Tenerife Beach, Canary Islands

La Palma Cliffs in the Canary Islands, Spain. (ThinkStock)

What to do in Canary Islands

The Greek writer Homer called them Elysium—the place of an idyllic afterlife—and the Romans gave them the name Fortunate Islands. Not that long ago, these seven islands and six islets, just 60 miles off the coast of northwest Africa, were some of the poorest parts of Spain, but now they overflow with touristic prosperity. Like a European Hawaii, the Canary Islands are a group of volcanic isles with near-perfect weather and dramatic scenery: from deep gorges to black sand beaches to Pico del Teide (the highest mountain in Spain). Plus, they’re just two hours flying time from the Iberian mainland.

About two million people live permanently on the seven main islands, named El Hierro, La Palma, La Gomera, Tenerife, Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura, and Lanzarote. Each year more than nine million European tourists make the pilgrimage to the arid islands, flocking in both winter and summer. The islands are home to four national parks, four biosphere reserves, and more than 140 other protected areas. Tenerife, Lanzarote, and Gran Canaria are the three best-known islands in the group, each with an extensive tourist infrastructure (especially Gran Canaria). With Spanish architecture, cuisine, and media the islands feel more Mediterranean than North African in culture.

Gran Canaria is the main focus of the chain and its city of Las Palmas is Spain’s seventh largest, with great museums, historic buildings, and a local beach scene in Playa de las Canteras. Lined with apartments and seaside restaurants, Playa de las Canteras feels like a mini Waikiki or Copacabana. The interior of the island is a rich maze of rock canyons, bluffs, pinnacles, and valleys, eroded from prehistoric volcanoes, and fields of fruits and flowers are everywhere. The main beach resorts on Gran Canaria are Playa del Ingles and Maspalomas in the south. Thousands of European holidaymakers take advantage of inexpensive air/hotel packages and spend their extraordinarily long (by American standards) vacations here.