Spain’s islands in the Atlantic Ocean are named after birds for good reason. They’re the winter retreat of flocks of Europeans escaping the cold and most everyone who comes here flies in.
But increasingly they’re a part of the innovative cruise itineraries of Crystal Cruises.
Crystal Serenity and sister ship Crystal Symphony are boasting visits to more than 200 ports in 2014, many of them first-time calls. Our itinerary on Serenity out of Lisbon on the way to Morocco stopped at two of the seven Canary Islands on successive days.
And it turns out the Canary pair couldn’t be more different, even though they’re practically kissing cousins.
Santa Cruz, Tenerife
Modern high rises and broad highways are the feature of Tenerife Island that’s all about commerce. Santa Cruz is the main city and port. It shares the title of capital of the Canaries and depends on government bureaucrats, students and tourists for its livelihood, so as you might expect, its streets are lined with fashionable shops and very intriguing restaurants.
The busy port is an interesting challenge for cruise passengers. Ships dock close enough to the downtown get a panorama of the city but its pier hooks around a long expanse of water, so that it can be challenging to walk from the gangway into town.
Fortunately, the city provides shuttle bus service. Unfortunately, the shuttle stops at the edge of the port and there’s still a long walk up stair cases and across busy streets to get to the downtown pedestrian zone.
We happened to be in town on a Sunday, which most times in Spain would mean the stores are all closed and there wouldn’t be much to do here, other than have brunch and admire the classic buildings. The city’s narrow lanes of the old city are rich in whimsical doorways and intricate decorative ceramic tile
Crystal Serenity’s guests happened to be lucky because this was December and the stores all stay open on the Sabbath for holiday shopping. I was happy to find that the outlets of major retailers had a good range of sizes, because they cater to tourists.
After lunch, I found it an easy and fascinating walk to see one of the city’s must do attractions: an ultra-modern auditorium, that features “sails” in the shape of wings.
Blue and white are natural choices for painting buildings on an island in the Atlantic Ocean. But what were they thinking when the islanders of Arrecife decided that those are the only colors allowed in the spectrum?
It’s the law in Lanzarote, the main town on Arrecife, and the effect is…overwhelming. Entire neighborhoods of flat-roofed stucco buildings here are consistently whitewashed in brilliant white and windows and doors are trimmed in an identical shade of deep sea blue. There was little to differentiate one cube from another.
It seems the decision to limit the color spectrum is due to the influence of artist Cesar Manrique, who literally lived in a bubble. His home was in a series of natural caverns in the lava beds on the island and he managed to persuade islanders to impose his tedious color scheme on every building in Lanzarote. To his credit, though, he also got everyone on board with the idea of preserving traditional building styles and opposing high-rise resort development as well as outdoor advertising.
This is an unusual island to say the least. Its current moon-like landscape was the result of volcanic eruptions– not one or even a dozen but hundreds that happened over a period of more than five years in the 1730s.
It transformed a fertile farming island into a wasteland and the people had to look to fishing to make a living. There are still plenty of tiny boats in the harbor, known locally as “The Puddle” hauling in catches that are sold in shops along the coast.
After wandering along a pleasant trail along the coast I did finally find the old town of Lanzarote, some of which dates back to post eruption days in 1700s. There some of the buildings and churches do have trim in some other traditional beiges and reds and there are even some of the dreaded outdoor billboards, but they’re mostly small ads for restaurants and clothing shops having sales.
It’s definitely worth finding the venerable Catholic church of San Gines, which has a mellow ambience of a sanctuary of silence and meditation. It features a side altar with beautifully robed life-sized figures of Mary and Jesus which pilgrims seek out to pray to for favors.
The city itself isn’t worth more than a couple of hours’ outing, so the options are to head to one of the island’s many beaches or head inland to check out the volcanic landscape. It’s fascinating to take a tour of the treeless Timafaya National Park, which features hiking trails and bus tours of the lava badlands and around the many volcanic craters. A unique attraction is a herd of camels who can take riders on a lurching trek over the lava fields.
In all my time on the islands I didn’t spot a canary, but I did find some particularly friendly parrots.
Here’s looking at you.