Just seventy miles west of the African Sahara, washed by the North Atlantic, is a collection of little glittering green, black and golden islands known as the Canaries (or Islas Canarias in Spanish). Formed in the fires of ancient volcanoes, the islands are still heated from within by seismic forces, and baked from above by the intense North African sun.
Some travellers come for the islands' year-round sunshine, beautiful beaches and sugar-cube Spanish tourist resorts, while others prefer to explore the charming towns and the diverse, dramatic landscapes and geological wonders of the islands' national parks.
There are five main islands in the archipelago – Tenerife, Fuerteventura, Lanzarote, La Palma and Gran Canaria – each with its own distinct landscape and character. Of the several minor islands, pretty and diminutive La Gomera is worth visiting for its fairytale forests. But whether you want to be awestruck by lava-carved landscapes in Lanzarote and Tenerife, dive beneath cobalt waves and amble over fine white dunes in Fuerteventura, or discover the islands' history in Gran Canaria, there's a Canary Island to suit you.
What's on offer?
Animal attractions and nightlife?
Tenerife is the answer!
Tenerife is perhaps the most lively and family friendly of the Canary Islands. Its resorts offer accommodation and entertainment for all ages and types of traveller. Animal attractions such as Jungle Land and Monkey Park are a ready-made family day out. Loro Parque has the largest dolphin pool and the longest shark tunnel in Europe, as well as a zoo with gorillas, chimps, alligators and meerkats. It is also renowned for its parrot conservation efforts and its Penguin Planet habitat that mimics the icy conditions of the Antarctic – the perfect place to cool down on a hot day.
The island's natural features are just as enticing to family travellers. You can spend a day basking on glittering black sand, made up of volcanic rock eroded by the sea, and explore the basalt rock pools along the coast. Inland, you can experience an awe-inspiring volcanic landscape of other-worldly rock formations and geological quirks created by molten magma, encompassed by Mount Teide National Park. The cable-car ride up through the clouds to the summit of Mount Teide, which is one of the highest fiery mountains in the world, is an experience not-to-be-missed.
Playa de Las Americas and Los Cristianos in Tenerife are certified party towns where young revellers can dance the night away. For a fun night out, both have a vast array of bars and clubs to choose from. As the Canaries' largest island, Tenerife is also home to the oldest city: San Cristobal de La Laguna. This historic city, part of Santa Cruz, is a designated World Heritage Site and it's a great place to visit for an evening meal and more cultured low-key nightlife.
Green fairytale forests?
Try La Gomera and La Palma
Nature lovers can spend a day with their head in the clouds in the magical laurisilva forests of Garajonay National Park in La Gomera, which is easily visited by ferry from Tenerife. The ancient subtropical forest is one of the last remaining laurel forests in Europe, and has been nicknamed Disney's Forest for its unspoilt fairytale feel. The park is a World Heritage Site so the walking tracks are well marked and the area is expertly managed. It's one of Europe's biodiversity hotspots and its humid subtropical rainforest harbours a number of island-specific creatures including Gomeran lizards, skinks and tree frogs. The clement climate and unspoilt environment means a wide variety of bright and beautiful butterflies grace the island all-year round.
Like La Gomera, La Palma is less visited than the other Canaries. It's also a lush and forested paradise for nature lovers with unusual flora and fauna and mountain walks that will take you to the edge of an enormous volcanic crater.
Golden beaches and aquatic activities?
Don't miss Fuerteventura
Beach purists dreaming of soft white sand and sapphire seas can find their idyll in Fuerteventura. In a quiet location in the south of the island, the dazzling dune-backed beaches of Jandia stretch for more than 20 kilometres along the coast. With its clear turquoise waters and virtually unspoilt coastline, the wide beaches easily rival those of the Caribbean and the water is calm and shallow enough for everyone to enjoy. The white sand is interrupted only by the occasional rocky outcrop where the tidal pools are home to crabs and shrimp and the whole area has an away-from-it-all air, becoming more secluded as you travel further south. Hiring a jeep is a good idea if you want to trundle over the dunes to discover the most scenic spots.
In less sheltered areas, such as western Fuerteventura, the wind whips up the perfect waves for surfing. Waters ports like kite boarding and windsurfing are so popular in Fuerteventura that it hosts the annual windsurfing championships. The western coast has remained virtually untouched by development, making it a haven for rare species such as the impressive Egyptian vulture. A current initiative by the Environment Agency of Fuerteventura is attempting to return loggerhead turtles to the long remote beaches, which were once a breeding ground for the species.
Steep underwater drop-offs surrounding the island also make it a particularly good place for scuba-diving and whale and dolphin watching. Owing to its position off the Atlantic coast of Africa, you can encounter everything from cold water to sub-tropical species – sharks, pilot whales, manta rays and bottlenose dolphins are all regular visitors. There are plenty of dive centres in the Canary Islands offering dive trips into deep blue waters that harbour many wrecks, caves and geological wonders, as well as diverse marine life including sting rays and octopi. Creatures usually more at home in warmer seas, such as scorpionfish, moray eels and parrot fish lurk between rocky crevices and coral. But sea turtles are the stars of the show with five different species sighted off the coast, including green, hawksbill and leatherback turtles.
For an easy amble between golden beaches, the local government has invested in a series of coastal paths linking together the eastern resorts. From the seaside town of Caleta de Fuste, you can take a path along the sandy coastal plains to Costa Antigua and continue on the track to the island's capital Puerto del Rosario. Standing behind Caleta de Fuste, dusty Chipmunk Hill is well worth scaling for the panoramic views stretching from Fuerteventura's arid hinterland to its aquamarine shores. At the top, the colonies of wild chipmunks that give the hill its name seem more than happy to pose for the camera.
You must see Lanzarote
You'll find evidence of this archipelago's explosive beginnings on all of the islands, but a visit to Timanfaya National Park in Lanzarote is a geology lesson made real. The area is a UNESCO biosphere reserve covered with lava fields, carpeted with black ash, and rippling with small volcanoes. You can tour the park in a coach, jeep, or take a camel safari for an up-close view of swirling black lava flows fossilized in time, multi-coloured mineral deposits and cone-shaped volcanoes ringed in red and yellow.
At the visitor centre, sitting high up on a semi-dormant volcano, staff members give demonstrations of the volcano's intense heat. Brushwood placed in a hole in the ground bursts into flames within seconds and water poured into a borehole turns into a fierce geyser. The heat also powers the oven at the nearby El Diablo restaurant, where you can eat flame-grilled chicken and take in spectacular views over the remarkable landscape.
On another extinct volcano overlooking the sleepy seaside town of Teguise, you can find the oldest fortress in the Canaries rising from the volcanic ashes. The fortress of Santa Barbara, built from stone spewed from the earth's core, has a splendid view of a fire and water-forged coastline of eroded black pumice indented with glittering golden bays. You can still trace the snaking lava flows that turn to aerated rock at the water's edge.
Sand dunes and sightseeing?
Head to Gran Canaria
Saharan sand migrating on the wind has made Gran Canaria particularly popular with beach lovers, who flock to sunbathe in the silky sand dunes of Maspalomas. For sightseeing and typical Spanish culture, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria is a bustling island capital and a good stopover spot for travellers who want to experience the authentic Canaries. It's the biggest city in the archipelago and has a rich history reflected in its Spanish colonial streets. It was the first port of call for Columbus on his return trip from America and there are many museums to keep tourists busy, including one dedicated to Columbus' voyages, and the impressive Santa Ana cathedral that took 350 years to construct.
Archaeology from all over the Canaries is showcased in the local Canario museum. The islands have a mysterious past and were inhabited long before the Spanish arrived. You can touch on this forgotten history with a visit to the painted Guanche caves in Galdar, which is the most important ancient site in the Canaries. Visitors can learn all about the Guanche way of life in the Cueva Pintada museum, which displays curious artefacts from the excavation.
I must have it all!
Go island hopping
If more than one of these islands takes your fancy, you can easily experience a handful of them. Combining the black lava fields of Lanzarote, the golden dunes of Gran Canaria and the emerald forests of La Gomera all in one trip will give you a good picture of these colourful, curious and relatively isolated Atlantic islands. Sampling several islands is made easy by the regular ferry services between all of them. There are also frequent flights between the various islands offered by Binter Canarias.