along its coast. One recommended diving centre here is Benthos Buceo (00 34 922 557 519; benthosbuceo.com ). Alternatively, at Los Escalones in Tenerife a wall of black volcanic rock descends into the depths |in a series of gigantic steps, like a stairway for some mythical aquatic giant. Dive centres include Dive and Sea in the south of Tenerife (00 34 922 738 289; diveandseatenerife.com ) or, for diving in Gran Canaria, Davy Jones Diving (00 34 699 721 584; diveandseatenerife.com ).