We had met Brian and Nora Duffy while hiking in Nepal in 2000 and had stayed in touch (they live in England). So when we needed some advice about a good winter hiking destination in Europe we asked them where to go. They suggested a trip to the Canary Islands and ended up going with us.

First Lyn and I had to figure out where the Canaries actually were. We'd heard of them of course, but find them on a map? Here they are (satellite picture left), off the Southern coast of Morocco.

The four of us signed up for a Ramblers hiking holiday) package where we'd spend a week on La Gomera and then a second week on Tenerife.

As we were preparing for our trip, we began meeting people who had the same vague impression about the Canaries: that this was a dry, rocky and dusty place. We were getting a little nervous and packed our gear with the subconscious impression that we would be hiking in sweltering dry heat...a mistake as you'll see.

March 4th, we flew to Heathrow (immensely pleased with the additional legroom we'd managed negotiate with an upgrade with British Airways) and spent a fleeting few days in Salisbury (England) with friend Julia. Serendipitously, this included her 60th birthday party, and also allowed us a few days to un-jetlag.

Getting there

On March 8th, we left Salisbury, and after a labyrinthine journey of trains and buses, arrived at the Holiday Inn Express at Luton airport. Love those airport hotels: at 6am next morning we trundled our bags over to the terminal 10 minutes walk away; met up with Brian and Nora and caught the 8am Monarch flight to Tenerife ...glancing furtively about to see whether we could spot our other Ramblers cohorts on the flight.

Four hours into the flight, we began our approach to Tenerife from the North and could make out the impressive 12,000 snow-capped bulk of the Teide volcano dominating the island. The North Coast, where we were due to spend our second week, looked disconcertingly undrenched with sun! Our plane droned around to the south and landed at Aeropuerto Sur where our "hot, rocky, dry" impressions were confirmed.

We disembarked, met up with Bill, our tour leader and the other members of the group, then had a 30 minute bus ride to the Ferry dock for our trip to the smaller nearby island of La Gomera. First hitch: our ferry was out of commission for three days! Fortunately, there was an alternative, the fast ferry...with "Fred Olsen" emblazoned on the side in 10,000 Pt type; we arrived in San Sebastian de La Gomera a couple of hours later.

The hotel as it turned out was only ten minutes walk from the dock and to save hauling the bags all the way Bill had hired a bus. But the bus got trapped fifty meters from the hotel by two illegally parked cars. This provided us with an entertaining half-hour introduction to local life as the bus driver ferretted one driver out of a nearby bar but had to inch the bus through the remaining gap with a finger-width to spare on either side—all the while urged on by shouts of encouragement from passersby and continuous honking from the cars behind us.

Our hotel—the Garajonay (pronounced gara- (as in garage) hon ("on" with an "h") -aye)—was extremely pleasant. Lyn and I settled in to our first floor room with a view over a pleasant park. Then we all went out for a quick recce around the town before dinner and an early night.

General Impressions

The Canary Islands are Spanish—still governed by Spain, in spite of the occasional bus-shelter graffitti advocating "Canarias libre!!!".

When we spoiled westerners parachute into "foreign" cultures, bugs, beggars and crime give us particular grief because we are unused to them. Occasionally some tourists bring further problems on their own heads by showing scant regard for local custom and wonder why they are getting surly looks or muttered hostility.

So it was a relief to do without this expected chafing for the whole two weeks and we enjoyed only the sunny positives of the Canaries. Of course, much of this benefit springs from the degree of Europeanization and amazing prosperity of this island group; others might yearn for more of the tang of adventure that comes with new cultures and simpler people. But ease was what we wanted on this trip and it was just fine.

The evidence of a prosperous economy—based largely on tourism and an influx of well-heeled Europeans and North Americans buying condos—is everywhere and everyone seemed to be driving late model cars. To top it off, the islands had the added bonus of financial aid from the European community, although goodness knows why: that's like robbing the poor to give to the rich. Major construction is pandemic: the islands have better highways and transportation generally than most of Europe or North America. Thankfully, the new construction has been tastefully applied, preserving and often gentrifying the old spanish buildings that form the core of most towns and villages, and refurbishing the incredible stonewall reinforcements for roads-that-climb-cliffs.

There are contrary viewpoints on this: here is the Lonely Planet's surprising (to us) first assessment:

The Canaries are a seething mass of oiled flesh, and offer the worst of mass tourism: concreted shorelines, tacky apartment blocks, and bars where you can pretend you've never left home...

Seems a bit overboard as we certainly saw little of this; extreme tourism seemed to be confined to limited areas. But foreign influence is insidious: pockets of the island have become virtually German, British, American and other alien enclaves. Puerto de la Cruz has a high concentration of German hotels, restaurants, and stores. It seems we imperialist peoples generally can't wait to get away from home...and can't wait to recreate home wherever we settle.

But this aside, we experienced a much cleaner and pleasant Canary Islands, which Lonely Planet's grudging follow-up admits:

Luckily, it's not all mass tourism. Beyond the mega resorts you can still find tiny fishing villages, whitewashed hamlets perched on hilltops and even a few wild places within the dull roar of a volcano or with mist dripping through primeval forests...they also offer some of the best beaches within easy escape from a snowy European winter.

From over-critical to over-the-top but you get the drift.

Geography and Weather

The internet weather forecast for Tenerife that Brian sent us the week before our trip, was like a list from paradise: 25°C,24°C,25°C,26°C etc. It was probably the same when we were there but we had a few surprises. The actual weather (and temperature) depends on where you are on the islands, and since we were all over....

Geography has a lot to do with it, as does the feature-rich landscape. The islands were pushed up by suboceanic volcanic eruptions millions of years ago (more here for you geologists), forming large pimples on the placid face of the surrounding ocean: La Gomera's high point is Garajonay, which reaches 1,000m above sea level, but it is not so much a peak as a mound on a generally high plateau in the middle of the island. On the other hand, el Teide on Tenerife, is Tenerife! At almost 4,000m, this snow-capped volcano sits in a large moonscaped basin, and the rest of Tenerife is not much more than the slopes up to this area (to the north-east there is a lower ridge of only about 1,000 meters).

So it's cooler anyway at 2,000 meters or even 1,000 meters, but add cloud and wind to this recipe and it gets more interesting. The Trade Winds blowing across the Atlantic from the north-east gather moisture as they cross the warm ocean. They then encounter these large barriers in the middle of nowhere and lift over them; the cooling air forms clouds and rain but mostly on the north coasts, where clouds move in in the morning and remain through much of the day. It is often warm but overcast. Fortunately, there's hardly any rain at this time of the year but in the rainy season rain dumps on the north slopes which, as a result, are more lush and green; southern slopes are usually sunny and dry...and dusty and brown.

Rain, when it comes, drains rapidly down steep slopes, and thousands of years of this has gouged out deep valleys between high ridges. The ridges vary in profile: some descend in measured steps to the sea and others terminate in high cliffs on the coastline. The concertina coastline creates a problem for coast road building: La Gomera has no coast road but Tenerife has no end of spectacular climbs.

The geography contributes much interest for hikers. Volcanic churn yonks ago created, for the person walking today, a constant parade of entertaining geological features: great plates of granitic rock only a few feet thick project a few feet out of the softer surrounding rock and create natural walls which appear for a half kilometer and then disappear. In many places, the softer rock has sheared off on the downhill side, leaving an exposed cliff face several hundred feet high. We walk past sudden outcrops of basalt-like columns. "Rocques" (see Hike 1 on La Gomera) stick up out of the surrounding natural hillsides like bizarre 600m canines that have evaded the correction of giant orthodontists.

San Sebastian de la Gomera

As noted elsewhere, the walk from the ferry dock to our hotel in San Sebastian takes about 10 minutes, and most of that is dock rather than town. In fact the retail section of "town" is only about 100 meters of our street, and maybe the next one over with a few isolated stores beyond. There is a much larger residential area, stretching a kilometer or so beyond that, up the valley, perhaps housing those working on the boats, local farmers and fishermen. The available shopping venues were the usual collection of bars and restaurants but other stores catered more to locals than to tourists.

In the evenings, we ate out at one of the several local restaurants—including an upscale Chinese restaurant—repeating visits to two of them. The shortest walk to a restaurant was about 30 seconds and longest about 2 minutes: small town? We sat as a group and largely ate from pre-ordered menus of meat or vegetarian. The last choice was mine; however, after tasting two brave attempts at "vegetarian" cuisine (fried broccolli and carrots with rice — no seasoning), I concluded that such fare is relatively unknown in these parts and best avoided. Fortunately "meat" included "fish", so went that route, although the tough tuna on the second night was also a setback.

If you go to a North American restaurant twice, they give you the good meal the first night because they want you to come back the second time and then (if they're so inclined) they give you the lousy meal. In the Canaries it seems to work the other way around (and we experienced this a couple of times). The custom seems to be to give you the lousy deal the first night because they hardly know you and the great meal when you come back because now you're friends! The tough tuna restaurant later provided the best meal of the week.

Hiking—General Notes

There's a varied readership to these notes and some, I know, wish to be spared the heavy breathing bits. So I'll only provide an overview here and there of details of the La Gomera hikes here and the Tenerife hikes here.

Hiking in the Canaries was outstanding. A myriad trails criss-cross the islands, many the remnants of old goatherding trails (the goats are still around but the goatherds seem to be driving beamers) or the shortcut from one village to another. There's a steady trickle of tourists along these trails ensuring that nature's constant attempts to reclaim them through the encroachment of bracken and grass is thwarted. Finding the trails generally isn't a problem (though choosing the right one at an intersection requires either a book or the stamina to retrace one's steps often). The hotels routinely provide maps that give the main trails as much prominence as the roads, and numerous guide books give better coverage still.

Without the irritations of bugs and heat—the standard downsides of outdoor activity—all there is left to do is enjoy wandering through marvellous scenery, brilliant flowers, enjoy lunch in quiet picturesque Spanish style villages etc. Tiresome eh?

Hiking on certain parts of La Gomera was occasionally on the cool side and windy. This was minor distraction to those of us used to snow, rain, ice, and winds on a regular basis in our home countries. We were even lucky enough to have our only downpour happen within 30 minutes downhill walk of the kind of soothing therapy available in bars. We had warmer weather on Tenerife, especially in the Teide basin but the heat was never oppressive.

Generally, we began each day with a solid breakfast in the hotel breakfast room, made lunch from breakfast rolls (we asked the hotel if we could pay and they waved the money off) filled with mixed goodies purchased at the local supermercado and gathered in the lobby at around 9am. We'd then take a private bus ride to a destination point, and be on the trail by say 10am. Because these were D+/D hiking grade, we generally hiked down from say 3,000 ft rather than up to that elevation but on a couple of days we climbed and then came down about 2,500 ft. The distances in the first week averaged about 14Km—about 6 hours of hiking, where the second week were only about 11Km—about 5 hours walking (more time on buses).

We had one day off in the middle of each week and one day of travel between the weeks.

Overall, I estimated that in 10 hikes (13 days) we hiked up about 10,000ft, hiked down about 24,000 ft and hiked a total of about 120Km.

People sometimes ask whether this doesn't induce stress, such as sore-feet, blisters etc. Well of course! Many of us engaged in a prolonged ritual every morning, of sticking moleskins on various blistering body parts, bandaging up this crocked ankle or that grazed knee from yesterday's fall, strapping on that prosthetic aid, etc*. A part of the day's conversation with others is spent either comparing aches, or more sophisticated still, grimly saying nothing. There are two hypotheses (a) The Heroic Theory that hikers hike in spite of pain and (b) The Masochism Theory, that hikers hike because it provides pain.

[* Flu-like symptoms brought down two people during the two weeks and laid low a several more (me included) when we got back]

Flowers and other flora

Tons of flowers, it was spring after all; but many of our pictures of wildflowers (there was a sprinkling of them everywhere) didn't develop particularly well in our hiking pictures so I've borrowed on this excellent Finnish site and there's more pictures here. One of the most common sights on both islands were the gigantic flower poles of a variety of agave americana sticking out everywhere on the hillsides (photo at left; the actual plant is that yucca-like bunch of leaves around the base). Of particular interest were the wild geraniums that Lyn spotted—very different from the recognizable and equally common garden geraniums—and the flowering poinsettias.

Birds

Dang, I was afraid you would ask about that. Pigeons and seagulls aplenty, the latter oddly abundant along the shoreline and cliffs. Of other birdpersons, hardly a darn thing. Plenty of peeps—there was a considerable variety to the songs and calls: thrushes (probably), finches (likely), chats (possibly), blackbirds (fer sure, once), plus yer sparrers (Tony Hancock). Saw several varieties of small hawks, one variety more common than others. Yes, the little beggars were out there somewhere but they were certainly elusive. It's hard enough identifying LBJs (Little Brown Jobbies) because they are small, but if you have the additional handicaps of poor light and mere glimpses, it's impossible. A small colorful tit-sized bird was apparently nesting in a hole in the wall in our hotel in Tenerife. Explanation for scarce birds?: apparently the locals had (have?) a custom of shooting birds, meaning perhaps that only the shy ones remain.

Hiking on La Gomera(details here)

We had a couple of cooler days here. Yet even then, out of 30 hours of hiking (around Garajonay) when, because we were in the woods or because there was inclement weather, we had only a few hours that we couldn't see spectacular views in many directions. The five hikes were all different in both subtle and obvious ways: one day we wound our way down through a valley, through palm trees and small farms, with beehives peppering the hillsides. Another day we came down a ridge where the soil was dry, the surface dusty and rocky in parts, and the predominant vegetation was cactus (of various kinds) and other succulents —often in bloom. We stopped for lunch in small villages which often had a bar where we'd finish with either coffee (for those with hangovers) or beer (for those with hangovers).

La Gomera: Day off to Hotel Gran Rey

Although everyone was free to do what they pleased on the day off, all the familiar faces seemed to be at the ferry terminal on Friday morning to take the boat up to (the town of) Hotel Gran Rey. This was a pleasant boat ride, with a quick stop in Playa Santiago (for those wishing to stop there) and then Gran Rey about half an hour later. The actual Hotel Gran Rey is now hard to find in a sprawl of upscale condos and associated poofy shops. There does seem to be "the other side of the tracks"—in this case, for tracks substitute a large banana plantation which splits the town right down to the shoreline. We trudged along to the "other side" which had more of a fishing village feel, and lunched and lounged there for an hour or so before ambling back to catch the return ferry at 4pm. Nice relaxing day.

Travel Day

We arrived Tuesday and left La Gomera the following Tuesday for Tenerife: said goodbye to the hotel staff, loaded our bags onto the bus but walked down to the dock ready for a 9:15am departure on the "slow" ferry. It was late but we were entertained by a cavort of these very large boats. Ours steamed in first, spun about and docked, then the Fred Olsen arrived and did the same casual pirouette in the harbour and docked beside it. We boarded and were treated to glam old style. This may have been a slower ferry but it was elegantly finished inside, although the lowbrow blare from the TV's in the lounge clashed with the highbrow decor.

Dock on Tenerife; get on bus; drive about an hour and half to Puerto de la Cruz. We travelled on superb highways, passing an odd series of windmill farms (for power generation) on the South coast; in Puerto, navigate as close to hotel (located in the old section of town) as possible; heft bags to hotel through the pedestrian section of town. Not impressed with hotel: very regimented; owner smoking evil cigar in lobby; and as we later found out, they served only a roll and coffee for breakfast and a stale roll and lukewarm coffee at that! Boy, that started some chat in the breakfast room! Rooms clean but arrgh!! no fridge. [Hiker's tip: locate hotels with a small fridge in your room; put your water bottles/bags/whatever in the fridge every night and sup the nectar of cool water throughout the next day's torrid heat, as well as keeping cheese and other lunch goodies cold.]

Tenerife/Puerto de la Cruz

We'd enjoyed the quiet village of San Sebastian and had heard that things in a north coast tourist mecca on Tenerife might not be so much to our liking. Perhaps our low expectations helped make the second week a different but equally positive experience!

For all our whingeing about the hotel (above), we were pleasantly surprised to find our lodgings located in a quaint old spanish section of town. True, this older part of town was surrounded by a more modern mix of high rises and hotels further out but we didn't have to notice them if we didn't want to. Our street, like other parallel streets in this section were strictly pedestrian....almost, as scooters and trucks whizzed across them at the intersections with N-S streets. Thank goodness for some relief from traffic, as the narrow, tiled, streets act like a impressive soundbox for noise: the streetcleaner who swept the streets at 3am sounded as though he was making his way directly through our first floor room, and as for the 5am birds (still invisible), I began to suspect what might have provoked the practice of shooting the odd one or two.

Again, our restaurants were within no more than a 5 minute walk of the hotel and provided even better fare than those on La Gomera. Shops? Plenty of them, but many offered products made in the US, Germany, and suffering the blight of tourist shopping: each store selling much the same set of goods that a hundred similar stores provided. We never did find any abundance of local arts or crafts—they probably exist but they have been overrun by intruders.

But there was still a little of the ville ancienne to wander about in, and we did so on two occasions. The most impressive (and popular) destination on our day off was the botanical gardens a couple of kilometers up the hill. We hiked up, did a wash of our hiking clothes in a nearby laundrette, and then did the gardens. Here we found a fantastic and well-tended collection of trees (a massive banyan tree), flowers (including an impressive orchid collection), cacti, palm trees, vines all in an area about the size of a city block. We avoided a well advertised "jungle park" because we thought it might be tacky, but one of our gang actually went there and said it was very well done so we missed out on that one.

Hiking on Tenerife(details here)

Hiking the big Island was somewhat similar to hiking La Gomera...yet not quite the same. The hikes were a little shorter and easier this week in keeping with the lower D rating (although having a 'D' week after a 'D+' week is a little puzzling); transportation was different; the two hikes up in the volcanic caldera of el Teide were very different; the north coast of Tenerife is far more populated and farmed than La Gomera. The weather was certainly warmer than for two of the hikes we had on La Gomera: there was not as much wind but we had cloud cover on some hikes here too. The terrain sees more moisture so it was more lush and cultivated: we saw more vineyards and didn't see as much of the dry, cactus/rock combo on these hikes.

Travel on the marvellous transportation system was mostly pluses with some minuses. The bus station was only five minutes walk from the hotel which was a plus, but getting on the bus may be an Olympic sport in future years. The payment system was intriguing and remarkably cheap. You buy a travel card for 12 euros (which gives you a 50% discount) and insert it into a meter when you get on the bus; tell the driver your destination; he hits a button and your card pops out, with a printout showing how much the fare was and the amount (credit) left on your card. Generally we paid less than $3 for an hour's bus ride up into the villages.

And the ride alone was worth $10. The buses were new and had no difficulty managing the steep winding roads up through vineyards and villages. Local car drivers have clearly learned the bus schedule by heart and either stay home or steer into nearby fields or over cliffs when one is due. When your heart had stopped pounding from one of those near-misses, there was always a sudden lurch, with a quick view over precipice from which you could clearly see the sea pounding on the rocks several thousand feet below. Not to be missed at any cost!

We'd usually start our hikes in a village, hike down, have lunch perhaps in a another village, head further down, and take another bus back to Puerto de la cruz.

These were lovely walks, the trails here as well-traveled as those on La Gomera. Here too, there was considerable variation in the vegetation even in a single walk, partly because we'd be dropping 1,000 meters. Higher up, we'd often be in cool woods and then would move out onto a wild hillside, with the usual lush mix of grasses, eucalyptus, laurel, and occasional fig trees. As we dropped to the coastline, we'd find ourselves walking past farms, vineyards, banana plantations, potato plots.

Birds...drearily, the same as for La Gomera: aurally present but eerily absent.

Apres hike? By the end of this week, the immoderate amounts of exercise and mild dehydration during the day provoked most of us to eat and drink with abandon in the evenings—barely this side of excess. We might have a couple of Dorado's (beer) when we returned from our hike, then go to dinner and wash down a three course meal with a third to a half litre of wine...and a few who were apparently still thirsty enough for another couple of beer after that.

Summing Up

It all has to come to an end eventually. Brian gave a speech thanking Bill for his tireless work then everybody left. Sometimes, we end these trips a little relieved even if all has gone well: perhaps the routine is getting a bit stale, or we're tired, or we've just been away for long enough. But this trip ended before we were ready. The group was a fun group and hiking the Canaries was a charming and stress-free two weeks. We agreed with Brian and Nora: we'd come back and spend a few months here without any difficulty.

A few more photos