A European winter surf tour – Canary islands
Previous posts have delved into the potential for surf exploration in France, Spain, Portugal and Morocco. We now continue the search for quality winter waves further south in our final post of the European winter surf tour series and head to the Canary islands.
Tom Keyes: Nov 2017 – The Canary islands have managed to keep a relatively low profile on the travelling surfer’s radar. Famed for fierce funneling peaks storming out of the deep Atlantic Ocean, waves like El Quemao have led this small cluster of islands to receive regular comparison with the offerings served up on the coast of Hawaii. Couple that with a reputation for ruthlessly inhospitable local surfers and you’re left with a destination that can be accused of lacking appeal for a casual winter getaway. But the Canaries shouldn’t be dismissed quite as hastily. It’s true to say that there are brutish deep water slabs requiring jet-ski assistance and a large dose of brave pills. And that disrespectful travelling tourists have fallen prey to some rough treatment from the local crews. There is however, a perfectly accessible side. The lack of a Red Bull emblazoned airlift vest doesn’t exclude you from entering the water and sampling some classic warm water winter waves.
All of the Canary Islands pick up plenty of winter swell. But if you’re heading south purely in search of surf, then Lanzarote probably provides the greatest range of opportunities. Most famous, and keeping the Hawaiian comparison alive, is La Santa. Often referred to as the Atlantic Pipeline, swell makes brisk landfall on a sharp and shallow reef. What the wave shares with Pipeline in threat, it also shares in quality. Some of the hollowest waves on the planet tumble enticingly onto the razor-sharp reef. Watching from the shore is mesmerising, but successfully tucking yourself under the lip of one of those picture perfect waves is both pleasurable and addictive. There is a makeable left, but to give yourself the best chance of going the other way, you need to be taking off just behind the peak, tucking in early to beat the freight train section menacingly snapping on your heels. You’ve got to be committed, courageous and possess more than a smidgen of talent to stamp your mark here. But it’s well worth it.
If La Santa is all a bit hard-core, or simply too big to be anything other than dangerous, then Playa de Famara might prove a more attractive option. One of the best sandy bottomed peaks in the whole of the Canaries, it offers a wave for all abilities. The south end of the beach is smaller and more suited to those new to the sport – it also plays host to a contingent of longboarders – whilst the further north you travel the hollower and faster the wave becomes. There are plenty of other options in this area, including a few undocumented reef breaks. An exploratory cruise around Famara, in the midst of a decent swell and with a favourable wind blowing, can often pay dividends. Just look for the tell-tale sign of sticker adorned surf vehicles seemingly abandoned by the side of road.
Lanzarote proudly flaunts its volcanic heritage; the Canary Islands only exist as a result of fiery activity in the region some 15 million years ago. It gives the landscape a unique feel. Large black pillars of solidified lava force their way skyward and ensure that what appears in the first instance to be a monotonously repetitive backdrop, is actually as diverse as any of the world’s finest scenery. Vegetation is sparse. And plants or trees that are thriving are usually doing so in imported soil. In the very north of the island lies the small fishing village of Orzola, and some relief from the jagged lava formations. Rather conveniently there’s also a right-hand point break that serves up enticingly workable sections all the way to the beach. Neighbouring Orzola is Playa de la Canteria. The white sands and clear sapphire blue waters – not to mention the secluded situation – make this one of the most picturesque beaches on the island. Access to La Canteria beach is not particularly well signposted, and the approach down a dusty dirt track can be hard going. But the pay-off is worth it. This is a place to discover during a medium swell, different sections of the beach come to life at varying stages of the tide, making an all-day session in one of the more remote portions of the island a realistic proposition. And when your legs can take no more of the waves, the visibility in the water makes this a superb place to swim amongst the local sea life, so pack a snorkel.
Lying just off the coast of Africa, amongst a swirling weather system of winds and varying temperatures, the Canary Islands – and in particular Lanzarote – are not famed for still, glassy conditions. But the beauty of visiting any of the Canaries is the ease with which distance can be travelled. Excellent coastal roads and highways allow the kilometres between spots to be briskly devoured, giving the opportunity to surf multiple destinations in one day. And being an island means you are less beholden to the fanciful whims of the wind. Onshore on the east coast? Then dash across to the west side of the island, where offshore breezes await. As with many of the world’s most famous surf spots, the strength of the wind increases throughout the day, and it’s no different here. Set your alarm for an early start to make the very best of the conditions, and maybe even beat a few of the locals (or less keen travelling surfers) into the first waves of the day.
If you are fortunate to experience the briefest of lulls in the wind, then it might be a good idea to check out Jameos del Agua. It’s a fickle old break, and only usually warrants a look on a North-Easterly wind, but it’s one of those spots that’s worth taking a punt on, even if there’s only a slim chance that it’s firing. Because when it’s on. It’s really on. During a large swell the waves breaking on the outer reef have enough momentum to carry them to the second reef sitting slightly further inside, joining together to create one mighty long ride. The first section presents a fatter wave, which actually makes for a fairly easy take-off, before endlessly walling off into the distance. A perfect exercise in testing just how deep you can lay your rail into the face of the wave. Then, as your fins ride over the shallower second reef, the wave hollows out, and if the wind is right, the lip will ceremoniously start to hurl over your head, shading you from the Canarian sun. There are other reefs in the area too. It’s worth searching.
Despite being situated off the coast of Africa, a flight to Lanzarote requires your limbs to be contorted into a budget airline seat for only 4 hours. The weather is always warm. The waves are always consistent. And the local beer always cold. What’s not to love? ¡Buen viaje!