Island hopping: The best things to do in the Canaries

From botany to architecture, city breaks to sports, there are many reasons to get off your sun lounger and start exploring

Casa César Manrique: discovering the influence of the great architect César Manrique is one of the joys of staying on the Canary Islands. Photograph: Getty Images

Casa César Manrique: discovering the influence of the great architect César Manrique is one of the joys of staying on the Canary Islands. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Imagine a landscape so indented and rugged, so full of ravines and gorges that just moving around is an ongoing challenge. Now picture a solution – a long wooden pole with a metal pointy bit at the end that you push into the ground so that you can pole vault along, leaping from one rocky bluff to the next, across a gaping chasm, down into a valley and in the door for dinner.

That’s how the pre-Spanish inhabitants of the Canary Islands – the Guanche – used to get around. Nowadays this early method of transport has morphed into a sport called shepherd jumping and is a lot more fun than just frazzling beside a swimming pool.

Ask many Irish people which Canary island they have visited and you often get a pretty vague answer. The lure of winter sun means most of us travel to the islands to feel the rays soaking into sun-starved bodies, but for botanists, walkers, architecture fiends and sports enthusiasts of all kinds, the Canary Islands are the perfect year-round destination.

People who have the time could spend a few weeks plying between the islands avoiding the worst of the Irish weather

Do your own thing

For many years, Irish hill walkers have been heading to Tenerife and the smaller islands of La Gomera and El Hierro as there are small tour companies offering walking packages there, but it is perfectly feasible to do your own thing.

Going walking without a guide is not a problem. In many places there are clearly marked walking paths, some being a part of the European Trail Network, an extraordinary network of paths crisscrossing Europe from Norway to as far south as the Canary Islands and extending to 55,000km. Some people like to do sections of these trails while on holiday in different countries.

An early method of transport: el salto del pastor (the shepherd’s leap). Photograph: Vega de San Mateo Tourism/sanmateoturistico.es
An early method of transport: el salto del pastor (the shepherd’s leap). Photograph: Vega de San Mateo Tourism/sanmateoturistico.es

But finding your own walks is also fun, using walking guides or just local maps. Ending up in a village at the top of the Vallee de Rey on La Gomera, when the last bus had gone and evening was fast approaching, didn’t prove a problem for this writer. Having climbed up to a wonderful plateau bursting with wild flowers and grassy knolls and walked as far as the village where there might have been a bus, hitching a lift back down the gorge to sea level was the only option. A car soon appeared, driven by a kindly German couple, who delivered us to our destination.

Each island of the Canarian archipelago is different to its neighbour and taking a boat from one to another is easy. People who have the time could spend a few weeks plying between the islands avoiding the worst of the Irish weather.

The Canary Islands are a botanist’s paradise.

Volcanic soil

When volcanic eruptions form the land you live on, you are very often living on the tips of mountains that are underneath the sea. This is what the Canary Islands are and those mountains are like scrunched up balls of paper – tall at the top then all creased and folded in on themselves so that you have a highly complicated landscape of mountains and valleys, deep gorges and ravines on a volcanic soil which supports an incredible variety of plant life.

That’s the thing about the Canary Islands, the plants range from subtropical species to desert plants to the types of flora we see in Ireland. They are a botanist’s paradise.

Discovering the influence of the great architect César Manrique is one of the joys of staying on the Canary Islands

Picture yourself walking up the side of a mountain on a lovely sandy track. Above your head orange, trumpet-shaped flowers clamber through the branches of a leafless oak tree. Below them five-foot tall pelargoniums ramble around vying with a profusion of other plants for space and light. Blue-green asparagus ferns tower over yellow clover-like flowers and waist-high succulents. The scent of eucalyptus fills the air.

On Lanzarote you can visit the Jardin de Cactus and see some 2,000 different types of cactus. However, you don’t need to go anywhere special to catch sight of these amazing and varied plants.

Discovering the influence of the great architect César Manrique is one of the joys of staying on the Canary Islands. Born on Lanzarote, he studied in Madrid, exhibited in Europe and America but returned to his native island full of ideas about how buildings should enhance their surroundings.

You do not need to go anywhere special to catch sight of amazing and varied plants on any of the Canary Islands
You do not need to go anywhere special to catch sight of amazing and varied plants on any of the Canary Islands

Thanks to Manrique and his foundation, small houses painted in traditional colours are the norm on the island. When it came to designing his own home, he chose to build on a lava field. It is difficult to imagine using such a difficult landscape to build on, yet he created beauty out of convoluted black rock. Some of the rooms are hewn out of lava bubbles and the artistic use of white paint against the black background, turquoise pools and red furniture show a brilliant creative spirit.

Having a city break on the Canary Islands is another option

On Tenerife, one of his creations is a 22,000sq m water park: Parque Maritimo, which again uses the volcanic landscape to inform the design. On different islands one suddenly comes across unusual buildings in natural stone often in extraordinary places, but always sympathetic to the environment.

City break

Having a city break on the Canary Islands is another option. This allows one to do the pool or sea bit, but enjoy what a city can offer as well. Las Palmas de Gran Canaria and Santa Cruz de Tenerife are proper cities with real Spaniards living in them, going about their daily lives.

Both cities have museums and galleries, old towns with leafy plazas and ancient churches. Here you can eat like the locals, attend concerts and generally be an urbanite.

A great place for an informal meal is the covered market near Las Canteras beach on Gran Canaria. When the store holders go home, the little bars stay open and serve all manner of tapas – caramelised onions on goat’s cheese, Iberico ham with tomatoes and garlic, anchovies with Manchego cheese and many more. A couple of these snacks washed down with wine is a great pick-me-up after a day’s sightseeing or a walk along the coast. If you are lucky you will notice posters telling what night there will be a jazz session on.

If you decide to travel around the islands and are on a boat and a strange whistling sound comes over the air waves, prick up your ears. This is not a malfunction: it is Silbo Gomera, the complex whistling language of the islands, used originally by the Guanche. Nowadays it has more than 4,000 whistled words and is making a comeback.

Whether they invented the pole vaulting first or the whistling, we’ll never know, but the need to contact people in very rugged terrain was the catalyst. These early settlers realised that whistled sounds can travel over many kilometres, obviating the need to go searching for someone to pass on a message.

No doubt in the heat of the day, when the lads out on the terraced fields heard a particular whistle, it was on to the poles and home for the dinner.

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