Beginner's guide to the Canary Islands: Surprises await in Europe's playground

Flicking through El Mundo – a top Spanish newspaper – one February morning, I'm struck by images of Madrid blanketed in snow and Madrilenos shivering in thick coats and scarves.

I'm in another part of Spain, in a T-shirt, shorts and thongs, sipping a cafe con leche on a cobbled plaza framed by handsome balconied mansions dripping with radiant bougainvillea. Pretty soon, the sun will melt into the Atlantic Ocean, happy hour will commence, and the smell of barbecued seafood and the sound of tapas orders, wine-fuelled chatter and jazz, salsa and flamenco music will spike the blissfully mild air.

Such is life on the Canary Islands. Moored off southern Morocco, this volcanic archipelago was initially the preserve of the wealthy and wanderlustful – who would sail here for the sub-tropical rays and therapeutic waters. The Canaries went mass-market in the 1970s and 80s, however, with resorts, Anglo-Saxon pubs and Nordic restaurants mushrooming along coastlines, sparking an influx of holidaymakers seeking sun, sea, golf and R&R away from the frosty climes of Manchester, Berlin and Copenhagen. Despite their appeal to Europeans – particularly during winter, when temperatures are usually in the early to mid 20Cs – the Canaries remain a mystery to Australians, who are rarely tempted to take the three-hour flight here from Madrid. Trust me – it's definitely worth the effort. Get beyond the islands' (mostly) uninspiring tourist enclaves, and countless cultural treats and pulse-raising surprises await the adventurous traveller.

TENERIFE

The largest of the seven main Canaries, Tenerife is 46 times smaller than Tasmania – and distinctly two-faced. The south is parched, Mars-like and smothered in cacti-strewn desert; the lusher, more humid north is carpeted in banana plantations, pine forests and vineyards. In the middle of the island looms the cause of these micro-climates.

Spain's loftiest peak, and the third highest volcano in the world (when measuring its base from the ocean), Mount Teide soars 3719m above sea level and is dusted with snow in winter. The easiest way up Teide is via a cable car that ascends to a viewpoint, from which, depending on the weather, you'll either observe a sea of clouds, or the entire Canarian archipelago. Scaling the mountain on foot takes five hours – and decent hiking boots, sunblock and plenty of water – but it's infinitely more rewarding.

Apart from July and August,   when temperatures can hit the mid-30Cs,   Tenerife is a magnificent walking destination. Sign-posted trails,  for all fitness levels,  zig-zag the island. I love the Masca gorge hike, which snakes 8.5km from the idyllic whitewashed village of Masca down to its rocky beach, where you can board a boat to the town of Los Gigantes.

The next day I laze on Tenerife's nicest beach. A contrast to the island's many volcanic black-sand coves, Playa Las Teresitas flaunts golden sands imported from the Sahara desert. It's near Santa Cruz, Tenerife's chilled-out capital and port, which springs to life each February when it hosts what's claimed to be the planet's biggest carnival after Rio de Janeiro's.

A 30-minute tram ride from Santa Cruz – whose avant-garde auditorium was designed by ace Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava – La Laguna is an old charmer.

Its cobblestone grid-centre,  crammed with museums, galleries, churches, colleges, convents and palaces;  has UNESCO World Heritage listed status and was the blueprint for the Spanish colonial towns of Latin America. Indeed, on a foggy, drizzly day, there are shades of Quito, the Ecuadorian Andean capital, about La Laguna, which was established, 543 metres above sea level, in AD1494, after a Spanish army conquered the Guanches (the native people of the Canary islands).

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Another delightful hilltop city, La Orotava lords above Puerto de la Cruz, one of the island's busiest coastal resorts. On its outskirts, Loro Parque is among the Canaries' myriad family-friendly water parks.

My most treasured Tenerifan memory comes one Sunday afternoon in the rustic north coast fishing village of Taganana, where a handful of traditional restaurants are full of islanders, feasting on fresh fish – served with papas arrugadas (Canarian wrinkly potatoes) and "mojo", a spicy sauce. In one haunt, Casa Africa, a gregarious group of pensioners are drinking carafes of local wine, singing merrily and playing their acoustic guitars, as waves crash against the shoreline.

GRAN CANARIA

Las Palmas,  joint capital of the Canaries alongside Santa Cruz,  is possibly Europe's most appealing year-round seaside city. After all, where else can you enjoy 24C heat  and bundles of culture  in mid-January?

With its hilly backdrop, 4km strip of golden sand and promenade juice bars and cafes, there's a faint whiff of Rio's Ipanema about Las Canteras – the buzzing city beach suburb, where locals and tourists mingle noon and night, 365 days a year.

Harbouring cruise liners, cargo ships and yachts, Las Palmas' port – the Canaries' largest – has been luring outsiders for centuries, particularly immigrants from mainland Spain, South America and Asia.

Visiting in 1927, Agatha Christie noted that "ships from all over the world put in at Las Palmas" and "you will see people of all races and nationalities – birds of passage".

Cuban mojitos, pulpo a la gallega (Galician-style octopus) and Atlantic-reared sushi are some of the delectable offerings at Mercado del Puerto. Housed in a flamboyant iron building, this bustling market, which sells fresh produce and seafood by day, transforms into a trendy dining hub on Friday and Saturday evenings, and throbs with stylish winers and diners.

Vegueta beguiles by day, too. I visit the Columbus House Museum, set in the property where the famous explorer apparently pitstopped before venturing to the New World. In the Canarian Museum, I delve into the islands' volatile history, peruse prehistoric artefacts and gawp at hundreds of skulls which belonged to the aboriginal Guanches (whose tribes were gradually suppressed and subdued, through disease, warfare and assimilation into Spanish culture, though their DNA remains in some of the Canaries' two million population).

The plunging cliffs of the west and south coasts remind me of Italy's Amalfi region, while little Puerto de Mogan, with its tiny canals and pretty painted houses, sports the moniker 'Little Venice'. The sprawling sand dunes of nearby Maspalomas evoke Arabia, and you can camel ride across them.

LANZAROTE

I find myself humming Sting's Walkin' on the Moon as I explore Lanzarote, an island that emerged from the sea 35 million years ago and whose landscapes were dramatically altered by a series of volcanic eruptions between AD1730 and 1824.

Nicknamed 'badlands', Lanzarote's surreal lava fields have featured in episodes of Doctor Who and are peppered with quirky sculptures – including many from famed local artist Cesar Manrique.

In Timanfaya national park, a fascinating bus tour (with audio commentary) navigates lunar landscapes and the Montanas del Fuego (Fire Mountains). You can also see spurting geysers, and lunch at a Manrique-designed restaurant, which serves meals barbecued over a 600C geothermal grill.

Wine-tasting is another Lanzarote draw. La Geria wine route is lined with bodegas (cellars) yielding award-winning sweet liquors and malvasia tipples that were mentioned in Shakespeare's plays (Falstaff, from Henry IV, was fond of malvasia).

Surfers call the Canaries the 'Hawaii of the Atlantic', and the powerful El Quemao left reef break, off Lanzarote's north-west coast, seduces thrill-seekers.

There are gentler waves, and secluded coves, around the resort of Papagayo and the capital, Arrecife. Beware jellyfish, though. British PM David Cameron holidayed in Lanzarote last  year and was stung by one while bathing.

FUERTEVENTURA

Cycling through the second largest (but most sparsely populated) Canarian island, beside its astoundingly beautiful beaches and dunes and via its arid Star Wars-like interior and windmill-laden hilltops, I feel like I'm pedalling through a giant movie set. For good reason.

Camera crews for Ridley Scott's forthcoming biblical epic, Exodus – starring Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton – have been filming across Fuerteventura, with locations mimicking ancient Egypt, the Sinai desert and Red Sea.

In northern Fuerteventura, Corralejo and El Cotillo are handy seaside bases, with a vibrant mix of tourist-orientated eateries, humble tapas and seafood joints and hippy-chic chiringuitos (beach bars) providing sustenance to adventure seekers.

There's good diving, snorkelling and surfing around Fuerteventura; designated trails for bikers and hikers, and wind and kite surfing possibilities that rival El Medano in southern Tenerife.

Travellers requiring pampering should check into the Barcelo Fuerteventura Thalasso Spa hotel, a beachside thalassotherapy centre, where treatments include hydromassages and seaweed therapy.

Want to see something really cute? At Fuerteventura's Morro Jable turtle sanctuary, the eggs of endangered loggerhead turtles hatch in September and October.

FIVE MORE CANARY ISLANDS

1. LA PALMA. Close enough to the Equator to observe the entire northern celestial hemisphere , the Canaries are renowned for their dark, spectacular starry nights. An astronomy caps Mount Teide, but some stargazers prefer viewing from the observatory on La Palma, a captivating island of tumbling waterfalls, ethereal pine forests and sheer caldera walls.

2. LA GOMERA. Exploring this mountainous gem, you may hear Silbo Gomero. A whistling language unique to La Gomera, it's been used since ancient times to communicate over the island's ravines and valleys. Passed through the generations and recognised by UNESCO as "a masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity", Sibero Gomero coexists with Castilian Spanish here.

3. EL HIERRO. The furthest-west Canary, walker-friendly El Hierro boasts one of the archipelago's most mysterious festivals, the Bajada de la Virgen de los Reyes. Every four years (next time: July 2017), islanders embark on a month-long procession with a statue of the island's patron saint. Year-round, snorkellers and divers flock to El Hierro's south coast to peruse its offshore schools of sub-tropical fish, dolphins and (sometimes) whales.

4. ISLA GRACIOSA. This island is part of the Chinijo archipelago off the north coast of Lanzarote, but is nicknamed 'the 8th Canary'. Once buzzing with pirates, legend has it that La Graciosa inspired Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. When glimpsing its turquoise seas and white sand beaches, travellers conjure their own desert island fantasies.

5. ISLA DE LOBOS. Anchored between Lanzarote and Fuerteventura, rocky Lobos offers scenic hikes and peaceful picnics. Lobos means wolves in Spanish and it's thought that the island was named after the monk seals (or sea wolves) that used to frolic around its shores. Incidentally, the Canary Islands (Islas Canarias in Spanish) derives from the Latin term Canariae Insulae, meaning "Islands of the Dogs". It's believed the Guanche people used to worship dogs and mummify them.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

turismodecanarias.com;

thebestclimateintheworld.com

GETTING THERE

There are no direct flights between Australia and the Canary Islands, but most major European hubs, particularly London and Madrid, have good connections.

GETTING AROUND

The larger Canary islands, especially Tenerife and Gran Canaria, have decent bus services. But public transport is patchy on most, so hiring a car is recommended. Roads are generally well-maintained, but some are very steep and winding.

Ferry operators Fred Olsen and Naviera Armas - and Binter Canarias airline - link the islands.

STAYING THERE

The Canaries offer all sorts of accommodation, from five-star spa resorts and swanky apartments to backpacker hostels and eco-farms.

One notable crash-pad is Hotel Madrid in Las Palmas. Apparently General Franco stayed here, and left without paying his bill, before becoming dictator on mainland Spain.

The writer travelled at his own expense.

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