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(2012 - Spring/Summer Issue)


Boasting more than 3,000 hours of sunshine annually, the Canary Islands can be an appealing holiday haven for sun-starved northerners.

Beginning about 100 kilometres off the southwest coast of Morocco, this seven-island volcanic archipelago is a well-established vacation spot favoured by northern Europeans. Increasingly, the Canaries are attracting a broader tourism base, including North Americans looking beyond the Caribbean and Central America, and Africans wanting an alternative to their traditional Middle Eastern vacation spots.

While the islands have been owned by Spain for almost six centuries, Canarians are quick to point out they are a distinct society with their own customs, cuisine and culture. And although they share topography, weather and history, each island is proud of its unique features and character.


The largest and busiest island, Tenerife has drawn everyone from budget-conscious families and seniors to royalty and celebrities to its lush gardens, expansive beaches and extraordinary topography. Visitors have included Agatha Christie, who in 1927 was inspired to write The Mysterious Mr. Quin in the charming seaside town of Puerto de la Cruz.

In Tenerife’s central mountain range, Mt. Teide National Park is a major attraction noted for rare vegetation and stunning rock formations. At 3,718 metres high, the snow-capped peak of Mt. Teide, the world’s third-largest volcano, rises above the clouds. The ascent involves getting drenched in cloud mist before re-emerging in the sun. Hollywood has set several movies here, including the 2012 release Wrath of the Titans.

On the way back to Hotel Botanico, our home base in Puerto de la Cruz, we descended into the charming town of La Orotava, where we watched artists preparing for the annual Corpus Christi festival by “painting” the town square with coloured volcanic sand. Carpets made of fresh flowers are another festival highlight.


In one of Lanzarote’s main attractions—Timanfaya National Park—the red mountains cast shadows over now-silent lava lakes, which buried several villages during eruptions. Buses take visitors on a half-hour tour of the volcanic “moonscape,” the backdrop for films such as One Million Years BC and Broken Embraces starring Penelope Cruz. An interactive interpretive centre allows visitors to “play with fire,” while the El Diablo restaurant, designed by Lanzarote’s celebrated artist-architect César Manrique, draws heat from deep inside the volcano to grill meat over an open pit.

Volcanic ash has many uses in this arid climate since it retains moisture. For example, at Bodega Stratvs, an elegant winery and event complex near Teguise, we found grapevines planted individually in miniature craters of volcanic ash, which captures the nightly dew to water the roots. Each vine is protected against the prevailing winds by a low semi-circular stone wall.

Gran Canaria

Among the relics from the volcanic era are homes carved high in the cliffs, where residents would hide from eruptions. Today, a small community in the Guayadeque Valley near the beautifully restored village of Agüimes still lives in cave houses and worships in the cave chapel of St. Bartholomew. We toured the home of retiree Isabel Cazorla Martel, one of 37 cave dwellers in the area. The main room serves as her bedroom, dining room and living room (complete with flat-screen TV), while two tiny anterooms on either side of the house are her bathroom and kitchen.

By contrast, seaside Maspalomas bustleswith giant hotels, energetic sun worshippers and countless tourist attractions—including an international gay pride parade that attracts some 60,000 locals and tourists. We missed the parade, so the extensive beach area was relatively quiet. There, we joined a languid camel safari, comprising about 20 dromedaries that ambled through the dunes and grasses, carrying everyone from toddlers to grandparents on wooden seats slung over their humps.

One of this island’s original visitors was Christopher Columbus, who stopped at Las Palmas de Gran Canaria on his way to the new world. There, he effected repairs, replaced torn sails and stocked the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa María with food and water. Columbus stayed at the governor’s house and is said to have dallied with a lady friend. Today, the house is a museum, La Casa de Colón, where two colourful parrots roam the courtyard halls like cats.

Our final lunch at La Mar Sala in Las Palmas was a splendid two-hour Canarian feast, starting with sancocho soup, hot and cold appetizers, and red and green mojo. The main-course choices were lobster, pork, veal and goat served with wrinkly potatoes (tiny unpeeled spuds boiled in sea salt) and corn on the cob. Dessert choices were crème caramel or a rich chocolate layer cake accompanied by espresso, cortado or cappuccino.

By the end of my trip I felt a bit like Columbus myself, having stopped only briefly in the Canaries to eat, socialize and soak up some rays before heading back across the Atlantic. But I reassure myself this is only the start of a wonderful friendship with these charismatic isles, where I can explore my inner Agatha Christie for years to come.

Travel Planner

Direct flights from Canada to the Canaries are not yet available. In summer, Air Transat (airtransat.ca) and Air Canada (aircanada.com) have regular flights to Madrid. From there, Iberia provides connector flights to the islands. Inter-island transportation is offered by Binter Canarias airlines or water ferries for people and vehicles. For detailed information about the islands, visit turismodecanarias.com.

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