The Canary Islands, a chain of seven volcanic islands off the coast of northwest Africa, (only 30 kms at the closest point) have been a stop-off point for seafarers for centuries - on their way to the New World. Sometimes known as the Fortunate Islands because of a unique mild climate, they are a
worldwide centre for climatic research, and with a tranquil lifestyle, tourism is the main industry of the islands.
Many nations tried to capture these strategically located islands. Part of Spain since 1496, the islands are an unusual mix - geographically African but culturally European. Over 120 languages are spoken here, but the culture
remains decisively Spanish and it's represented in the Spanish parliament. The economy is heavily subsidised from Madrid, with low taxes on fuel and commodities making for a low cost of living. We stopped in at four of the seven islands, all quite different and accessible by air from the mainland and
by inter-island ferry.
While Tenerife was the first to tap into tourism, Lanzarotte, the most African looking of the islands. is the up-and-coming destination. Tiny whitewashed, box-like homes built around a central courtyard dot the desert landscape, amidst palm trees and sparse vegetation. Flat roofs help conserve a scarce water supply and doors and window shutters which are only allowed to be painted in the same shades of green, brown or blue add a picturesque dimension to the arid tropical landscape.
Featuring its North African atmosphere, Lanzarotte is more affluent and cosmopolitan than the other islands, with lovely hotels and resort areas. Members of the Spanish and Greek royal families and many wealthy Spaniards and celebrities enjoy homes here, and real estate is expensive. You can pay up to 600,000 EU for a home, says our guide. They don't look much from outside but inside, they are beautiful. There is also a strong cultural connection with the New World's Mexico, Venezuela and other emerging South American countries.
A small island, 65 kms long, and only 110 kms from Morocco, Lanzarote has been on the map for centuries. The Romans came to Lanzarotte for a special type of red lichen which they used for dieing; today, the landscape is often used for filming. A year-round population of about 110,000 greets nearly 2 million tourists per year.
We took a trip to
Timanfaya National Park, and the Mountains of Fire Volcanoes. Millions of years old, they last erupted relatively recently in 1824, and the park is the second most visited after Teide on Tenerife. There's not much bird or plant life, except for a few lizards, cactus and lichens among the lava dust and volcanic rocks, scattered amidst the landscape, but a tour is worthwhile at eight euros per person. The tour takes one to the top of the highest mountain, passing lava fields with thrilling hairpin bends overlooking volcanoes, and it includes several demonstrations at the summit - a hot lava demo and a burning bush which ignites quickly from the heat. There's a tour through the lava field by bus, and the adventurous types can take a guided climb to the summit. There is also a camel station lower down where you may relish your Lawrence of Arabia moment, with a ride over the sand for a few Euros.
Lanzarote boasts a small wine industry, and we visited
Bodega Stratus, open for the past ten years but already making a name for itself with an award for the best liquor in the world. A 200-year-old house was converted into a winery. In a lovely setting on a hillside, the vines benefit from the volcanic ash or picot which acts like a sponge such that they never need watering.
Unlike our vineyards, vines are not trellised, but grow naturally along the ground as the roots are shallow with only a small layer of soil covering the ash. Here they display the vine for their specialty wine, Malvosia, the original wine which Shakespeare wrote about in his plays.
A wealthy owner set up the winery with a view to putting something back into the island and creating employment . Seventy percent of their vines are sub contracted to local farmers and production combines traditional methods with the very finest modern equipment to produce about 250, 000 litres of wine seasonally. Most is sold locally with one distributor in Germany. Cheese is another specialty produced and you can enjoy a wine and cheese tasting tour. A restaurant in a lovely shaded setting on the mountainside also does lunch, weddings and special events.
At Monumenta el Capastino, where we had lunch, you can see some of the work of
César Manrique, a local sculpture artist, for example, the "Peasants Monument" designed as a reminder of the hardships of a rural community. The house is a former farmhouse which was restored by Manrique and there is also a craft market.
In Lanzarotte on Sunday, don't miss the famous market in the village of Tequise. Eclectic stalls line the streets and dancers in colourful costumes make it a fiesta as they dance around a maypole and parade through the village - a taste of old island life, which hopefully never will disappear.
Tess Bridgwater is a travel writer who lives in south-western Ontario, not far from Oxford County. She writes for the Record and other publications in Kitchener/Waterloo County, national magazines and is a member of SATW, the Society of American Travel Writers.
Part of Spain since 1496, the seven volcanic Canary Islands off the coast of NW Africa,
about 100 kms from Morocco, are known for their temperate climate. With over 300
days of sunshine a year, and an average temperature of about 24C due to prevailing trade
winds of the Atlantic, tourism is the main industry for four of the islands, especially
popular with Europeans. Currently there are no direct flights from North America. We
flew to Madrid, Spain and on to Tenerife on Iberian Airlines. You can also fly through
other main European hubs like London and Frankfurt. It is a long journey, but worth it
for a vacation that offers something a little different.