The Canary Islands make a very attractive alternative to a long haul destination for those looking for a shot of sunny island life
With the recession biting hard, that barefoot luxury break in Barbados that we wouldn’t have hesitated taking a couple of years back is beginning to seem like a distant dream. As the nearest guaranteed winter sun spot, the Canaries have never been more tempting and although they too sometimes feel the tail end of European winter chills, what they consider a freezing day is still a balmy 20°C. There’ll still be plenty of days perfect for sun-worshipping lounge lizards but when the wind picks up (which it is prone to do in the Canaries) and when it gets a tad cool for the beach, winter is the perfect season to scurry off and explore the wilder side of these uniquely beautiful islands.
resemble a string of child’s Treasure Island drawings sprinkled haphazardly off the African coast. Lanzarote
and Fuerteventura lie closest to Morocco, and the crumbling round watchtowers that dot the rugged coastline bear witness to the frequent attacks the islands endured from marauding corsair (and, on occasion, British!) pirates.
Inland, the wild mountainous vistas and pretty whitewashed villages have more than a touch of the Mexican sierras about them. Never far away, you’ll spot the perfect cones of mini volcanoes peeking up on the horizon and with 300 on Lanzarote alone, you might feel a tad nervous about being blown sky high off your sun lounger. Don’t worry, though - they’re not the explosive Vesuvius type, but similar to the slow oozing volcanoes you find in Hawaii, and trips out to the lava flows make for some of the most fascinating excursions on the islands.
The closest you’re ever likely to get to Journey to the Centre of the Earth is at Jameos del Agua, on the northern tip of Lanzarote. Here, a lava tube plunges down to the sea under the blackened lava fields that spill down from the slopes of La Coruna volcano. Descending into the tube is like arriving at the Clangers’ home planet. Spooky green lighting illuminates the tunnel as it coils down to the Atlantic, while in a subterranean pool, ghostly luminescent crabs sit motionless on the rocks as if marooned from an alien spaceship. Upstairs you can dispel the weird sci fi atmosphere with an interactive state-of-the-art exhibition outlining the extraordinary volcanic heritage of the Canary Islands.
Life on the seismic edge has given the locals a quirky, creative character, typified by Lanzarote’s most famous son, the surrealist artist César Manrique. His legacy can be seen everywhere on the island. It was he who persuaded the local government to impose design regulations on the tourist developments that sprang up during the boomtown years of the 1970s. Buildings had to be low-rise and complement traditional architectural styles, thus saving Lanzarote from the horrors of the high-rise hotels that have blighted so many resorts on the mainland Spanish Costas.
Manrique’s home is now one of the most fascinating museums on Lanzarote. Built on top of five lava bubbles, it resembles a New Age Bag End and you half expect to stumble across Frodo and Gandalf plotting their next adventure on the psychedelic sofas that hug the walls of the caves.
Elsewhere on the island, look out for Manrique’s intricately designed wind toys that twist and turn by the roadside, creating cross-eyed optical illusions, perfectly complimenting the bizarre lunar landscape. At the Jardin de Cactus, Manrique took a disused quarry and filled it with a spectacular labyrinth of spiky saguaros and giant aloes planted around contorted lava sculptures.
Perched on the rugged cliffs at the northern tip of the island, the Mirador del Rio is an organically shaped cave capsule where you can enjoy a coffee and spectacular views of La Graciosa, the Canaries’ tiny secret island. Seeing its deserted white beaches and a solitary sugar cube village tumbling down to the sea, you’ll be sorely tempted to jump straight on a ferry and escape from it all. For the more adventurously inclined, you can overnight in a simple pension in the village and then hike to the northern side of the island where, with just you, the beach and the Atlantic, you can enjoy a true Robinson Crusoe experience.
Over on the southern tip of Lanzarote, at Playa Blanca, a smooth catamaran ferry whisks you over to Corralejo in Fuerteventura, taking less than half an hour. Each Canary Island has a totally unique character and, because of complex geological and climatic interactions, Fuerteventura ended up with the lion’s share of the Canaries’ sand - lapping up against the outskirts of the town, you’ll find oceans of the stuff. It’s a hauntingly beautiful dunescape, strongly reminiscent of the Sahara, provides a breathtaking backdrop to an international kite festival held each November and is one of the best windsurfing spots in the world.
Fuerteventura is the second largest of the Canaries and is also the least developed. It’s an especially popular activity tourism destination, both in and out of the water. Inland you’ll often encounter groups of hikers and cyclists exploring the 70km of mournfully beautiful mountains and valleys. Originally called Goat Island, Fuerteventura was the ancient Roman Australia and was used as a penal colony for the troublesome Berbers.
On top of the mountains you’ll find podomorphs (carvings of feet) etched into the rock. Believed to ward off evil spirits, they’re a popular lucky charm worn to this day by Fuerteventura’s tall, blue-eyed Berber descendents. It’s a mysterious island full of stories of witchcraft and strange lights seen at night, and no doubt the inscrutable looking goats you’ll see nibbling grass by the roadside have a tale or two to tell about these otherworldly volcanic islands.