The Canary Islands have always had a fascination for me ever since I discovered they were named after dogs not Canaries.
I have always been a keen if not dedicated walker and cruiser so when I saw the Ramblers Walking Holidays trip to Madeira and the Canary Islands in association with Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines, I was quite excited.
This is such great concept as you go walking in a different port/country every day and you come back to ship at night for all the amenities and pleasure of a cruise ship. All the walks are graded so you can choose one which fits your experience and fitness level.
Boarding at Southampton was quick and easy, and we had a meeting where our very efficient leader Jane and the seventeen members of our group quickly got to know each other. We had three days at sea where I learned how to play the ukulele, went to the gym and walked around the deck with other birdwatchers scanning the ocean. Others learned how to play or improve their bridge, waltzed or tangoed around the dance floor, pampered themselves in the spa or joined the many other activities on offer.
This option may not appeal to everyone but for those looking to combine exercise and relaxation, there are cruise and walk fly trips where you can pick up the ship in locations all over world.
Our first port of call was Funchal in Madeira where we had two walks on offer, this was true of all our visits as if the weather or conditions are bad in one, we can switch to one that is far better.
Indeed the mountains were wet and with a strong wind that day and we found ourselves instead walking some 5 miles around the staggeringly beautiful promontory of the Ponta de Sao Lourenco at the eastern end of the island with some of the most amazing coastal scenery I have ever encountered. Some four hours later after a stop for lunch and some of our party went up to climb the high promontory, we arrived back at the coach knowing we had completed a very good walk tired but very happy.
The first of our four walks in the Canary Islands in La Palma saw us in volcano country walking six miles in remote areas and climbing to look down into craters. This walk does need poles as the descent at the start of the path was on slippery volcanic paths and once or twice without them, I found the going precarious. The walk started at a visitor centre which gave you an excellent short film on the area and a welcome cup of coffee and a beer on our return!
Tenerife found us 2,400 metres above sea level. It had been a pleasant 19 degrees in the port but at that altitude frost and ice covered the road! We found ourselves walking in the collapsed volcanic caldera, into separate zones of climate and vegetation from pine forests to sweeping sand deserts.
It is advisable to find out what grade of walks are included in each holiday. I am not a regular walker and found the long gradual descent on our walk in Gran Canaria quite difficult and I had to borrow a walking pole from someone to help me keep upright. Don’t get me wrong it was an amazing walk with stunning views of the coast, but I found it difficult in places and very tiring.
The beauty of these holidays is that nothing is compulsory so I decided not to go on the walk on Tenerife the next day but to explore the town and although I missed discovering the lunar landscape of the island it was the right decision as I still felt tired from the previous day.
I must admire who ever makes up these itineraries for the trips as walks of 6 to 8 miles in stunning, wild country are complemented by city walks taken at a sedate pace with a local guide who explains everything as you walk around.
I have to say that Cadiz really impressed me with its buildings, both exterior and interior paying homage to the Moorish occupation and fascinating flower markets. We were treated by the company to a short snack of churros in a local bar. This dish is eaten by the locals on their way to work and consists of an elongated, deep fried crispy doughnut which is dipped into hot chocolate. Tough eh?
The next morning after breakfast on board and collecting our packed lunches we met our guide in the huge waterside Commercial Square of Lisbon with its yellow and red trams rattling past a mere twenty-minute walk from the ship. Our route took us through dark tunnels that pierce the old city walls into parts that are not normally seen. Even when we get back on to the main routes however we discovered hidden gems in unexpected places.
As a city Lisbon has a sweet tooth and its oldest pastry shop is a must for anyone visiting the city where you have to try the iconic pastry is the palm-size pastel de nata, or egg tart, a creamy custard tart. The recipe dates to the 16th century, when the confections, like many other Portuguese sweets, were made by nuns in convents. Now, locals eat natas at breakfast, in the midmorning, after lunch, or in the evening – any time they’re craving a snack. Quite frankly I don’t blame them, they’re fabulous.
To me this epitomises what theses cruises are all about. Small compact groups that really get under the skin of a place and walks that allow you to discover far more than you expect. These destinations came with the added benefit of a warm sun beating down on us with the fascinating lure of Iberia plus how nice is it to swim in the pool and catch some rays 200 miles off the coast of Morocco?
Steve Newman was a guest of Ramblers Walking Holidays & Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Ramblers Cruise & Walk Holidays.