It’s hard to tell if my legs are wobbly because it’s the first time I’ve been ashore in four days or because I’ve just been on a steep climb. I’m on a cruise and walking holiday with Ramblers in the Canary Islands and, as both an active traveller and a cruise virgin, I’m curious to discover whether five days of hiking sandwiched between successive days at sea is enough to keep me from feeling contained.
As we set sail from Southampton on board the Balmoral, a Fred Olsen cruise liner, my hunch is that the first four days at sea will be endured rather than enjoyed – but I am wrong. I hadn’t taken into account the dawn-till-dusk programme of activities, talks, concerts and quizzes, nor the gym, top-deck swimming pools, card tables and library. All more than enough to keep both the mind and body occupied.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was the art – not the paintings produced in daily watercolour classes but the canvasses hung almost casually around the lounges and corridors.
Ramblers’ paradise: The Mail on Sunday’s Lizzie Enfield went on a cruise and walking holiday in the Canary Islands. Pictured is Lizzie’s hiking group in Teide Park in Tenerife
Heading to the handful of restaurants and bars or to the spa or observation lounge is like wandering through an Oslo art gallery.
The Fred Olsen business was founded in 1848 by three brothers in Hvitsten, a small town on the shores of Oslofjord. It was from there that they sent their first cargos – of ice and timber – around the world.
Artworks of their native country, amassed by four subsequent generations of Olsens, include Turneresque visions of ships at sea, early 20th Century landscapes by Norwegian artist Per Rom, and colourful woodcuts by Paul Gauguin’s grandson, also called Paul.
I am beginning to enjoy the routine of life on board when Madeira, our first port of call, hoves into view and our group is whisked off by minibus to the pass at Boca do Cerro, with its spectacular views of the vast volcanic caldera that forms the centre of the island.
From here we wind along vertiginous cliffs, across knife-edge ridges towards the many layers of lava on Pico Grande. At 5,400ft, Pico Grande is not, as its name suggests, the highest mountain of Madeira but it stands at the centre and offers unparalleled views across the island.
The descent leaves one of our group with a slight ankle injury, making the next four days of ‘Canary Island hopping’ somewhat literal for them.
She stopped in La Palma and trekked from the hot springs at Fuencaliente to the volcanoes of San Antonio (above)
We head to La Palma, where we trek from the hot springs at Fuencaliente (which are reputed to cure leprosy) to the volcanoes of San Antonio and ‘newbie’ volcanic cone Teneguia, which first erupted in 1971. Rows of vines, sheltered by lava stone walls, provide a burst of verdant green from the dark volcanic soil.
Back in the day, when the pirates lurked in wait to prey on galleons returning from the New World, La Palma’s wine had a reputation as being very fine indeed. Shakespeare’s Henry IV demanded it, Casanova quaffed it, and Robert Louis Stevenson cited it as bringing ‘softness to your heart’.
Perhaps it’s the wine that sees me waxing lyrical about the sky at night – darker than I have ever witnessed, the moon reflecting on the water and the gentle swaying of the ship as it heads towards our next port of call.
Back in the day, when the pirates lurked in wait to prey on galleons (pictured) returning from the New World, La Palma’s wine had a reputation as being very fine indeed
Or maybe I am simply seduced by the concept of cruising, which – as we sail on to Tenerife, Gran Canaria and Lanzarote – starts to make absolute sense.
To take in all of the islands by any other means of transport in the time would be impossible. It would take so much individual planning to trek through the desert landscape of the Teide Park in Tenerife – a majestic waste used as a landscape in Star Wars films – to witness the scorched earth and charred tree trunks left by forest fires in Gran Canaria, or to walk along a barren promontory between two windswept sandy beaches in Lanzarote, all before returning to the ship for a dinner followed by an evening of Motown classics!
So why wouldn’t you let the cruise organisers take the strain?
She also sailed to Tenerife, Gran Canaria and Lanzarote (pictured) before heading north towards Spain and Portugal
And to move between this archipelago of Atlantic islands by ship, as Christopher Columbus did en route to the Americas, feels more in keeping with the ethos of a walking holiday than flying.
After the ship heads north towards Spain and Portugal, docking for sightseeing tours of Cadiz and Lisbon, I relish the less frenetic pace the next two days at sea will bring.
Gathering for one of the formal dinners – a prospect that caused packing consternation, as how do you find enough room for hiking gear when you need to dress for dinner? – I chat to a historian with a wealth of Canarian knowledge at his disposal.
He tells of how the Olsen brothers moved from ice and timber to banana transportation and offloaded their cargo in London’s Canary Wharf – and about the Catalan and Majorcan missionaries who converted Canarians to Catholicism in the 14th Century.
I tell him I have experienced a conversion myself along the route to the Canaries: from landlubber to cruise enthusiast.