Pre-conceptions are a funny thing. If someone told you about an archipelago of islands set adrift off the coast of Africa, an oasis that boasts superb beaches and perennial warmth, which is home to the world’s second largest Carnival, award-winning wines and Spain’s highest mountain, you’d probably want to visit.
If they revealed they were in fact talking about the Canary Isles, though, some of your thoughts might start to cloud with images of sunburned Brits, dodgy fried food and all-things tacky.
It’s time to set aside these anachronisms about the Canary Islands and explore these seven isles in the spirit of Christopher Columbus, who famously stopped over, en route to sailing off the map of the known world in search of the New World.
For a little bit of everything: Tenerife
The largest of the Canaries is also the most popular with tourists. The parched southern strip of Tenerife might be stuffed with a swathe of tourism development, but this string of resorts is just one part of a diverse and remarkable island. Most island inhabitants live elsewhere and although the Costa Adeje has added a touch of class to proceedings in the south, Tenerife’s most interesting towns and sights lie beyond this tourist enclave.
Head north and you’ll find a lively carnival that takes over the capital Santa Cruz de Tenerife for three weeks in February. Push inland and pine forests soon give way to the jaw dropping Teide National Park, home to the eponymous volcano, Spain’s highest peak at a whopping 3718. Then you can swirl in superb seafood and excellent wines in picturesque towns like Garachico and La Orotava. Last year also saw the island’s first ever walking festival recognise its top-notch hiking. Tenerife is the Canary Island with it all.
For wind-sport lovers and beach bums: Fuerteventura
The second largest of the Canary Islands lies less than a hundred kilometres away from the African coast and is one of the least developed. Fuerteventura is a parched desert-like escape whose east coast is the main attraction, where the shifting sands of Corralejo and Jandia blown in on the Saharan breeze.
Corralejo, in the north, is the stand out resort. Here British families mix – in a resort that is also a real Spanish town – with locals, surfers and windsurfers from all over the world. There are little tapas bars, fancy restaurants and proper beaches right in town. Jandia, in the south, is more popular with German visitors. The main resort Morro Jable is home to an epic 4km beach, but beware there are stretches where clothes are most definitely optional.
Elsewhere on Fuerteventura you’ll find volcanoes to climb, little whitewashed inland villages and the delicious Majorero cheese, best enjoyed grilled with a little palm honey.
For a spread of landscapes: Gran Canaria
The “Continent in Miniature” tourist office epithet for this neatly round island is, for once, no hyperbole; Gran Canaria offers more scenic diversity than any of the other islands.
There are the epic sands of Maspalomas in the south, the subtropical forests of the interior, rugged mountains and, in Las Palmas, the most beguiling of the island capitals with its buzzing nightlife and sandy beaches. Gran Canaria is a big hiking destination, too, with a network of well-marked trails and a walking festival. The island also produces decent wine and the excellent Tropical lager – perfect to end a long hike.
For the cool Canaries: Lanzarote
The youngest of the seven main islands, stylish Lanzarote is also the most aesthetically pleasing – largely thanks to one man. César Manrique was a visionary architect who stamped his creative architectural style (which has echoes of Gaudi’s Modernista movement) on myriad local projects, as well as fighting doggedly to stop high-rise buildings being built. Lanzarote-born, he spent most of his life on the island and created a legacy that visitors can learn more about at his old studio home, which now houses the César Manrique Foundation.
Volcanic activity has also led to a unique viticulture that sees delicious Malvasia grown in the island’s volcanic craters. You can visit the handful of well-kept wineries to pick up discounted bottles or enjoy them in the rich spread of restaurants that have made the island popular with foodies.
Elsewhere you’ll find an otherworldly volcanic escape in Timanfaya National Park, while the island of La Graciosa is a laidback road-free hideaway. Lanzarote’s most attractive resort is family friendly Playa Blanca in the south, with the main attraction the famous white-sand beaches that give it its name.
For jaw dropping scenery: La Palma
It is no wonder that the most northwesterly of the isles is known as the “Beautiful Island”. The entire island has been declared a UNESCO biosphere reserve for its swathe of remarkable scenery: some parts are dramatically volcanic and others lush rainforest.
The scenic highlight is the Caldera de Taburiente National Park where the finest views of the archipelago can be seen from Roque de los Muchachos at 2396m. You can drive most of the way up and then ramble around this volcanic mound on foot. The capital, Santa Cruz de la Palma, is an attractive historic bolt-hole on the ocean that is well worth a day or two of exploration.
For world-class hiking: La Gomera
Arriving on a ferry from Tenerife’s southern resorts, San Sebastian de la Gomera feels like another world. (You can catch ferries from La Palma and El Hierro too.) You’ll want to get your walking boots on: mountainous La Gomera is less of a beach escape and more suited to those looking to get away from other tourists and enjoy the myriad hiking trails.
The island’s routes really are spectacular, with a well-marked trail network snaking out across the whole of La Gomera. The local wine is spot on too, as is the Almagrote, a spicy cheese paste that is highly addictive.
For a total escape: El Hierro
This semi-mythical island is the hardest to get to and the least well set up for visitors. It is where Columbus said goodbye to Europe and it still feels a deeply dramatic place, all sheer cliffs, rugged hills and twisting roads. Nature is at its rawest on this Canary Island.
You won’t find bustling resorts with raucous pubs and clubs here. Instead, come for the great diving or to indulge in some serious soul searching. If you crave solitude and want to escape modern life, then El Hierro is the Canary Island for you.