The Canary Islands, An Overlooked, Yet Facinating Destination

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Most Americans don’t put the Canary Islands, located just off the coast of Morocco and Western Sahara, Africa, on their list of “Top Ten Vacation Destination.” The islands’ location simply makes them too remote for most Americans to visit. However, they are an extremely popular destination for British, German and other European vacationers. The facts that they are politically part of Spain, making them a European Union member, use the Euro as currency, and have warm sunny weather year round make them a convenient, easy tropical get away. Their unique geography (a volcanic archipelago on the Eastern African continental shelf), flora, fauna, architecture and history make them a destination with something for everyone.

Many Americans probably visit the islands either as part of a trip to Spain, or as I did on a Trans-Atlantic cruise. When I initially booked the cruise, it was for the Trans-Atlantic itinerary. I thought of the Canaries as sort of a “throw away” destination. However, as I prepared for my cruise with guide books and net surfing, I was pleasently surprised by the promise of the Canary Islands.

Lazarote
We caught our first glimpse of Lanzarote in early morning from our cabin balcony. My husband who had not read or researched our destination, was shocked at what he saw: huge dunes of volcanic soil and sand rising out of the Atlantic. Lanzarote receives only 1.3 centimeters of rain per year, and consequently has very little vegetation. We took a ship’s organized coach tour of the island that took us to Timanfaya National Park and La Geria, the wine producing region. Had we lived in the 1730’s, Timanfaya National Park would have been the last place on earth we would wanted to visit. For around six years in the 1730’s, this area was a molten river of lava and an endless array of volcanic mountains, spewing explosive hot ash and rocks into the air. Today, the harsh landscape created during that violent eruption remains vastly unchanged since the eruption due to the sparse vegetation on the island. In contrast to the Volcanic areas of the big island of Hawaii where new vegetation would disguise a 300 year old eruption, the desert climate has left Lazarote looking like a moon scape or distant planet in a science fiction movies.

Our tour included a camel ride in the volcanic dunes just outside the park entrance. The camels had been a practical presence on the island for hundreds of years, but now work only a few hours a day providing these short rides to groups of tourists. The ride lasted only about 20 minutes, which was plenty of time to enjoy the novelty of the experience. After the camel ride our tour took us to the Volcanic Grill, a restaurant in the park that actually uses the heat of the now relatively quiet volcano cook its food. Out side the restaurant, we saw a demonstration of the volcano’s continuing activity. Park guides gave us a handful of iron oxide pebbles which had been heated simply by lying on a hot spot on the ground. Then they stuck some dry brush in pit about six feet deep, which immediately caught fire. The final demonstration was a man made geyser, where a man poured a bucket of water down a pipe which extended down about 10 feet into the ground. The water quickly heated and erupted out of the pipe much like a natural geyser. Then our tour bus took us around the volcanic lava fields and cone shaped volcanic mountains. We were truely amazed at expansive area that was completely covered in lava flows and ash. After our tour of the park the bus took us to El Golfo, an area where the lava flows met the sea. In this area, there is an abundance of Olivet or Peridot,the August birth stone. On nearby beaches these semi-precious stones wash up on shore. At the scenic overlook where we stopped to look at the sea caves and the waves crashing upon them, vendors sold lava rocks which contained the stones for only one Euro.

Our next stop on this tour took us to another other worldly looking place, the Vineyards at La Geria. Here the volcanic ash acts like mulch for the many vines that are planted un-trellised, directly into the ground. Here, the vines are irrigated only by the moisture of the sea and a semi circular wall that captures that moister. The wine produced in this region, though at one time renowned through-out the world, may not be for every taste. The best wine is very sweet, and I thought the dryer wines tasted a little strange and syrupy. Our tour concluded with our drive back to the port town of Arrecife, where the all white buildings and onion shaped chimney decorations give the town a futuristic look. It reminded me of the Star Wars space port Mos Eisley on Luke Skywalker’s home planet of Tatooine. Our day ended with a beautiful sunset as we sailed past the many beautiful beach resorts located on the island.

Other cruises enjoyed a tour that took them to the North East end of the island. The highlight of their tour was exploring the Jameos del Agua, a complex built in the volcanic caves that include bars, restaurants, pools, gardens, and music venues.

Tenerife

Spain’s tallest mountain, the 12,000 foot mountain Teide makes its home on the island of Tenerife. Here our ship docked at Santa Cruz de Tenerife. In this bustling town, we found many interesting attractions in walking distance of the pier. We visited a free Regional Military Museum of the Canaries which documents the famous British attack on the island led by Horatio Nelson. It was Lord Nelson’s only defeat and the battle cost him his arm. The museum contains dioramas, paintings, and artifacts from that battle and other military event which took place in the Canaries. We also visited the Museo de la Naturaleza y el Hombre (Museum of Nature and Man). This museum gave us the opportunity to learn about the flora and fauna of the island as well as its first inhabitants, the Guanches. Though most the the exhibits were in Spanish, we were able utilize translation cards to give us an overview of the exhibits. One of the highlights of this museum is its collection of Guanchen mummies.

Many of our fellow passengers booked much more elaborate tours that took them to the scenic villages located throughout the island. They spoke of beautiful views and dramatic landscapes. Some of our fellow passengers visited the national park containing the snow capped Mt. Teide. Others took a tour to the island’s famous wildlife park “Loro Parque” This expansive zoo is home to Gorillas, Dolphins, Orca, an Aquarium, Chimpanzees, Botanical Gardens and more. My friends who visited the park said that they were pleasently surprised at the quality of the park and the variety of the exhibits. Tenerife has so much to offer visitors that one could easily spend an entire week there and only scratch the surface of options.

La Palma
La Palma was our final stop before our Trans-Atlantic crossing. Our ship docked in the the beautiful city of Santa Cruz de La Palma. In contrast of the architecture of Lanzarote, this town featured buildings in multiple colors rising from the the ocean along the hillsides. Many of these buildings, dating back to the 17th and 18th century, feature beautifully carved ornate balconies. Also, in contrast with Lanzarote, this island is resplendent with vegetation. The island has several distinct climate zones including arid, thermophile, laurel forrests, and alpine. Each of these zones is home to many different endemic species including the Canary Island Pine and Echium webbii, a variety of Echium virescens (Tower of jewels). La Palma is also home to a recently active volcano, which erupted in 1971. The island also features many wineries and even has a wine museum. One of the tours offered by the cruise ship combined these two attractions into a “Volcanoes and Wine Tour”. Many tourist enjoy hiking the many trails located around the islands. Sun and beach lovers can also find exotic black sand beaches and man made salt water swimming pools.

Other Islands
On my cruise, we only visited three of the islands, however, the islands of La Gomera, El Hierro, and Fuerteventura also offer many interesting , unique sites and activities to visitors.

The Canary islands are truly a world class cruise destination. They offer a variety of attractions for cruiser and activities for nearly every interest. While many cruise lines catering to Europeans offer cruises to these islands on a regular basis, most cruise lines catering to Americans only offer visits during their repositioning cruises. For those of you considering an itenerary other than Mexico, Alaska or the Caribbean, a Trans-Atlantic cruise including these beautiful islands may be an exciting surprise for you and your travel companions.