Spain’s islands – from the Canaries to the Balearics – are some of the most popular holiday destinations in Europe, and travellers keep returning to them again and again. As their popularity grows, however, so do the crowds, and visitors are increasingly looking for alternatives. It's time to look beyond Tenerife, Ibiza and Mallorca, Spain has so many other special islands to explore. Here’s our guide to Spain’s secret islands that you never even knew existed. Shhh… don’t tell everyone they’re here.
The Cies Islands lie off the coast of Galicia but could be mistaken for the South Pacific with their powdery white sand beaches and verdant forest-covered interiors. The Cies are made up of three separate islands –Monte Agudo, O Faro and San Martiño. All three are car-free and hotel-free, and only allow a maximum of 2,200 visitors per day. The star attraction is the Praia de Rodas, a large sweep of sugary sand, which acts as a sandbar joining Monte Agudo and O Faro. After enjoying some beach time, head into the hills to explore the network of well-signposted hiking trails across the islands. Some of the most rewarding hikes lead up to the Monte Faro lighthouse and Alto do Principe viewpoint. Snorkelling, kayaking or boat trips can make up the rest of your time. The only accommodation on the islands is Camping Islas Cies, which offers pitches, as well as glamping-style tented lodges.
How to get there: Fly to Vigo in Galicia, then take a ferry to either Monte Agudo or O Faro.
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Ons Island lies off the coast of Pontevedra, surrounded by seven small islets. There are only around 80 people living on the island, and the whole of Ons is, in fact, a National Park. One of the most important nature conservation and wildlife sites in Spain, it’s a paradise for bird lovers – home to everything from cormorants and peregrine falcons to European storm-petrels and razorbills. There is a total of 10 beaches on the island, a mix of buzzy, quiet, rocky and even nudist, so you’re sure to find one to suit you. If you prefer to stay active, Ons has you covered for that too, with four short-ish hiking trails across the island. There are no hotels, but if you want to stay longer than the day, you can always stay at Camping Isla de Ons, offering pitches and fixed bell tents.
How to get there: The nearest airport is Vigo, from where you can take various modes of transport to Bueu or Portonovo on the mainland. Ferries leave from both during the summer months, approximately every hour. Ferries also depart from the city of Vigo at certain times of the year.
The Medes Islands lie off the coast of the Costa Brava in Catalonia, opposite the colourful hilltop town of Begur. They’re made up of seven small uninhabited islets, and while you’re not actually allowed to step foot on them, due to their important wildlife, you can explore beneath their surface. The waters around the Medes Islands offer some of the best diving and snorkelling off the coast of mainland Spain. Colourful coral gardens, shoals of bright fish, sponges, grouper, and even stingray make up the Natural Marine Reserve that surround their shores. From the boat, above the waves, you can also view an array of birdlife.
How to get there: Dive and snorkelling boats leave from L’Estarit Beach in the Costa Brava. The nearest airport is in Girona.
When the tourists get too much and Mallorca becomes overcrowded during the summer months, the locals head off to another island just one-hour away by boat to escape. Cabrera is a tiny uninhabited island, which has been designated a National Park, both for its land and its sea. Most people go to Cabrera for a day trip, but the island does allow 24 visitors at a time to stay overnight. It’s a rugged and rocky island where you can swim, snorkel and hike.
How to get there: Boat excursions leave to the island from Colònia de Sant Jordi in Mallorca.
If the crowds on Fuerteventura get too much, simply jump over to Isla de Lobos. Measuring just 4.6 sq km, this small island is named after the monk seals that used to live there. While there are no seals left today, this beautiful, yet rugged island is particularly known for its birdlife. Dominated on one side by the ancient Montaña La Caldera, it’s ringed by volcanic rocks and bright lagoons, perfect for swimming.
How to get there: Fly to Fuerteventura, then take a boat from Corralejo in the north to Lobos Island.
Fringed by white sand beaches, La Graciosa is the place to simply unwind, explore secluded beaches, and get away from it all. It’s located within one of the largest marine reserves in Europe – the Reserva Marina del Archipiélago Chinijo, and is home to an abundance of marine life, as well as birdlife. Encircled by blonde beaches and turquoise waters, in its centre sits a cluster of volcanoes, while on its northern edge lies the russet-coloured Montaña Bermeja. One of the last places in Europe without paved roads, it’s a world away from the touristy scene of the more popular Canary Islands.
How to get there: Fly to Lanzarote, then take a 30-minute boat journey from Órzola in the northern part of the island.
The smallest of the Canary Islands, El Hierro could resemble one of the Hawaiian islands with its dramatic coastline, lush green forests and otherworldly volcanic landscapes. It may be just over 100 sq miles, but it’s full of adventures, from hiking and wildlife watching to diving. In fact, its waters are home to an amazing marine reserve with 46 different dive sites and many natural sea pools. What’s more, the island of El Hierro is 100% sustainable, powered entirely by renewable energy.
How to get there: Fly to Tenerife or Gran Canaria, then take a connecting flight with Binter Canaries to El Hierro. You can also take a boat from Los Cristianos in southern Tenerife.
Top image: El Hierro, Canary Islands © gadzius/Shutterstock