The Canary Islands: A Volcanic Masterpiece

by The White Apple

Sprinkeld just west of Moroccan shores, the sun-kissed, pleasantly tempered Canary Islands abound in natural, cultural and archaeological wonders.

Known as the “Islands of Perpetual Springtime”, the Canary Islands offer year-round sunny weather, the enjoyment of spectacular beaches and a vast selection of natural wonders. Seven islands and a handful of islets combine to form a paradise of culture, sun and scenery ranging from primaeval forest to sand dunes to multi-coloured petrified lava streams. They remain a favourite destination of romantic, family, and getaway holiday makers alike.

When European navigators first discovered these islands in the late 14th century and claimed them for Spain, they were inhabited by the Guanches, a tall, white-skinned, stone cultured race who lived in caves and settlements around the borders of lava-made badlands. Sadly, within 100 years of the arrival of the conquistadors, the Guanches were subdued and just about wiped from the face of the Earth. Very little evidence of their culture remains today, so their origins remain shrouded in mystery. Recurrent legends, however, state that the Guanches were actually Atlanteans, left behind when the continent sunk, a theory to which much academic debate, research, and criticism has been given. Perhaps the best cultural evidence of these legends of Atlantis origin are found within a particular Guanches folk dance which has seemingly survived the centuries and tells of a great flood and flight to safe shores.

The islands, today, are divided into two provinces: Santa Cruz, consisting of the four western, mountainous isles and Las Palmas, three eastern isles which include forested Gran Canaria - the seat of Las Palmas, capital, port and largest of all cities in the islands. Tenerife, in Santa Cruz, has the most vast array of tourist attractions in the Canaries which include a vibrant nightlife, lovely beaches (so what if they’re man-made!), wondrous volcanic landscapes, water sporting, beautiful parks, and plenty of gorgeous old towns and villages. Tenerife, in the language of the original Guanche people, means “Snowy Mountain”, a nod to its most striking natural feature, Mount Teide. This dormant volcano is the highest peak in all of Spain and casts the largest sea-shadow in all the world. A ten minute cable car ride up the mount will drop you off 160 metres/525 feet short of the 3,718 metre summit and authorisation must be obtained in order to climb the rest of the way. To consider this place in all its power and grandeur is overwhelming. There is the curious/adventurous part within us that fancies ourselves as great explorers. The part that has us wishing to scramble up the summit, peer over the volcanic rim and stare unfaltering into the face of the great force which formed these volcanic islands. Then, of course, there is the self preservation side of us, gone mad with calculations of space and time; trying to figure the odds of leaving Mount Teide with little more than a singed eyebrow should the vast inferno decide to blow unexpectedly! Whatever the choice to experience Mount Teide, however, it remains a truly unique and awesome site.

Tenerife’s capital, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, stands as a major regional deep water port, suitable to accommodate large ships and cruise liners. Las Teresitas, though completely man-made, is perhaps the city’s most beautiful beach. It was fabricated by bringing in millions of tonnes of golden sand from the Sahara (sure they have loads to spare!) and creating a protective reef offshore to prevent the erosion of this much beloved masterpiece. In true fashion with most cities on the mainland, the hub of Santa Cruz centres around its pedestrian square, Plaza de Espana, which lies close to the harbour and Calle de Castillo, the shopping high street. Many historic buildings can be found here as well, the most remarkable among them being two museums and two churches. The Museo de Bellas Artes houses works from old masters as well as the modern and features many paintings centred around local life and scenery. Museo de la Naturaleza y el Hombre offers a chance to get up close and personal with the mummified remains of the Guanche people. Iglesia de San Francisco dates back to the 17th century and is considered to be Baroque, but perhaps this applies to the time period only. To look at it, the building seems more reminiscent of an old Spanish Mission than the elaborate decoration so often associated with Baroque architecture and design. It is thoughtfully simplistic, yet warm, saving any fanfare to be had for the impressive inlaid chapel ceiling and ornately festooned altar. Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion dates back to the 1500s and is the only church in all the Canaries to have five naves. Often referred to as a cathedral, it is a misnomer bearing testament to this much beloved church’s status as the favoured gathering place of the city.

Stately in appearance and aristocratic in origin, La Oratava makes for an enjoyable diversion filled with a visual feast of historic delights left behind from the many wealthy and noble families who settled here after the Spanish conquest. The old part of this celebrated town is inundated with grand Renaissance dwellings, resplendent gardens, beautiful old churches and convents, as well as sophisticated restaurants and shops. The Casa de los Balcones is a popular site for all the mansion’s splendid wooden balconies and elaborate inner courtyards with views over the valley. Casa del Turista is also bejeweled with carved wooden balconies and overflows with handmade embroidery and souvenirs. It is also positively crawling with tourists. Casa Mendez-Fonseca lies just across the road and offers a much quieter sojourn. It has an especially dazzling inner courtyard and an eccentric little time warp of a museum up the stairs with an entry fee so nominal, it’s hardly worth mentioning. There is also a bit of local wine tasting available…BONUS!

Gran Canaria, in the eastern province of Las Palmas, is the most popular of the Canary Islands and, though packed with high-rise hotels and resort esplanades, there is still plenty of wild and wondrous scenery to explore nearby. Upon leaving Las Palmas airport, a sharp sense of “Dear God, what have I done?” begins to cross over as the motorway barrels headlong into a whir of mega-resort madness. Progressively, however, three clear-cut districts become evident. Playa de Ingles is the largest resort of the three with its hundreds of restaurants and discotheques built to accommodate the millions of tourists that descend here each year. It is also the most hopping and energetic – especially at night when the throngs of pulsing neon lights and bass-thumping dance clubs come alive. Don’t hold out hope for any seaside views as many hotels here will lack them, but most have sprawling well-manicured grounds and massive swimming pools. San Agustin is perhaps the most family friendly resort with its nicely sheltered, dark sandy beaches and landscaped promenade which runs the entire length of the purlieu. Attractions such as Sioux City, a Wild West theme park, and Palmitos Park, a sub-tropical oasis featuring over 200 different species of birds, are well within easy access. Luxury hotels with in-house casinos abound for those antsy to press their luck and for those a bit more daring, a wide range of water sports are available. A welcome contrast to the pandemonium of the surrounding resorts, Dunas de Maspalomas forms a serene and natural reserve which is relievingly protected from any further property development. Let focus wander here for a few moments and you could easily imagine yourself in an Arabian desert. The parade of camels treading past lends to this illusion until, of course, you spot the big, white trainers and designer label T-shirts these merry-making tourists are wearing. How very un-Bedouin! To be fair, this matters little and is easily forgotten – the miles upon miles of gorgeous wind-sculptured sands make certain of that.

The capital, Las Palmas is a lively and industrious seaport city which receives over 1000 ships docking here every month. Although slightly diminished from the heady days when the gentry and glamorous came to rejuvenate in winter, this city remains a most vibrant place to visit offering a variety of the arts as well as cultural and historic treasures. The Pueblo Canario, though packed with tourists, gives a great overview of the foods, wines, folk dances, history and crafts of the Canarians. It is well worth a visit to get your bearings and see what strikes fancy for further exploration. Playa de las Canteras – a crowded, two-mile long golden beach – stretches along the city’s main promenade of hotels, restaurants and bars. For most of this expanse, the beach is sheltered by a natural barrier of coral and sandstone affectionately referred to as “the bar”. Staving off harsh currents from the Atlantic, “the bar” helps to create one of the best surfing spots in all of Europe. At the end of town, Museo Canario sits within the historic Barrio Vegueta. Among its priceless relics are Guanche mummies, handiworks, pottery and bones, which are exhibited in sixteen galleries. There is also an impressive library which houses well over 60,000 volumes on Canary Island topics alone. Perhaps the most popular site in the area, Casa Museo de Colón is a former governor’s residence dating back to the 15th century. The museum complex consists of several houses, one of which was visited by Christopher Columbus in 1492, during his first voyage to America. Consisting of thirteen exhibition halls, a library, and study centre, it focuses on the history of the Canary Islands and its ties with America. It is worth noting that the city of Las Palmas is a sister city with San Antonio, Texas in the United States, which was founded in 1718 by a small group of Canarians.

Any trip here is destined to be a feast for the senses not soon to be forgotten. Strange volcanic landscapes, lush gardens and forests, sandy beaches, sparkling blue sea, and illustrious history, make these islands truly unique. Whether you’re after a romantic getaway, action holiday, cultural fiesta, or family fun recreation, you’d be hard challenged to find another destination that so easily caters to all interests and never fails to deliver.