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Canary Islands cruise guide: The best islands, why go and what to pack

Author: Robin McKelvie

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Canary Islands are a popular spot for winter sun among British travellers - but what makes them such an ideal destination? We delve into the best islands, the weather and more.

Canary Islands have so much to offer holidaymakers - and not just glorious sunshine when the UK is languishing in biting cold during the winter.

From dramatic landscapes, intriguing history and exciting activities there are plenty of reasons why cruising to the Canaries should be on your travel list.

Our Canary Islands travel advice guide looks at why you should cruise there, which islands are best, what to pack for a holiday, what the weather is like and more.

Why cruise the Canaries?

Forget the cheesy clichés of Brits abroad in the southern resorts of Tenerife – think of the Canaries by the name of their geographical area, the glorious archipelago of Macaronesia, and instantly they seem more exotic. And they are exotic; more Jurassic Park than theme park with a treasure trove of flora and fauna, bursting across a spectacular slew of volcanic islands.

We’re talking startlingly beautiful isles, year-round balmy temperatures and beaches that actually look like the brochures. Swirl in lively port cities, the world’s largest carnival after Rio, a string of UNESCO sites, remarkable food and drink, and the Canaries are ideal for cruising.

The sailing times between the islands are all short too, with easy shelter in bad Atlantic weather. As many cruises sail all the way from the UK you also have the option of bountiful sea days if that floats your cruise ship.

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What cruises go to the Canary Islands?

The main decision is whether you want to spend days cruising from the UK across the Bay of Biscay and south down the coasts of Spain and Portugal, taking in ports like Cadiz and Lisbon en route.

Madeira (and its neighbouring fellow Portuguese island of Porto Santo) are often stops too once you leave the European continent behind and steam south. Or if you prefer you can join a ship in Iberia, or even fly down direct to the Canaries and cut out sea days all together.

Operators offering cruises to the Canaries include P&O Cruises, Saga, Marella, Royal Caribbean, Cunard and Celebrity. An interesting option is Fred Olsen’s hiking cruises, which let you explore a number of islands on two feet.

- READ MORE: Escape winter blues with Seabourn's new Canary Islands & Mediterranean cruises -

Which are the best Canary Islands to go to?

Tenerife

The island with it all. Spend as much time here as your cruise allows and don’t at any cost stay aboard. The lively capital city of Santa Cruz de Tenerife is the second busiest cruise ship destination in Spain following Barcelona. The port is just 1km from the centre, with shuttle buses available.

The city offers grand buildings, none more so than around Plaza de Espana, where the shuttle buses terminate. Stroll the café and bar lined streets and don’t miss Santiago Calatrava’s audacious Auditorio, a 1,600 seat opera house and concert hall, topped with a 200ft canopy fashioned by the ocean to evoke a breaking wave.

Other highlights include San Juan Castle, Cesar Manrique’s Parque Maritimo (with its pools, shops and restaurant), the slick TEA modern art gallery and the historic La Noria district – here the cultural societies behind the world-famous Carnivale rumble along all year.

Beyond Santa Cruz myriad day trip options await. The most dramatic is up to the volcanic plateau where Mount Teide presides over the island. Spain’s highest mountain – almost three times the height of Ben Nevis at 3,718m - sits at the heart of the lunar-like plateau.

Some cruise ship packaged trips include a cable car to the upper slopes at a height of 3,555m. History buffs will love La Laguna, a deeply historic town on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. If you just want to hit the beach catch a taxi from the port to Playa de Las Teresitas, a sandy wonder where the city’s citizens go to relax.

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Tenerife: History buffs will love La Laguna, a deeply historic town on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. Credit: Shutterstock

Fuerteventura

The second-largest Canary Isle is arid and sparse, but utterly spectacular with some of the best beaches you will ever see in its northern fringes around Corralejo and then again south towards the resort of Morro Jable.

The capital of Puerto de Rosario is not the prettiest Canarian capital, but cruise ships dock right in the centre, where café and bars await in the modest pedestrian zone. A great option for cruise ship passengers is zipping off in a taxi north to the Parque Natural do Corralejo. The dazzlingly white sand is backed by huge dunes that have flown in from the Sahara – you’ll always find a spot as the sand goes on for miles.

For history, burst into the barren, mountainous hinterland to the old capital – until 1834 - Betancuria. There is little to do bar stroll the sleepy streets feeling the centuries drift back.

For an adventure in the north drive to the beach-kissed resort town of Corralejo, before heading across the lunar moonscape to the fishing village of El Cotillo for a gorgeous off-ship seafood feast. The route back to port takes you past the rugged mountain of Tindaya, a sacred place for Canarios. Some ships offer a simple transfer to Corralejo, which opens up the chance to nip over by ferry to the neighbouring uninhabited islet of Los Lobos.

- READ MORE: What is a fly cruise? Your guide to TUI holidays from the Caribbean to the Canary Islands -

Gran Canaria

Known by Canarios as the ‘Continent in Miniature’, this charmer offers everything from the sweeping sandy dunes and beaches of Maspalomas, through to the dense primaeval Laurel forests and otherworldly mountain landscapes.

You cruise into the capital of Las Palmas, the one real city in the Canaries. Its sandy beach district of Las Canteras, the lavish Spanish colonial architecture and laidback vibe win it its nickname of ‘Europe’s Rio’.

You could easily spend a day walking the promenade at Las Canteras next door and chilling on the protected beach, but at least make the short detour to the Poema del Mar, one of Europe’s largest aquariums, a state-of-the-art wonder. The old quarter of La Vegueta can easily be reached by taxi or on a ship excursion 2km away.

Pushing beyond Las Palmas the south coast is home to the most famous beaches at Maspalomas, a protected reserve awash with hulking dunes and lavish sands. Beware as there is a nudist stretch you can easily wander into by mistake.

Further along the coast is the prettiest Gran Canaria resort of Puerto Mogan, with its cobbled lanes, canals and bougainvillaea-covered whitewashed houses. If you want to check out the mountains hire a car and burst inland towards the flurry of natural parks that protect the pristine nature – almost half the island is recognised as a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve.

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Canary Islands: The prettiest Gran Canaria resort is Puerto Mogan. Credit: Shutterstock

Lanzarote

The classiest Canary Isle looks as aesthetically pleasing as it does thanks to one man. Cesar Manrique was a visionary architect who not only fashioned a wondrous series of remarkable buildings and viewpoints but crucially also ensured high-rise hotels didn’t blight Lanzarote as tourism took hold.

From La Boca de Puerto Naos it’s an easy and straightforward 10-minute walk into town. That town is the capital and port of Arrecife, which houses Manrique’s waterfront MIAC - Castillo de San Jose, an old fortress with an interior refashioned by the Fundacion Cesar Manrique to house a modern art gallery and a chic waterfront restaurant.

Your ship will be within walking distance of El Charco de San Gines - a sleepy, bar and shop dotted lagoon that is becoming increasingly popular with cruise ship passengers.

Excursions further afield scoop you in search of more Manrique at the Fundacion Cesar Manrique. For more Manrique join an excursion, or hire a car and head to the Mirador del Rio, with views from an altitude of 400m towards the isle of La Graciosa. In the Jardin Cactus, Manrique hauled in cacti from around the world to sit amidst the traditional windmills.

Bond fans shouldn’t miss the Jameos del Agua, a spectacular cultural centre forged underground. If volcanoes are more your thing hire a car, or join an excursion, and delve into the otherworldly Timanfaya National Park. The local wines – the white grape Malvasia in particular – are superb with excursions opening up the volcanic winelands.

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La Palma

This westerly isle hit the headlines in 2021, with its volcanic eruptions. At the time of writing, despite the damage caused to a number of homes, the lava is only affecting a relatively small area and the island is open to tourists.

It would be wise to check the latest situation before booking, or before travel, if La Palma is one of the chief drawcards for you. The capital and port city of Santa Cruz de la Palma is an easy walk away and it’s a historic joy, awash with grand stone streets topped by churches and a cathedral fashioned from the local volcanic stone. Its wee streets are alive with cafes, bars and shops.

At the time of writing cruise ships don’t offer excursions to view the most recent lava flows. The most spectacular excursion is up into the verdant Caldera de Taburiente interior to a viewpoint, with the chance to walk a section of the crater rim.

A stop is often made at the attractive village of Brena Alta, as well as the Santuario Virgen de las Nieves chapel. Some island excursions feature trips to the local vineyards, where the highlight with the Malvasia grape – unlike its bone-dry Lanzarote sibling – is sweet wine.

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Canary Islands: La Palma hit the headlines in 2021, with its volcanic eruptions. Credit: Shutterstock

La Gomera

This rugged, mountainous isle’s major claim to fame is it was the last landfall Columbus made en route to the Americas. You’ll be sailing in his ship steps as you eke in under the mountains into the port near the old town.

You can visit a tower in a quiet park in the capital of San Sebastian de la Gomera that survives from his visit over half a millennia ago. The town is a relaxed affair, a place to take off your shoes and slip-on sandals. It’s a lovely oasis to wander around, try the local cheese paste (almagrote) and sip on the local wines, with black sand beaches too.

Excursions haul up into the mountainous hinterland of this spectacular island, taking in the improbable peaks and little villages that hug the hillsides, connected by ancient trails used since the days of the indigenous Guanches. Hiring a car really lets you explore deep into the wilderness.

Don’t miss the Garonjay National Park, named after the hulking peak that soars 1,487m into the misty heavens above thick forest. You could continue on to the Valle Gran Rey, the most verdant valley on the island, with a modest resort lying down by the coast.

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El Hierro

The most south-westerly of the Canary Islands is buffeted by the Trade Winds, something that Columbus no doubt appreciated when he sailed by and headed into the deep blue. Valverde is the only inland capital in the Canaries, an unremarkable affair bar a couple of churches, relaxed cafés and a sprinkling of shops.

The natural beauty of this sleepy island is the great appeal – the whole island has been designated a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, and is alive with parks and protected reserves.

It’s worth a trip too to La Restinga for boat-fresh seafood and to check out the nearby interpretation centre. It delves into the 2011 eruption that almost created another Canary Isle. Out west the stars are the juniper trees that have been bent into creepy shapes by the Trade Winds.

La Graciosa

This tiny outpost is the newest Canary Isle, only officially designated in 2018. It is a complete antidote to the stresses and strains of modern life – there are no tarmac roads, only rough sandy tracks.

You can just enjoy the Robinson Crusoe vibe in the tiny ‘capital’ of Caleta de Sebo, but the real fun awaits hiking or cycling off in search of adventure in a land of white sand beaches, craggy volcanoes and big, big skies.

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Canary Islands: La Gomera was the last landfall Columbus made en route to the Americas. Credit: Shutterstock

What is the weather like in the Canary Islands?

In a word – superb. All eight islands have similar climates, though Fuerteventura and El Hierro can be windier than the other islands, and the eastern isles especially (Fuerteventura and Lanzarote) prone to calima winds, when sandstorms sweep in from the Sahara.

The easiest way to describe the climate is an ‘eternal spring’. Snow is a rarity – restricted to Teide and its surrounds – but the isles are also spared the worst of the searing summer heat of southern mainland Spain.

The cooling Atlantic breeze is appreciated in summer. What rain the Canaries have tends to fall on the thickly forested higher ground, so cruise ship day-trippers staying low many never encounter any.

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What to pack for the Canary Islands?

With the seriously balmy climate you’re unlikely to need a heavy jacket unless you’re heading off hiking the high mountains. A sweater suffices for cooler evenings, though bring a light raincoat as these are Atlantic islands whose uplands are especially prone to showers. Sun lotion is a must as the sun can be savage; a hat and sunglasses too. A guidebook covering all the islands is handy – Lonely Planet publishes a decent pan-Canary guide.

Top tips for the Canary Islands

In late February into early March the Canaries convulse with their ‘Carnivale’ season. Tenerife is the largest and most riotous, but all the islands enjoy festivities. If you want to get involved – which can mean anything from dancing in the streets with strangers, to be being covered from head to foot in talcum powder by strangers – this is a brilliant time to come.

It’s worth dipping into the history of the Guanche people, the first inhabitants of the Canaries. Traces of these often cave-dwelling people are sprinkled through the archipelago and knowing some of their stories adds another dimension to the Canaries.

Get out on deck for morning arrivals. Sunrises in this part of the world are unfailingly spectacular, with most ports backed by a hulking sweep of mountains. Your fellow passengers will swoon enviously at your photos, then join you the next morning.

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