La Isla Bonita

Sailors recall trip to Canary Islands

By Howard and Judy Wang

The night before Laelia’s departure from Santa Cruz de la Palma, Canary Islands, off Africa’s west coast, everything is calm and quiet except for the clanking and clacking of dock hardware and the groaning of boat and lines. The overcast sky reveals no stars or moon, and the humid wind nearly drips with moisture.

Well-provisioned, Laelia sits low in the water, showing little waterline. With water tanks and fuel tanks at the full mark, the boat stands ready for the 20- to 25-day, 2,800-nautical-mile sail across the Atlantic to the Caribbean.

We have crew, something new for us on Laelia, sailing friends and good sailors with experience cruising on their own boat. An experienced crew means we can get more sleep and be bolder with Laelia’s sail plan, perhaps even flying the spinnaker at night.

Although ready to be off, we would fondly remember our stay on San Miguel de La Palma, the fifth largest of Spain’s Canary Islands.

The most northwest of the Canary Islands, La Palma, formed of porous volcanic rock that holds water, provides adequate groundwater for lush vegetation. The tall, steep mountains soar almost vertically into the clouds from the sea. The vegetation provides ground cover on the mountain, which looks bright and inviting on sunny days but dark and foreboding under inclement conditions, giving them a mysterious feel.

Home to one of the world’s biggest volcanic caldera, La Palma has two active volcanoes on its south side. On its southwest side, the volcanic slope overhangs the island’s supporting base, raising fears that if the overhang ever gives way, a massive landslide could trigger a devastating tsunami on the U.S. East Coast.

The most northwest of the Canary Islands, La Palma, formed of porous volcanic rock that holds water, provides adequate groundwater for lush vegetation. The tall, steep mountains soar almost vertically into the clouds from the sea.

The islanders aptly call their land “La Isla Bonita,” the pretty island. To us, the beautiful, unspoiled island is also inspirational. When you first approach Santa Cruz de La Palma from the sea, you see a town with houses climbing vertically up the slopes. The bright buildings, mostly modern concrete apartments, feature cheerful, contrasting colors.

The bright, colorful town set against a backdrop of dark, wooded mountains topped by swirling clouds makes for a picturesque view. When we ventured into the city center, we discovered a gem with century-old cobblestone streets off-limits to vehicles and 15th-century buildings in good repair. Exuberant flowers and plants festooned many of the balconies.

On a four-hour bus trip around the island’s north side, we saw green jungles and volcanic rocks as the bus careened around narrow mountain switchbacks and rocky ledges. Terraces, hand-built with volcanic stones and rocks, held banana plantations. On the island’s southeast side where the caldera isn’t enclosed, the terraced plantations stretch for miles up and down the slopes.

The island also produces “queso de cabra,” a young, mild-tasting goat cheese we discovered while taking shelter from a sudden downpour. We ducked into a little restaurant housed in an ancient building with 2-foot-thick stone walls and heavy hand-hewn timber on the ceiling. We enjoyed the quaint, cozy atmosphere, while waiting for drinks and tapas. Hooked after tasting the queso de cabra, we bought a round of it for the long passage ahead.


Before retirement, Howard and Judy Wang lived in Santa Cruz, California, where Howard taught and did research at UCSC and Judy worked as a nurse. They now live in Santa Barbara, California, and are members of Ventura Power Squadron in District 13. Howard and Judy plan to tour the U.S. to promote their forthcoming book on circumnavigating the world aboard their sailboat, Laelia.

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