While you may have never heard of Spain's seven Canary Islands, if you like exploring nature reserves, lazing along the beach and taking in dramatic volcanic landscapes, this lovely cluster of isles should be on your radar. The Spanish-governed volcanic archipelago is located about 60 miles west of Morocco and offers plenty of pursuits of active types (think: watersports, stargazing and hiking) and a variety of often-overlooked sights. And with more flights than ever taking off to the Canaries from Europe and the U.S., now is an excellent time to book your vacation and island-hop around these picturesque isles.
The Islands Are Accessible and Affordable
The Canary Islands are closer to the U.S. than mainland Europe. In fact, they were Christopher Columbus' last stop before he reached the Americas. While there are no direct flights (yet) from the U.S., discount airline Wow Air flies to Tenerife for as little as $200 each way from several major cities in the U.S. From Newark, the flight travel time is six hours to Reykjavik, Iceland. And after a free stopover in Iceland, it's just another five-hour flight to Tenerife. If you're already in Europe, the Canary Islands are only a four-hour direct flight from London. What's more, between the islands, ferry service is easy to navigate and cost-effective.
You Can't Beat the Climate
With 365 days of sun a year, it's hard to top Tenerife's weather. But it's not just the aptly nicknamed “Island of Eternal Spring” that averages temperatures in the pleasant 70s year-round. All of the islands are blessed with cooling trade winds that constantly blow from the northeast. Plus, the wind mixes with the high temperatures of the Western Sahara to create a comfortable climate for hitting the beach and enjoying active outdoor adventures throughout the year.
Staying in the Canary Islands Is Less Expensive Than You Might Think
Most goods and services on the Canary Islands are at least 40 percent cheaper than what you'd find in mainland Western Europe. Compared to Los Angeles, the Canary Islands' restaurant prices are more than 40 percent lower and compared to Des Moines, its rental prices are nearly 50 percent lower. A car hire for weeklong vacations can cost as low as $100 and a pint of beer will only set you back about $1.25. Buy why savor a beer when you can enjoy local Spanish wines? Grocery stores in the Canary Islands have red wine for less than a dollar per bottle.
You Can Enjoy Plenty of Outdoor Pursuits
The Canary Islands are most associated with sunbathing thanks to their natural volcanic black-sand and white-sand beaches featuring sand imported from the Sahara. But they also cater to adrenaline junkies longing to explore aquatic canyons with outfitter Canyon Tenerife, kayak beneath Los Gigantes' 1,000-foot cliffs with tour operator Teno Activo and climb the same mountain roads Tour de France winners train on. And on more windswept islands such as Lanzarote and Fuerteventura, kitesurfers nearly outnumber locals.
There's Jaw-Dropping Scenery
It's hard to describe the Canary Islands' backdrops without using the word ethereal. From the lava fields of Tenerife to the ancient laurel forests of La Gomera to the submerged mountain of El Heirro, a world-class diving destination, the Canary Islands offer Instagram-worthy settings at every turn. In fact, when the Spanish first landed on the islands, they thought they were the remnants of Atlantis. Four of the islands are UNESCO Biosphere reserves in their entirety, and 43 percent of the island of Gran Canaria is a Biosphere Reserve. The most dangerous part of driving the islands' narrow, winding roads is the risk of getting distracted by the sublime landscapes.
You Can Experience a Cultural Crossroads
Though the Canary Islands are governed by Spain, they have their own distinct culture created after hundreds of years of serving as a stopping point for trans-Atlantic traders. Residents often associate the isles more with Latin America than Spain. Still, centuries-old traditions have survived, including quirky festivities like the annual goat bathing festival on Tenerife and fire-jumping competitions on La Gomera. What's more, La Gomera's ancient language of whistling – used to communicate across canyons – is honored by UNESCO as part of our Intangible World Heritage. It's the world's only whistling language still used.
You'll Find Fascinating Fauna From Sea to Sky
Because of the Canary Islands' long list of endemic species, including dozens of rare birds, the isles are revered by wildlife biologists. Though birds and reptiles are abundant on all of the islands, there is a notable absence of large mammals. Still, the sea more than makes up for this deficit. Tenerife is home to one of the most highly trafficked channels for more than 20 species of whales and dolphins. On a four-hour sea-life safari cruise with outfitter Picarus Sailing Club, you can catch sight of curious dolphins swimming and diving alongside the catamaran.
You Can Attend Colorful Parades, Pageants and Parties
Outside of Rio de Janeiro, no place in the world celebrates Carnival as passionately as the Canary Islands. And unlike Rio, the Carnival of Santa Cruz de Tenerife caters to families. The over-the-top festival includes a public pageant to crown the Carnival Queen, a parade rivaling anything experienced at Disney World and finally, the symbolical burial of the sardine which closes out the 15 days of dancing, parades, street parties – some featuring crowds of more than 200,000 – and performances that artists practice for year-round. Their full-time job is to prepare for this spectacular annual event.