The Canary Islands are made up of seven exotic islands with incredible natural wonders, like volcanic black sand beaches and Saharan-style desert sand dunes. Despite boasting year-round round sunshine and budget prices, these under-the-radar islands still remain relatively unknown to North American travelers, perhaps due to their slightly random location which is actually closer to Africa than Spain. Under shadowed by the more popular seven-island archipelago of Hawaii, the Canary Islands get very few American visitors, making it the perfect destination to explore on an offbeat, exciting beach vacation.
Arriving is easy, as it’s just a quick (and cheap) flight from almost any major European hub on low-cost carrier Ryanair (among other airlines) to most of the islands. You’ll find plenty of hotels in all price ranges, but also keep an eye out for home rentals, as many Europeans purchase vacation homes to rent out cheaply year-round. For authentic lodging, try a Parador, historical buildings that were once castles or monasteries that have found new life as upscale hotels. Five of the seven islands have at least one.
Get to Know Each of the Islands
Each island really does have it's own vibe. For beautiful beaches, try Fuerteventura. One of the best spots in the world to kitesurf or windsurf thanks to a constant light breeze, don’t worry if you’d rather just chill out on the sand, as Flag Beach has a four-mile stretch of fine white power overlooking boundless turquoise waters. When you're ready to explore, El Cotillo is a sleepy beach town on the north end of the island where you can spend the day doing absolutely nothing or kicking back with a cerveza. La Vaca Azul has some of the freshest seafood on the islands and you can literally watch the fishermen bring in the catch of the day as you enjoy a breathtaking sunset over the horizon.
Tenerife is known for its giant cliffs, aptly named Los Gigantes. These massive rock formations jut out of the Atlantic at about 1,600 feet high, making them a photographer's dream. The island’s capital, Santa Cruz, has plenty to do for those craving a busier day filled with shopping, restaurants and nightlife, but the picturesque seaside villages along the south of the island are where the relaxation and charm is really at, like El Médano.
Cultural types should head to Lanzarote, where you can wine-taste the day away. The Cesar Manrique Foundation offers gorgeous architecture (made out of the volcanic ash) and art from the Canarian-born artist and the foundation is actually located in the home he built and designed for himself.
The capital of the Canary Islands is Las Palmas, located on the island of Gran Canaria. Las Palmas may be the best spot for partying, with plenty of outdoor terraces, beach bars and late-night clubbing options, as well as a beautiful historic city center. Down South, Maspalomas is a long, sandy stretch of beach featuring the Maspalomas Natural Dune Reserve, which has rolling white sand hills and dunes. The Costa Meloneras Lopesan hotel is a gorgeous place to stay, but the real highlight is the four-hour Corallium spa circuit, which boasts a Himalayan salt room, several steam rooms, Turkish baths, an igloo room, an African sauna, an extreme saltwater pool, a room full of waterbeds and more -- a steal at just 39 euros for non-hotel guests.
The smallest of the seven islands, El Hierro, is truly a nature-lovers paradise. With no resorts and virtually no beaches, this island is beautifully preserved and has very little tourism, so if you really want to get off the beaten path, this is your spot. Those who do visit the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve come for its mountainous hiking trails and excellent scuba diving -- keep your eyes peeled for hammerhead sharks and triggerfish as you dive through volcanic tunnels, arches and caves.
La Gomera is yet another spot for those enamored with nature. Garajonay National Park is a famous hiking area, known for its dense fern forest and rocky paths. This island is also famous for its black sand beaches. Don’t be surprised if you hear some high-pitched whistling between the locals as this method of communication dates back to Roman times and local Gomeran children are still taught whistle calls at school.
The west coast is the sunniest spot on the island of La Palma, but don’t expect to find white sand here either — almost all the beaches have black ashy volcanic sand and most are fairly deserted. Hiking is one of the main activities on this island as there are over 622 miles of marked trails. Some of the most popular follow volcano routes, the most recent of which erupted in 1971.
Each island has its own charm and highlights, so whichever one (or three) you visit, you’ll definitely want to return for more once you discover this untapped paradise.