SANTA DE LA CRUZ, Canary Islands — More years ago than we can know, volcanic eruptions in the Atlantic created seven islands. Each, like lovely sisters, has its own allure. Jewels in a royal tiara, they reflect against the velvety blue ocean 60 miles off Morocco.
On one, Gran Canaria, farmer Augustin Hernandez Torre lives alone at the source of the islands' violent birth, in the pit of a volcano crater. Some call him the "soul of Spain's incomparable Canary Islands."
His companions are a cow, a pig, a dog, chickens and goats. Majestic lava boulders 600 feet high bond his special domain. A eucalyptus tree shades his crude stable; orange and guava trees shelter tomatoes, beans and potatoes.
Sitting on his haunches, cutting tall weeds with a small hand sickle, Augustin twinkles as he asks, "Why should I leave my volcanic world when the world comes to me?"
And so it does.
Steep Cinder Path
Visitors from many lands descend the steep, one-mile cinder path from the village of Bandama on the crater rim to see the man born in a volcanic cone. Bandama is on a twisting road about eight miles from Las Palmas, a spirited port city of 400,000 and the largest on the islands.
"I welcome everybody," says the wiry farmer with the tattered straw hat, pleased when visitors buy his honey, eggs or cheese.
Twice a day he climbs out to sell milk, perhaps buy supplies and visit his parents, brothers and sister. At 40, the farmer in the crater remains single. He understands why no woman is keen on his life style.
"Asi es la vida" --"That's life," he says with a smile.
Ah, la vida of the Canaries--how rich it is, how marvelously varied. Sun, sand, surf and sea breezes, forests and snowcapped peaks, deserts, flowers, giant cacti, banana and coffee plantations.
White villages cling to craggy cliffs, camels plod volcanic ash hills and the beaches--golden, taupe, white or black--go for miles. There are even desolate moonscapes.
All the islands have free ports. Duty-free shops at international airports cannot compete in price. Cameras, furs, leather, watches, liquor, appliances and silk are often less expensive than in the countries of their origin.
The most visited islands are Gran Canaria, Tenerife and Lanzarote. Fuerteventura, flat and arid, has the longest coastline and is ideal for travelers seeking secluded beaches. Gomera, lush and mountainous, was Christopher Columbus' last stop before sailing to the Americas in 1492. La Palma is richly scented with pine forests, and Hierros is the smallest and westernmost (population 7,000).
Gran Canaria, long the belle of the ball, round as a soursop and smaller than London, has the largest population, half a million plus. Resort communities on the south shore--the dry, sun-drenched side--teem with northern Europeans. Hotel events are often listed first in German, then English, finally Spanish.
Sand for Sun-Worshipers
The most developed beaches, crowded with high-rises, nightclubs and restaurants, stretch four miles from Maspaloma to El Ingles to the graceful sand dunes of San Augustin. There most tour groups congregate. Sun worshiping--topless, any age, any size--is the order of each day.
Smaller, more private beaches lie west of Maspalomas. The spectacular resort community of Puerto Rico hugs a sapphire harbor of sailing vessels, deep-sea fishing boats and yachts. Etched into steep hills are row atop row of look-alike spanking white bungalows and apartments.
The luxury hotels of Aquamar and Montemarina are set perpendicularly into a huge seaside cliff. Their sculpted balconies, draped with fuchsia, red and pink bougainvillea, descend symmetrically to the gardens below and the sea beyond.
Las Palmas, capital of the island province, sustains tenements, traffic jams and overcrowding. But its cultural events, museums, superb shoping, restaurants, night spots, boardwalk and resonant spirit outweigh its paucity of greenery.
The city's two districts are Vegueta, the old colonial section of narrow streets, wooden balconies and small plazas bordering the harbor, and a newer area with department stores, posh hotels and all-night action bordering the Playa de las Canteras, a mile-and-a-half crescent beach. Promenading the Canteras boardwalk past cafes, boutiques and cozy bars is a 24-hour pursuit.
The Columbus House across from the cathedral (Columbus stopped there in 1492, 1493 and 1502) was built for the island's governors. Among its treasures are documents of the explorer's voyages, maps from the 1500s and 17th-Century paintings.
To experience the island's green and floral splendor, drive the spiraling mountain road to the national Parador de Tejeda, a government-owned restaurant 15 miles into the interior. It could be nippy ascending to 6,000 feet; take a sweater.
En route, red-tiled villages balance on ledges, snuggle into rocky terracing, dot valleys brushed with colors of a painter's palette.