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Canary Islands: Plenty of Reasons to Sing Their Praise

With an abundance of hotels, more than a dozen golf courses, exceptional water sports, nature reserves, archaeological sites and hundreds of volcanoes, you may be torn between getting out and about discovering the islands or just lying on the beach doing nothing.

The seven main islands that make up the Canary Islands are located more than 600 miles south of the Spanish mainland and 70 miles from the north western coast of Africa. Their volcanic origin, position in the Atlantic Ocean and favorable climate gives the islands a unique character and landscape. The islands -- Tenerife, Lanzarote, Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria, La Gomera, La Palma and El Hierro -- have a Spanish look and feel with some distinct island charms.

Tenerife is the largest and best known island with a lush tropical environment and a lunar-like volcanic interior. Mount Teide in its center, surprisingly, has a snow-capped peak. Gran Canaria has pristine beaches and an active nightlife whereas Fuerteventura, the closest island to the African coastline has perhaps the best beaches of all the Canaries. Lanzarote is the most volcanic with excellent beaches on the Costa Teguise, at Puerto del Carmen and Playa Blanca. La Gomera is mountainous and only accessible by ferry, La Palma is the northernmost island with intense natural beauty and El Hierro is the smallest and most remote of the Canaries. With an abundance of hotels, more than a dozen golf courses, exceptional water sports (including windsurfing and scuba diving) 140 plus nature reserves, 29 archaeological sites, four national parks and hundreds of volcanoes, you may be torn between lying on the beach doing nothing and getting out and about discovering the islands.

On average, the temperature hovers between 75 and 80 degrees during the month of December, so it shouldn't be a difficult decision -- shovel snow here and lie in the sun there.

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Spanish Heritage Tours (tel. 800/456-5050; www.shtours.com) was one of the only U.S.-based travel companies I could uncover that actually offered air-inclusive packages to the Canary Islands from U.S gateways. Among the best value vacation options is its package to Tenerife, which offers round-trip airfare from New York, airport transfers, six-nights' accommodations at the five-star beachfront Mediterranean Palace Resort, breakfast daily and all hotel taxes and service charges. This hotel has one of the largest swimming pools I have ever seen and is located on beautiful Playa de las Americas. The trip is priced from $1,100 per person based on double occupancy.  Departures are also available from other U.S. cities with rates available on request. This rate is valid for travel from December 1 to 14, 2006 with prices going up to $1,399 for December 15 to 21, 2006 and $2,079 for travel over the Christmas and New Year period. The holiday season departures include either a Christmas or New Year's dinner, depending on the date of departure.  

A similar package, but staying at the five-star beachfront Melia Tamarindos located on Playa de San Agustín in Gran Canaria during the same period, is priced from $1,779 for travel from New York between December 1 and 14, 2006. December 15 to 21, 2006 is priced at $1,979 and holiday season prices go up to $2,749 but go back down to $1,879 for travel between January 5 and March 31, 2007.   Travelers can extend their stay with a two-night add-on package to Madrid either before or after their Canary Islands vacation. Prices for this addition range from $359 to $379 per person and include round-trip airport transfers, four-star hotel accommodation, buffet breakfasts, a half-day city sightseeing tour, hotel taxes and service charges.    

While American travelers might just be getting wind of the Canary Islands as a great destination to escape to during the frosty months, the British have long used the Canaries as their winter playground. It makes sense then that most of the best travel deals, especially packages, to the Canaries are organized by UK travel companies. You may save plenty of Euro by flying into London and picking up a travel deal from there.

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OT Beach (tel. +44/870-606-0708; www.otbeach.com) offers flight and hotel packages for over 400 properties in the Canary Islands -- with everything from two-star to five-star on offer. Several properties are all-inclusive, or half board (just breakfast and dinner).

A quick search I did for a midweek departure from London Gatwick (unfortunately, I couldn't find any Heathrow departures) in early to mid-December came up with some budget finds. A package that included round-trip airfare, half board, and seven nights' accommodations at La Piramide in Costa Antigua in a one bedroom apartment with pool views was only $785 -- and that's for two people including all taxes and fuel surcharges. For $998 for two people, fly from London to Fuerteventura and stay at the four-star Sunrise Crystal Beach Resort in Costa Calma on a half-board basis.

Another British company, Voyana (tel. +44/871-271-5200; www.voyana.com) offers a wide variety of package deals out of England. The following deals including round trip airfare from London (Gatwick or Stansted) and airport transfers are currently available:

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  • Seven nights at the four-star Barcelo Lanzarote in Lanzarote with half board -- $620 per person for travel in early January, 2007
  • Seven nights at the four-star Playa La Arena in Tenerife with half board -- $658 per person for travel from December 8, 2006 to January 31, 2007
  • Seven nights at the four-star Catarina Hotel in Gran Canaria with half board -- $773 per person for travel January 5 to 25, 2007
  • Seven nights at the four-star San Antonio Hotel in Lanzarote with half board -- $792 per person for travel from November 30 to December 14, 2006
  • Seven nights at the four-star all-inclusive Costa Calma Beach Hotel in Fuerteventura -- $952 per person for travel January 3 to February 1, 2007
  • Seven nights at the four-star Reina Isabel Hotel in Gran Canaria on a bed and breakfast basis -- $933 per person for travel January 4 to February 7, 2007

The Canary Island Music Festival (www.festivaldecanarias.com) is an annual event that will be held from January 7 to March 2 in 2007. Many of the Europe's leading musicians and orchestras relish the opportunity to escape the mainland winter and enjoy the enthusiastic crowds and Canary Islands hospitality. Seven weeks of concerts take place in both Las Palmas de Gran Canaria and Santa Cruz de Tenerife with next year's program featuring performances from the Berlin Philharmonic Quartet the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra, the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, the Tenerife Symphony Orchestra and the Gran Canaria Philharmonic Orchestra among others. Each concert takes place at least once in each venue plus there is also a full concert calendar on each of the smaller islands. $13 to $92 or tickets for the entire series start from $191.

Although various "carnival" festivals are celebrated throughout the Canary Islands from February and into March, the Las Palmas de Gran Canaria Carnival (www.laspalmascarnaval.com) is the highlight of the Carnival season. Unlike most other festivities that last for three to five days and traditionally end on Ash Wednesday, the Las Palmas version lasts for three entire weeks (from February 8- March 4, 2007) prior to the start of Lent. Events include elaborate costume parties, concerts and performances by international artists, beauty pageants, children's activities and the crowning of various "carnival queens" -- traditional and drag. One of the highlights is the famous Drag Queen Day held on February 24, 2007 with a themed contest that changes annually. The "Gran Cavalgata" (February 25, 2007) is the carnival's main parade complete with ornate floats, singing and dancing. On March 3, the Canarians celebrate the velatorio which is the day of mourning for the sardine -- the symbol of good living and carnival. A huge sardine is paraded through the streets as locals march behind dressed in funeral attire. The next day sadness turns to celebration as the giant sardine is buried in the sand on the beach accompanied by a spectacle of fireworks, bonfires and all-night parties. Most festivities are held in and around Parque de Santa Catalina in the center of Las Palmas.

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