The Canary Islands — a Unique Getaway
By Peggy Kiefer
Like most avid travelers, I’m always on the lookout for new and unusual parts of the world to explore and experience. When an opportunity came up to visit the Canary Islands on the sailing cruise ship Wind Star, I couldn’t resist.
A popular vacation destination for Europeans, Americans seldom visit these islands. Owned by Spain, the Canary Islands are comprised of seven major and six very small islands situated 55 to 180 miles off the Northwest coast of North Africa. The official language is Spanish, but many people spoke English, especially those dealing with tourists. My friend and I visited four of the islands: Lanzarote, Gran Canary, La Gomera and Tenerife.
Some impressions: Lanzarote is striking but not what one would call pretty. It, like the others, is volcanic and has a stark landscape broken up visually by traditional white houses. There is so much wind here that stone walls are build around shrubs to protect them and capture any moisture that collects at night. The treeless landscape is similar to Iceland, but this island most reminded me of the big island of Hawaii, due to its abundant black lava flows. A camel ride across the sand dunes was a highlight for most cruise passengers. We chose to rent a car and drove with no difficulty. It certainly was less bumpy and dusty.
Gran Canaria Island, despite its name, is not the largest of the Canaries. It is possible to drive around the entire island in a day, and nowhere are you out of driving distance from Las Palmas, the most populous and dynamic city in the archipelago. We found the city to be as bustling as Honolulu, rush hour traffic and all. Nearby Maspalomas is one of Europe’s largest resort complexes, and many Europeans own or rent condos along the beautiful white beaches. The island has extremes of landscape and climate, which can change quickly from Wild West canyons to Sahara-like sand dunes or to snow along the mountaintops. A rich collection of archeological sites are scattered around the island. Renting a car here makes exploring easy.
La Gomera is a dome-shaped island with a sunken central plateau and many narrow, winding mountain roads. The barren landscape around the capital of San Sebastian soon gives way to the most beautiful, luxuriant valleys. The center of the island is almost permanently covered in mist and it’s here you’ll find a prehistoric national park rain forest. This is a quiet island that draws fewer tourists and has no beaches to speak of. We enjoyed it for its peace and serenity. Wisely, we hired a driver to navigate the scary roads to the rainforest.
Tenerife is the largest Canary Island and boasts the highest point of all Spanish territories. The south of the island is hot, dry and arid, with little of sightseeing interest. For history, culture and scenery you have to go north to the old colonial cities including the capital, Santa Cruz. We took a tour to the National Park of del Tiede, which was well worth the trip. Offering the most dramatic volcanic landscape of the island, we were driven very close to the top of this dormant volcano. Some adventuresome souls were climbing to the summit, but a cable car does the job with less strain, that is when it’s working. The system is subject to breakdowns and wind closures. No one from the ship chose to take the chance of being left behind, swaying on the mountainside.
The Canary Islands were an interesting one-time trip, but I did not leave with a strong desire to return. I felt the island of Madeira, where the cruise started and ended, was most beautiful, and I would have enjoyed spending more time there.
Unfortunately our itinerary is no longer offered. Wind Star still sails to the Canary Islands, but it goes to Casablanca first and does not visit all the islands that we visited. Perhaps this might be a more interesting trip, as Casablanca is a fascinating city to explore and the two main islands of the Canary Islands, Gran Canaria and Tenerife are the most tourist-friendly. But knowing the changing itineraries of cruise lines, the original cruise might be reinstated or they might cancel the Canary Islands altogether. Be sure to check carefully before setting your heart on a particular schedule.
The Wind Star is a real sailing ship that utilizes the sails as much as possible, while relying on the engines for most of the trip. It is small, holding only148-310 passengers, depending on the model, which makes for a friendlier, more attentive and less crowded experience.