How to avoid the crowds on a Canary Islands cruise

Joanna Booth
A few cruise ships can take you to the peace and quiet of El Hierro - GETTY
A few cruise ships can take you to the peace and quiet of El Hierro - GETTY

There are almost too many reasons to visit the Canary Islands. Reliable sunshine, even through the winter. White and black sand beaches. Dramatic landscapes, with towering volcanoes, sculpted lava and lush forests. Clear waters packed with marine life. Star-filled skies. Fine local wine and excellent Spanish food. And prices that won’t break the bank.

Add these factors to a compelling combination of geography and geopolitics – the Canaries are one of the UK’s few short-haul winter sun destinations that haven’t suffered from security scares – and you’ll understand why everyone wants to go. But what if you’d prefer not to see everyone while you’re there?

Smaller ships

Yes, it’s a no brainer; to share your Canaries with fewer crowds, cruise on a smaller ship. Tall ships provide the most boutique experience, with the 170-passenger Star Flyer stopping at Lanzarote and Gran Canaria on a seven-night Morocco and Canary Islands cruise, and the bijou windjammer Sea Cloud taking just 64 guests to Gran Canaria, La Gomera and Tenerife on a five-day, Canaries-only jaunt. 

Small ship options are increasing, particularly if money isn’t an object. Ponant’s brand-new 184-passenger Le Dumont d’Urville is set to sail 11-day Canary Islands and Cape Verde itineraries, and while this year’s adventure is nearly sold out, there are cabins available for the 2020 voyage. The new expedition yacht, which features an underwater lounge, will call at Tenerife and Gran Canaria. 

And when the first 298-passenger vessel from Ritz Carlton Yacht Collection, launching in February 2020, crosses the Atlantic at the end of March, the only ports of call on its 12-night Bridgetown to Lisbon voyage are Tenerife and Lanzarote – leaving a whopping nine sea days to enjoy the super yacht lifestyle.

If you want to sail with Silversea, it’s worth waiting. In 2020, the line’s 12-day Lisbon to Barcelona itinerary, calling at La Gomera, La Palma and Lanzarote, will be operated by the 608-passenger Silver Spirit. If you can hang on until 2021, it’ll be Silver Shadow, sailing with a maximum of 388 guests, instead.

La Gomera - Credit: GETTY
A number of smaller ships dock at La Gomera Credit: GETTY

Lesser-known ports

There are seven main islands in the Canaries, and you’ll see most pop up with relative frequency in cruise itineraries. Gran Canaria, Lanzarote, La Gomera, La Palma and Tenerife are pretty standard; Fuerteventura less common, although large ships from lines with extensive Canaries programmes such as P&O Cruises and Marella do dock there.

If you’re looking to find peace and quiet, keep your eyes peeled for mention of El Hierro, the smallest and least-visited of the Canary Islands. It’s the furthest south and west of the archipelago – before Columbus made his 1492 voyage, it was thought to be the end of the earth – and has a population of less than 11,000. You’ll find towering sea cliffs, lava-sculpted rock formations, thick juniper forests and a bountiful marine eco-system – the island has been designated a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve.

Just a handful of cruise lines will take you to El Hierro; the tall ship Sea Cloud II stops for a morning during a 10-night Canary Islands and Cape Verde voyage, and Saga Sapphire docks from 8am to 9pm on the 19-night Tastes of Spain and Portugal itinerary. Seabourn Odyssey will visit in April, with excursions including trips to see the island’s giant, two-foot long lizards and the active underwater volcano just offshore.

Long stays and overnights

Tranquil early mornings and late afternoons when the light is golden, the air is cool and the crowds have left are joys that are frequently sacrificed on a cruise – often you’ll be waiting to get on or off ship. But choose itineraries where you don’t leave until late, or stay overnight, and you can make the most of these quieter moments.

Many of Fred Olsen’s voyages include late nights in La Palma, Tenerife and Gran Canaria, and Marella Explorer doesn’t leave Tenerife and Gran Canaria until 11pm on some itineraries. 

Some Seabourn and Saga cruises in the archipelago include overnights in Tenerife, including the latter’s Stars of the Canaries, a 14-night cruise on Spirit of Adventure that features an on-board astronomer and night sky photographer.

Marella Cruises
Marella Cruises offers options for those hoping to avoid the crowds

Get active

Getting out of the coach comfort zone is a sure-fire way to leave some of your fellow tourists behind. Choosing an active excursion, even through one of the larger cruise lines, will keep numbers lower. 

Many lines offer guided hikes through the shady laurel forests of La Gomera’s Garajonay National Park. Crystal Cruises will get you out mountain biking or hiking in Tenerife, and the RSSC Lanzarote programme includes a trek in the National Park of Volcanoes. Marella Cruises offers bike tours on Tenerife, La Palma, Le Gomera, Lanzarote and Fuerteventura. 

If you want the excitement without the effort, excursions on P&O voyages include a small group exploration of La Palma’s rocky landscapes by ATV and a buzz around Fuerteventura in a two or three-seater motorized trike.

Garajonay National Park, La Gomera - Credit: GETTY
Get close to nature with a guided hike through the forests of Garajonay National Park on La Gomera Credit: GETTY

Go it alone

The Canary Islands are great places to explore independently; small in size with reasonably priced car hire and well-signed roads. Canary Islands Car Hire (CICAR) has a rental desk in each island’s cruise port, and offers a free audio guide of the island you’re visiting.

If you’re not confident self-driving, some cruise lines will organise a private vehicle with driver, or you can book private tours through independent operators such as Tenerife Private Tours, Taxi La Palma or Blackstone Treks & Tours in Lanzarote.

Hit the road and leave urban centres behind – the somewhat functional resorts are really not the islands’ strongest suit. Within an hour’s drive of the cruise ports you’ll find mountains and wild beaches on Tenerife’s Anaga peninsula, mist-shrouded laurel forest in La Gomera’s Garajonay National Park, and on La Palma the 8km-wide Caldera de Taburiente, the largest erosion crater in the world.