Cheap & Cheerful Canaries
Easy access and affordable eats make the Canary Islands one of Ireland's favourite holidays, writes Tanya Sweeney.
It may be the island's worst kept secret, but Tenerife's El Cine restaurant (barelcine.es) deserves its reputation for unfussy but flavour-packed seafood.
Dining on octopus, sardines, the Canaries' popular arrugadas (wrinkly potatoes) and the restaurant's signature chicken drumsticks is delightful, but as is often the way in the Canaries, the real sport happens when our bill materialises. A two-course meal and wine for two costs less than €30. We're by turn thrilled, and appalled to wonder how much an equivalent might have cost us back in Ireland.
Mention the Canary Islands, and the reviews from Irish people are likely to glow. Most will highlight the pocket-friendly prices ("You can buy a beer for €2!"). Coupled with the sun, sea and laid-back Spanish life, it's part of the impetus that drives hundreds of thousands of Irish people to the archipelago every year.
It wasn't always thus, of course. Over 12 million annual visitors may decamp to the Canaries today; but back in 1970, the figure was just 15,000 (from outside Spain, at least).
Over the ensuing decades, Lanzarote, Tenerife, Gran Canaria and Fuerteventura have developed to cater for the masses, with souvenir shops and neon-lit bars jostling for pavement space. Fishing villages have transformed into holiday resorts, and though there's no shortage of chips-with-everything joints (nor, for that matter, of Irish bars professing to offer a comforting taste of home), once you scratch the surface and venture inland, you're still likely to find a slice of sleepy, and timeless, island life.
Take me to the island... Rory Gallagher on Lanzarote
Of the Canaries' seven main islands, Lanzarote remains the biggest draw for Irish holidaymakers. Winter travellers love its respite from the Irish weather. Families lap up cheap summer packages. Crowds of fun-seeking twentysomethings troop to the perennially popular Puerto del Carmen during summer.
Much like Ibiza, there's a noticeable line between Puerto del Carmen's New Town and Old Town. The latter is slightly more sedate, though still a nicely buzzy affair. There, you'll find the atmospheric Island Bar (facebook.com/roryandtheisland), owned by Donegal man Rory Gallagher and his wife Cara (€2.50 for a pint of domestic beer, €3.50 for Guinness).
"I was singing in Lanzarote with my band The Revs, and I met my wife Cara, who was already living here," Rory tells me. "When the band was winding down, in 2007, I flew to Lanzarote with about €7 in my pocket. A couple of years later, we managed to start up the bar.
"In the winter, the average age of visitors is about 45-50," he adds. "It's hard to describe what a normal Puerto Del Carmen punter is… there are solicitors and brickies here at any given point."
Sip a sundowner... without breaking the bank
Down at the harbour front, Kristian's (Calle Teide, 8) is owned by Galwegians Chris and Eimear King. Still, don't expect diddly-aye stodge with a side order of The Saw Doctors. Kristian's prices are on par with mid-range joints in Ireland, but the regulars swear by their pork belly with apple ginger coulis or salmon with strawberry ginger hollandaise.
Job done soaking up Lanzarote's over-abundance of cheap eats, it's also worth exploring the island's impressive pop art heritage. The late artist Cesar Manrique, a one-time Warhol acolyte, has left his mark all over the island. Visit his studio home at Taro de Tahiche (turismolanzarote.com) and in nearby Teguise, you'll find a Sunday market replete with jazz bands, food trucks and stalls. If you want to mainline into quotidian Lanzarote life, this is the place to do it.
Another Canary Island gaining traction in terms of its popularity with Irish families is Fuertaventura, not least for its eye-popping beaches. Think postcard perfect, azure blue water and swathes of unspoiled sand - the epic stretch of sand fronting onto the Parque Natural de las Dunas near Corralejo is a particular stunner. Accessible by ferry from Lanzarote, the island isn't as developed, and is all the better for it.
Island life on the Canaries
In fact, for all of Fuerteventura's stellar reputation as a surfing/kiteboarding hotspot, much of the inland landscape is curiously barren, marked by scorched earth and dormant volcanoes. To the north, Caleta and Corralejo are popular towns teeming with package holiday amenities. Venture further off the grid, and you'll find charming towns locked in time like Pajar or El Cotillo. Families will like the Baku Waterpark (bakufuerteventura.com;€25/19 pp) too.
A word to the wise: if you're self-catering, eating out in the Canaries can often be kinder on the pocket than staying in - a loaf of bread in some parts can set you back about €3.50, for example. Yet with the Lidl behemoth finally snaking its way to the islands, that looks set to change.
The Canaries also enjoy a lower tax rate on goods and services (7pc, as opposed to 21pc on the Spanish mainland) - though be careful, because anything you bring home over the duty-free limit is liable to be taxed on your return. Given how pocket-friendly the Islands' bars and restaurants are, however, you should be able to afford a small airport splurge.
Trust me, a spot of retail therapy salved those bittersweet memories of El Cine's magical fare on the journey home.
What to pack
Temperatures on the Canaries are gorgeously consistent, averaging 18 to 24 degrees year-round. Pack a light fleece or pashmina shawl to stay cosy in the evenings, and don't be fooled by the wind - sunscreen, sunnies and sun hats are essential in avoiding the holiday lobster look.
Access is easy to the Canaries. Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies from Dublin to Gran Canaria, Lanzarote, Fuertaventura and Tenerife, from Cork to Gran Canaria, Lanzarote and Tenerife, and from Shannon to Lanzarote. Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies to various islands from Dublin, Shannon, Cork and Ireland West (Knock) airports.
Club Travel (clubtravel.ie) has flights plus 2-star all-inclusive in Fuertaventura from €343pp departing May 22. Falcon (falconholidays.ie) has flights with a 4-star hotel on the same date from €593pp. Holidayhomesdirect.ie does self-catering apartments on three islands (without flights).
1. Cueva Pintada, Gran Canaria
The Canaries' largest island is a hotbed of historical sights, but the lost village of Cueva Pintada takes some beating. Excavated caves in the cliffs of Gáldar, the remains of an aboriginal village discovered in 1987 and paintings dating back to the sixth century all await the visitor. See cuevapintada.com
2. Timanfaya, Lanzarote
Timanfaya National Park, created by a volcanic eruption in the 18th century, has to be seen to be believed. It's possible to take a 25-minute camel ride, or hike though the Fire Mountains and feel the heat of a dormant volcano underfoot. There's a restaurant with awesome views, too. See mma.es
3. Isla de Lobos, Fuerteventura
This magnificent nature reserve is just a short boat ride from Corralejo. It's possible to camp on the island for three days with authorisation, and the trek is definitely worth it - if only for those hidden bays and deep blue waters. Otherwise, make do with a daytrip... and bring your snorkelling gear.