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Sun-thing for the winter; THE SECRET OF WHY YOU'LL LOVE THE CANARY ISLANDS; They're the No1 choice for a million flyaway Britons..and here Gill Williams reveals why.

Byline: Gill Williams

ESCAPE the rain and those long dark nights by heading off to the Canaries - Britain's favourite winter destination.

Around 1.2 million of us head for the islands off the coast of Morocco every year - attracted by almost guaranteed sunshine.

Even between November and March the temperature is always in the 20Cs or higher and it only takes 31/2 to four hours to get there.

"The Canaries are always the No 1 choice for people looking for some winter sunshine," says Sean Tipton from the Association of British Travel Agents.

Robbie Orr of Thomas Cook says the Canaries are so popular they are laying on even more flights than usual over Christmas and New Year.

"The islands seem a bit more exotic than mainland Spain but are still

not too far away to go for a week's holiday," she says.

"Tenerife is the most popular for Christmas and New Year, just ahead of Lanzarote and Gran Canaria, while Fuerteventura is quieter and good for families with younger children."

One downside in the Canaries is that the costs of eating, drinking and just having fun have all gone up since the peseta was jettisoned in favour of the Euro.

"Regular visitors to the Canaries have noticed their money does not go as far as in the days of the peseta," says Robbie.

"But you can still get a meal out for pounds 10 and a beer costs only 85p which is less than you would pay back home in the UK."

The huge number of British visitors makes English the first language in the bigger, purpose-built resorts on Tenerife and Gran Canaria.

Yet you don't have to go far from Tenerife's Playa de las Americas or Gran Canaria's Playa del Ingles to find small fishing ports and unspoilt villages.

Each of the Canaries has its own strong identity so there's an island for everyone.

Here we take a look at all of the islands, starting with Fuertevenutura (above). Turn over to Pages 2 and 3 to check out the others...

FUERTEVENTURA

FIND a quiet spot to sunbathe away from the German nudists on the rolling dunes of Corralejo.

This village on the north of this quiet island has come a long way since it was a sleepy fishing community, yet it has avoided the high-rises and overbuilding that mars many Spanish resorts.

Instead, fishermen and tourists get along pretty well together even if disapproving eyebrows are raised at the sight of sunburnt bums on the nudist beaches outside town.

The eye-catching sand dunes at Corralejo stretch for seven miles from the resort - white sandhills running back from the ocean which have been made a national park.

Corralejo is also the main centre for watersports on the island, with windsurfing and surfing schools.

Take a glass bottom boat ride to watch the fish swim in the bays around the Isla de Lobos. You can take one-hour tours or book a lunch cruise from the port.

Spend a day in El Cotillo on the north-west coast, once besieged by pirates and now a fishing village with two or three good restaurants. Fish is a speciality on this island. Be adventurous and try the salted fish dish called sancocho canario or look for local varieties like vieja or widow fish on the menu.

The south of the island has great beaches for families with miles and miles of white sand at Playa de Sotavento de Jandia.

DETAILS: A week's self-catering this winter at the Dunas Caleta Club Apartments in Corralejo starts from pounds 239 per person when four share including flights and transfers through Thomson. For more information call 0870 550 2555

ISLA DE EL HIERRO

TOURISM is largely unpackaged on Isla de el Hierro - the smallest of the Canary islands.

There are few beaches, the steep coastline being better suited to diving and fishing than lazing about on a sun lounger And with fewer than 1,000 tourist beds on the island, it's best to book well in advance to be sure of a room.

Yet this western-most island of the Canaries is growing in popularity with couples looking for some sun but wanting to get away from the crowds.

The capital Valverde is a pleasant town away from the coast. There are few bars and nightclubs. Most visitors prefer hanging out in quiet little restaurants called arepas. A speciality is menestra, a hearty vegetable stew.

Public transport is patchy so the best way to explore the island is to hire a car in Valverde.

Visit the wine growing areas near Echedo north of the capital and wind your way through small villages in the interior.

DETAILS: Magic of Spain have a week's B&B at the Parador de el Hierro, with car hire and all flights from pounds 865. Call 0870 888 0220 or see www.magictravelgroup.co.uk

LANZAROTE

THE Sahara seems only a date stone's throw away when you cross the desert in Lanzarote on the back of a camel.

No need to pack a mac when you take a winter sun holiday on this island, the driest in the Canaries. It rarely rains - even the drinking water comes from the sea.

Camel safaris run through Timanfaya National Park, named after the island's slumbering but still active volcano. Park rangers here have a party trick - they pour water into the ground and seconds later a geyser erupts.

The island has been moulded by man as well as nature. Make a daytrip to the underground volcanic grotto created by Lanzarote artist Cesar Manrique. He turned an arid moonscape into a lake with gardens, a restaurant and even a concert hall.

Give the rather dull capital of Arrecife a miss in favour of a few hours exploring 15th Century Teguise with its cobbled streets and colonial architecture.

Take an empty shopping bag on Sundays to haggle for bargains in the market. The best buys are on semi-precious stones, basketware and African drums.

Draw straws to pick your designated driver for a wine crawl around La Geria, an area which has been producing the sweet Malmsey wine since the Middle Ages.

Although Lanzarote is volcanic, there are white sandy beaches around some of the bigger resorts like Costa Teguise in the north, or you can escape the crowds by spending a day on beaches a little further afield, like the Playa Bastian.

DETAILS: A week's self-catering at the Princes Guayadeque apartments in Puerto del Carmen costs pounds 169 when two share through Libra Holidays. The price includes flights from Gatwick on November 27 and transfers. Call 0870 242 2525.

LA PALMA

THE mountainous landscape and forest trails make La Palma an island better suited to serious walkers than the bucket and spade brigade.

Those who do pack flip flops will be tiptoeing across black volcanic rather than golden sand.

Far better to take your hiking boots and explore the paths through the pine groves of La Palma's Caldera de Taburiente national park. Call into the visitor centre on the southern rim for maps of the best walks.

Alternatively, take the easy way up and drive to Roque de los Muchachos, the highest point on the island. Palma is the greenest of the Canaries, nicknamed Isla Bonita or Pretty Island by the locals. It's also the wettest - but the sun still comes out at least 300 days a year.

You can spend a lazy afternoon exploring the 16th Century old town of Santa Cruz de la Palma, the island's capital. It's not a large town and easy to get around on foot.

Find out what's on by calling into the tourist office on the Calle de O'Daly, the oldest street in Santa Cruz. Shops and bars are housed within a grand 17th Century palace and row of mansions. Best souvenir buys include pottery based on traditional designs.

You can stay in low-rise resort hotels or renovated farmhouses called Casas Rurales. There are about 70 across the island.

DETAILS: For rural holiday homes, contact the Asociacion de Turismo Rural, 00 34 922 43 06 25 or www.islabonita.es. A week's self catering at the Country Apartments in La Palma starts from pounds 273, leaving Gatwick on November 7 with Thomas Cook. Call 08705 666222 or see www.thomascook.com

TENERIFE

WATCH the surfers catch the first waves of the day when you take a stroll before breakfast along the waterfront of the Playa de las Americas.

The walkway runs right around the coast of this purpose-built resort in the south of the largest Canary island. It skirts sandy coves warm enough for a December morning dip. Bars serve cafe con leche to early risers and bleary-eyed gamblers staggering home from the casino.

Take a local bus to hip Garachico on the north coast. Pay a small charge to swim in deep rockpools warmed by the sun.

Pop in for a drink at Garachico's stylish Hotel San Roque, then sit down to a late lunch at one of the seaside restaurants. Don't order chips if papas arrugadas is on the menu - the baby roast potatoes dipped in mojo sauce are delicious.

Puerto de la Cruz in the north is a favourite with Spanish holidaymakers. It's also a fashion centre with trendy boutiques.

Learn a pharaoh bit of the past on a visit to the Piramides de Guimar near the capital Santa Cruz de Tenerife. They date back to the time of the Egyptian pyramids but were only unearthed in the 20th Century by Thor Heyerdal, the explorer who crossed the Atlantic on a reed boat.

The people then were sun worshippers and you can watch the sun go down, too, from the lookout called the Pico del Ingles in Mount Teide national park. The best sunsets are late autumn and early winter when locals join visitors to watch spectacular natural light shows.

DETAILS: A week's half board in self-catering apartments costs pounds 199 flying from Gatwick or Manchester on November 25 with Airtours Holidays. Ring 0870 241 5339 or visit www.mytravel.com and www.tenerife.com for more on Tenerife.

GRAN CANARIA

LOOKING for something a bit lively? Then pack your trunks for a winter holiday on the Playa del Ingles, the second largest holiday resort in Europe.

Even with its huge popularity, you can always find somewhere to spread your towel on the white sandy beach that stretches for miles.

Work up an appetite for lunch with a walk along the coast to the sand dunes of Maspalomas or take it easy with a ride on the mini train to nearby bays like San Agustn.

Shop tax-free in Playa del Ingles' 13 malls with names like Yumbo, Cita and the classy Plaza Maspalomas. Or rummage through the bargain bins for discount clothes, handbags and shoes at the San Fernando Market on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

There are few signs of traditional Spain after dark in Playa del Ingles with its Irish bars and English pubs. If you do fancy some authentic Canarian food, book a table at the Casa Vieja restaurant in Calle de Fataga. Allow at least a day to explore the capital Las Palmas in the north of the island. Most of the sightseeing is concentrated in the historic Vegueta quarter. Call into the Christopher Columbus museum where old sea charts are on display. Entry is free and it's open every day.

Had enough sightseeing? Cool off with a swim at the Playa de las Canteras and bag a beachside table to watch the world go by.

DETAILS: A week self-catering at the three-star Bungalows Venesol in Maspalomas starts from pounds 199, flying from Gatwick on November 17 through Blue Sky. Call 0870 010 2581, or log on to www.blueskyholidays.com

LA GOMERA

THE Canary islanders call La Gomera the Isla Rotunda or Round Island. Look at a map and you'll see why - La Gomera is a round dot in the ocean dwarfed by its big neighbour Tenerife.

Most visitors are daytrippers from Tenerife, spending a few hours on one of the pebbly beaches. Ferries run from Los Christianos on Tenerife to La Gomera's port San Sebastian and the tourist beaches near Valle de Gran Rey.

The capital earned a place in history when Christopher Columbus sailed from here on his way to discover the Americas. The town throws a party every year on September 6 to mark his departure. Some of the most ancient trees on Earth are found on the island. Parque Nacional de Garajonay is a wild expanse of laurel forest.

Stay in restored village houses or in boutique hotels in small resorts like predominantly German Valle de Gran Rey and Playa de Santiago on the south coast.

DETAILS: A week's B&B on La Gomera at the Jardin Tecina starts from pounds 590 including return flights to Tenerife then transfers to La Gomera through Magic of Spain. Call: 0870 888 0220.

CAPTION(S):

Miles of white sandy beaches at Playa de Sotavento de Jandia on Fuerteventura Strolling in the capital, Santa Cruz de la Palma; White sandy beach at Costa Teguise
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Oct 19, 2003
Words:2178
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