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Poised on the edge of the tropics west of Morocco, the Canaries enjoy a generous supply of sunshine, pleasantly tempered by the trade winds. Their scenery ranges from lava deserts to primeval forests and from sand dunes to volcanic peaks. The old towns on the main islands, meanwhile, have colonial centres that make for pleasant exploration.

Seven islands and half a dozen islets make up the Canary archipelago. They are the tips of hundreds of volcanoes that first erupted from the seabed 14 million years ago. Teneguía on La Palma last erupted in 1971.

In the 14th and 15th centuries, when navigators discovered the islands and claimed them for Spain, they were inhabited by the Guanches, who practised a stone culture. Sadly, little evidence of them remains. Today the islands are divided into two provinces. The four western isles, making up the province of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, are all mountainous; Tenerife’s colossal dormant volcano, Mount Teide, casts the world’s biggest sea-shadow. La Palma, El Hierro and La Gomera, where Columbus stayed on his voyages, are all small, unspoiled islands, and make for refreshing respite away from Tenerife’s mass tourism

The eastern islands belong to the province of Las Palmas. Forested Gran Canaria is the biggest and its capital, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, is a colo nial town. Lanzarote, by contrast, is flat, with lunar landscapes, while Fuerteventura has long, pristine beaches.

Exploring the Western Canary Islands

Tenerife has the widest range of holiday attractions of any of the Canary Islands. The province of Santa Cruz de Tenerife also includes the three tiny westerly islands of La Palma, La Gomera and El Hierro, which are beautiful and yet often overlooked by tourists. Gradually, more visitors are discovering these peaceful, green havens. If you enjoy walking, wildlife and mountain scenery, visit one of these hideaways. All three islands have comfortable hotels, including paradors. But, compared with Gran Canaria and the eastern islands, there are fewer sandy beaches here, and little organized entertainment or sightseeing

1 La Palma

Reaching an altitude of 2,426 m (7,959 ft) on a land base of less than 706 sq km (280 sq miles), La Palma is the world’s steepest island. It lies on the northwestern tip of the archipelago and has a cool, moist climate and lush vegetation. The mountainous interior is covered with forests of pine, laurel and giant fern. The centre of the island is dominated by the Caldera de Taburiente, a volcano’s massive crater, more than 8 km (5 miles) wide. National park status  is an indication of its botanical and geological importance. The International Astrophysics Observatory crowns the summit. A couple of roads traverse La Palma’s dizzy heights, offering spectacular views of the craters of La Cumbrecita and Roque de los Muchachos

Santa Cruz de la Palma, the island’s main town and port, is an elegant place of old houses with balconies, some fine churches and several 16thcentury buildings. In the cobbled street behind the seafront, Calle O’Daly (named after an Irish banana trader), are the Iglesia El Salvador, boasting a Mudéjar coffered ceiling, and the town hall (ayuntamiento), which is housed in a cardinal’s palace. A full­sized cement replica of the Santa María, Columbus’s flagship, stands at the end of the Plaza Alameda. The tortuous mountain road southwest of Santa Cruz winds over Las Cumbres mountains via Breña Alta to El Paso in the centre of the island. A relatively sizable community, the village is known for its silk production and hand­rolled cigars.

Among the almond terraces and vineyards of southern La Palma, solidified lava from the Teneguia volcano is a reminder of its recent activity .

2 El Hierro

Due to a dearth of sandy beaches, El Hierro has escaped tourist invasions. Instead it has caught the atten tion of naturalists, with its hilly landscape and unusual fauna and flora. El Hierro is the smallest of the Canaries, and the furthest west; it is the last place in Spain where the sun sets. Valverde, the island’s capital; stands inland at 600 m (2,000 ft) above sea level. Canary pines and peculiarly twisted juniper trees cover El Hierro’s mountainous interior, best seen from the many footpaths and scenic viewpoints along the roads. A ridge of woodland, curving east–west across the island, marks the edge of a volcano. The crater forms a fertile depression known as El Golfo. In the far west is the Ermita de los Reyes, a place of pil grimage and the starting point of the island’s biggest fiesta, held in July every four years. The turquoise seas off the south coast are popular with skin­divers, who base themselves in the small fishing village of La Restinga.

3 La Gomera

La Gomera is the most accessible of the smaller western islands, only 40 minutes by hydrofoil from Los Cristianos on Tenerife (90 minutes by ferry), or by plane from Tenerife or Gran Canaria. Many come to La Gomera for a day only, taking a coach trip. Others hire a car and explore on their own: a scenic but exhausting drive for a single day as the terrain is intensely buckled, and the central plateau is deeply scored by dramatic ravines. Driving across these gorges involves negotiating countless dizzying hairpin bends. The best way to enjoy the island is to stay a while and explore it at leisure, preferably doing some walking. On a fine day, La Gomera’s scenery is glorious. Rock pinnacles jut above steep slopes studded with ferns while terraced hillsides glow with palms and flowering creepers. The best section, the Parque Nacional de Garajonay, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

San Sebastián, La Gomera’s main town and ferry terminal, is situated on the east coast, a scattering of white buildings around a small beach. Among its sights are some places associated with Columbus , who topped up his water supplies here before

setting out on his adventurous voyages. A well in the customs house bears the grand words “With this water America was baptized”. According to legend he also prayed in the Iglesia de la Asunción, and stayed at a local house.

Beyond the arid hills to the south lies Playa de Santiago, the island’s only real resort, which has a grey pebble beach. Valle Gran Rey, in the far west, is a fertile valley of palms and staircase terraces. These days it is colonized by foreigners attempting alterna tive lifestyles. In the north, tiny roads weave a tortuous course around several pretty villages, plunging at intervals to small, stony beaches. Las Rosas is a popular stop­off for coach parties, who can enjoy the visitors’ centre and a restaurant with a panoramic view.

The road towards the coast from Las Rosas leads through the town of Vallehermoso, dwarfed by the huge Roque de Cano, which is an impressive mass of solidified lava. Just off the north coast stands Los Órganos, a fascinating rock formation of crystallized basalt columns resembling the pipes of an organ.

4 Los Cristianos

The old fishing village of Los Cristianos, on Tenerife’s south coast, has grown into a town spreading out along the foot of barren hills. Ferries and hydrofoils make regular trips from its little port to La Gomera and El Hierro . To the north lies the modern expanse of Playa de las Américas, Tenerife’s largest development. It offers visitors a cheerful, relaxed, undemand ing cocktail of sun and fun. A brief sortie inland leads to the much older town of Adeje and to the Barranco del Infierno, a wild gorge with an attractive waterfall (2 hours’ round walk from Adeje).

Along the coast to the east, the Costa del Silencio is a pleasant contrast to most of the other large resorts, with its bungalow developments surrounding fishing villages. Los Abrigos has lively fish restaurants lining its harbour. Further east, El Médano shelters below an ancient volcanic cone. Its two beaches are popular with windsurfers

5 Puerto de la Cruz

Puerto de la Cruz, the oldest resort in the Canaries, first came to prominence in 1706, when a volcanic eruption obliterated Tenerife’s main port of Garachico. Puerto de la Cruz took its place, later becoming popular with genteel English convalescents. The town’s older buildings give it much of its present character. The beautiful Complejo Costa Martiánez, designed by the Lanzarote architect César Manrique , compensates for a lack of good beaches with its seawater pools, palms and foun tains. Other attractions include the tropical gardens of Loro Parque, where visitors can also see parrots and dolphins. Outside town, the Jardín de Orquídeas is the oldest garden in Tenerife, and has a large orchid collection. Icod de los Vinos, a short drive west, has a spectac ular ancient dragon tree.

6 La Orotava

A short distance from Puerto de la Cruz, in the fertile hills above the Orotava Valley, La Orotava makes a popular excursion. The old part of this historic town clusters around the large Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de la Concepción. This domed Baroque building with twin towers was built in the late 18th century to replace an earlier church that was destroyed in earthquakes at the beginning of that century
In the surrounding streets and squares are many old churches, convents and grand houses with elaborate wooden balconies. Casa de los Balcones and Casa del Turista, on Calle San Francisco, sell handicrafts and regional food products.

7 Candelaria

This coastal town is famous for its shrine to Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria, the Canary Islands’ patron saint, whose image is surrounded by flowers and candles in a modern church in the main square. Supposedly washed ashore in pagan times this gaudy Virgin was venerated before Christianity reached the island. In 1826 a tidal wave returned her to the sea, but a replica draws pilgrims to worship here every August. Out side, stone effigies of Guanche chiefs line the sea wall.

8 La Laguna

A bustling university town, La Laguna is the second­largest settlement on Tenerife and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its old quarter, best ex plored on foot, has many historic build ings and good museums. Most of the sights lie between the bell­towered Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de la Concepción (1502), and the Plaza del Adelantado, on which stand the town hall, a convent and the Palacio de Nava.

9 Montes de Anaga

The rugged mountains north of Santa Cruz are kept lush by a cool, wet climate. They abound with a range of birds and plants, including cacti, laurels and tree heathers. Walking the trails is very popular, and maps showing many of the best paths are available from the tourist office. A steep road with marker posts climbs up from the village of San Andrés by the beautiful but artificial beach of Las Teresitas. On clear days there are splendid vistas along the paths, especi ally from the viewpoints of Pico del Inglés and Bailadero

Winding down through the laurel forests of Monte de las Mercedes and the valley of Tejina, you will first come to the town of Valle de Guerra, where there is an ethnographic museum. Next, you will reach Tacoronte, with its interesting churches and a bodega, where you can sample local wines.


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