SANTA CRUZ DE TENERIFE, Canary Islands — These islands are Europe's Florida: a subtropical climate, sandy beaches edged with palms, even theme parks as large as those in the United States.
Yet, many Americans don't have a clue where these seven volcanic islands are, and few U.S. travelers visit this paradise jutting into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Morocco, despite its world-class food, stunning scenery and adventure options. Those include mountain hiking and biking, whale watching, snorkeling, scuba, sailing, surfing and deep-sea fishing.
But Europeans have been flocking to the Spanish-owned Canaries for years. Even Columbus knew about the Canaries and stopped here in 1492 on his way to discovering the New World.
Why are the Canaries so hot with Europeans? I decided to find out.
To get there from Chicago requires a flight to Madrid, then a three-hour hop southwest to the Canaries.
The most popular islands with visitors are Tenerife and Gran Canaria. I chose Tenerife because of its No. 1 attraction: towering Mount Teide, one of the world's highest volcanic peaks at 12,195 feet. The now slumbering giant dominates Mount Teide National Park, a UNESCO Natural World Heritage site.
With 785 square miles, Tenerife is somewhat larger than the island of Maui in Hawaii. But Tenerife is big enough to have two international airports and two different climate zones: the cooler, verdant north, with 75 percent of the island's rainfall, and the warmer, arid south, where most tourists head. In the middle of the island, the awesome volcano soars skyward.
Unlike many fun-in-the sun destinations around the world, the Canaries are not developing nations. Rather, they are very European in economic terms. That also means quality local wines and a distinctive cuisine.
Thanks to the large number of tourists who have come from the United Kingdom for years, most signs are in English as well as Spanish. Americans? Out of almost 4 million visitors to Tenerife in 2012, only 13,447 from the U.S. stayed overnight here.
Despite the rugged, often mountainous terrain, the well-maintained roads make it easy to get around in a rental car. I headed for the volcano.
On most days, Mount Teide can be seen from all over Tenerife. But when I started driving up from the capital and port city of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, the peak was shrouded in clouds and a light rain. I hoped the sky would clear soon. After all, the Canaries boast a year-round sunny, and warm climate averaging 73 degrees.
The road to the volcano twists and turns up the mountain through a pine forest. The outside temperature dropped as the elevation increased. Then, at 7,730 feet, the lower station of the cable car loomed ahead. Operating daily, weather permitting, the cable car is the fast and easy way up. Some hearty souls opt to climb Mount Teide, which can take at least six hours.
But in a somewhat scary eight minutes, the cable car "flies" passengers up the side of the volcano to just below the peak at 11,660 feet. As we reached the top, the sun broke through, creating an awesome sight: We were above the clouds, gazing down at a sea of white. Above, the volcano's rocky rim was bathed in sunlight.
A special permit is required to climb the last 535 feet to the top, where the other Canary Islands can be seen on a clear day. That top-of-the-world panorama can be breathtaking, and not just because of the thinness of the air.
Far below the peak, a barren moonscape dotted with unusual rock formations testifies to a strange world shaped by volcanic eruptions.
Those who want to explore more of the park can overnight below the extinct volcano at the Parador hotel (elevation 7,000 feet) or at the Altavista Refuge, where climbers can start early to reach the summit by sunrise. At night, be sure to step outside for incredible stargazing. The air is so clear that the Izana Observatory was built here.
The next day's zig-zag drive down the mountain to the sea takes less than two hours to go from fall-like temperatures to the summery coast.
Totally different scenery awaits on the southwest coast, where the Los Gigantes Cliffs soar almost 1,000 feet straight up from the ocean. A marina below the cliffs offers whale-watching trips.
Unlike so many places where whales migrate on their way to somewhere else, the whales here cruise all year. Surfacing members of a colony of more than 300 pilot whales can be spotted in the straits between Tenerife and the nearby island of La Gomera. On his way to discover America, Columbus stopped at La Gomera, which has emerged as a getaway far off the beaten path.
Tenerife vacationers can lounge on two colors of beach sand: black or golden. Black volcanic sand beaches are most often found on the north end of the island. I plunged into the Atlantic in November when the water temperature was refreshing, like Lake Michigan in summer.
The boom in vacationers lying on those sands started some 50 years ago when the Canaries became known for bargain package tours from Europe. But in the last 10 years an upscale trend has powered the construction of luxury resorts. Of 251 hotels on the island, 22 are five-star resorts.
Among those are the Abama Golf & Spa Resort, built on a hillside in Moroccan style with nine pools, a beach in a hidden cove and Michelin star restaurants; Gran Melia Resort, with special activities for adults and children and a lake-size infinity pool overlooking the ocean; and Gran Hotel Bahia del Duque Resort, which reflects Canary Islands architecture of the 19th century and is set on a wide Atlantic beach.
Naturally, seafood is a favorite here, but be sure to try a delicious Canaries specialty: boiled potatoes with red or green "mojo" sauce that generates both heat and flavor. Shakespeare reportedly praised the local wines. I agree with his recommendation.
As in Florida, theme parks boosted tourism here. Among them are Thai-themed Siam Park, the largest water park in Europe, and Loro Parque, alive with killer whales, dolphins, sharks, penguins, gorillas, tigers and jaguars.
But departing Tenerife, I saw one last highlight from the plane that you could never see in Florida. It was magnificent Mount Teide looming in the distance and framed by a cloudless blue sky.
If you go
A few things
The Canary Islands are on about the same latitude as Orlando, Fla. They enjoy a year-round spring/summer climate, with more than 300 sunny days and temperatures averaging 68 degrees in winter and 84 degrees in summer.
Spanish is the native language, but English is spoken in most tourist areas.
The currency is the euro.
Some hotels near beaches start at $50 a night (depending on season), and luxury resorts start from $200 up a night. Meals may be included.
Cost of round-trip cable car ride on Mount Teide: 25 euros or about $32.75. telefericoteide.com.
Rental car rates start at $160 a week for economy models with stick shift; automatics are more. Tenerife has six rental car firms. Gas is in liters, about $5.60 a gallon.
Flying to the Canaries means trans-Atlantic to Europe and then changing planes. Among airlines flying to Tenerife are Iberia, airberlin, Aer Lingus and British Airways.
Expect to pay a bit more for food than in the States. A midrange three-course meal for two averages about $40. McDonald's? A combo meal is $7.50.