Located on an archipelago of the North Atlantic Ocean just 110 km off the west coast of Morocco, the Canary Islands (Islas Canarias)are geographically part of Africa, politically part of Spain, but notably more Spanish than African.
Alas, during the high season of the European holidays, these islands are more European than Spanish.
Most of the islands are quite rugged as they are of volcanic origin and mostly originate from fissure vents. Geologists reckon that much of the islands were formed during the Miocene period between 14 and 9 million years ago. This period was followed by one of erosion, which lasted some 4 million years.
From the oldest to the youngest, the islands are Lanzarote, Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria, Tenerife, La Gomera, La Palma and El Hierro. In fact, La Palma and El Hierro, the youngest of the island chain, are still above the oceanic hot spot of slow-moving, thick oceanic plates and thus still in their shield building phase.
Many more recent volcanic activities have reshaped, expanded and destroyed the islands. For example, at El Hierro island intense earthquake activity since July 2011 resulted in a new submarine eruption which started on October 2011 at a vent just off the southern tip of the island.
The larger and more popular islands such as Tenerife, Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura, and Lanzarote are best avoided during the peak holidays such as August, December, and January when the European vacationers invade them.
The islands of Tenerife and Gran Canaria are the liveliest tourist resort areas while the remaining islands are markedly quiet.
With a sub-tropical climate regulated by the Gulf Stream and the Trade Winds, the weather is all-year good and it is no wonder that the Canaries are referred to as “The Land of Eternal Spring”. Temperatures are very moderate and rarely fall below 18°C in the winter or rise above 25°C in summer.
The islands are all very unique in their own way and may have different appeals to different people. The most visible landmark on the island of Tenerife is Mount Teide (3,718 m) which is the third highest volcano in the world (after Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea in Hawaii).
Lanzarote Island offers some of the most extraordinary volcanic landscapes on the planet with fields of petrified lava and beaches of black volcanic sand.
Fuerteventura Island has the longest beaches in the archipelago and is a great place to explore the rugged nature.
La Palma Island (San Miguel de La Palma) is the most volcanically active of the Canary Islands and offers the impressive Taburiente crater and fewer tourists.
Gran Canaria Island is fairly large (1,560 km2) and is the second most populous of the Canary Islands. While it can get quite crowded with tourists during the high and peak seasons, the island is big and there are many places to avoid the tourists, who tend to mainly congregate around the beach areas of the “tourist towns”.
Founded in 1478, the main city on Gran Canaria is Palmas de Gran Canaria (or just Las Palmas) and is located in the northeast of the island.
Many tourists don’t care to visit the city as they head straight from the airport to the southern beaches. However, the city is certainly worth a few days if you are interested in the local culture and history rather than just the sun, sea, and tourist activities in the south.
Las Palmas has a very local flavour and if you speak Spanish, you will easily make friends with the locals as you sit on the boardwalk watching the sunset over the Atlantic. The city is blessed with many colonial buildings and colourful neighbourhoods abound. Many restaurants serve up Spanish and other dishes. Indulge in the tapas such as Salpicon de mariscos, Carne con papas, and Ropa Vieja while sipping on some of the popular Spanish beers such as Dorado, Tropical and San Miguel.
The islands’ centuries-old wine industry has enjoyed unprecedented attention in the past few years. At a latitude of roughly 28°N the Canary Islands is the most tropical of Europe’s wine regions.
The Canary Islands have been known for the famed sweet Malmsey wine, made from the Malvasia grape which is also grown in California’s Central Coast, the Balkans, Croatia, Slovenia, Portugal, Italy and Spain.
Malmsey wine is very popular with the English, Dutch and Germans, but today a wide range of indigenous grapes is grown. International varieties such as Malmsey are largely absent, yet not extinct.
While the local wines are good, the most popular drink in Gran Canaria is the rum from the town of Arucas. Arucas is a district to the east of Las Palmas and offers important agricultural, architectural and urban assets to the Canaries.
In addition, the Arehucas Rum Distillery was established here in 1884 by Alfonso Gourié as the “Sugar Factory San Pedro” and has since then made the most popular rum in this part of the world.
Reputedly being the oldest rum factory and cellar in Europe, it distributes about 80% of its annual production of 4 million litres across the Canary Islands.
In addition to its popular drink, Arehucas Rum, the Arehucas Rum Distillery also makes a wide range of spirits including rum honey and banana cream liqueurs such as Crème de Banana and Côctel de Plátano Banadrink.
Among the best rums are Carta Oro, Carta Blanca, the 7-year old oak barrel matured Arehucas, 12-year old Reserva Espcial, Ron Carmelo and the Ron Miel Guanche honey rum. At the top is the 30 year old oak matured Captain Kidd Rum which sells at over US$200 per bottle.
After a few days of soaking up the culture in Las Palmas, take a bus to Maspalomas in the far south of the island.
There are many tourist hotels and home stays in the town known for its vibrant night life, long stretches of beach, and the massive sand dunes known as Maspalomas Dunes.
For all-inclusive package tours, the accommodation stretches up along the south western part of the island towards the little town of Playa de Mogán.
Even if you don’t stay along this stretch of tourist havens, take a day trip by local bus from Maspalomas and hop off at whichever location attracts your fancy.
Playa de Mogán, at the furthest end of this coastal road, is a pretty little village which has some local culture to be savoured.
Another site which will require private transportation such as a 4-wheel vehicle, is Bandama Caldera near the town of Tafira.
At a height of 570 m above sea level the caldera is for the more adventurous and if fit enough you can descend on foot. The steep walk to the bottom of the caldera takes about half an hour.
Volcanic ash of different hues is in great abundance around the caldera.
En route to the caldera stop at the small town of Teror which is right at the centre of the island and is reached via a steep winding road. The town is characterised by typical buildings, balconies and rural island life.
Enjoy the sunny Canaries!