TRANS-ATLANTIC CRUISE – PART 3
Although the archipelago lies barely 60 kilometres off the west coast of the continent, the contrast between Africa and the Canary Islands could not be more pronounced. The Islas Canarias cover an area slightly larger than Prince Edward Island but with a population of over 2 million (over 150,000 people lived on the Canaries in 1768!). They constitute an autonomous community, similar to a province in Canada, with their own elected parliament. Over 12 million visit the islands each year, making tourism the number one industry.
Arriving in our first port of call, Santa Cruz de la Palma, we recognized immediately that we were in Europe. Santa Cruz is the islands’ second-largest city and rises into the hills from a beautiful harbour. As soon as you set foot on land, you realize that the island is volcanic in origin from the steepness of the terrain and the character of the rocks. In fact, the seven main islands in the Canaries archipelago are all volcanic in origin. The only thing that distinguishes them, besides their size, is their age. The younger ones are more mountainous; the older ones feature more gentle, eroded terrain.
As is our habit, we made a beeline to the tourist information centre soon after getting off the ship. The young man there told us all we needed to know for a full day on the island. “Take the bus to La Caldera de Taburiente National Park Visitor Centre and, from there, a taxi will drive you to the caldera itself.” And that’s what we did. Fellow Prinsendam passengers, Dianne and Paul from Homer, Alaska, were sitting in the front seat when we boarded, heading to the same place we were. It rained all the way as the bus made its way up and over the mountain but, as soon as we hit the west side, the sky was a clear blue. From the Visitor Centre, we watched snow-white clouds spill over the montain like water spilling over Niagara Falls. It was magical!
The caldera — essentially the inside of an extinct volcano — has a circumference of 27 kilometres and is almost 1 kilometre deep. Peeking through lush pine forests, we were treated to spectacular views of the caldera. We walked along the path for a half hour or so and returned to Santa Cruz by taxi and bus. The whole trip cost about $25 for the two of us. A similar tour with Holland America would have cost over $200 and wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting.
It being Good Friday, not many stores were open in the city but we strolled through the streets for the rest of the afternoon and took advantage of wifi to stay in touch with family and friends.
Next morning, we docked in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, the largest city in the Canary Islands. Again, we headed straight for the tourist information office and were given great advice and assistance from the young woman who served us. She booked a rental car for us and bought us tickets for the gondola ride up Monte Teide.
Tenerife is the largest of the Canary Islands and is the most densely populated, with some 900,000 inhabitants. I first heard of Tenerife in 1977. Its airport was the site of the worst air disaster in the history of aviation when two Boeing 747s collided, killing 583 people.
With map in hand, we found our way out of the centre of the city and climbed along the motorway toward the day’s first destination, San Cristobal de La Laguna. The centro historico, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, features eighteenth-century buildings and cobbled streets and was a relaxing place for a stroll.
The next challenge was to find the road to the town of La Esperanza and, from there, to make our way up the winding road to Parque Nacional Del Teide. We took our time driving through the magnificent pine forests, stopping several times to take in the panoramic views of the coastline and valleys far below. The world’s third-highest volcano (measured from its base on the ocean floor to 3,718 metres or 12,200 feet above sea level) towers over the centre of the island and can be seen on a clear day from all of the islands. We got our first glimpse of the snow-covered summit of Monte Teide, also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and stopped for a bite, taking time to admire the view.
The transition from dense pine forest to barren landscape takes place rather abruptly. The vegetation gets smaller and scrubbier before it finally disappears altogether. Next thing you know, it looks like you’re on another planet, one that couldn’t support any kind of life. From our vantage point near a group of observatories, we could see the top of the nearby island of Gran Canaria sticking up above the clouds.
The mountain dominates every view and the volcanic rocks come in many colours: reds, browns, yellows, and dark greys. We stopped several times and hiked along well-marked trails. People are everywhere, many of them locals, taking advantage of the long weekend and the beautiful day to get some fresh air. Some even tried paragliding!
As we neared the highest point of the highway, above 2,400 metres, we felt the air getting thinner. We walked up the steep incline to the gondola station and waited for ours to arrive. Thirty minutes later, they announced that the Teleférico del Teide would not carry us up to get a closer look at the summit of the mountain because of a mechanical problem. “Better to be at the bottom than stuck at the top, or somewhere in between,” we said to one another. Back in the city, we wandered through narrow streets and finally found a place to park our rental. A fitting end to one hell of a day!
Day 2 in Santa Cruz de Tenerife was Easter Sunday. We decided to spend it wandering around the city centre, watching the crowds and taking in the festivities. We attended Mass at Iglesia de San Francisco and observed the impressive parade as a huge and ornate wheeled structure rolled down the aisle, out the front door of the church and into the street, followed by the priest and a marching band. I felt for the poor guy sitting inside the silver and gold-plated monstrosity as he blindly steered and braked the thing.
Our last port of call on the Canary Islands was Arrecife, largest city on the island of Lanzerote. We’d been told that a rented car was the best way to see the island, so we walked to the tourist information centre and found the rental agency. Armed with a suggested itinerary provided by yet another excellent guide, we drove blindly through the city and eventually found the road leading west toward Yaiza and the tunoff to Parque Nacional de Timanfaya, home of the Mountains of Fire. Elva insisted on getting a picture of the camels that visitors ride on a tour of the volcano’s slopes.
The Montanas del Fuego is a broad area affected by the island’s last major eruption that started in 1730 and lasted six years. We parked at the Islote de Hilario visitor centre and boarded a bus that took us across the impressive lava fields.
Next, we drove through the valley of La Geria, an area of incredible natural beauty that features an unusual method of wine grape cultivation. A semi-circular coal-black stone wall shelters a single vine from blistering winds, an ingenious agronomic innovation that is surely unique to the island. From a distance, the pattern of shelters looks like so many fish scales.
Our next stop along the central highway was the pretty village of Teguise, former capital of Lanzarote. We admired the white stucco buildings and the beautiful church. Since we had time, we drove to the northeastern tip of the island and visited the small port town of Orzola. Along the way, we passed dozens of cyclists. I was jealous. We stopped briefly at an aloe vera farm and headed back toward the ship.
Near Tahiche, we visited the Volcano House, a one-of-a-kind structure built by renowned island artist and architect, César Manrique, whose œuvre reminds me of Salvador Dali. He interconnected five contiguous volcanic bubbles and made them into rooms. Huge windows integrate the home into the surrounding tongue of hardened lava, merging volcano and habitation in a very harmonious way.
The Canary Islands have been, hands down, the highlight of this cruise. The diverse landscapes are a delight to the eye and provide such a variety of experiences for the visitor; everything here is modern and up to date; the people are friendly; and the tourism industry has attained a level of maturity not that common in other we’ve visited.