As the blue winter fogs rolled in on London this week and the winter nights of Scandinavia encroached more deeply on the ever-shrinking afternoons, marrow-chilled northern Europeans looked wistfully southward toward Spain's Canary Islands, the Old World's one sure sanctuary in the sun. There, off the northwest coast of Africa, five air hours out of Madrid, on a latitude even with Florida, a visitor could nourish himself in the sun alongside the bountiful banana crop, could swim in the sea from a five-mile beach, could skin-dive in some of the world's clearest pools, could ski on a 12,000-foot mountain, could watch a brand of wrestling visible nowhere else in the world, could gasp at the strange crater-of-the-moon landscapes and the strangely costumed Canarios who till them, could live in one of the hemisphere's best hotels at $18 a day for two meals, tips, taxes and terrace included, could live at a pension at $3.12 tout compris, could come home sporting a tailor-made suit for which he had paid exactly $35.20.
There is evidence that at least some of these attractions have been available for a number of years, for the Romans called the Canaries the "Fortunate Islands," and other bewitched visitors fore and aft of that day have labeled them the Blessed Isles, the Elysian Fields, and the Garden of Hesperides. Although no modern traveler after a week in the Canaries would doubt the aptness of these rapturous titles, the handle that stuck was one affixed by no less a littérateur than Pliny. He called this 13-island archipelago after the Latin canis, for dog, referring to a strange and vicious breed that infested the islands in his day. The chirping birds that were also so common to the islands later became known as canaries.
Although Horatio Nelson lost a battle and an arm trying to wrest the Canaries from Spain, which conquered them in the 15th century, the islands have long since been successfully invaded by hordes of Britons who, fleeing their own frosted isles, account for three-quarters of all the travelers who come to the Canaries in winter. On the other hand, although Columbus stopped here on his way to discover America, American travelers have never really discovered the Canaries. Two prime dissuaders have been transportation and distance (3,687 miles from New York). But the distance is shrinking—beginning January 5 Trans World Airlines will commence once-a-week direct, nonstop service between New York and Madrid, over-flying the old milk-run stops of Gander, the Azores and Lisbon. Its Jetstreams, a sort of super Super Constellation with a cruise speed of 350 mph, will make the run in 11¼ hours. After that there is a four-and-a-half-hour hop via Iberia from Madrid, landing either at Las Palmas on Grand Canary or at Tenerife.
Las Palmas is a narrow city strung out for five skinny miles along the waterfront, so far in fact that its streets ultimately connect with a once-independent offshore volcanic peninsula called La Isleta. At the docks fishing boats jockey for space. Bananas and tomatoes aimed to hit the European market when Europe is too cold to grow its own are swung aboard freighters. Oil waits in tanks to refuel some of the 7,000 ships that put in here every year. In town, double-decker buses sold by some enterprising salesman from England thread their way through the narrow streets, like fullbacks on a footbridge.
December 16, 1957
In a 15-acre landscaped park overlooking the harbor and the sea beyond is the island pride, the 145-room Santa Catalina Hotel, built in 1953 with the proceeds of a local gas tax, owned by the city and run with exquisite precision by a 25-year-old Swiss. Tucked among the palms, the bowers of bougainvillaea, the cactus plants studded with white flowers that bloom at midnight are an open-air American-style bowling alley, a pair of tennis courts, a miniature golf course, and an open-air pool filled with gently warmed mineral water. For the Santa Catalina it means having its lake and heating it too. Underslung Ferraris roll up to the door and disgorge the smart set, local and expatriate, in tailored beach pajamas, billowing ascots, and antenna-long cigaret holders. Handsome Belgian and French couples on honeymoons splash in the pool. In the evening starched Britons in white jackets and black, guardsmen mustaches appear in the bar to drink 50¢ Scotch (25¢ downtown). And upstairs, from the carved wood balconies, the lights on the jetty are a string of luminous blue pearls pulled taut and straight that run to infinity from the hulk of Mount Isleta, the reformed volcano that was once an offshore crater.
In the park alongside the Santa Catalina is a delightful quadrangle called Canary Village, a Williamsburg construction of shops, bodegas, balconies and grilled windows. There is a patio bar, dress shops, a flower shop, and souvenir stalls that sell the inevitable walking dolls of Barcelona, a hyperthyroid, knee-high image much favored by visiting cruise passengers. Island quince, pomegranates, lemons bigger than softballs, oranges that grow yellow and green but never orange are displayed in bowls. There is a pita, the island icebox, a three-decker drip arrangement planted with culantrillo ferns to keep it even cooler. You can buy a timple, a bulge-backed brother of the ukulele which itself was spawned in Portugal, emigrated to Australia and wandered into Hawaii, which thinks of it now as its own. A canary store sells wild canaries for $1, whites for $4, and yellow birds at anywhere from $2 to $8. The higher-priced warblers come with a pedigree. But the best buy is the exquisite lacework, far cheaper than Brussels or Cyprus, each island's design different from the next. On Sunday mornings troupes of Canary Islanders gather in costume in the village patio and dance and sing to the timple and the tambourine.
Then in the sun of winter there is the pool of the Santa Catalina or, a few minutes from the hotel, the white sand beaches of Alcaravaneras and Canteras. An hour's ride out of town is the great beach of Maspalomas which begins at a palmy oasis and stretches for five sugar-sand miles past a lagoon, ending finally in a crescendo of mountainous dunes. Until an entrepreneur gains title there is nothing on hand but the sparse fringe of a few ramshackle bungalows and a shanty that serves drinks and snacks. You change your clothes in a pillbox that survives from the Spanish Civil War.
It is a prime excursion to take the traveler winding up to the top of Tejeda, where the government has built a mountain paradox, or inn, on a 3,400-foot saddle looking out to the petrified monoliths that rise in front of the terrace. But even more interesting is the ride to the top of the Pico de Bandama. From here the view looks far across to a neighboring peak, where in the village of Atalaya a thousand troglodytes make pottery without a wheel and live in caves dug in the mountainside, some of them furnished with mahogany dressers and canopied beds, with pink periquitos in the doorway. On the plateau, from the mountain of the cave dwellers to the rim of Bandama—itself an old volcano—is the golf course of Grand Canary. The greens are green, but the fairways are soft with volcanic ash that requires extra muscle on pitches, and an overdrive is very likely to send your ball over the rim and into the extinct volcano.
Cockfights, futbol and dogs
Spectator sports in Las Palmas start at noon on Sundays with cockfights in the Circo Gallera. Futbol, as soccer is known here, and Canary Island wrestling alternate as Sunday afternoon sports in the Campo Espa√±a. There is no bull fighting on Grand Canary but greyhounds run every night. Strangely, no one goes to the track—the reason is simply that no one is interested in watching dogs run. But the betting is heavy and takes place off the premises.
Most of the tourist shops of Las Palmas and neighboring Tenerife are run by East Indians who sell the metallic threaded bags with which their cousins have glutted the market in New York and San Francisco, ivory curios and, of course, walking dolls. But there is no buy for a man like the hand-tailored suits which are made by Canary tailors in three days at prices that beat even Hong Kong. Sanchiz at Triana No. 55 and Cardenes at Triana No. 108 will copy any suit you own, using Spanish or English woolens. The price, at $35.20, is hardly arguable.
In a trim little quartier of pink, blue and orange domiciles is Columbus House, the former governor's mansion where Columbus stayed during his sojourns in the Canaries. Relics of the earliest days of the islands are on view at the Canary Museum, which delights in its skull collection, advertised as the world's largest. There are over 2,000 crania on public view, stored neatly in cases, 11 skulls high, all ranged according to types.
The trip to the island of Lanzarote, an hour by Iberia's DC-3, is the most fascinating of all excursions in the Canaries. Here, where the first Spaniards landed, the women still bind their faces in white cloth, cover their heads with huge straw hats, wear long-sleeved blouses with floppy wristlets, cover their hands with white gloves and in this costume work the meager land, tossing seeds into the volcanic ash that is the island's soil, trudging behind their husbands, who dig the furrows with a camel and a wooden plow. When I was on Lanzarote it had rained two months before, and that had been the first rain in 14 months' time. And yet, figs and grapes grow in the pulverized black lava, flowers bloom and onions are harvested in the spring and exported to Britain and Scandinavia.
Some 200 craters blister the landscape of Lanzarote, many of them blown suddenly out of fertile fields in the fantastic eruption of 1730, a volcanic unrest that lasted for six years, buried four villages and covered a fifth of all the island with ragged black lava. Islanders chopped away at the gray rock, found the earth again and planted it with new seed. The lava ash, they found, takes the evening dew and contains it and protects it from the next day's hot sun. And so grapes grow, and purple bougainvillaea, geraniums, palm trees, guavas, and even orange trees, growing without trunks, like bushes, the branches spreading in depressed potholes, secure from the hot winds that blow out of Africa.
Wealthy islanders have villas in the country, built of lava stone and painted white. But the lawn is black ash with brilliant flowering bushes growing out of the cinders. Pretty young daughters with blue eyes, dressed always in their white-hooded Mother Hubbard hats, hide behind the pillars and titter self-consciously. Then suddenly the last house of the habitable earth is passed, and then, where man has not chopped away what the earth disgorged two centuries ago, there is only the jagged lava, a wind-tossed black sea suddenly stopped and petrified in mid-motion, running out to the horizon. A camel or a car will take you up a 200-year-old range called the Fire Mountains and, although there is no visible fissure in the earth, the gravel is warm, and in a fire hole you can fry an egg or watch an armful of brush burst in one minute into excited flame.
On the moon island of Lanzarote it is a day's outing to drive south to El Golfo, a weird nook by the sea walled in by a queer semicircle of stratified rock, and a maroon hill that runs down to a coal-colored beach. Behind the beach is an emerald lagoon. Herons that float in on white wings use it as a way station, and swimmers who have never plumbed its depths use it as a pool. There is a picnic table tucked in a red rock cave. Six miles away there is hunting for black African duck in the salt flats of Salinas deJanubio. The season is open the year round and all that is needed is permission of the salt flat owner, one Jaimen Lleo. As for the salt which is reduced from the sea water, most of it is sold to preserve the corbina, a codlike fish that is caught by Lanzarote fishermen in six-month excursions off the African coast, dried and salted, then sold to natives of the Belgian Congo, much as Nova Scotia salts cod and sells it to the West Indies.
The center of all excursions on Lanzarote is its pleasant little parador which decorates the harbor's edges in Arrecife, a metropolis of 14,000 people, nearly half the island's total population. This year it has redone most of its rooms, and a suite with waterside terrace and private bath, plus full board, tips and taxes will come to $3.80 a day. Tables are set up along the private tiled dock. A call for hors d'oeuvres will bring 10 dishes, among them mero, olives stuffed with anchovies, potato chips and cold pickled barnacles. Sixteen cents will buy you a half bottle of Canary wine, white, strong and sweet, and many times mentioned in the plays of Shakespeare.
From the parador dock a charter boat ($10 for boat and crew) sails out for tuna and bonito, working the waters off the African coast. The ocean is so clear—the bottom is paved with lava—that fishermen do best in 300 feet of water. And the lines must be heavy to contend with manta rays that run upward of 600 pounds.
But the very clarity of the water that forces rod fishermen into extreme depths is what makes Lanzarote and its offshore satellite islands a dreamland for skin-divers. Off its northern end is Graciosa, a roadless island where fishermen live. Offshore from it are the islets of Monta√±a Clara, Alegranza, Roque del Oeste and Roque del Infierno where old birds go to die. Montana Clara has two families, one the lighthouse keeper, one a goat herder. It is also a nesting place for the pardela, a bird that is hunted by torchlight for the meat which is salted and sold, and the feathers which are dandy for hats. Alegranza is privately owned. It is the channels between the islands that skin-divers say are among the best hunting grounds in the world. Although a charter boat can take skin-divers from the Arrecife parador to Graciosa, it is faster to go in one hour by car to the end of Lanzarote, in one hour by boat to Graciosa, and in one hour by camel across roadless Graciosa to Playa La Concha, the island beach.
There is a pension on Graciosa owned by an entrepreneur named Jorge Toledo, who is also captain of the charter boat, operator of the island radio, postman and mayor. The car across Lanzarote costs $6, Jorge gets $10 a day for the boat, and the camel costs $1 for two people, round trip.
The camels on Tenerife, largest of the Canaries, are mostly for the tourists. And the tourists thunder in from the north or slip in by sea and go off to nest in Puerto de la Cruz, a seaside resort where artists paint, the sea is rough, and pools are built oceanside among the outcroppings of black lava rocks. Three new hotels are a building along the Playa de Martianez. The cabanas of the huge St. Telmo pool, ready this winter, will face west to the setting sun and South America. Swimmers and sun-tanners who come for lunch can consult the tank for a lobster only lately flown from the African coast. The painters can sketch the pink St. Telmo chapel in the orange sun of the late afternoon and dawdlers can slip down to Dinamico, the outdoor pub in the Plaza de Charco.
Up on the hill the Germans in shorts and shaved heads come to nest in the creaky confines of the 140-room Hotel Taoro, first built in 1900. They pay the likes of $200 for 21 days, including air fare from Wuppertal, and there are similar excursions for Swedes. In the winter there is dancing every night, but any day, winter or summer, a sipper lounging in the new yellow and blue basket chairs on the cocktail terrace can contemplate the pool and the sea, and between the two, the Tenerife slopes carpeted with green banana fronds and sprinkled with the sugar cubes of white villas. Six dollars would carry the day here, but a second-class hotel in Puerto de la Cruz will feed you, shelter you and serve you for inside $2.50 per diem.
Half an hour from the seaside swimmers, skiers skid down the slopes of Teide, 12,152 feet high. The road runs by way of Villa Orotava, an ancient town where grass grows in the hilly streets, bougainvillaea falls over the white-washed walls like a purple rug hung out to air, and the bright yellow candles that grow on acacia trees light the village bandstand. Pots filled with ferns hang in the courtyards of villas and sway lightly in the breezes that waft up over the red tiled roofs from the sea, and the afternoon sun shoots brilliant shafts that ignite the crystal chandeliers that might otherwise have had to wait for night to gain attention. The drive from sea level, where it is sunny, sometimes ascends through the cloud layers that hang low over Tenerife. After corkscrew minutes through the haze the highway breaks out above the cloud line and into the sun. Then the view is of the cone of Teide protruding through the blanketing white mass of overcast, looking like nothing so much as a tan bosom in a vast sea of bedclothes.
The devil is inside
In the winter the snow comes and the skiers move up to the parador of Las Ca√±adas whose 50 rooms and rustic fireplaces open this season. Rooms, meals and taxes come to $4 a day, but the modern skier ought to be notified that there are no lifts nor tows. In spring when the snows melt, the terraces look out to the tufts of beige grass and the odd rock formations that long ago spilled from the top of Teide. For Teide means hell, and the early natives who named it that believed that the devil lived inside, but when the old mountain was docile it was because the good spirit was sitting on top, not letting the devil out.
There is little intimation of such violence down by the sea in the capital of Santa Cruz de Tenerife. Its prime hotel, the Mencey, sits quite sedately in the residential quarter. If its deep leather chairs and enormous murals are somewhat awesome, the formal garden is a manicured delight, and there is a tennis court, a swimming pool equipped with its own bar, and over the whole cantonment, a French manager. Single rooms with meals start at $7, but at the second-class Hotel Pino de Oro, English-run, the day rate is $3.12 all in.
In the twilight the ships lie quiet behind the breakwater. But steep out of the water rise the razor-backed mountains turning a soft rose beige with the dusk. It is time to stop for tapas, which are little dishes of squid-in-its-ink or octopus or casuelita de abadeze (fish and vegetables). It's 10¢ for the tapas and another dime for a glass of sherry. A good investment. Dinner won't be served until 10. Someone has flipped on the blue neon crosses on the Civil War memorial—Spanish, that is—in the Plaza de Espa√±a. Alongside the stone shaft loungers loll and, in plots around it, roses nod in the soft wind out of Africa and, warmed and nourished, grow the whole year round.
NEW YORK TO MADRID 11¼ HOURS