For top-class food and drink, and also for its otherworldly beauty, it’s well worth making the connection to La Palma in the Canaries, writes Sam Boland
Coming in to land at an island airport, the plane’s windows filling with the sea below as the pilot banks sharply, always feels a little bit more intrepid than usual for those of us used to landing among the wide open fields of Cork, Stansted, and the like.
This is doubly so when you land on La Palma; the airport is squeezed in on a scrap of level ground with the Atlantic on one side and the massive bulk of the island’s central mountain range on the other.
These two contrasting features will dominate any trip to La Palma; I had a pain in my neck by the end of my first day from gawping down at the rugged coastline below me on one side, and up at the sheer cliff-faces soaring above me on the other. Indeed, it is these two features, the sea and the soaring mountain, that make La Palma such a unique holiday destination.
Like the rest of the Canary Islands, La Palma is of volcanic origin, and it is divided neatly north-to-south by the Cumbre Vieja (an active but currently dormant volcanic range) and the extraordinary Caldera de Taburiente. The result is a wide variety of microclimates that should be impossible on an island of a mere 700 square kilometres — a tenth of the size of Co Cork.
La Palma, the most north-westerly of the Canary Islands, juts out into Atlantic weather systems, so its north in particular gathers a significant amount of moisture. Combined with fertile volcanic soil and deep gorges that deter human interference, this gives rise to stunning rainforests.
Hiking up the trails of Los Tilos, in particular, feels like stepping back millennia in time. As soft, green sunlight filtered down through the canopy of the laurisilva forest, I would not have been surprised had the eerie silence been broken by the surprise appearance of a velociraptor.
The lush beauty of the north is in stark contrast with the south. The Cumbre Vieja, reaching to the southern tip of La Palma, is home to more than 100 volcanic cones and vents.
As a result, the area around the town of Fuencaliente is characterised by fields of jagged black rock, twisted into agonised shapes by unimaginable heat and pressure.
You can climb the San Antonio volcano (don’t worry, last active in 1678) and take in the entire vista, including the now solid lava flows from the most recent eruption in the region (1971, at the Teneguía cone).
At the foot of Teneguía lies La Fuente Santa, a long-lost natural mineral spring with alleged healing properties. Buried by lava in 1677, the lost spring took on Fountain of Youth proportions in folk remembrance.
Recently rediscovered, it is set to become an attraction in its own right. Until then, make do with two natural springs a brief walk west from Echentive beach. And a short drive to the east is yet another alien landscape, the Salinas Marinas de Fuencaliente, where salt is harvested and heaped in dazzling white pyramids along the black rock.
The south is home to most of La Palma’s few beaches. Even in March, the water is warm (by Irish standards, at least), but currents can be strong, so take local advice — it is the Atlantic Ocean out there, after all.
The Palmertian solution is to build walls in natural coves and inlets that let water in and out but protect against waves and currents. As seen in La Fajana and Charco Azul on the north-east coast, the result is calm and safe bathing in crystal clear waters with spectacular views.
Nonetheless, La Palma lacks the beach culture that has drawn Irish tourists to the likes of Lanzarote and Tenerife for decades. Its overseas visitors are predominantly Northern European hikers and cyclists seeking respite from severe winters.
And with endless peaks, valleys, and natural parks, and miles and miles of switchback roads to explore, La Palma is a paradise for outdoors enthusiasts of all abilities.
Trails through Los Tilos, for example, include well-laid- out strolls lasting two hours and, at the other end of the spectrum, challenging 1,000m climbs. The pine forest of El Pilar on the Cumbre Vieja, meanwhile, has a campsite equipped with huts, cooking areas, even a playground.
La Palma’s hotel scene reflects this reality as well — the 1,500-bed Teneguía Princess resort aside, hotels are friendly but functional, clean and cheerful, somewhere for tired, satisfied hikers to lay their head
before the next adventure.
On the other hand, when these adventurers come down from the mountainside in search of sustenance, La Palma is not found wanting — rich volcanic soil and plentiful moisture makes La Palma an epicurean’s
Bananas are the main export, but many other crops are processed here into luxury goods whose standards belie the island’s remote and rugged nature.
The Aldea distillery in San Andres y Sauces uses locally-grown sugar cane to make both clear and dark rum that deserve extensive, if careful, sampling.
In Brena Alta are two neighbouring cigar factories, Julio’s and Richard’s.
I say factory, but you can, in fact, watch as cigars are rolled by hand as they have been for generations, making use of La Palma tobacco to give their products a unique aroma.
Other native indulgences include the sweet white wine, Malvasia, and strong, satisfying reds, while La Palma also has a burgeoning craft beer scene, headed by the Gara brand.
Bar culture is friendly and unpretentious; whether in Cafe Sputnik on Santa Cruz de la Palma’s waterfront or at Kiosco Aridane on Los Llanos’s Plaza de Espana, a drink at a Palmertian bar feels like sitting in a friend’s kitchen or garden, having the craic.
A bottle of beer, it’s worth mentioning, costs just €1.50.
The island’s cuisine is uncomplicated but hearty, with fresh fish a centrepiece of every menu. Vegetarians won’t struggle to find something to suit them.
Even the most humble taberna will have a freshly-made tortilla and local cheeses on its tapas board, alongside the charcuterie and shellfish, while papas arrugadas — sweet new potatoes crusted with sea salt and served with fiery mojo rojo and mild mojo verde — are a versatile snack.
Coffee lovers should try a barraquito — espresso with condensed milk, lemon liqueur liquor, and cinnamon barraquito for a real kick, especially from the award-winning El Cafe de Don Manuel in Santa Cruz.
Dining al fresco is a common experience, and mealtimes can range from a couple of hurried snacks washed down accompanied by a local beer, to late lunches that meander on into the evening over several courses. Palmertian restaurants embrace their reliance on tourism, so service is always welcoming, and many menus come in English, French, and German, as well as Spanish, even off the beaten tourist trail.
And if you’re lucky, Sergio Lesende, owner of Il Giardino Jardino restaurant in El Paso, will surprise you with a few words of Irish.
Indeed, this welcome appears to be a natural trait of Palmertians.
I lost count of the number of times a simple expression of interest led to behind-the-scenes access: The San Antonio visitor centre screens an English-language documentary about the volcano just for me; when I express an interest in the pre-Castilian inhabitants of La Palma, Carlos Cecilio Rodríguez shows me around his museum of aboriginal art, despite it not being due to open for two months.
I was given a tour of the inner workings of the Aldea distillery; I even got to try my hand at rolling a cigar.
No doubt some of this amounted to showing off for the travel writer, but it was also testament to Palmertians’ desire to show that small, peripheral islands can create beautiful culture and achieve great things — not so unlike ourselves.
This impression of generosity of spirit is reinforced when David Dorta, manager of the Hotel Valle Aridane in Los Llanos where I am staying, invites me to his private members’ club for the last night of Carnival.
During a slightly tipsy tour of the club’s salons and music rooms, I get another important insight into Palmertian society.
David tells me about the merchant families who built the irrigation system to bring water to the island’s farms.
A discussion ensues about how much of this good deed was benevolence and how much was self-interest; “In La Palma,” one conversationalist says darkly, “water is power.”
Perhaps it is his full face of Día de los Muertos make-up that give his words such foreboding.
Nonetheless, the role of merchants and traders in the development of La Palma, in the face of an inefficient, corrupt state, cannot be understated. Further investigation of this civic spirit leads to perhaps the biggest surprise yet on this island of hidden surprises — the first democratically-elected public representative in La Palma, and in fact all of Spain, was an Irishman.
Denis O’Daly — or Dionisio as he is known in La Palma — was born in Co Cork in the first half of the 18th century.
His coat of arms suggests a connection with the O’Sullivan Beare clan of Bantry. Educated by Jesuits in Paris, he founded a trading empire in La Palma, where he married and settled.
However, having left an Ireland in the grip of the Penal Laws, O’Daly was dismayed to find ordinary Palmertians suffering under the ‘regidores perpetuos’, whereby government office was inherited, rather than elected. Again demonstrating his entrepreneurial — or some would say revolutionary — spirit, O’Daly duly got himself elected mayor in 1767.
Of course, deep-seated hereditary power does not give up that easily; when O’Daly and his campaigning lawyer, Anselmo Pérez de Brito, attempt to sue the ‘regidores perpetuos’ for corruption and embezzlement, they are met with a countersuit for sedition, O’Daly’s mayorship is suspended on spurious grounds, and his arrest is sought.
There follows a tale of adventure and derring-do on the high seas whereby O’Daly commandeers one of his own ships to flee La Palma and sails into the unknown with a crew handpicked for their loyalty to their boss. This story, and many more from O’Daly’s action-packed life, have now been rescued from the dusty record books and given new life in O’Daly, historia de un irlandés by local journalist Eduardo Cabrera, and published by lecanarienediciones.com.
An English translation is coming soon.
Without wishing to spoil the ending, it’s worth noting that, in 1773, a full 16 years before the French Revolution, O’Daly became the first democratically-elected public representative in all of Europe.
However, O’Daly is not the only pioneering Irishman to influence the Canary Islands. José Murphy, the 19th-century “father of Santa Cruz de Tenerife”, was the son of a Dublin merchant, while Lorenzo Cullen was president of the archipelago at the end of the last century.
In the arts, Teoboldo Power composed the official anthem of the Canary Islands before his untimely death in 1884, and Alfonso O’Shanahan is one of the region’s most respected poets and journalists.
Be they pioneers or their descendants, whether they’re artists, merchants, or politicians, it’s clear the that ‘CanIrish’ as they are known, have had a disproportionate influence on life in the Canary Islands.
“Irishmen came here and found people of the same spirit,” says Cabrera, who travelled to Cork last year while researching O’Daly’s story.
“Migrant nations, island nations, understand it is about pride and loss. So here they could start a life again.”
Not only that, but It seems the CanIrish like to celebrate this heritage as much as their Hibernian cousins. St Patrick’s Day festivities have taken off in the islands in the last decade, organised and promoted by enterprising CanIrish.
This is particularly so in Santa Cruz de la Palma, where a week of celebrations last month included the launch of Cabrera’s book, a photo exhibition about Cork, traditional Irish music and dance, and a re-enactment of a scene from O’Daly’s life: The merchant, it seemed, was fond of dancing, but a local custom meant that festivities could not start until all couples were paired, so when he found himself at a social event where men outnumbered women, O’Daly made a swift exit, and returned in a dress and bonnet.
The balance of the sexes restored, the dancing could start.
I leave it late in my trip to visit La Caldera de Taburiente.
It has loomed over the island my entire time here, almost like a final challenge for which one must temper the brain by absorbing the rest of La Palma’s natural beauty.
Formed half a million years ago when the volcano that comprised La Palma collapsed in on itself, its steep walls soar some 2,500m metres above sea level, and provided a natural defence that allowed the native Guanches tribes to resist Castilian invaders for nearly all of the 15th century.
Inside these walls is a 10km diameter lost world, straight out of a 1950s B-movie.
Hardy native pines cling to bare cliff outcrops; ice-cold streams burst out of the rock and disappear again; the silence within is absolute.
The magnitude of La Caldera is stunning — visitors will struggle to find a vantage point from which to view it in its entirety.
The only way to experience it fully is from within. And, once again, Palmertians have made this easy for visitors, with a number of well-marked trails for explorers of all ages and abilities. It is even possible to camp overnight; it’s free, but, as with all of Spain’s national parks, a permit is required (reservasparquesnacionales.es).
An overnight stay in La Caldera is an excellent way, too, to enjoy another secret delight of La Palma — the night sky. La Palma is a designated starlight reserve; its latitude, clear skies, and dedication to reducing light pollution mean the stars, though the same as you’ll see in Ireland, seem twice as bright as they do in Ireland.
For more committed star-gazers, there is a battery of observatories at Roque de los Muchachos on the rim of La Caldera.
For all these reasons and more (whale-watching, paragliding, Flemish art, and colonial architecture, to name a few), La Palma has long been known as La Isla Bonita (connections to the Madonna song are coincidental), but Palmertians are beginning to also use the term ‘Europe boutique’, and really, it’s hard to imagine anywhere else with so many European attractions — gastronomy, revolutionary history, scenery of so many kinds — packed into one place.
Perhaps the only reason La Palma remains off the beaten track is the relative difficulty in getting there.
There are twice-weekly flights from Gatwick and Manchester, or you could fly to one of the bigger Canary Islands and catch the hourly Binter Canarias island-hopping airline service.
Hollywood has already discovered La Palma — Netflix fantasy drama The Witcher, starring Henry Cavill, is making good use of its many terrains as we speak — and a young, forward-looking political class is
increasingly making tourist links with Europe and further afield.
Summer months can be uncomfortably hot, but from November to March, mean temperatures range from 18 to 21 degrees, making mid-terms or Christmas the perfect time to write your own chapter of CanIrish history.