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A guide to the 7 wonderful Canary Islands

You’ve heard of the resorts, of course. But did you also know that the Canary Islands are home to the highest mountain in Spain? That they are clad in pine forest and ringed with volcanic black-sand beaches? That they are not only Europe’s best whale watching hotspot but also a mecca for surfers, and for hikers? There is so much more to discover in this sunny archipelago than just a string of resorts, so pick an island and start exploring.

1. Tenerife

Tenerife La Orotava

This is the island everyone knows – or thinks they know. The highlight (literally) is Mount Teide, a lofty volcano that can be reached by cable car or, more enticingly, on foot. Its steaming slopes lead down to thick pine forest alive with birds before giving way to the coastal plains and ultimately the black sand beaches its lava has created. Teide also created the long-soak-worthy natural rockpools at Garachico and the bizarre rock formations and teetering stacks around the Canadas del Teide, while man built the gorgeous ancient towns of La Laguna and La Orotava, where brightly painted mansion houses are decked with carved wooden balconies. The channel between Tenerife and La Gomera is the best place for that whale watching. Board a boat in Los Cristianos and keep your eyes peeled for sperm, minke and even killer whales.

2. Gran Canaria

Gran Canaria

Gran Canaria is a self-styled “continent in miniature” and for once the tourist board cliché rings true. Because the most populated of the Canary Islands has it all. Here you can stroll the waterfront of vibrant capital Las Palmas de Gran Canaria one day and run full pelt down the vast, empty sand dunes at Maspalomas the next. Inland you can explore plunging gorges and lofty peaks, hiking up to the lavascape around volcanic stack Roque Nublo and crisscrossing the mountains through cool pine tree forest to reach the picturesque old towns of Teror and Tejeda. The highest village is Artenara, and should not be missed for its troglodyte caves (some of which are still inhabited) and far-reaching views of the island and over to Teide on distant Tenerife.

3. Lanzarote

Timanfaya National Park

Lanzarote has a style that is all its own, and this is mostly thanks to the island’s own Cesar Manrique, an architect and designer who put the brakes on rampant development. Here all buildings are restricted in height, there are no advertising billboards and almost every roundabout centres on a sculpture, many of which move like wind chimes. These high standards continue in everything from the hotels to the food and wine. You can stay in a yurt at Finca de Arrieta or on a vineyard at Finca Malvasia, and spend your days washing down freshly cooked squid and clams with the Canary Islands’ best wine, cultivated by the volcanic soil here. Make time to visit the volcanic cavern of Jameos del Agua, formed by nature but sculpted by Manrique, and the otherworldly Timanfaya national park, epicentre of one of the worst earthquakes the world has ever seen, in 1730.

4. Fuerteventura

Fuerteventura

To some, she is no beauty. To others, her volcanoes appear like mounds of colourful spices (cumin, perhaps, or saffron) tempting them in to the interior of an island that is far better know for its beaches. Fuerteventura is ugly to some because of her astounding dryness, with barren plains and dusty mountaintops marking out the landscape. But Fuerteventura is also a waterlovers playground, with some of the best surf breaks in the Canaries and some of the most holiday brochure worthy white-sand beaches in Europe. In the north, days can be spent sandy toed at Parque Natural de Corralejo’s golden sand dunes or sucking the salt from your fingers after a feast of fresh seafood in El Cotillo (take a seat at Vaca Azul for the best). Don’t miss Lajares, a laidback town of bakeries, surf shops and craft markets and consider a trip to Los Lobos, the uninhabited and truly unspoilt island just offshore of Corralejo.

5. La Gomera

La Gomera

Don’t like getting sand between your toes? If you don’t like the beach, head to La Gomera, an island that is more soaring rock walls than gently shelving sands. This is an island so undulating that the locals invented their own whistling language (silbo) to communicate across the ravines and thereby save their legs (and several hours journey time). Today though visitors want to take their time, and this is an island that appeals more to hikers than to anyone else, with an exciting range of trails winding through lush valleys and mist-drenched forests before reaching out towards the dramatic cliffs, wending down through the terraces and banana plantations to finally reach the sea. San Sebastian is the only real town and here you can follow in Christopher Columbus’s footsteps – he stayed here en route to the new world.

6. La Palma

La Palma

Few visitors make it to La Palma, but the greenest of the Canary Islands is a haven for hikers and perhaps the archipelago’s best-kept secret. A UNESCO biosphere reserve, it is a serene isle of unspoiled rainforest dripping with moss and water, bowled-out volcanic calderas blanketed in shady pine forest, and sprawling national park land awash with streams and waterfalls. Caldera de Taburiente should not be missed and must be explored on foot. It is well worth the potential blisters for its bizarrely eroded rockscape and the chance to see bubbling clouds spilling over the lips of the crater.

7. El Hierro

El Hierro

El Hierro is the last landfall before America – and the last Canarian island on most people’s lips to boot. Remote and unknown to all but the most intrepid of visitors, it offers a real chance to escape and the slow pace of life here is endlessly charming. This is another UNESCO biosphere reserve and you will find plenty more of those typically Canarian volcanic badlands here, but the real reason to visit is that chance to escape, into lush valleys and volcanic amphitheatres with just the birds and the island’s famous giant lizard for company.

Looking for more tips for an amazing break to one of the beautiful Canary Islands? Check out these articles:

Top 10 things to do in Gran Canaria

With explosive surf and sizzling volcanic sand beaches, Gran Canaria is one hot ticket.

Top 9 things to do in Tenerife

Volcanoes, subtropical forests and epic adventures, 9 reasons why Tenerife is more than just one big holiday resort.

Top 8 things to do in Lanzarote

Lunar landscapes and brilliant beaches – 8 reasons why Lanzarote can no longer be considered grotty.

Top 9 things to do on Fuerteventura

Fuerteventura is far more than just one giant beach. Here are our insider tips for things to do on this underrated Canary Island.

Top 10 things to do in Gran Canaria

With explosive surf and sizzling volcanic sand beaches, Gran Canaria is one hot ticket.

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