They’ve been a beloved sun holiday for generations, and visits are taking off again. But which Canary Island is for you?
Which is your favourite Canary Island?
The fact that we can ask that question indicates just how much Irish sun-holidaymakers love these Spanish islands. Many of us have been to more than one, which is a remarkable thing to say about a windy archipelago 4.5 hours away, off the African coast.
But there’s good reason. From the holiday brochures of the 1970s and ’80s to the 21st-century boom in direct flights with Ryanair and Aer Lingus, the Canaries, although smaller than most Irish counties, are super-connected by our travel industry. From summer packages to winter snowbirds, from fly ’n’ flop breaks to hiking or diving, they’re probably our most popular year-round escape.
In fact, Irish people made almost 585,000 trips to the Canaries in 2019, according to official figures. Those plummeted during the pandemic, but the islands’ health and safety measures (at one point, holidaymakers were even offered free insurance) kept the dream alive, and today, as travel bounces back, destinations like Lanzarote, Tenerife and Gran Canaria are all over the departures boards again.
It’s not hard to see why. Generations of holidays, established resorts and year-round sunshine provide a mix of familiarity and fun. You’ll find Spanish culture, English widely spoken and pleasing prices on the ground (on a recent visit, I ordered a cortado for €1.20, and daily fish specials rarely exceeded €15).
Temperatures range from 16-28 degrees, avoiding the scorching heat of Spain, and the sea hovers around 18-20 degrees, meaning no need for Dryrobes or wetsuits (unless you’re diving, of course).
There’s more to the islands than mass tourism, of course. Volcanic landscapes are “like an open science book”, one guide on La Palma told me. Venture beyond the resorts and you’ll find almost lunar scenes, but also lush forests, colourful birds and fish, and some of the clearest skies on the planet. Throw in local seafood, cheese, small wineries (and papas arrugadas, the salty, wrinkled potatoes with red or green mojo sauce) and you have the makings of a terrific trip.
Which will you visit next? — Pól Ó Conghaile
Size: 1,560sq km. Pop: c. 870,000
Best for: Sun-seekers have flocked to its southern resorts for decades, and there’s a long tradition of LGBTQ+ tourism, too. But this is also a surprisingly diverse island and home to the largest city on the Canaries — Las Palmas.
Take me there: A “miniature continent” with one of the best climates in the world. What’s not to like? Gran Canaria has been a sun-holiday hit since the 1960s, when an architectural competition sparked the metamorphosis of Maspalomas. As the sprawling modern hotels, villas and shopping malls surrounding those early retro-chic resorts suggest, nothing has arrested its development — even a pandemic.
The south is Gran Canaria’s sun-sure bet, with Playa del Inglés, Maspalomas and high-end Meloneras joined by a 6km stretch of golden sand. Playa de Mogán and the densely stacked resorts of Puerto Rico are stalwarts of Irish holiday brochures. Weather is slightly less reliable in the north, with cloud cover known as la panza de burro (“the belly of the donkey”) a regular visitor, though the capital of Las Palmas has a stunning 3km golden-sandy beach (Las Canteras) and an old town and centre that feel like you’re in continental Spain. Visit museums such as the Columbus-focused Casa de Colón, peer into old churches, cut loose on a night out, or sit under the shade and soak up the atmosphere of streets like Calle Cano.
Locals love to point out Gran Canaria’s diversity, though you’ll have to take day-trips or rent a car to fully appreciate it. After hairpin bends and steep ravines, hike the calderas to landmarks like Roque Nublo or Bentayga, visit white villages with terracotta-tiled roofs like Tejeda (stopping for an almond pastry at Dulcería Nublo; facebook.com/dulcerianublo), dip into small wineries, tour a banana plantation, or drive to a viewpoint with vistas stretching to Tenerife. Suddenly, “miniature continent” doesn’t sound so far-fetched. — PÓC
Don’t miss: The Carnival of Las Palmas has been celebrated for centuries, with costumes, parades, drag-queen galas and more in February/March. lpacarnaval.com
Eat out: Las Palmas’ Mercado del Puerto is a bustling jumble of stalls and tapas bars set in a 19th-century wrought-iron building by the port (start your grazing at Pisces y Buchos, washed down with una caña). For a food-and-wine experience with a difference, drive into the depths of the García Ruiz ravine near Telde, where Señorío de Cabrera (senoriodecabrera.com; booking essential) is a tiny winery doing tastings with several courses of home-cooked treats like croquettes, cheeses, chickpea stew and caramelised torrija, from €30pp.
3 best beaches: Las Canteras is the best urban beach on the Canaries, an all-rounder with golden sand, lots of bars and restaurants, clear water and wind for watersports (and to top it off, Nativity scenes sculpted from sand at Christmas). Maspalomas is where you’ll find the island’s famous sand dunes, while Güigüí is a completely off-radar option, a west-coast outpost only reachable by foot (trailheads in Tasartico; prepare for about 4.5km each way, but it’s hilly and hiking shoes are needed) or boat (from Puerto Rico).
Next steps: Direct flights and packages are widely available to Gran Canaria, year-round. grancanaria.com
Size: 708sq km. Pop: c. 85,000
Best for: Hikers, nature lovers, amateur astronomers, and holidaymakers interested in resort R&R with sides of snorkelling, diving and culture.
Take me there: Just over 430 Irish people visited La Palma in 2019, the last full year of tourism before the pandemic. You’d literally fit more into a gig at Whelan’s. That’s surprising, because this is arguably the most beautiful of the Canaries (its nickname is La Isla Bonita, “the pretty island”) and perfectly sized to work as a halfway house between the busy resorts of Lanzarote and Tenerife and the off-radar exploring of El Hierro and La Gomera.
Picture an elemental playground, a place where you can move from rocky moonscapes to lush pine and laurel forests like Los Tilos within the twists and turns of a few rollercoaster ravines. You won’t find golden beaches, but seas swim with life off those black sands and gnarly volcanic rocks, and natural pools have walls protecting bathers from the ocean’s waves and currents. One day you might spot a kestrel hovering over banana trees, the next a parrotfish swimming underwater. The island, in fact, is a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve — several times, it reminded me of Hawaii.
La Palma is not as sun-sure as the other Canaries, and suffered a volcanic eruption last winter. It is safe to visit, however, and life hums along, from the small-city buzz of Santa Cruz to off-radar villages that feel like the islands of decades ago. “This is deep Canary Islands, deep Spain,” as my guide put it. They have a term for how this place makes you feel: ‘The La Palma Effect’. — PÓC
Don’t miss: Hike or drive to the viewpoints around La Caldera de Taburiente and Roque de los Muchachos, the highest point, at over 2,400m. Observatories dotted about speak to the clear skies, and a new, interactive visitor centre has opened nearby (iac.es).
Eat out: Pino de la Virgen in Puntagorda has a lovely shaded courtyard where you can taste local goat and rabbit stews. In Santa Cruz, try Chipi-Chipi for meat dishes, or Casa Osmunda for elevated fare.
Best beach: Playa de Nogales, near Puntallana, is a jaw-dropping sweep of black sand sandwiched between blue ocean and sheer, green cliffs. It’s unsafe for swimming, but stunning to see. La Fajana at Barlovento is a sweet natural pool, walled off from the sea under a tasty seafood restaurant.
Next steps: Connect via Tenerife with canaryfly.es or bintercanaries.com. See visitlapalma.es
Size: 795sq km. Pop: 154,000
Best for: Ireland’s favourite Canary Island (over 310,000 of us visited in 2019) is a package-holiday hotspot, but will also appeal to architecture lovers, wine connoisseurs and anyone who enjoys a slightly alternative vibe. Off-season, it’s popular with sportspeople and triathletes, too.
Take me there: Lanza surprises and delights visitors expecting a run-of-the-mill destination. Of course, there are popular resorts like Playa Blanca and Puerto del Carmen, but there are plenty of beaches to choose from, too — take your pick from wild black sand to manicured white stretches.
It’s also jam-packed with weird and wonderful sights, the most popular of which is Timanfaya National Park, formed by volcanic eruptions in the 1730s, with craters and lava fields creating an otherworldly atmosphere. Although the volcanoes are now dormant, your guide will pour water into one of the fissures, with a resulting explosion of steam! Even the vineyards on Lanzarote are unusual — each emerald-green vine sprouting vigorously from jet-black soil and surrounded by a low stone wall to protect it from winds and conserve water (this is one of the driest Canary Islands). Speaking of which, temperatures are balmy year-round and it never seems to feel too hot because of the cooling trade winds.
Modern-day Lanzarote is very much the legacy of artist, architect and early conservation campaigner César Manrique, who lived here until his death in 1992 and used the island as his personal canvas, working in harmony with its dramatic natural beauty. You will see his bold work everywhere — from low-rise homes (including his own, El Taro de Tahíche, built into lava bubbles) to restaurants, gardens, caves, sculptures and attractions. — EO’R
Don’t miss: Spotting tiny white albino crabs in the Jameos del Agua caves, formed from lava tubes; the Jardín de Cactus, built into an old quarry; Museo Atlántico — dive down to see 300 cool sculptures on the seabed.
Eat out: El Barquillo in La Santa (20 Calle Recalmon) is an unassuming joint with wonderfully fresh seafood at local prices (ask about the catch of the day). La Cocina de Colacho (lacocinadecolacho.com), a short drive from Playa Blanca, is an intimate, family-run restaurant serving a small menu of beautifully presented classic dishes. For something unusual, try Prickly Pear Croquettes and Cactus Burgers at the Jardín de Cactus (cactlanzarote.com). And wash it all down with one of the local Malvasia white wines!
3 best beaches: Playa de la Garita is a pale, soft-sand beach with great swimming in the north of the island, away from the tourist crowds. Playa Honda is near the airport, but don’t let that put you off. The vast stretch of fine sand is rarely crowded and handy for cafés and restaurants plus the capital, Arrecife. Playa del Papagayo in the far south is a spectacular beach in a protected national park. Expect a potholed road to get there and no facilities (sunbeds, umbrellas, etc.) but there is a bar/restaurant.
Next steps: Direct flights and packages are widely available to Lanzarote, year-round. turismolanzarote.com
Size: 370sq km. Pop: c. 22,000
Best for: Hikers, hippies and the outdoors-at-heart. Quirky yet rugged La Gomera delivers for those seeking an adventurous Canary Island without the crowds.
Take me there: Anchor down in the candy-coloured capital of San Sebastián — Christopher Colombus’ final gateway to the New World — and La Gomera instantly stirs the feeling of landing in a true Canarian frontier.
Home to just one percent of the archipelago’s residents, this pretty island has been a haven for European hippies for decades, with a bohemian bliss found among its tradition-steeped-yet-easygoing locals and an open-air paradise that soothes the soul. There’s an untouched-by-mass-tourism feel here, and good value for our price-conscious times — whether you’re seeking a bargain Airbnb or a dreamy room at clifftop hotel Jardín Tecina.
It’s easy to see the island’s appeal, from its secret black beaches to dramatic mountains and lush valleys of palm groves and prickly pears. Prepare to be wowed, too, by La Gomera’s landmark Roque de Agando formation — which bursts out of the landscape like a Hollywood blockbuster location. The laurel forests of Garajonay National Park are a misty, subtropical wilderness alive with the song of canaries, finches and chiffchaffs.
Amid the warbling, keep an ear out for the sound of el silbo — the preserved La Gomeran art of whistling, traditionally used to communicate through the valleys. — TB
Don’t miss: Eco-tourism is a big deal on La Gomera; as part of your exploring, catch a marine-life tour from Valle Gran Rey to watch pilot whales and dolphins.
Eat out: What San Sebastián’s Ágape Bistro (15 Calle Real) lacks in sea views, it makes up for with culinary delights. The Swiss owner-chef creates dishes that fuse fresh Canarian fare with an Alpine twist: think seafood fondue mopped up with crusty bread and local spuds.
Best beach: La Gomera’s largely rocky coastline is home to black, volcanic beaches. Sheltered havens like Playa de Hermigua make gorgeous spots for some post-hike lounging but, given strong currents, it’s best to cool down in one of the island’s saltwater natural pools like Charco del Conde.
Next steps: Catch the 50-minute Fred Olsen ferry from Tenerife (€45 return; fredolsen.es). lagomera.travel
Size: 2,034sq km. Pop: c. 970,000
Best for: Families looking for beaches and bustling resorts; couples wanting great hotels; anyone in search of fascinating landscapes and activity galore… including hikes in Mount Teide National Park.
Take me there: The largest Canary Island offers some of the world’s most varied natural scenery and climates. Jump in a car and, in just an hour, the vistas of the dry and desert-like south give way to the wilder, positively subtropical north. One moment you can be in dazzling sunshine admiring rocky panoramas, the next passing banana plantations or in lush, dripping cloud forest.
Everywhere you go, one thing is for sure… you will see volcanoes. There are hundreds of them, most inactive. Some are mere hillocks. Mightiest of all is Mount Teide, the highest point in Spain, at 3,715m, and the planet’s third-largest volcano.
Tenerife is a fascinating place to explore, pleasing those who want to fly and flop, and enjoy the lively nightlife, as well as those itching to venture beyond. The island is a hiking, cycling and golfing paradise. And for families, there will be no moans at Siam Park (siampark.net), with its adrenaline-fizzing water slides, rides and chutes.
Despite its touristy image, Tenerife has some surprisingly unspoilt fishing villages and characterful towns and cities. San Cristóbal de La Laguna is the historical capital and the only one in the Canary Islands with UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Combine it with a visit to nearby Santa Cruz — the present-day capital — for a bumper day out.
Don’t forget to break up your sightseeing with some slap-up meals. Away from the all-day breakfasts, simple restaurants dish up traditional Canarian cuisine to fuel you up. There are plenty of splash-out options, too — this relatively small island has no fewer than six Michelin stars! — EO’R
Don’t miss: A cable-car ride up Mount Teide for views over the island and beyond (and stargazing); whale- and dolphin-watching trips; or flying like a bird on a tandem paraglide across the Orotava Valley.
Eat out: For a blow-out, try adventurous modern Basque cuisine at the two-Michelin-starred M.B Restaurant. It’s at the Ritz-Carlton Abama (ritzcarlton.com), which also has a one-Michelin-star restaurant if you want to slum it! On the terrace of Bodegas Monje (bodegasmonje.com) in the north, tuck into traditional hog roast with papas arrugadas — wrinkled potatoes, boiled in sea-salted water, then roasted. Book a package that includes a mojo-making workshop and a tour of the vineyard.
3 best beaches: Families flock to Playa de Fañabé, on the south’s Costa Adeje, for the wide, long beach, safe paddling and facilities, including plenty of eateries. Playa de las Teresitas has a sweep of golden sand shipped in from the Sahara, while Playa de Benijo is wild and windswept, with inky-black volcanic sand and achingly beautiful sunsets. It’s in the far north, far from tourist crowds, though easy enough to drive to (there is a footpath walk at the end).
Next steps: Ryanair and Aer Lingus fly direct from Ireland, and there are a wide range of packages available. hellocanaryislands.com
Size: 1,660sq km. Pop: c. 125,000
Best for: Beaches. 150km of them, many covered in golden sands (never a given on the Canaries). Families will be at home in Corralejo, while persistent winds also make Fuerteventura a favourite of the wind-and-waves set.
Take me there: It’s Mordor-meets-the-Med. Just 100km from the African coast, Fuerteventura is the oldest Canary Island, with some 22 million years of erosion giving rise to astonishingly arid landscapes and relatively low-lying volcanic creases (it’s highest peak, Pico de la Zarza, is just 807m). It’s also windy. One translation of Fuerteventura is “strong fortune”, another is “strong winds” — combining with stunning beaches to attract surfers and kite-surfers.
Caleta de Fuste and Las Playitas (with darker sands) are package resorts on the east, while the northern resort of Corralejo sees miles of honey-coloured dunes and Acua Water Park (acuawaterpark.com — don’t forget the sunscreen). For car-hire days, El Cotillo is a time-trapped seaside village with a sheltered beach; La Oliva is home to Centro de Arte Canario Casa Mané; and Betancuria is the island’s oldest settlement, with cobbled streets and colonial-style houses dating from 1404. Learn about the original settlers, known as “majos” or “maxos”, for whom the local Majorero goat’s cheese — one of three from the islands with a protected designation of origin — is named. — PÓC
Don’t miss: Isla de Lobos is a 15-minute boat ride from Corralejo. Here, unsurfaced, traffic-free paths lead to hidden beaches, lagoons and some tasty snorkelling.
Eat out: La Marquesina (hotelboutiquelamarquesina.com) is perched on Corralejo’s old harbour wall, with fresh fish displayed on ice before being whisked away to the grill. La Marisma in El Cotillo (Calle Santiago Hierro) is another tried-and-trusted spot for local hits like papas arrugadas, goat stew and Majorero cheese, as well as oodles of seafood.
3 best beaches: You can’t go wrong on Corralejo’s Grandes Playas, but the southern Península de Jandía offers less-crowded picks including Cofete and Playa de la Barca.
Next steps: Aer Lingus and Ryanair fly direct; package holidays are available year-round. visitfuerteventura.es
Size: 268sq km. Pop: c. 11,000
Best for: Expect pure underwater wonder in El Hierro, the Canaries’ westernmost island and one of Europe’s best destinations for diving and snorkelling. Come for natural highs and low crowds.
Take me there: Pequeño pero perfecto — you’ll find few holiday destinations in Europe more unspoiled than bite-sized El Hierro. So pristine and unique are the island’s flora and fauna, in fact, that the entire island, including its waters, has been designated a UNESCO Global Geopark — fitting for a land almost entirely self-sufficient on renewable energy.
El Hierro has long been a niche, dream destination for the scuba set, with more than 40 dive points, and it hosts one of the world’s top underwater-photography competitions. But its reputation as a Canary Island backwater may be over. A recent TV series (Hierro centres on a sexy whodunit on El Hierro) has given the island a cult status, with a new wave of visitors drawn to wild volcanic landscapes blotted with natural pools (just expect as many of El Hierro’s endemic giant lizards to be lounging around as tourists).
There’s a small but vibrant gastronomy culture on the island too, with local food honoured everywhere, from artisanal restaurants to the Fiesta de La Apañada, celebrating local livestock and the fresh pineapple plantations dotted across the island. Whether it’s searching for a hidden reef or some of Europe’s most deserted beaches, El Hierro is a dream to dive into. — TB
Don’t miss: El Hierro’s traditional and tasty quesadilla desserts: tasty pies made with local cheese flavoured with aniseed, lemon and cinnamon.
Eat out: For lovers of fine dining, provenance and incredible food architecture, book a table at OCHO El Hierro in Frontera (Calle Los Arroyos La Maceta). Here, chef Marcos Tavío creates on-the-money dishes of aboriginal-inspired Canarian food, which could be straight off the Instagram feed of Noma in Copenhagen. Paired with those seafront views, this dining experience aims to wow.
Best beach: The island has the fewest beaches of any on the archipelago, but its shores are blessedly low on beach towels. None more so than Cala de Tacorón, a tranquil cove lapped by the Mar de las Calmas… “the sea of calm”.
Next steps: Fly from Tenerife or Gran Canaria (canaryfly.es) or take a 2.5-hour ferry (navieraarmas.com) from Tenerife. elhierro.travel
And then there were eight… tiny La Graciosa, set off the northern coast of Lanzarote, became the eighth Canary Island in 2018. Reached via a 30-minute ferry ride from Orzola, it’s home to golden sandy beaches, a souvenir-sized capital, Caleta de Sebo, and a real back-in-time feel, with no paved roads or tarmac anywhere to be seen (you can walk, or bring a bike). You can learn a little more at the Chinijo Museum in town, and it’s a smashing place for views of Lanza’s Famara cliffs, too. Day-trippers should pack hats and sunscreen, as shade can be in short supply — and snorkellers can pack masks and fins, too. – PÓC
Next steps: For accommodation, restaurants and activities on the island, see visitlagraciosa.com
There are regular flights from Ireland to Lanzarote, Gran Canaria, Tenerife and Fuerteventura with Ryanair and Aer Lingus. As well as Dublin airport, check routes from Cork, Shannon, Ireland West and Kerry — you may avoid airport queues.
Irish travel companies have done packages for decades — sunway.ie, travalue.ie, tuiholidays.ie, clickandgo.com and cassidytravel.ie are just a few (or find latest special offers on itaa.ie/offers).
Getting to the smaller islands is trickier, but connecting flights (canaryfly.es and bintercanaries.com) and ferries are available. Or ask your travel agent — Tropical Sky does packages to La Gomera, for example.
Pól, Thomas and Emma’s trips were hosted to various degrees by hellocanaryislands.com and spain.info