As the blue winter fogs rolled in on London this week and the winter nights of Scandinavia encroached more deeply on the ever-shrinking afternoons, marrow-chilled northern Europeans looked wistfully southward toward Spain's Canary Islands, the Old World's one sure sanctuary in the sun. There, off the northwest coast of Africa, five air hours out of Madrid, on a latitude even with Florida, a visitor could nourish himself in the sun alongside the bountiful banana crop, could swim in the sea from a five-mile beach, could skin-dive in some of the world's clearest pools, could ski on a 12,000-foot mountain, could watch a brand of wrestling visible nowhere else in the world, could gasp at the strange crater-of-the-moon landscapes and the strangely costumed Canarios who till them, could live in one of the hemisphere's best hotels at $18 a day for two meals, tips, taxes and terrace included, could live at a pension at $3.12 tout compris, could come home sporting a tailor-made suit for which he had paid exactly $35.20.
There is evidence that at least some of these attractions have been available for a number of years, for the Romans called the Canaries the "Fortunate Islands," and other bewitched visitors fore and aft of that day have labeled them the Blessed Isles, the Elysian Fields, and the Garden of Hesperides. Although no modern traveler after a week in the Canaries would doubt the aptness of these rapturous titles, the handle that stuck was one affixed by no less a litt�rateur than Pliny. He called this 13-island archipelago after the Latin canis, for dog, referring to a strange and vicious breed that infested the islands in his day. The chirping birds that were also so common to the islands later became known as canaries.
Although Horatio Nelson lost a battle and an arm trying to wrest the Canaries from Spain, which conquered them in the 15th century, the islands have long since been successfully invaded by hordes of Britons who, fleeing their own frosted isles, account for three-quarters of all the travelers who come to the Canaries in winter. On the other hand, although Columbus stopped here on his way to discover America, American travelers have never really discovered the Canaries. Two prime dissuaders have been transportation and distance (3,687 miles from New York). But the distance is shrinking—beginning January 5 Trans World Airlines will commence once-a-week direct, nonstop service between New York and Madrid, over-flying the old milk-run stops of Gander, the Azores and Lisbon. Its Jetstreams, a sort of super Super Constellation with a cruise speed of 350 mph, will make the run in 11� hours. After that there is a four-and-a-half-hour hop via Iberia from Madrid, landing either at Las Palmas on Grand Canary or at Tenerife.
Las Palmas is a narrow city strung out for five skinny miles along the waterfront, so far in fact that its streets ultimately connect with a once-independent offshore volcanic peninsula called La Isleta. At the docks fishing boats jockey for space. Bananas and tomatoes aimed to hit the European market when Europe is too cold to grow its own are swung aboard freighters. Oil waits in tanks to refuel some of the 7,000 ships that put in here every year. In town, double-decker buses sold by some enterprising salesman from England thread their way through the narrow streets, like fullbacks on a footbridge.
In a 15-acre landscaped park overlooking the harbor and the sea beyond is the island pride, the 145-room Santa Catalina Hotel, built in 1953 with the proceeds of a local gas tax, owned by the city and run with exquisite precision by a 25-year-old Swiss. Tucked among the palms, the bowers of bougainvillaea, the cactus plants studded with white flowers that bloom at midnight are an open-air American-style bowling alley, a pair of tennis courts, a miniature golf course, and an open-air pool filled with gently warmed mineral water. For the Santa Catalina it means having its lake and heating it too. Underslung Ferraris roll up to the door and disgorge the smart set, local and expatriate, in tailored beach pajamas, billowing ascots, and antenna-long cigaret holders. Handsome Belgian and French couples on honeymoons splash in the pool. In the evening starched Britons in white jackets and black, guardsmen mustaches appear in the bar to drink 50� Scotch (25� downtown). And upstairs, from the carved wood balconies, the lights on the jetty are a string of luminous blue pearls pulled taut and straight that run to infinity from the hulk of Mount Isleta, the reformed volcano that was once an offshore crater.
In the park alongside the Santa Catalina is a delightful quadrangle called Canary Village, a Williamsburg construction of shops, bodegas, balconies and grilled windows. There is a patio bar, dress shops, a flower shop, and souvenir stalls that sell the inevitable walking dolls of Barcelona, a hyperthyroid, knee-high image much favored by visiting cruise passengers. Island quince, pomegranates, lemons bigger than softballs, oranges that grow yellow and green but never orange are displayed in bowls. There is a pila, the island icebox, a three-decker drip arrangement planted with culantrillo ferns to keep it even cooler. You can buy a timple, a bulge-backed brother of the ukulele which itself was spawned in Portugal, emigrated to Australia and wandered into Hawaii, which thinks of it now as its own. A canary store sells wild canaries for $1, whites for $4, and yellow birds at anywhere from $2 to $8. The higher-priced warblers come with a pedigree. But the best buy is the exquisite lacework, far cheaper than Brussels or Cyprus, each island's design different from the next. On Sunday mornings troupes of Canary Islanders gather in costume in the village patio and dance and sing to the timple and the tambourine.
Then in the sun of winter there is the pool of the Santa Catalina or, a few minutes from the hotel, the white sand beaches of Alcaravaneras and Canteras. An hour's ride out of town is the great beach of Maspalomas which begins at a palmy oasis and stretches for five sugar-sand miles past a lagoon, ending finally in a crescendo of mountainous dunes. Until an entrepreneur gains title there is nothing on hand but the sparse fringe of a few ramshackle bungalows and a shanty that serves drinks and snacks. You change your clothes in a pillbox that survives from the Spanish Civil War.
It is a prime excursion to take the traveler winding up to the top of Tejeda, where the government has built a mountain parador, or inn, on a 3,400-foot saddle looking out to the petrified monoliths that rise in front of the terrace. But even more interesting is the ride to the top of the Pico de Bandama. From here the view looks far across to a neighboring peak, where in the village of Atalaya a thousand troglodytes make pottery without a wheel and live in caves dug in the mountainside, some of them furnished with mahogany dressers and canopied beds, with pink periquitos in the doorway. On the plateau, from the mountain of the cave dwellers to the rim of Bandama—itself an old volcano—is the golf course of Grand Canary. The greens are green, but the fairways are soft with volcanic ash that requires extra muscle on pitches, and an overdrive is very likely to send your ball over the rim and into the extinct volcano.
Cockfights, futbol and dogs
Spectator sports in Las Palmas start at noon on Sundays with cockfights in the Circo Gallera. Futbol, as soccer is known here, and Canary Island wrestling alternate as Sunday afternoon sports in the Campo Espa�a. There is no bull fighting on Grand Canary but greyhounds run every night. Strangely, no one goes to the track—the reason is simply that no one is interested in watching dogs run. But the betting is heavy and takes place off the premises.