Unless you have European friends or relatives, the Canary Islands might fly beneath your radar travel-wise. But they shouldn’t. These volcanic islands off the coast of Morocco belong to Spain and lure several million travelers annually from Europe, many of them Brits and Germans seeking sun and relaxation. Most Americans can get their share of both closer to home, but the Canary Islands—you may be familiar with Gran Canaria, Tenerife and La Palma—are worth visiting for other reasons, namely their dramatic landscapes, historic architecture and scenic beaches.
I recently explored four of the Canary Islands during one convenient trip: a seven-night sailing with Azamara, the boutique cruise line with three ships (four as of May 2022), each accommodating fewer than 700 guests. Azamara’s Canary Islands Intensive Voyages range from seven to 11 nights and sail now through the end of February 2022 (on Azamara Journey) and then in March 2023 (on Azamara Onward) and March 2024 (on Azamara Pursuit).
Here’s what the seven-night itinerary was like, along with tips for making the most of time ashore.
Day 1: Las Palmas, Gran Canaria
Azamara ships sailing Canary Islands itineraries embark and disembark in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. This allows for an easy flight connection via Madrid (or several other European airports, such as Frankfort, London Heathrow and Paris Charles de Gaulle). Plan to arrive a day early since parts of La Palmas are definitely worth exploring, namely the convivial beach boardwalk along Playa de Las Canteras and the Old Town neighborhood known as La Vegueta.
Playa de Las Canteras isn’t far from the port and its outdoor cafes are a great place to sip a local Lanzarote rosé and enjoy tapas as you people watch at sunset, while La Vegueta is the place to wander amid pretty 16th– and 17th-century architecture. Have your taxi driver drop you in Plaza Santa Ana with its bronze canine statues (the Canary Islands aren’t named for birds, but rather for dogs, “canum” in Latin) and twin-towered Cathedral of Santa Ana. And don’t miss Casa de Colon, a colonial mansion with an elaborate bronze doorway.
The affordable and well-located AC Hotel Gran Canaria, a Marriott property, has comfortable rooms with balconies. It is a five-minute drive from the port and an easy walk from Playa de Las Canteras, but its antiquated 1970s design (a round tower with a main entry staircase and a freight-like street-to-lobby elevator) may present challenges for the less mobile.
Day 2: Funchal, Madeira
While Madeira is a territory of Portugal and not part of the Canary Islands, Azamara itineraries include an overnight here—so consider it a welcome bonus! You’ll arrive in the afternoon and not depart until mid-afternoon the next day, allowing time for a variety of shore experiences in colorful Funchal and around this extraordinary island.
For a mix of exploration and adventure, opt for Azamara’s Off Road Into the Sunset excursion, a 4×4 tour that ventures onto off-the-beaten-path roads (both unpaved and paved) high in the Campanário Hills and offers a chance to walk for 30 minutes along a portion of Levada do Norte, one of the famously scenic irrigation canals that funnel water from the mountains to cities.
Next, you’ll enjoy a glass of Poncha (a sweet local cocktail) in the charming village of Ponta do Sol, where the nightly sunsets are spectacular. One last treat is the view of Funchal’s twinkling patchwork of lights and your Azamara ship in the harbor awaiting your return.
Day 3: Funchal, Madeira
Azamara offers several shore excursions in Funchal, but if you love to walk (and have good stamina) the city is easily explored on your own. Here’s what I recommend (note: all-aboard time is mid-afternoon). Set out mid-morning from the port for the 30-minute walk along Avenida Sa Carneiro (or grab a taxi) to the Teleferico do Funchal, a sightseeing cable car that will take you on a 15-minute/two-mile scenic ride above Funchal’s rooftops and hillsides to the Monte, which sits at an elevation of 1,837 feet.
There’s an option to take (and pay for) another cable car to the Botanical Gardens, but the garden itself is terraced with extremely steep walkways that make it challenging to navigate, so I don’t recommend it. Instead, walk left from the cable car and explore the Monte Palace Tropical Garden, an oasis of blooming flora, Oriental gardens, ceramic tiles and an impressive collection of artwork from around the world.
Then, admire the Church of Our Lady of the Monte, before heading back on the cable car—or taking another more traditional ride: the Monte Toboggans. These wicker sleds have been careening two kilometers down asphalt streets for more than 100 years, guided by two “carreiros” in straw hats and thick-soled boots. If you choose this option, you’ll have to take a taxi to town when the toboggan journey ends.
Once back, you’ll have plenty of time to wander through Funchal’s atmospheric Old Town and even try a tasting of Madeira wines. By 2:30 p.m. you’ll be back onboard enjoying a late lunch on deck as you sail off to your next port.
Day 4: Santa Cruz de La Palma
If you heard about the volcanic eruption in September 2021 in the Canary Islands, La Palma is the place where it happened. The volcano, Cumbre Vieja, finally calmed down by late December 2021 after 85 days, but its disruptive flow of lava and ash offered testament to the power of nature recreate this island’s dramatic landscape.
A convenient way to appreciate La Palma’s beauty is on Azamara’s La Palma Secret Wonders excursion, a 4.5-hour bus journey into spectacular La Caldera de Taburiente National Park. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is scented by forests of towering pine trees and reminded me of one of my favorite places in the United States: Yosemite Valley. Afterwards, you’ll visit a charming estate and gardens for wine and tapas and be back aboard your ship in time for lunch.
Then I suggest setting out on foot to explore Santa Cruz’s Old Town on your own. Don’t miss the centuries-old houses with traditional wooden balconies, located along the waterfront Avenida Maritima and painted in vibrant colors. Azamara also offers La Palma on Foot with Traditional Tapas, an excursion for those prefer a guided tour with local culinary treats.
Day 5: San Sebastian de La Gomera
Just when you thought nothing could top La Palma’s visual beauty, along comes La Gomera. While this island of 20,000 inhabitants is famous for being one of the islands that Christopher Columbus visited on his 1492 transatlantic crossing (and tales of a romance with Beatriz de Bobadilla, wife of the island’s ruler at the time, linger to this day), La Gomera is also renowned for its incredible landscapes, which are designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and can be appreciated on Azamara’s seven-hour Gran Rey Valley excursion.
Highlights include a visit to the Los Roques viewpoint adjacent to Garajonay National Park to see several stunning rock formations, the most impressive of which is 3,526-foot Roque Agando. Garajonay is distinguished by its verdant landscape, 70 percent of which is covered with ancient Laurel Forest and crisscrossed by meandering streams. A stroll through part of the forest to a small restaurant for lunch (warning: most dishes are heavy on the garlic), several other scenic stops and a visit to the bohemian beach resort of Valle Gran Rey round out the day’s activities.
Another, more active excursion, Hiking Through the Forest of Fables, immerses trekkers in the fairytale-like Laurel Forest and also makes stops for photos at Los Roques.
Day 6: Santa Cruz de Tenerife
Azamara’s ships spend two days in Tenerife, calling on a pair of ports. If you prefer to explore on your own, today is the best day to do so since Santa Cruz de Tenerife has several top sights, both historic and modern, that are walkable from the port while Los Cristianos is mainly a resort area. Follow a signed path from the ship that offers access to Santa Cruz’s historic center across Avenida de Anaga.
To the left, you’ll find Plaza de España (and a friendly Tourist information center) and a short distance away stately Plaza del Principe Square, the Municipal Museum of Fine Arts with its classicist façade and the Baroque-style Church of St. Francis. The Old Town of Santa Cruz is just another 5-to-10-minute walk away and is home to 15th-century La Concepcion Church in Plaza de la Iglesias as well as colorful La Noria Street.
A few blocks further is the Market of Nuestra Senora de Africa (aka La Recova), where produce, meat, seafood and handicrafts are sold daily in this salmon-hued colonial-style market. From there, two top sights remain, Garcia Sanabria Park, known for its landscaped walking paths and botanical garden, and the Adan Martin Auditorium of Tenerife, an iconic white Santiago Calatrava-designed landmark that, like the Sydney Opera House, deserves to be viewed from every angle.
To spend a few hours at the beach, take a taxi to Playa de Las Teresitas, a wide arc of white sand (imported from the Sahara) located about six miles away.
Day 7: Los Cristianos, Tenerife
Sunny weather is Los Cristianos calling card, hence its popularity as a beach resort destination. And if you want to relax on the sand for the day, you can certainly do that on Playa de Los Cristianos. But you’ll miss a chance to experience Tenerife’s compelling visual wonders, which include a village perched on a slender ridge, a massive slumbering volcano and a distinctive 1,000-year-old tree.
They’re all on the itinerary of Azamara’s eight-hour Lost Village of Masca excursion, which begins with a stop to admire Los Gigantes, 2,600-foot cliffs rising from the wild Atlantic, and continues with more heart-stopping views as your bus navigates dozens of steep hair pin turns on the way to Masca village, built along a knife-edge ridge. At almost every turn, you can spot 12,188-foot-tall Mt. Teide, the tallest peak in Spain.
Back down at sea level, you’ll explore Garachico, a pretty, coastal town, and then head to nearby Icod de Los Vinos to snap selfies with two distinctive dragon trees; one is 500 years old and the other 1,000 years old. You’ll refuel along the way with an excellent tapas lunch at Mirador Garachico, which offers panoramic views of Mt. Teide and the sea. They call Tenerife “the island of 1,000 experiences” and this excursion only scratches the surface.
Day 8: Disembark in Gran Canaria
Many passengers will disembark and go straight to the airport, but those who are able to book flights after 3 p.m., can book a four-hour Old Quarter, Bandama Crater with Airport Transfer excursion to see the Las Palmas sights you missed if you didn’t fly in a day early, along with Bandama Crater, located at 1,000 feet in elevation.
Each of Azamara’s four ships is almost identical, carrying about 680 passengers and offering elevated international cuisine in six dining venues and eight bars/lounges, including outdoor options. Geared to couples—most guests are in their fifties, sixties and seventies and Canary Islands sailings generally attract more Brits and Europeans than Americans—the ships feature an elegant, club-like ambience. There is music and entertainment nightly, ranging from production shows in the Cabaret Lounge to live band and DJ music in the Living Room, which has a dancefloor.
All Azamara ships have a pool and two hot tubs, a library, a Sanctum Spa and a fitness center, but no casino. Accommodations range from economical 158-square-foot Club Interior Staterooms to spacious 603-square-foot Club World Owner’s suites, but most are 175-square-foot Club Veranda Staterooms. Cruise fares for seven-night Canary Islands itineraries run from $1,469 to $4,409 per person and include gratuities; select standard wines, beers and spirits; and special onboard destination-themed celebrations.
Before booking, be sure to read Azamara’s recently updated health and safety protocols.