The Canaries aren’t all about beaches, you know – let’s explore wild volcano trails, starry skies and a colourful capital on the lush island of La Palma
Sat in a cobbled square, shaded by a scarlet-blossomed flamboyant (Delonix regia) tree, an old man quietly hand-rolled cigars as soulful notes from a busking guitarist threaded the balmy air. Around the corner, the sound of Spanish chatter emerged from a cocktail bar in a 300-year-old merchant’s house. I settled at a sidewalktable and sipped a mojito, gazing past locals promenading along the seawall to the turquoise ocean.
Havana? No – Santa Cruz, enchanting capital of little La Palma. The north-western most Canary Island is part of Spain, sure, but its soul is more complex. The original inhabitants, called Guanches by the invading Spaniards but known to themselves as Benahoarites, left their mark in petroglyphs, cave burials and the taste of toasted gofio (a flour made from roasted grains). Centuries later, waves of emigrants, fleeing hard times on La Palma, settled in Cuba and Venezuela, forging Caribbean ties that remain palpable in the island’s cuisine, rum, tobacco-growing and easy pace of life.
While the old mansions and whitewashed Renaissance churches of Santa Cruz might be all that cruise-ship passengers see on a fleeting visit, there’s much more to La Palma. From black-sand beaches in the west to the stark lava fields and cones of the far south, and the vast Caldera de Taburiente dominating the island’s centre, its volcanic past has created a rugged landscape, far more verdant than other islands in the Canaries.
La Palma is famed not just for its tobacco crops but also malvasia vines producing fine whites (formerly known as malmsey), reputedly favoured by Shakespeare. That’s not the only taste sensation to seek out; there’s fabulous fish and seafood, juicy figs and bananas, terrific goats’ cheeses and pan-Canarian favourite papas arrugadas (‘wrinkly potatoes’), here served with piquant mojo Palmero (hot chilli-and-garlic sauce).
Don’t worry about the calories. La Palma is laced with some 1,000km of well-waymarked and signposted footpaths, offering opportunities for burning off feasts on hilly hikes-this is, they say, the world’s steepest island. Trails mount volcanic craters, dense forests of Canarian pines and lush rainforested gorges. The central south was hit by forest fires in August, and a few trails remain closed to allow regeneration and path restoration, but most of the island is again open for business.
Despite the wonderful variety in such a compact package – nowhere’s more than an hour’s drive away – foot traffic remains fairly sparse. It’s popular with German and Spanish visitors but, for the most part, Brits are still to discover the joys of hiking on La Palma. Not for long: direct flights from London launched in October, making this an ideal short-break winter-sun destination. Take a stroll on its terrific trails and you’ll quickly discover why the Spanish call it La Isla Bonita: ‘The Pretty Island’.