The Canary Islands are part of Spain but they're located much closer to Africa than the Spanish mainland. The seven islands are in the Atlantic Ocean, 1,350 kilometres south of the Iberian Peninsula. Their nearest neighbour is Morocco (95 kilometres east of Fuerteventura) and the climate is wonderful all year round with temperatures rarely falling below 18C in the winter and rising above 24C in the summer.
They call the Canaries "The Land of Eternal Spring". The sub-tropical climate is regulated by the Gulf Stream and Trade Winds and any time of year is a good time to visit with guaranteed sunshine, virtually no rainfall and non-stop tourist activity. Small wonder that 11 million international tourists migrate to these shores each year!
The archipelago consists of five main holiday islands - La Palma, Tenerife, Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura and Lanzarote - and the two, small unspoilt islands of Hierro and Gomera. The islands are the tips of a vast volcanic mountain range lying beneath the Atlantic Ocean. The fact that four of Spain's seven major national nature reserves are located here reflects the extraordinary wealth of natural beauty to be found in the Canaries.
The volcanic crater of Mount Teide, the major landmark of Tenerife, was designated as a national reserve in 1954 along with the Taburiente crater on La Palma. Teide is the third tallest volcano in the world (after two in Hawaii) and its 3,718-metre peak is the highest in the whole of Spain. The Caldera del Taburiente on La Palma is the world's largest erosion crater with a diameter of nine kilometres and a depth of 770 metres.
Lanzarote's Timanfaya Park was declared a national reserve in 1974 and the island as a whole, which has one of the most extraordinary volcanic landscapes on the planet, has been designated a globally-protected "Reserve of the Biosphere" by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation). The island has eerie fields of petrified lava, beaches of black volcanic sand and vineyards growing in the very bowels of volcanic craters. This is a place where restaurants grill meat on volcano-powered barbecues!
The fourth national reserve is to be found on Gomera where an ancient laurel forest lies at the heart of the 10,000-acre Parque Nacional de Garajonay.
La Palma is probably the most beautiful canary island of the "big five" but don't expect the near-perfect climate of the other islands. It is also the most unspoilt. It's lush, green.and often wet! The island is located 200 kilometres to the west of Africa and the nearest land west of it is Brazil.
Tenerife and Gran Canaria, at the centre of the archipelago, are the liveliest tourist resorts. Both offer frantic beach activity and an all-night party scene but get away from the most popular package holiday centres and you'll be able to enjoy the islands' wealth of natural beauty far from the madding crowds.
Gran Canaria is like a giant horticultural centre where thousands of exotic fruits, trees and crops flourish. There are banana and coffee plantations, fields of sugar cane and tobacco, date palm forests and orange groves. Papayas, mangoes and avocadoes are all produced in this island of contrasts. It stretches just 40 kilometres from north to south but offers dramatic volcanic mountains, tropical forests, desert areas and golden beaches.
Fuerteventura is believed to be the oldest of the islands and has the longest beaches in the archipelago. It's not the place for all-night ravers but the island is a perfect holiday destination for families, couples and nature lovers seeking a relaxed winter sun holiday.
Whatever you're looking for from your holiday, as long as you choose your island carefully you'll find it in the Canaries. There are bustling seafronts lined with high-rise hotels and non-stop entertainment centres; you'll find gay bars, all-night clubs, foam parties and fish and chip shops.
The islands are also a paradise for lovers of nature and water sports enthusiasts. The Canaries are home to some fascinating indigenous animal and plant life and the local waters provide some of the world's richest hunting grounds for deep-sea fishermen. Shark, tuna and marlin are all to be found in abundance here. Most tourists prefer to hunt for a glimpse of the bottle-nosed dolphins and pilot whales which you can often see around the islands.