The Blessed Isles: More than Just a Stop Over

Link to published article: The Blessed Isles

Sailing across an ocean is often seen as a mariners biggest achievement. With 4,000 miles between America and Europe, the distance across the Atlantic means a four-week transit across a temperamental ocean. It is for this reason that a small collection of mid-Atlantic islands earned the name, “The Blessed Isles.” Officially called Macaronesia, these four island groups — the Azores, Madeira, the Canaries and Cape Verde — have played a central role in trans-Atlantic trade since boats first started long-distance voyages. Located west of Portugal, Spain and the north-African coast in the Eastern Atlantic Ocean, they continue to offer a mid-passage respite for modern-day mariners keen for short break in route between the two continents.

The four island groups are often thought of as relatively similar. All are volcanic in origin with a number of the islands still active (as illustrated by the recent eruption of Cumbre Vieja in Las Palmas, Canaries in September this year) Their isolation from the mainland has allowed endemic species of animal and fauna to flourish, and their exposure to strong trade-winds means a harsh environment during the northern winter. Knowing we would cut our transatlantic passage by adding a mid-Atlantic stop, we used the Canaries as a break point: A week transit from Europe to the Canaries and then a three-week sail to the Caribbean.

The Canaries is an autonomous region of Spain and consists of 13 islands. Given the geographic  similarity between the islands within Macaronesia, I was expecting an extension of Madeira and the Azores; I couldn’t have been more misinformed. I am unsure where I’ve seen such diversity within an island group. Each of the thirteen islands has its own unique environment with a fascinating cultural heritage that is still evident today. To see one island is certainly not to have seen the other.

Tenerife Cave Dwellings: The original settlers of the Canaries were the Guanches who arrived from African in the first or second century. They settled in caves across the islands, concentrated in Tenerife. What was fascinating to me about this history is that people are still living in these cave dwellings to this day. Excursions throughout the countryside revealed numerous dwellings spread across the island; drying laundry splayed out on lines, dogs lounging outside cave entrances, chairs perched aside a rock wall, chickens living in their coops: All scattered evidence of human habitation. We found isolated valleys where large communities were dispersed across a mountainside, with small footpaths winding their way up the mountainside. I became fascinated by this current cave culture, still alive and vibrant. I’ve travelled to many countries where old cave dwellings are protected as Unesco Heritage Sites, but this is the first time I’ve seen established communities in remote cave dwellings. It became my preoccupation to drive aimlessly throughout the island, trying to find as many cave dwellings as I could discover — a surprisingly easy feat given the number of cave-dwellers spread out throughout the Canaries.

Lanzarote Volcanic Vineyards: Both the Azores and the Canaries have developed a unique form of viticulture in one of the most inhospitable regions. It is impossible to imagine that someone can grow anything but the most rugged crop in the rocky, volcanic soil. Grape vines are the last thing I would expect to crisscross the region. However, ingenious vintners have done just that — they have created an environment where grapes not only grow, but thrive. This form of deep-root horticulture called “erarenado” is unique to Lanzarote. Small semi-circular walls, called “zoco,” are made from black lava stones and protect a single vine, providing a barrier against the strong trade winds. It is a very labour intensive form of cultivation as each crater holds a single vine, making hand-picked grapes the only option for harvesting. Wine-tasting was the last thing I expected on our mid-Atlantic stop; not only was it delicious, it was also historically fascinating.

Lava Tubes and Subterranean Tunnels: Lava tubes and deep volcanic caverns riddle the Canary Islands. A number of the islands, such as Gran Canaria and Tenerife, have extensive pyroclastic fields and a number display dramatic volcanic cones with impressive craters, such as Teide on Tenerife and Cumbre Vieja on La Palma. Given the range of erosional stages of each of the seven volcanic islands, each island offers a very unique perspective. This means you can hike the top of a volcanic rim that is covered in deep foliage (Gran Canaria), walk through volcanic moonscapes (Los Lobos), wander deep inside massive caverns (Lanzarote) and follow lava tubes deep inside (Tenerife). Given the different stages of each of the islands, you can see both the devastation and the beauty that they bring: As one explodes, another holds a breathtaking amphitheatre and a species of blind crab that is endemic to the island. While the local inhabitants continue to deal with the aftermath of Cumbre Vieja’s violent explosion on La Palma, Cueva de los Verdes in Lanzarote holds concerts for an audience of 500 in its expansive cavern and provides sanctuary to an endemic species of miniature blind albino cave crabs in its deep-turquoise underground freshwater lagoon.

Underwater Sculpture Garden: Equally unique to the Canaries is Europe’s first underwater sculpture garden, a collection of 12 installations laid down by sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor to raise social and environmental awareness. “Museo Atlantico” was made public in 2017 and holds 300 life-sized human figures all performing everyday tasks: a couple holding hands, a man sitting on a swing, fishermen in their boats, someone taking a “selfie.” Four years on and the sculptures are starting provide a decent false reef and the effect is impressive… and rather eerie. A dive on the site will remain a very unique experience and is not to be missed on a trip through Lanzarote.

Many sailors use the largest of the Canary Islands, Las Palmas in Gran Canaria, solely for provisioning and boat preparation prior to a transatlantic passage. However, to bypass the islands that surround the main island is to miss out on some interesting and diverse islands and should be considered a highlight destination in the Eastern Atlantic. Each of the islands we visited on our sail through the island group was a continuous series of unfolding surprises. The villages all hold their own quaint small-town European character and each island offers an experience drastically different than its neighbour: From the bustle of Gran Canaries largest city, Las Palmas, to the quiet cave-dwellers of its outer communities; from from the enormous sand-dunes of Fuertaventura’s Parque Natural de las Dunas to the barren volcanic cone of Los Lobos to the lush laurel forest of Los Tilos de Moya in Gran Canaria; from sea to inland lake to crater rim to underground tunnels; from camel back to mountaintop to mid-city cafes. There is a diversity in the Canaries that makes a “hop” through in route from American to Europe a must-see destination in itself.

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