These Gorgeous, Warm Islands Are Europe’s Best Secret Winter Escape

Deserts next to tropical forests next to volcanoes next to tidal pools.

canary islands
Tenerife, Canary Islands | Balate Dorin/Shutterstock
Tenerife, Canary Islands | Balate Dorin/Shutterstock

When it comes to traveling to Europe this winter, Spain might initially sound tempting, with its breathtaking beaches, buzzing nightlife, irresistible food, and mild Mediterranean temps. But unfortunately, wintertime still means winter weather on the Iberian peninsula.

But wait! There's an even warmer getaway where we Spaniards flock for the perfect winter escape: The Canary Islands. Just off the coast of Northern Africa, this Spanish archipelago has a subtropical climate that guarantees temps around 70 to 73 °F from January to February. No wonder they’re dubbed "the lucky islands."

Here, you can have your laid back lounging and your adventurous exploring back to back, with black and ochre volcanic landscapes; Martian-like panoramas of arches and slot canyons; lush forests on top of mountains; aqua tidal pools next to long, golden beaches lined with cliffs; and colorful, colonial-style villages climbing up hills. You can ride camels from sandy dunes studded with cacti, hike to waterfalls surrounded by tropical palm trees, or swim next to seahorses in the clearest oceans.

Seven different islands offer seven distinct experiences to hop around and sample a bit of each: Tenerife and Gran Canaria are the biggest (and maybe most touristy) ones with a wide range of landscapes and activities. Lanzarote and Fuerteventura are famous for their striking orange, sandy volcanic and beachy looks. And La Palma, La Gomera, El Hierro and La Graciosa are the smallest and intimate islands, with fewer people but more green and mountainous treks. The entry requirements are the same as to get into Spain, meaning if you’re fully vaccinated, have a negative covid test, and fill out the country’s entry form, you can get a QR code and you’ll be good to go.

Want more reasons for visiting? Here are just a few of them.

No, this isn’t the moon, just a regular vineyard. | Lorenzo Tazzioli/Getty Images

Feel like you’re in space with moon-like landscapes and the brightest stars

At 12,198 feet, Teide on Tenerife island is the third tallest volcano in the world. For those who summit its peak, the views above the clouds are simply stunning, but even trekking below on the otherworldly grounds of Teide National Park will make you feel like an astronaut.

The altitude, low level of light pollution, and frequent winds that keep the sky clear make Teide an exceptional destination for stargazing, awarded with a Starlight Tourist Destination label. There's a reason why astrophysicists from all over the world flock to the Teide Astronomic Observatory. Joining a night sky observation tour like Astrophototour or Tiede by Night is almost mandatory.

The feeling like you’re on the moon goes even further at Timanfaya National Park on Lanzarote island, with its rough, barren, and rocky surface. Peculiar grape vines grow on Lanzarote at El Grifo and many other vineyards in black, volcanic soil within crater-shaped pockets, as though hit by a group of asteroids ages ago. Seeing such unexpected life—combined with a recent volcano eruption in Las Palmas that has affected most of the island’s surface—you almost can’t help but admire the tenacity of the local islanders raised around such active lava.

These here are beach camels. | Andreas Weibel/Getty Images

Ride a camel from the desert to the jungle to the ocean to the city

It’s not all arid, red expanses in the Canary Islands. The islands are also full of subtropical wet forests, mist-covered mountains, endemic fauna and flora, fine gold and black sand beaches, and salt water tidal pools clear as glass next to the ocean, lined by cliffs such as Los Gigantes on Tenerife.

Adventures here come by way of mother nature. Ride a dromedary in Maspalomas dune system on Gran Canaria. Find the 1,000-year-old Drago tree (hint: start on Tenerife). Or you do waterfall and ocean-cliff treks in places such as Charco Azul (Gran Canaria) or Cascada de los Tilos (La Palma).

Don’t miss out on visiting villages from different centuries, such as Icod de Los Vinos, Teguise, or La Laguna. Icod is one of the oldest towns on the islands. Archaeological remains have been found dating back to the fifth century BC that belonged to the Guanches, the original inhabitants of Amazigh (Berber) descent.

It’s like entering a mirror. | Jairo Díaz / EyeEm/Getty Images

Play or lay by the water

Water sports fans and thrill-seekers just hit the jackpot at the Canary Islands. The clear waters and trade winds make them the perfect spot for surfing, kitesurfing, and windsurfing (all the surfings, really). The Canary Islands are also a great destination for whale and dolphin watching, scuba diving, and snorkeling with stingrays, sea horses, and turtles.

Or take a dip in one of the many charcos, which are natural, salt water pools formed along the rocky coastlines—a pastime favored by locals. The best known are Charco del Viento, Charco Los Chochos, and Charco del Faro de Buena Vista, but you can find them all over the island.

If you rather enjoy a chill mood, you can opt for relaxing at one of the many amazing beaches. On Lanzarote, you could head to Playa Papagayo’s gorgeous turquoise waters, El Golfo’s black lava pebbles and small green lagoon, or windy and wild Famara. On Fuerteventura, Dunas de Corralejo has nearly six miles of beach coastline surrounded by dunes that have been declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, or Playa de Sotavento de Jandía, where sand creates small natural pools. Tenerife has Las Teresitas for golden Saharian sand and kid-friendly shallow waters, or the most distinctive volcanic black sand beauty of El Benijo. Also notable are Nogales on La Palma or Playa del Inglés on La Gomera.

spain fiesta
Postpone the hangover till next month. | Viktor Gladkov/Shutterstock

Party during a month-long fiesta

If you are looking for fiesta, you should consider traveling before Easter: Santa Cruz de Tenerife Carnival is the younger sibling of Brazil's Carnival celebrations, complete with salsa music and batucada, street parades, dancing, and a whole lot of color. The festivities will run the entire month of February in 2022 (in fact, January 28–March 6) in Tenerife, so you have plenty of time to catch the party.

Watch out for the Queen of the Carnival with her elaborate, architectural, and über-glam feathered costume. Fun fact: A Queen's dress can weigh up to 330 - 440 pounds.

goat meat meal canary island spain
Don’t forget your spacey moon wine with each meal. | Andrei Bortnikau/Shutterstcok

Eat a tropical and cultural mix of a feast

Canarian cuisine is unembellished and extremely satisfying. How to find it? Try Guachinches, humble family-run restaurants (similar to Italian trattorias) that serve simple and filling dishes for a modest price. The best of these restaurants are modest, “no-name” joints, so wander at your leisure to discover local dishes.

Papas arrugadas (or 'wrinkled' boiled potatoes) with mojo verde (cilantro based sauce) or mojo rojo (chilli garlic sauce) are definitely a must-try. Other local delicacies include almogrote, which is goat cheese spread with dried peppers, tomato paste, and garlic; doughy balls of gofio, made from a toasted-grain flour; and the sweet bienmesabe, a dessert made of almonds, syrup, and eggs.

A significant Venezuelan population means you can also find arepas and cachapas on the islands. You can also get ropa vieja (larded meat stew), roasted kid, atún encebollado (tuna smothered in onions), and legit any other fresh fish. With all the grapes growing in volcanic soil, do not miss the local wines, such as Malvasía or Tajinaste. Nor forget about the emblem of the Canary Islands: the sweet and fragrant plátano de Canarias, a small Cavendish banana variety worthy of a protected designation of origin label.

If you are looking for a more sophisticated gastronomic experience, you can stop by the Michelin-starred M.B. in Santa Cruz de Tenerife that has cuisine d'auteur by renowned Basque chef Martin Berasategi. Or try La Aquarela in Gran Canaria, a contemporary take on Canarian culinary tradition.

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