Water, water everywhere?
Watersports are one of the great strengths of the Canary Islands. The north-easterly trade winds that once filled the sails of galleons from Portugal, France and Spain now propel windsurfers, tug at kites, and ruffle the hair of yachtsmen, sea kayakers and surf dudes. Scuba divers and snorkellers, too, have much to enjoy: this corner of the Atlantic is rich in marine life, including dolphins, turtles and a few species of (harmless) shark.
Conditions vary immensely from coast to coast. The more exposed shores of the archipelago are buffeted by gusts and swells, which is good news for expert kitesurfers and windsurfers. Elsewhere, you'll find sheltered bays, lagoons and marinas that are perfect for learning the ropes, with experienced operators on hand to show you how it's done.
I've never tried windsurfing before
If this is your chosen activity, you'll be well looked after. Windsurfing is huge in the Canaries, and all the most visited islands in the archipelago (Tenerife, Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura and Lanzarote) have training centres on their east and south-east coasts. Good spots for learners are the shallow tidal lagoon at Playa de Sotavento near Costa Calma, Fuerteventura, and the calm bay at Playa de las Cucharas in Costa Teguise, Lanzarote. Both are good places to tap in to the culture of the sport, as experts also base themselves here, skipping across the calmer water in search of the gnarly stuff further out. Sotavento's Pro Center René Egli (00 34 928 547483; rene-egli.com ) is at the centre of Fuerteventura's watersports scene, and offers 10-hour beginners' courses from €183. Club Nathalie Simon (00 34 928 590731; sportaway-lanzarote.com ) in Costa Teguise offers lessons from €75 for a three-hour starter session. Gran Canaria's best windsurfing beaches include Pozo Izquierdo and Playa del Inglés, which both host trials in the PWA World Windsurfing Championships. At Pozo Izquierdo, the International Windsurfing Centre (00 34 928 121400; pozo-ciw.com ) has hostel accommodation as well as a windsurfing and dive schools. Or try Club Mistral (00 34 928 157158; club-mistral.com ) in Bahía Feliz, Gran Canaria, where two-hour beginner lessons cost €50.
Where do I go to take it to the next level?
Once you know what you're doing, you can start shredding the waves at El Médano, southern Tenerife, where winds bouncing off El Teide, Spain's highest mountain, combine with thermal currents to create a force to be reckoned with. The multilingual staff at Surf Center Playa Sur (00 34 922 176688; surfcenter.el-medano.com ) will talk you through it. Lessons cost €18 per hour as part of a group or €37 per hour for private tuition. True experts can test their mettle in the unremittingly blowy conditions at Pozo Izquierdo, in south-east Gran Canaria. The action peaks between March and August, when the full fury of the trade winds slams home.
If you're up for a different challenge – and have plenty of muscle power – you could try your arm at kitesurfing. On Fuerteventura, Flag Beach Windsurf and Kitesurf Centre (00 34 928 866389; flagbeach.com ) runs eight-hour beginners' courses in the dazzling waters just south of Corralejo for €220 per person. This is spread across two consecutive days and the cost of accommodation is not included. They also have stand-up paddle boards for hire.
What about some surf?
Surfers should head for Playa de Famara on the west coast of Lanzarote, a low-key spot where shallow lava reefs help whip up some mighty waves. As well as attracting surfing types, Famara's magnificent cliffs and dramatic seas and skies have inspired creative luminaries such as César Manrique and, more recently, Pedro Almodóvar, who brought Penélope Cruz here to film part of Broken Embraces.
Winter is the season for waves on this side of the island. Visit on a calm day in summer and you'll wonder why insiders call it the Hawaii of Europe; come back at Christmas and you'll be deafened by the roar.
All the surf schools are buzzing from October to April; try Calima Surf (00 34 626 913369; calimasurf.com ; from €40 per day), which also runs courses on Gran Canaria. The northern part of Gran Canaria is the main surfing area, with good options on the coast between El Confital and Gáldar, although the eastern coast can also offer good conditions when there is little wind and the current is right.
For easygoing surfing on Fuerteventura, make your way to the coastal villages of El Cotillo in the north-west or to La Pared in the south-west; both are within easy reach of major resorts.
You don't need to bring your own gear to participate, either. The Canary Islands' best surfing, kitesurfing and windsurfing training centres take pride in the quality of their equipment, selling off used boards and rigs at the end of each summer. As for looking the part, ditch your O'Neill or Quiksilver shorts in favour of cool local brands Fuerte Action, La Santa Surf or Clean Ocean Project, and you'll fit right in.
Can I mingle with the pros?
Quite possibly, if you're on the islands during a world championship fixture. These include Lanzarote's La Santa Surf Pro event ( aspeurope.com ) in early November, Gran Canaria's Professional Windsurfers Association Grand Slam tournament ( pozo-izquierdo.com ) at Pozo Izquierdo in mid-July and Fuerteventura's Windsurfing and Kiteboarding World Cup ( fuerteventura-worldcup.org ) in late July.
And beneath the waves?
The Canaries offer some of the most appealing diving within four hours of the UK. In winter, the water temperature is still a very reasonable 20C. The submerged lava caves and outcrops around Lanzarote may lack the vivid colour of a tropical reef, but they're dramatic and full of life: moray eels lurk in crevices, parrotfish nibble their way along ledges, and clouds of barracuda shimmer through the blue. The western Canaries also have several rewarding sites with spectacularly clear visibility, particularly the volcanic sea bed along the coast of El Hierro (which is perhaps the most popular island for diving) and the eastern coast of La Palma.
There are several Professional Association of Diving Instructors (Padi) centres, where you can book a local try-dive, or sign up for open water or speciality courses. Recommended outfits include Benthos Buceo (00 34 922 557519, benthosbuceo.com ) in La Restinga on the south coast of El Hierro; Marina Rubicó*Dive Center (00 34 928 349346; rubicondiving.com ) in the pleasant resort of Playa Blanca, Lanzarote; and La Palma Diving Center (0034 922 181393; la-palma-diving.com ) in Los Cancajos, La Palma. Gran Canaria, too, is well known for its excellent diving, and has a huge number of schools. See the grancanaria.com website for details.
Life on the ocean wave?
If you don't know your boom from your beam, or your cleat from your sheet, try Canary Sail (01438 880 890; canarysail.com ) in San Sebastiá*de La Gomera.
This Royal Yachting Association (RYA)-approved sailing centre is run by a couple from Stevenage, and will train you up for €750 per week including meals and drinks.
Assuming that you pass your day-skipper course, you can then charter one of their yachts for a week of lazy marina-hopping around Tenerife and La Gomera, or a cruise to El Hierro and La Palma.
Club Sail (00 34 922 857 930; clubsail.com ) offers a similar range of RYA courses and charters from Marina San Miguel, southern Tenerife, while Atlantic Islands Sail Training Centre (0871 871 5800; ryasailingschools.com ) operates from Puerto de Mogá*in southern Gran Canaria.
Skippering your own yacht provides a sense of freedom, and the conditions in the Canary Islands are often perfect: the stretch of water between Tenerife and La Gomera is a favourite for yachtsmen and women, with sparkling seas, impressive coastal panoramas and tides running at up to three knots.
However, before you commit yourself to a bareboat charter, it's worth considering that elsewhere in the Canaries the seas can get very rough. The most troublesome areas for sailing tend to be around the islands' windy northern coasts.
A gentle paddle?
Visit Punta de Teno, the tranquil rocky outcrop at Tenerife's far western tip, to enjoy a low-level view of Teno's clear waters and striking scenery by signing up for a two-hour introduction to sea kayaking with Teno Activo (00 34 922 128060; tenoactivo.com ; €20). Once you've got the hang of it, you could try a four-hour trip (€33), heading south along the shoreline to the castaway beach at Masca, one of Tenerife's prettiest villages.
And if I'm looking for total immersion?
A great way to squeeze a whole range of activities into one trip is to book yourself a break at Club La Santa (0161-790 9890; clublasanta.com ) on Lanzarote's wild north-west coast. Dedicated to sports and activity holidays, its austere accommodation blocks don't suit everyone, but the range of courses it offers is second to none. Facilities include three large swimming pools, a watersports lagoon and a Padi centre.
Landlubbers will not feel left out at Club La Santa – as long as they're inclined to be active. While you're out on the water, your companions can zoom off on cycle trips through Lanzarote's volcanic badlands, work out in the gym or thrash each other in tennis tournaments.
Sport-friendly sun-and-fun resort towns include Costa Teguise, Lanzarote, where windsurfers stick to a designated section of the busy beach, allowing sun worshippers, swimmers and cocktail-drinkers to watch (or ignore) the action in safety. Corralejo on Fuerteventura and Playa del Inglés, Gran Canaria are good for watersports, too, and are even livelier spots.