Politically European, being a colony of Spain, geographically and climatically they more resemble the nearby West African Sahara coast. The islands, pre-tourism, were inhabited by small fishing communities and visited by wind-borne mariners bound for the Americas and the Caribbean. Named not after the bird species, the Canary, the Romans in fact gave the islands their Latin name Canariae Insulae, translated as "Island of the Dogs". Whether they actually meant dogs, or rather seals which they referred to as sea dogs, is unsure.
The coastline of the 13 islands offers a plethora of sandy beaches, many golden but some with black sand ground from the dark, volcanic obsidian. The Atlantic Gulf Stream casts its influence with the smaller westerly islands’ slopes awash with wild flowers and cloud forests, ideal for walking, while the easterly islands are more barren, but still starkly impressive. Inland, imposing sparsely-clad mountains, ideal for the paragliders whose multicoloured wings soar silently on the warm upward thermals, are also world-renowned among astronomers as ideal sites to observe the heavens through the clear, light-pollution free atmosphere.
Active volcanoes, and people’s fascination for them, mean that the Canary Islands offer four unique National Parks. Tenerife’s Teide National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the slopes of Mount Teide, depending on the season visited, could be covered by a thin veil of snow or white, pink, violet and red flowers, populated by geckos. Timanfaya National Park on Lanzarote is equally as impressive, as are the huge wind-driven mobile sculptures of the island’s famous artist, Cesar Manrique, that decorate the landscape. The Garajonay National Park on the tiny island of La Gomera offers, in complete contrast, a humid, mysterious subtropical forest.
Around the harbours of each of the islands, thriving towns have grown, each with their own architecture and atmosphere providing a wealth of shops, cafes, bars and restaurants. A table in the shade with a tall, refreshing drink and a plate of the national dish papas arugardas, salt-crusted small new potatoes, accompanied by a red piquant mojo sauce would be a fine way to take in the wonderful surroundings.