The Complete Guide To The Canaries

The Canaries have much more to offer than just sun, sea and sand. These volcanic islands off the coast of Morocco are rich in history, wildlife, forests and art, and are even home to a community of cave-dwellers. Rhiannon Batten delves in to the secrets of Europe's Hawaii
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The Independent Travel

I'M NOT REALLY INTO BIRD-WATCHING

I'M NOT REALLY INTO BIRD-WATCHING

You don't have to be. The islands were named after the large native dogs found there by the first explorers (from the Latin for dog, canis). But if you are into feathered life, the archipelago is home to the small yellow birds and a number of rarer breeds. Labelled the edge of the world by Ptolemy, the Canaries form an arc of giant volcanic stepping stones 100km off the west coast of Africa.

There are seven main, inhabited, islands; running west to east they are El Hierro, La Palma, La Gomera, Tenerife, Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura and Lanzarote. The most invaded by visitors from Continental Europe are Tenerife and Gran Canaria. Since the mass tourism boom of the 1970s and 80s, the Canaries have had an image problem among independent travellers. But away from the resorts' bars and restaurants, there's a far more exotic side to the islands. With broad beaches, volcanic plains, wild forests and ancient towns, this is one of the most exciting destinations you can get to within four hours' flying time of the UK.

I HEAR THEY CAN BE A BIT WINDY, TOO

The strong Atlantic breezes have their benefits. As well as keeping temperatures down, they drive a strong sports industry, with windsurfers, kite-surfers and plain old surfers flocking to the "Hawaii of the Atlantic". Lanzarote and Gran Canaria have the most water sports facilities but, as the name suggests, Fuerteventura ("strong wind") is also known for its world-class surfing and windsurfing. You can usually tell where the best conditions are by searching for the lines of camper vans parked up in empty corners of the islands.

Extreme Holidays (01622 719719; www.extremeholidays.com) offers specialist one-week water-sports trips to Fuerteventura from £495 per person, including accommodation, transport and instruction in English, but not flights. To take to the water in a slightly more sedate fashion, Canary Sail (01438 880890; www.canarysail.com), recently featured in the Channel 4 series No Going Back, offers one-week RYA sailing courses in La Gomera. Prices start at £515, including half-board accommodation and tuition but, again, not flights.

I THINK I'LL JUST LIE ON THE BEACH

Then stick with Fuerteventura. It may be the second-biggest island in the Canaries but scenically it's also one of the dullest - except where its coastline is concerned. Surrounding the island are endless white-, gold- and black-sand beaches. Around Jandia, to the south-east, is the longest stretch of sand in the Canaries, a 20km sweep that shimmers all the way from Costa Calma to Morro Jable. The shy among you beware; the influence of German and Scandinavian tourists on "Fuerte" is apparent in the large number of nudist beaches. If you just want to look at the sand, rather than lie on it, head to the Sahara-like Parque de las Dunas, an impressive 27 sq km strip of emptiness in the north-east of the island. For a quick overview of the island's beaches, log on to www.fuerteventura.com.

Most other Canary Islands also have good, if less dramatic, beaches. In Lanzarote, the prettiest are those around Papagayo point on the island's southern tip, with golden sand, turquoise water and a backdrop of either dunes or cliffs. Over in Tenerife, try Teresitas, a 2km-beach lined with palm trees and built from imported Saharan sand.

WHAT ELSE SHOULD I SEE?

Pull on your Rohan action slacks and step into your sandals. For enthusiastic geographers the Canary Islands are superb; a volcanically produced confection of mountains, craters, lava fields and sand dunes. On Tenerife, for example, it's hard to miss the Pico del Teide in the centre of the island. At 3,718m it's Spain's tallest peak and its slopes, lava streams and 16km crater now form a national park. Various paths circle the area or you can cheat and take the cable car (00 34 922 290 129; www.telefericoteide.com), which is open from 9am to 4pm daily. The eight-minute ride costs a hefty €20 (£14).

Over on Lanzarote, the main attraction is Timanfaya National Park, an immense volcano-spewed landscape. The park is only accessible as part of a 40-minute bus tour, price €8 (£5.70). These leave roughly every 30 minutes from 9am-5.30pm (00 34 928 840 057). On Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings the local visitor centre also runs free guided walking tours (adults only) through the lava fields, but they often get oversubscribed so book ahead (00 34 928 840 839). At the other end of the island is the Mirador del Rio, a glass-framed viewpoint hewn from the cliffs that offers stomach-jolting views across to the tiny island of La Graciosa. The Mirador (00 34 928 526 548) is open from 10am until 5.45pm daily; entrance costs €4.20 (£3).

Gran Canaria also has its own geographical wonder: the dunes of Maspalomas. If you go in search of the migrating birds that flock there, be careful where you look; it's also a popular gay cruising area.

WHAT ABOUT SOME GREENERY?

The viewpoint over Gran Canaria's vast Caldera de Bandama, south of Las Palmas, is one of the island's best. It was named after a 16th-century Dutch merchant and his Gran Canarian wife who grew vines in the crater. Today you look down over a colourful crop of citrus, fig and palm trees to the sea beyond. Further south, near Ingenio, is the popular picnicking spot of Barranco de Guayadeque, a leafy canyon that's home to a small, modern-day troglodyte population.

Over on Tenerife, the lush Anaga mountains are deservedly popular with hikers, who come to puff their way up the steep terrain past juniper trees, ferns and pungent herbs. Better still for greenery, however, is La Palma, further west.

Dubbed "La Isla Verde" (the Green Isle) by proud locals, it has some of the highest peaks, and highest rainfall, in the Canaries. Far less developed than most of the others and dotted with forests, it's ideal for hiking. Highlights include the Los Tilos biosphere, whose deep ravines boast dewy rainforests, and the dramatic Caldera de Taburiente National Park, where rocky peaks jut out above mist-shrouded trees. There are several walking trails to explore here. Inntravel (01653 617788; www.inntravel.co.uk) offers week-long walking holidays to La Palma from £824 per person including flights from Gatwick, transfers, maps and notes, accommodation and some meals.

IS THERE A CHEAPER ALTERNATIVE?

"Gomera is the poorer traveller's substitute for Nepal, with its ravines covered with terraced farming and its mountains peeping up into the clouds - yet the walking is hardly more demanding than in the Lake District" praises the eccentric but information-packed guidebook, Alternative Gomera. Published by the Institute for Social Inventions (020-7359 8391; www.gomera.org.uk), price £11, it tells you how to visit on a budget, with the possibility of a week-long break for £400 including flights, insurance, transport, guesthouse accommodation, food, drink "and postcards". To do the island on the cheap, the author suggests taking little more than a pair of cords and a pocket-studded fleece.

WHY SHOULD I BOTHER?

Because La Gomera is one of the most interesting of the Canary Islands. So remote that, in 2000, six giant lizards of a species thought to have been extinct for 500 years were found there, at the island's heart in the laurel-filled Parque Nacional de Garajonay. Elsewhere, there are picturesque abandoned villages and lush valleys where date palms, prickly pears, almonds, avocados, papayas and oranges grow. The island's other claim to fame is that some of its older residents still communicate using a traditional whistling language, el silbo, officially recognised as endangered by Unesco. For organised holidays to the island, try Corona Holidays (020-8530 3747; www.coronahols.com). A Canarian specialist, the company can put together one-week trips to La Gomera from around £556 per person, including flights to Tenerife, car hire, insurance and half-board accommodation but not ferry crossings.

IS THERE ANYWHERE EVEN MORE REMOTE?

For isolation try El Hierro, the tiniest island in the archipelago. La Chiquita ("little one"), as it is known, isn't often visited by tourists but those who venture there go for the wilderness. Unlike the other islands, there are no real sandy beaches here; instead, people mainly come to hike, swim or dive - or to spend a night in what's claimed to be the world's smallest hotel in Las Puntas. Ironically called the Hotel Puntagrande, it has four bedrooms, a restaurant and a bar (00 34 922 559 081).

I'M LOOKING FOR SOME CULTURE

Then have a peek at Santiago Calatrava's magnificent Auditorium at 1 Avenida Constitucion in Santa Cruz, Tenerife. A sinuous wave curves out over this landmark building set next to the sea. It is home to the Santa Cruz Symphony Orchestra, the Tenerife Philharmonic Orchestra and the Tenerife Opera Festival (00 34 922 568600; www.auditoriodetenerife.com).

The Auditorium is the first part of a wide-ranging programme of architectural regeneration taking place in Santa Cruz, with the designers of Tate Modern, Herzog and de Meuron, set to build a new contemporary art gallery and revamp the waterfront area over the next few years. Culture of an altogether older kind is on offer at the city's Municipal Museum of Fine Arts (12 Calle Jose Murphy; 00 34 922 244 358). Among the exhibits here are works by old masters Jan Brueghel and José de Ribera. It opens 10am-8pm from Tuesday to Friday and from 10am-3pm at weekends, admission is free. The other main destination for travellers with culture in mind is Lanzarote. Among other attractions, it's home to the quirky Museum of Contemporary Art, with works displayed along the 18th-century walls of the fortress of San José just outside the capital, Arrecife (00 34 928 812 321). It opens 11am-9pm daily, admission is free. Turning the building into a museum was the idea of César Manrique, whose paintings are displayed there.

NEVER HEARD OF HIM

Step onto Lanzarote and you soon will. A local artist who combined his talent for landscape architecture with a love of the local terrain, he helped shape many of the island's attractions. His former house, a James Bond-style hideout built cleverly into the surrounding lava in Tahiche, now serves as the headquarters of the César Manrique Foundation (00 34 928 843 138; www.fcmanrique.org), and is a good place to find out about his other projects. It opens 10am-5.45pm daily, admission €7 (£5). Alternatively, visit it as part of a cultural tour of Lanzarote. Run by the Magic Travel Group in association with the Tate, these start at £1,025 per person including flights, guides and bed and breakfast accommodation (0800 980 3378; www.magictravelgroup.co.uk).

ANY SIGNS OF OLDER LIFE?

The islands are dotted with picturesque towns and villages, most dating from the colonial era. Particularly impressive historical remains include the Casa de Colon (00 34 928 312 373) in Santa Cruz, Tenerife, with its wooden balconies. Rebuilt in the 18th century, this was supposedly one of Columbus's stopping-off points in 1492. It now houses a museum dedicated to the great mariner, who also dropped in at La Gomera. It opens 9am-6pm from Monday to Friday and from 9am-3pm at weekends, admission is free.

Elsewhere in Tenerife, the "Canary Baroque" Iglesia de la Concepcion in the gorgeous old town of La Orotava is also worth a trip. Its lavish, sculpture-filled interior is a national monument. In the same town is the Casa de los Balcones, the 17th-century "House of Balconies", with its intricate carvings and a palm-filled patio (00 34 922 330 629). It opens 8.30am-6pm from Monday to Friday and 8.30am-5pm on Saturdays. Entrance to the building is free, otherwise it's €1.50 (£1.10) to enter the small museum inside.

HOW EASY IS IT TO GET TO - AND BETWEEN - THE ISLANDS?

Most people fly into one of the four biggest islands and then travel on from there. Flights from the UK to the Canaries start at around £100 return. British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) flies from Gatwick to Lanzarote, Tenerife, Fuerteventura and Gran Canaria, and from Manchester to Gran Canaria. Monarch Scheduled (08700 40 50 40; www.bookflymonarch.com) flies from Luton and Manchester to Tenerife. In addition, there are scores of charter flights. Thomsonflights, for example, has services from a dozen UK airports to the main Canary Islands, starting from around £90 (0800 000747; www.thomsonflights.com).

All the islands have airports, although most people only fly between the four main ones; try Islas Airways (00 34 902 477 478; www.islasairways.com) or Binter Canarias (00 34 902 391 392; www.bintercanarias.es/ingles) for connecting flights. Elsewhere, ferries are often the only option, with journey times varying from an hour (between Lanzarote and Fuerteventura) to 20 hours (between Lanzarote and Tenerife). Trasmediterranea (00 34 902 454 645; www.transmediterranea.net), Naviera Armas (00 34 928 300 600; www.naviera-armas.com) and Fred Olsen (00 34 922 290 011; www.fredolsen.es) link most of the islands.

WHERE SHOULD I STAY?

Most visitors book package holidays, which often work out pretty cheap. The Thomas Cook offshoot, JMC (0870 750 5711; ww1.jmc.com), is offering a one-week trip, including flights from Gatwick and self-catering accommodation on Gran Canaria, for £239, if you are free to depart next Saturday. For something more up-market, one of the best-known hotels on the Canary Islands is the Hotel San Roque (00 34 922 133 435; www.hotelsanroque.com), a converted 17th-century manor house on Tenerife. Prices start from €185 (£132) for a single room, including breakfast.

Further off the beaten track is the Villa Nati (00 34 922 321 316; www.villanati.de/english) in Tenerife's Orotava valley, which offers B&B accommodation from €81.70 (£58) per double or the Finca de Las Salinas (00 34 928 830 325; www.fincasalinas.com), a brightly coloured hacienda on Lanzarote with rooms from €104 (£74) per double, including breakfast. For guest houses, it's well worth visiting the following rural tourism websites: www.canary-islands.com and www.toprural.com. There are also six paradors - government-run hotels in historic buildings (00 34 91 516 6666; www.parador.es) - in the Canaries, one on each of the main islands except Lanzarote.

WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE?

The Spanish Tourist Office is at 22-23 Manchester Square, London W1M 5AP (020-7486 8077; www.tourspain.co.uk).

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