They call the Canaries "The Land of Eternal Spring", a place of guaranteed sunshine, virtually no rainfall and non-stop tourist activity. Small wonder that 11 million international tourists migrate to these shores each year. The Canary Islands (Islas Canarias) comprise Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura, Lanzarote, Tenerife, La Palma, La Gomera and El Hierro. Despite being Spanish territories they are much closer to the coast of Africa than to mainland Spain and it is this mid-easterly Atlantic location that accounts for their remarkably mild climate. All the islands are of volcanic origin, and the archipelago offers strikingly diverse landscapes including remarkable sub-tropical flora, luxuriant pine woods, giant sand dunes and mountain peaks. Weather conditions here are considered perfect, and the beaches - some of the best on the planet.
By far the most popular holiday playgrounds are Gran Canaria and Tenerife. Away from the resorts however these islands, ironically, also offer the most varied landscapes. Next in popularity come Lanzarote, then Fuerteventura. Lanzarote has managed to combine modern resorts with much-praised eco-friendly development and low-rise aesthetically pleasing design, while Fuerteventura is famous for its wind-driven watersports and some of Europe's finest beaches.
La Gomera is a charming small undeveloped island, often visited as a Tenerife day trip (just 30 minutes by ferry), while La Palma, very green, uncommercialized, and arguably the most beautiful island, is primarily a destination for walkers. Most westerly of all is El Hierro, windblown and well off the beaten track, attracting a mere handful of walkers each year.
Whatever you're looking for from your holiday, as long as you choose your island carefully you'll find it in the Canaries. There are bustling seafronts lined with high-rise hotels and non-stop entertainment centres; you'll find gay bars, all-night clubs, foam parties and fish and chip shops. The islands are also a paradise for lovers of nature and water sports enthusiasts. The Canaries are home to some fascinating indigenous animal and plant life and the local waters provide some of the world's richest hunting grounds for deep-sea fishermen. Shark, tuna and marlin are all to be found in abundance here. Most tourists prefer to hunt for a glimpse of the bottle-nosed dolphins and pilot whales which you can often see around the islands.
WHEN TO GO
TOP THINGS TO SEE & DO
• Explore the cosmopolitan city of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, the island capital. Enjoy its rich architecture, churches, museums, and colourful bustling market. Afterward relax on the golden sands of Playa de Las Teresitas.
• Take a hike in the Caldera de Taburiente on La Palma, one of the largest and most fertile volcanic craters on earth. Or just take in the view from the Mirador de La Cumbrecita. Then explore the charming little capital, Santa Cruz.
• Visit Timanfaya National Park, an awe-inspiring moonscape created by an 18th-century volcanic eruption that covered around one-third of Lanzarote in lava. Take the coach tour, feel the heat of the dormant volcano and book a walking tour.
• See as many of the seven César Manrique visitor attractions as you can. This great Lanzaroteño artist, landscape designer and ecological champion defined the essence of the island with his fantastic creations. Don't miss Jameos del Agua or Jardín de Cactus.
• Visit lively Las Palmas, capital of Gran Canaria, with its magnificent location between two bays. Sights include the Casa de Colón (Columbus House), cathedral, market, Pueblo Canario and several museums. It has a fine beach too.
Go windsurfing or kitesurfing off Fuerteventura's fabulous soft golden beaches. Giant dunes back unspoiled beaches in both the north of the island, at Corralejo, and in the south at Jandía, where world championship events are staged.
• Visit Teguise, the picturesque Colonial-style former capital of Lanzarote, with aristocratic palaces, historic convents, churches and a castle built on a volcanic cone with great views over the town. Come on a Sunday to enjoy the colourful market.
• On Tenerife take the cable car up Mount Teide, the highest point in all Spanish territory at 3,718m (12,198ft). It climbs to within 300m (1,000ft) of the summit - from where you can walk the rest (free permit required). Teide National Park was declared a World Heritage Site in 2007.
• Spend a day in Puerto de la Cruz on Tenerife's north coast. Splash out in the César Manrique-designed Costa Martiánez lido, explore the Colonial-style old town and enjoy Loro Parque, one of the world's finest marine and wildlife parks.
• If you can, visit during Carnaval (February/March). The celebrations on Tenerife, in Santa Cruz and Puerto Cruz are some of the biggest and most colourful outside Rio de Janeiro.
TRAVEL TO THE CANARIES
Dozens of airlines including Ryanair and Easy Jet fly into the Canary Islands, and all seven islands have airports. Tenerife, Gran Canaria and Lanzarote absorb nearly all direct international flights and those from mainland Spain, while the others are principally for inter-island hops. There are two main airports on Tenerife. Tenerife Norte (Los Rodeos) handles just about all inter-island flights and most of those to the Spanish mainland. Other scheduled flights, and virtually all charter flights to the island, are channeled to the more modern Tenerife Sur (Reina Sofía). Gran Canaria's airport is 16km (10mi) south of Las Palmas. Lanzarote's Guasimeta airport lies a convenient 6km (3.7mi) southwest of the capital, Arrecife. The bulk of international flights directly serving the islands are charters.
Just about everyone flies to the Canaries. The only other option (apart from a very long swim) is to take the Trasmediterránea ferry, which carries vital supplies and cars to the islands. It sets out from Cádiz, on Spain's Mediterranean coast, every Tuesday evening. After a long and often bumpy voyage, it arrives at Las Palmas de Gran Canaria the following Thursday. From here, it proceeds to Santa Cruz de Tenerife, where it arrives by mid-afternoon. At about midnight, it sails on to Santa Cruz de La Palma, arriving on Friday morning.
TRAVEL AROUND THE CANARIES
Flying isn't the cheapest way to get around but, for inter-island trips, it can be much quicker than taking a ferry. Binter connects all seven islands with regular flights. Another airline that flits between them is the modest Islas Airways (tel: 902 47 74 78; www.islasairways.com).
Biking is a pleasant way to see the sights, but don't expect drivers to accommodate you. Bike lanes in urban areas are nonexistent, although beachside boulevards generally include space for bikes.
The islands are connected by ferries, 'fast ferries', and jetfoils. There are three main companies: Naviera Armas, Fred Olsen and Trasmediterránea.
A bus is called a guagua , pronounced 'wa-wa'. Every island has its own interurban service. They service most of the main locations, but in many cases there are few runs each day. Tenerife and Gran Canaria have impressive public transport systems that cover the whole of each island. Frequency, however, varies enormously.
All the major international car-rental companies are represented in the Canary Islands and there are plenty of local operators too. If you intend to stay for a while, it might be worth booking a car in advance, perhaps in a fly/drive deal. Remember to pack your driving license, which is required for any vehicle over 50cc. You need to be at least 21 and have held a driver's license for a minimum of two years. It's easier, and with some companies obligatory, to pay with a credit card. On the road, always drive with your license, passport and rental agreement on board.
POPULAR PLACES TO VISIT