Look beyond the resorts and you’ll discover a rich diversity of landscapes and attractions that have led to many of the islands being declared protected Biosphere Reserves in recognition of their unique or unusual ecosystems.
This Spanish Canary Islands archipelago is blessed with a gloriously mild climate year round, making it popular for holidaymakers wanting to relax in the sun. But look beyond the resorts and you’ll discover a rich diversity of landscapes and attractions that have led to many of the islands being declared protected Biosphere Reserves in recognition of their unique or unusual ecosystems.
Lanzarote – the volcanic realm
Lanzarote proudly flaunts its volcanic heritage, particularly within the protected Timanfaya National Park, where the multi-coloured earth surrounding the Fire Mountains varies from rusty reds and burnt oranges to deep browns and even black. This desolate setting is pockmarked with crater cones and contorted formations moulded from solidified lava. Further south, the La Geria region presents a surprising change of scenery where vineyards grow out of the black volcanic soils. The islanders have often developed innovative ways to work with their landscape, but none more so than artist and architect, Cesar Manrique. His huge influence and love for his homeland is displayed in many of Lanzarote’s top attractions, including his former home (now a museum) where he creatively turned five lava bubbles into a series interconnected rooms and courtyards. He also helped develop the beautiful saltwater lagoon of Jameos Del Agua Cave, known for its unique miniature white crabs; the phenomenal Mirador del Río lookout point; and of course his fascinating cactus garden.
Gran Canaria – a desert oasis
Gran Canaria’s oasis-like sand dunes and fragrant pine-forests help to make up the island’s well-deserved UNESCO Biosphere Reserve status. The undulating dunes and palm trees of Maspalomas are a unique highlight within the archipelago and a valuable ecosystem. Fronted by a spacious beach that is made all the more pleasant by the Canaries’ year-round warmth, it’s a great place to top up the tan or take a dip into the blue waters. The island itself is like a miniature version of the Canaries archipelago, with its contrasting beaches and forests, green calderas and arid plains, and quaint villages nestled within the valleys. With its pretty whitewashed houses tranquil Agaete is worth a visit, as are the historic towns of Teror and Arucas, while the cosmopolitan capital, Las Palmas, enjoys a lively atmosphere and appealing urban beaches. Take in the mix of Renaissance, Gothic and Neo-Classical architecture in the city’s Vagueta district – it’s also a great area for browsing boutiques or popping into a bar for a refreshing drink or two.
La Palma – the verdant isle
Nicknamed ‘La Isla Bonita’ (The Pretty Island), La Palma is well known for its lush scenery. The lack of golden beaches and absence of mass tourism only seems to enhance its charm. The entire island is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, with scenery that ranges from untouched forests and tumbling waterfalls to the soaring San Antonio Volcano. In the island’s capital, Santa Cruz, a stroll around the Old Quarter is a wonderful way to while away the day. The colourful mansions that line the cobbled streets are adorned with quaint wooden balconies, draped in beautiful flowers. If you’re feeling a little peckish, the city’s elegant squares are the ideal place to sample local cuisine mixed with a little people-watching. La Palma also boasts excellent walking trails through breathtaking settings, including the rare Laurel Forests of Los Tilos. Cloaked by indigenous vegetation, a hike through Los Tilos feels totally magical. The Cumbrecita look-out point offers astounding views of another natural spectacle, where you can gaze into the ginormous verdant crater of the Caldera de Taburiente National Park.
Tenerife – cosmopolitan & historic
Tenerife has been attracting tourists for decades – and rightly so. The largest island in the archipelago, there’s a great range of attractions and activities available – including shopping, golf, hiking, sun bathing and exploring local parks and picturesque towns, as well as the chance to visit the world’s third highest volcano, Mount Teide, and its surrounding National Park. The capital, Santa Cruz, has a lively, cosmopolitan atmosphere complimented by a strong cultural heritage that’s evident in the brightly painted buildings, popular tapas bars and enlightening museums. Just outside of the city sits the historic town of La Laguna; its well-preserved centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s well worth a visit. As is the nearby Anaga Rural Park, a green, mountainous region that covers Tenerife’s northern tip, occupied only by a handful of traditional hamlets. If total relaxation is your thing, head to one of the glorious golden beaches that stretch along the island’s sun-kissed coast.
El Hierro – unspoilt & eco-friendly
From the clifftop lookout of La Peña, perched high above the seemingly endless Atlantic Ocean, it’s easy to see why El Hierro was once considered to be the end of the world. Despite a relatively recent and dramatic volcanic history, El Hierro retains an overpowering sense of natural beauty and peacefulness. The smallest Canary Island, it’s managed to remain off the beaten track of most tourists, but it still packs a punch with its rich marine life, natural pools, juniper forests and even its own Giant Lizard. The species almost became extinct in the 1970s, but has since made a recovery and can now be seen at the EcoMuseum of Guinea. El Hierro has gained a reputation for being eco-friendly, even opening a hydroelectric plant which runs on renewable energy – an innovative touch for a more traditional island.
La Gomera – prehistoric nature
The forest-clad mountains of La Gomera’s interior are encircled by craggy sea-cliffs and black sand beaches, creating some excellent vantage points. One of the best has to be the viewpoint at the Roques – a series of giant rock formations that jut out of the lush ravines below. When approached from the capital, San Sebastian, the Roques appear like stone guardians at the entrance of the Garajonay National Park. The mist shrouded canopies and tangled, mossy trees of this prehistoric Laurel forest, hang over a carpet of green ferns creating an enchanting atmosphere in this ancient woodland. Another area of natural beauty is Valle Gran Rey – a verdant region where little houses and terraced farmlands cling to the sides. If a relaxed cityscape is more your thing, then discover the sites of San Sebastian. You could be walking in the footsteps of explorer Christopher Columbus; he reportedly once stayed here.
Discover the Sunshine Islands with Fred. Olsen: There are a variety of 2016/17 Canary Islands cruises sailing from ports around the UK. Alternatively, get there faster on a fly-cruise and enjoy the Canaries’ warm climate only a few hours after leaving the cold UK winter behind.