Canary Islands: The ultimate whistle-stop tour

La Gomera may be the second smallest of the Canary Islands, but it got a big thumbs up from passengers and travel agents on Saga Sapphire’s Canaries to Casablanca cruise.

There were no roads in the middle of La Gomera until the 1960s, so islanders developed the whistling language Silbo Gomera to communicate across the valleys.

News of births, deaths and marriages would spread as quickly as any of today’s social media, and this centuries-old skill is now considered so important it has been listed by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Silbo Gomera has also been introduced to the island’s school curriculum to preserve the tradition.

Optional excursions from Saga Sapphire include meeting islanders who demonstrate this unique language and it is amusing to find that El Silbo sounds similar to the noise made by those animated TV characters The Clangers.

It is also fun for guests to learn how to order wine with a whistle, and join a game of hide and seek with two La Gomerians – a ‘whistler’ who instructs a ‘finder’ to search for items hidden by the visiting group.

Back on our coach, we entered into the spirit of the day, whistling tunes from Moves like Jagger by Maroon Five, Bobby McFerrin’s Don’t Worry Be Happy and Otis Redding’s Dock of the Bay. Great fun!

Time travel

Visiting La Gomera is like stepping back a century, and a spider’s web of well-worn paths made by islanders who travelled north to south to trade goods is now a popular hiking route within Garajonay National Park, a UNESCO-listed biosphere site of deep ravines clad with misty, romantic forests.

The island is surprisingly green and after driving high into the hills and through ancient fern-fringed laurel forests, visitors are lost in the clouds before hitting sunshine and blue skies to enjoy spectacular views over Tenerife.

In the centre of the island, pretty villages in tucked-away valleys remain fairly self-sufficient with terraces cut into the hills to grow everything from mangoes to citrus fruit, corn and avocado. A tour stop in the traditional farming village of Los Telares gives passengers the chance to learn about the agriculture and stock up on date palm syrup and honey.

Sunset - cruise

The sun sets on another day

Back in the port of San Sebastián, where explorer Christopher Columbus sailed off in 1492 to the Americas, modern-day preparations for the annual Atlantic Rowing Challenge to Antigua meant a chance to chat to the UK, US and South African competitors who were about to make the 3,000-mile journey.

Despite their buzz of excitement, getting back on board our lovely chic ship made a far more attractive option against the psychological hardship and loneliness of their challenge.

Even better, the Verandah Deck had been transformed for a banquet-style al-fresco dinner. The ice sculptures and decorations were so attractive that one of the passengers asked ‘Is there a wedding going on?’

We tucked into crab, lobster, even Stargazy Pie before sailing off into the sunset and raising a glass to those who were about to row the Atlantic.

Lazy days

While tours are the best way to see La Gomera in a day, many Canary Islands offer a host of attractions close to the port. In Gran Canaria, it is an easy walk to Las Canteras Beach for a swim and wander along the three kilometre stretch of fine, golden sand where the locals play beach volleyball and create the most extraordinary sandcastles.

In Tenerife, there is always something new to discover. For garden lovers, the Palmetum is a hop, skip and jump from Santa Cruz de Tenerife cruise port and makes for a fascinating visit because it was created on a 30-acre landfill site!

The steaming tip once blocked views of the sea and Anaga mountains but it is now home to the largest collection of palms in Europe.

For history buffs, the town’s San Cristóbal Castle Interpretation Centre is an underground museum in La Plaza de Espana (the main square) which records how 220 years ago on July 25, 1797, Admiral Lord Nelson sailed into Santa Cruz de Tenerife with 900 men. Nelson failed to conquer the island, lost part of his arm in the battle and El Tigre, the cannon used to fire the shot to injure Nelson, is on display.

Cruise passengers can stroll from Plaza de Espana to the main street, Calle del Castillo for retail therapy and perhaps stop at Palmelita, a traditional cafe, which serves cafe con leche (milky coffee) and toast with local jam. It’s down the road from the Tenerife Fine Arts Centre, a gallery where artists show their work and can seek inspiration at Tenerife’s only vermouth bar!

Agents can also remind clients that another advantage of a no-fly cruise is that there is no luggage restriction, so shopping is not a problem – the only limitation is the size of the cabin and it took some effort to fill our generous Deck 9 cabin.

With understated duck blue and cream décor, the ship’s cabins are bright and comfortable. Every day the cabin stewards polish and vacuum, as well as replenishing fruit bowls and the fresh water jugs.

On Saga Sapphire mealtimes are the highlight – extravagant breakfast buffets take a while to navigate or there is a waiter-service if guests prefer to choose from the menu which offers everything from full English to kippers and Eggs Benedict.

In the Pole-to-Pole restaurant, Maitre d’ Trevor Walford’s team makes attention to detail an art form.

Every waiter is charming, friendly and professional – quickly remembering our favourite drink, penchant for cheese and weakness for an aperitif.

For more casual dining, the British seaside-themed Lido area serves fish and chips – there is a help-yourself ice cream machine, too, to complete the guilty pleasures.

Although there is no chance of hunger pangs, each day afternoon tea is on offer, complete with Tiptree jam, a choice of cream, scones, cakes and sandwiches while a pianist plays in the Britannia Lounge.

If your client wants classic small ship cruising with a twist, Saga takes some beating (and eating!).

YOU SAY

For the first time, a group of UK travel agents were invited to sail on Saga’s Canaries to Casablanca cruise and the feedback was positive:

“I was bowled over by the high standard of everything; the food, the service and the size of the cabins.  I had never expected a Saga cruise to have such high standards – I am not sure why – but that was my pre-conceived idea. I was also surprised at how much there is to do on board, from the quizzes to the lectures and dance classes.”
Jan Ledger, Travel Counsellors

“Excellent menu choices, lovely dining venues. Crew were all very attentive and helpful with kindness to all passengers on board.”
Christine, Accrington Travel

“The food was incredible – choices were amazing and varied.”
Jane, Fred Olsen Travel 

“Cabins were very comfortable and well-appointed.  Plenty of storage space, and the toiletries were absolutely delightful (where can I get some?). Cabin stewardess was lovely and very attentive. The ship had quiet spaces and places to go to interact with people if preferred. The spa was great and each time I went I could use the facilities without waiting or feeling crowded. ”
Sue Winsby, Cruise Connections 

SELL IT

Saga Sapphire’s sister ship Saga Pearl II sails to La Gomera during the Flavours of the Canaries 14-night cruise which departs from Portsmouth on October 30, 2018. Price from £1,979 includes UK travel package to and from Southampton.

WHAT’S INCLUDED

  • All meals and entertainment
  • Choice of table wines at lunch and dinner
  • Afternoon tea
  • 24-hour room service
  • Welcome cocktail party
  • Unlimited tea and coffee in selected venues
  • WIFI
  • On-board gratuities
  • Porterage
  • Lectures
  • Entertainment
  • Free shuttle bus to nearest town centre (whenever possible and when the ship is berthed more than 500 yards away)

THE SHIP

720 passengers

  • 415 officers and crew
  • Ten passenger decks including promenade
  • 37,301-ton ship with 27.6ft draft
  • Open and fixed seating in Pole to Pole restaurant
  • Lighter bites in The Grill
  • Speciality East to West restaurant
  • Alfresco dining on the Verandah
  • Three Bars
  • The Drawing Room
  • View from the Top with hot tubs
  • The Beach Club which serves gourmet fish and chips, traditional sweets and ice cream
  • Two pools
  • St Andrews crazy golf
  • Gymnasium
  • Aqua Spa
  • Hair and beauty salon
  • Library
  • Three shops
  • The Club House games room Four passenger lifts
  • Air conditioned and stabilised – reduced roll motion at sea
  • UK and European electrical sockets

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