So many attractions in the Canary Islands tell a special story writes travel journalist Lesley Bellew
Discover more about cruising around the Canary Islands Find out more here.
Los Gigantes Cliff, Tenerife.
Tenerife enjoys a sub-tropical climate and it is now home to the best collection of palms in Europe.
The Palmetum is a hop, skip and jump from Santa Cruz de Tenerife cruise port and makes for a fascinating visit because it was created on a 30-acre landfill site!
The steaming, stinking eyesore was an embarrassment to the town and blocked views of the sea and Anaga mountains. Its transformation into the Palmetum was excruciatingly slow and its story makes it all the more worthwhile visiting.
Of course, there’s no such thing as an instant garden but on this tricky site it took more than 10 years to obtain EU support and only then could a major gas extraction system be installed to prevent a build-up of methane and other toxic gases.
The history of the palms
The famous palm trees of Tenerife
In 1996, the first plants began to arrive and money was so tight that most species were obtained as seeds, donated by nurseries and colleagues at other botanic gardens.
Other trees, plants and seeds were collected on field trips to Central America, Florida and New Caledonia and by the turn of the millennium, advisers from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew evaluated the Palmetum's collection as the best and largest in Europe - and fifth largest in the world.
But acclimatisation was not easy; many of the first palms experienced die-back after the shock of transplantation and although Tenerife’s climate was fine for many palm species, the exposed hilltop setting meant they were battered by strong winds.
Effective irrigation was still not working and more specimens died from drought, the financial situation got worse as the huge cost of the excavations, landfill detoxification and large-scale planting quickly absorbed every euro. By 2000, the project came to a halt.
It was not until 2007 that the Canary Islands government stepped in to manage the Palmetum's development and in spring 2014 and the Palmetum was sufficiently mature to open.
Visitors who understand the behind-the-scenes agony will savour the unique ‘walk around the globe’ viewing plants and trees from Hawaii, Africa, Central America, Borneo, the Philippines, Australia, the Caribbean, Madagascar and the Solomon Islands.
Perfect for historians
The San Cristóbal Castle Interpretation Centre.
Another, more well-documented part of Santa Cruz de Tenerife’s history is told in the town’s San Cristóbal Castle Interpretation Centre.
This unusual underground museum is also near the port so take the steps down to learn about how, on July 25, 1797, Admiral Lord Nelson sailed into Santa Cruz de Tenerife with 900 men but failed to conquer the island.
He lost part of his arm in the battle and El Tigre, the cannon used to fire the shot to injure Nelson, is on display.
The battle is commemorated with a re-enactment by locals and actors so look out for event if you are sailing into the island at the end of July.
Related: First time cruiser? Discover Tenerife for yourself on a Canary Island Adventure, perfect for first timers!
The Jardin de Cactus,
Lanzarote, designed by Cesar Manrique
Jardín de Cactus, designed by César Manrique, is home to more than 1,100 species of cacti and this sunken site, formed in a disused quarry, is a wonderful theatre of giant globes and prickly spikes.
Walk along bridges and over the black volcanic soil to enjoy this unique arty garden which also features an attractive bar and cafe, which includes mid-20th century furniture and an elegant spiral staircase – all designed by the artist.
This spiky cactus garden took around 20 years to create and was completed in 1990, two years before Manrique died in a car crash but the story of the artist’s extraordinary talent lives on, he was determined that tourism development should not destroy Lanzarote’s extraordinary landscape.
Volcanoes, salt flats and black sand!
Timanfaya National Park, Lanzarote
Lanzarote’s beauty continues in the Timanfaya National Park which was formed almost 300 years ago when more than 100 small volcanic eruptions hit the island.
Take a Route of the Volcanoes tour to see black and red peaks, known as the Fire Mountains (Montañas de Fuego), which make for a surreal martian landscape.
Although the mountains are classed as dormant a magma chamber remains under the surface, leaving a geothermic area riddled with steaming vents and fire pits.
Walking in the area is therefore prohibited so the safest way to witness the dramatic scenery is to stay with the tour.
Along the island’s rugged coast is a giant patchwork of ‘white gold’ known as the Janubio salt flats. They were created in the early 20th century and were once essential to the island’s economy when the fishing industry relied heavily on salt before refrigeration took over.
The salt flats are now a protected site; a striking monochrome vision of white against a backdrop of the black sand and dramatic volcanic mountains.
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Pozo de las Nieves, Gran Canaria
This is one of the prettiest Canary Islands with the peak of Pozo de Las Nieves at its centre. There’s a wealth of natural beauty from desert-like dunes and glorious beaches to deep ravines and volcanic mountainsides.
During a one-day visit my tip is to take a guided hike to the Bandama Caldera, at more than 650 feet deep with diameter of almost three-quarters of a mile, it is the largest crater on the island.
It was last active 3,000 years ago when a series of eruptions took place and created the amazing landscape we see today.
At the centre of the crater is an abandoned homestead – once upon a time, as the story goes, it was the only inhabited volcanic crater in the world! Can you imagine?
Do continue walking up the side of the crater and if the sky is clear there’s a fabulous view over northern part of the island.
The famous sand dunes
Las Dunas de Maspalomas, Gran Canaria
Another option is to visit the opposite end of Gran Canaria to discover the Maspalomas Natural Dune Reserve, almost 1,000 acres of golden sand hills. There is a wonderful beach so it’s really a bizarre mix of desert and an oasis. WIth plenty of birdlife in the lagoon a palm grove for shade it is a lovely destination.
And though you won’t really be in the middle of a desert, it’s not a mirage if you see camels ambling by – rides along the sand are yours if it takes your fancy.
For those who prefer a stroll, a pretty spot is Puerto de Mogán, a fishing village and yacht marina edged by Mediterranean-style houses decorated with colourful window boxes.
This small port, where no high-rise building is permitted, is criss-crossed by a network of seawater canals, earning it the name ‘Spanish Little Venice’. Stop for a drink at one of the bars on the waterside and if you are in town on a Friday, get there early for market day.
Enjoy an winter sun cruise to the Canaries and experience Gran Canaria for yourself.
Los Tilos waterfall Laurisilva in La Palma laurel forest
There are no golden beaches on La Palma, but it is the greenest, and the whole island has been declared a UNESCO biosphere reserve.
To the north is the Los Tilos cloud forest, a popular walking area which is often featured as a cruise tour option.
Los Tilos feels likes enchanted woodland with clouds literally hanging from the tree branches and moisture dripping from giant ferns and misty evergreens.
Take a guided walk to learn the story of the forest’s ancient beginnings and birdwatchers should look out for the Bolle’s pigeon and the white-tailed laurel pigeon.
Discover the volcanic route
The beautiful lava landscape on the Cumbre Nueva in La Palma
In heart of La Palma, if you are up to a more strenuous hike, the stunning ‘Volcano Route’ reaches 1,932 metres with the reward of views across of the whole island.
An easier way to head to the hills of Las Breñas is on a 4X4 tour, crossing thick vegetation to look over the dramatic Cumbre Nueva mountain range. Drive through the National Park to view valleys and volcanic landscapes before going off-road to see a lava river.
This sometimes bumpy ride is exhilarating, especially near the the San Antonio and Teneguia volcanoes, the journey endorses the reason why this green island deserves special protection.
If you have an overnight or late stay cruise stay, remember La Palma has one of the world’s clearest skies for observing stars - and the largest telescope in the world!
Take a tour to the purpose-built Pilar viewpoint, about 3,300ft above sea level, where an expert guide will set up two telescopes for visitors to view stars and planets. Cosmic!
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Beach of San Sebastian de la Gomera.
Don't let the port of San Sebastián fool you into thinking there’s not much to see in La Gomera.
The almost circular island is the second smallest of Canary Islands, with a diameter of about 25 kilometres, but take a tour inland to pass mountain villages which leave you feeling like you have stepped back a century.
The perfect wildlife experience
Pilot whales near the coast of La Gomera.
Spotting sealife is another exciting option and one of the top cruise experiences because, from La Gomera, there’s a often a chance to see Bryde’s or Blainville’s beaked whales and sperm whales.
Take a RIB boat along the east coast of the island and you may also catch sight of bottlenose and spotted dolphins skimming alongside the boat.
On a warm day it’s fantastic to take a fast boat to feel the wind in your hair and the seaspray on your face. Take your camera but hold on tight because the RIB boats bounce along at a fair speed. Keep your eyes open, too, for sea turtles which also frequent these waters.
On return to San Sebastián it’s worth remembering the town holds a really important place in history – it was Christopher Columbus’s last port of call in 1492 before he sailed to the Americas.