Deciding on a winter destination was tricky this year. After travelling to Australia and New Zealand last year, and to Southeast Asia twice in the last five years, I had originally thought that 2017 would mark a return to Latin America (warm, cheap, not too far). But with the recent spread of the Zika virus, I figured that perhaps I ought to consider other places. But where?
As I looked at the southernmost parts of Europe on the map and consulted weather charts and websites, I finally found my ideal winter destination: the Canary Islands! If you can locate this group of islands on the map, you’ve probably already heard all the stereotypes. But all is not what it seems, as further research revealed. Here are the myths and stereotypes followed by what I’ve found out so far.
The Canaries are in Europe. Isn’t it chilly in winter?
Even though the Canary Islands belong to Spain, geographically they are located at the latitude of North Africa (28 degrees north), giving them a much warmer winter climate than anywhere in Europe. Average highs during January and February are around 21C, and average lows (at night time) only 14C. It’s also mostly sunny, with only occasional rain. The islands closer to the coast are the driest.
That seems like the perfect weather to me, since I don’t like super hot humid places. It’s warm enough that you can sit or walk around in a T-shirt during the day, but probably need to put on a light sweater or fleece at night.
Aren’t the landscapes all volcanic rocks and dirt?
The Canaries are comprised of seven main islands. They are of volcanic origin, but as you go west, the islands become greener and more humid.
The result is that you can enjoy a wide variety of landscapes, from golden beaches on the mostly flat and desert-like island of Fuerteventura, to the pine forests and rocky outcrops of Gran Canaria, to the lush fern-filled and mossy forests of La Gomera and La Palma. Of course there are volcanic landscapes that look like another planet, caves, lava tubes, and the highest mountain in Spain (El Teide on Tenerife at 3718 metres). Most islands have good beaches with sands that range from white, to gold, to black.
UNESCO even declared the entire island of La Palma, and part of Gran Canaria, World Biosphere Reserves.
What is there to do besides sunbathing?
One of the first things I learned about the Canary Islands is that they’re a great place for hiking, in particular La Gomera and La Palma. Tenerife also has some great mountain hiking and, to a lesser degree, Gran Canaria as well. Hiking is one of my favourite activities when I travel, and the climate here seems ideal for this.
If you don’t mind the 19C water temperature (perhaps a little too cold for me) there are plenty of water sports as well, from a gentle swim to snorkelling and surfing. You can also go camel riding or whale watching, have dinner in a cave, stargaze, or visit a winery!
Several of the islands offer colourful colonial towns and villages, interesting architecture, art, and museums. The food sounds great with hearty stews, fresh seafood (of course) and some unique dishes, like “wrinkly potatoes”. There are local cheeses, and even a local wine on Lanzarote.
I think there is enough variety that I won’t get bored, even if I stay for two months!
Aren’t the Canary Islands full of resorts for North Europeans?
Yes, the Canaries are popular as a sun destination for North Europeans, and several of the islands have purpose-built beach resorts with very little local flavour, where it’s all about sun, sea, and booze.
However, there are plenty of towns and villages with an authentic Canarian feel. Since I won’t have my own transport, I’ll probably be basing myself in or around the main towns so I can use the public transit and do day trips to other villages, hiking trails, and viewpoints. I plan to avoid the purpose-build resorts and tacky theme parks wherever they are!
Given the value of the Euro, isn’t it going to be super expensive?
That was one of my early fears as well, so I went on AirBnB to check the prices. I found studio apartments for rent for CAD$37-45 a night (US$28-34) and private rooms for less. For such a lovely European destination, I think these prices are a steal.
The food also seems to be reasonably priced, and as usual, I’ll take advantage of the “menu del dia” (weekday lunch special) as much as possible and try to self-cater some of the time.
Hiking is free (unless I go on a guided walk), and museums are either free or cost only a few Euros. I’ll use bus passes to decrease transportation costs.
Talking about transport, you can travel between the islands by flying with small local airlines, or take ferries (choice of slow, medium, or ultra-fast). All in all, the whole region seems very civilized and visually stunning.
Lonely Planet calls the Canary Islands “underrated” and “not what you’d expect”. I’m using their guidebook to plan my trip right now, and I have to agree.
For more eye candy and interesting facts about the Canary Islands, check out their image-centric tourism website.