If your idea of a perfect day in port includes ambling along winding cobbled streets, browsing offbeat craft shops and watching the world go by from a street cafe, Santa Cruz de la Palma is an ideal destination.
The city is the capital of La Palma, the most northwesterly of the Canary Islands. On the island, the town is sometimes referred to -- confusingly -- as just La Palma. To further complicate the name game, the island itself owns many titles, too: Its full name is San Miguel de la Palma, but it's also known as La Isla Bonita y Verde, "the beautiful green island."
Whatever you call La Palma, often found on transatlantic itineraries, you'll find fine Spanish colonial houses with elaborate balconies and bougainvillea-draped white frontages -- and one of the world's largest volcanic craters. The Caldera de Taburiente measures nearly 17.5 miles across and nearly half a mile deep, and because it is home to rare animal and plant life, it has also been designated a national park.
La Palma is a volcanic island, just like the rest of the Canary Islands, and some of La Palma's dramatic volcanoes are still active. The island was claimed by the Spanish in 1493, and both human remains and ancient utensils indicate that the island has been inhabited since pre-historic times.
O'Daly Street: Stroll along pretty, cobbled O'Daly Street (Calle O'Daly) -- a magnet for tourists -- with tempting antique and craft shops and easy access to the main sights. Named after an Irish merchant, O'Daly runs parallel to Avenida Maritima, Santa Cruz's waterfront promenade. This is also where to find the tourist information center. (Calle O'Daly 22; 922 41 21 06; open 9 a.m. to 7.30 p.m. Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday)
The Promenade: Walk back to your ship along the promenade, which -- like O'Daly Street -- is lined with 18th-century mansions notable for their elaborate wrought-iron balconies, massive doors and fine courtyards. Another incentive is that waterfront concerts are sometimes held there, so you could enjoy music while you walk.
Plaza de Espana: This palm tree-filled, bougainvillea-draped courtyard just off O'Daly Street is home to an artisans' market selling high-quality lacework, embroidery and leatherwork. These can be quite expensive, but the craftsmanship is exquisite.
Iglesia de El Salvador: This 16th-century white church is the Plaza de Espana's high point. The church's jewel-bright stained-glass windows, fret-worked roof rafters and intricately carved choir stall epitomize the Mudejar style of decoration, which combined Moorish influence with Christian symbolism. (Plaza de Espana 3; open 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.)
Plaza de Espana: It's a must for lovers of fine architecture, as the area holds the Italian Renaissance-style Ayuntamiento (Santa Cruz's 16th-century town hall) and the Convento de San Francisco (on Calle Real).
Castillo de Santa Catarina: Visit the star-shaped 17th-century Castillo de Santa Catarina fortress, which lies on Avenida Maritima overlooking the waterfront -- it's a national monument but closed to the public.
Santa Maria: Check out the striking timber replica of Christopher Columbus' famous ship, the Santa Maria, which is known to residents as the Barco de la Virgen. The replica is particularly worth seeing during one of Santa Cruz's many fiestas when it is dressed in flowers. Walk right along the promenade, past the Castillo, then head left up Pedro J. de las Casas; turn right at the top.
Visit Fuencaliente: Is a day at the beach too tame? Take a walk on the wild side of a volcano from Fuencaliente, a municipality about 20 miles (an hour's taxi ride; 32 euros one way) from Santa Cruz. This is, as you might say, the gateway to volcano land -- thrill seekers can view the still-active Volcan de Teneguia or walk to the calmer (we hope) Volcan de San Antonio.
Las Nieves: Closer to Santa Cruz (about a 20 euro cab ride away) is the lovely hill village of Las Nieves, famed for its fragrant citrus groves and 14th-century terracotta statue of Our Lady of the Snows, La Palma's patron saint.
On Foot: Most ships offer free shuttle buses from the small cruise terminal to the main port gates; from there, it is a five-minute stroll into town.
By Bus: Buses operate around the island from Avenida de Bajamar. For a couple of euros, you can buy a return ticket to the nearest beach, Playa de los Cancajos, which lies about three miles to the south.
By Taxi: Taxis are a good way to travel on the island, though most are pricey. A taxi from the port (just outside the terminal) to the beach costs around 20 euros one way -- this is more reliable than buses if you're on a tight schedule. For an island tour, budget around 35 euros for an hour or so, depending on your negotiation skills (establish the fare in advance).
By Car: If your ship is in port for a long time, you could consider hiring a car at Autos la Palma on Avenida Maritima. It's not recommended on a short cruise call because the roads are winding, mountainous and slow to negotiate.
If you prefer a lazy lunch as a break from your exploring, you'll find good restaurants near the waterfront on Avenida Maritima and Alvarez de Abreu. Fresh sardines, shellfish and fried goats' cheese are typical. The latter is usually served with a mojo sauce, which may be green or orange depending on ingredients (red or green pepper, oil, vinegar, thyme and coriander). Wherever you eat -- and whatever diet you're on -- order pudding, as La Palma residents are rightly proud of their desserts. Bienmesabe (a kind of almondy eggy custard) is particularly good.
La Fontana: At La Fontana -- right on the seafront at Playa de Cancajos -- you can try fresh seafood in coriander or herb sauce (mojo verde), or sample Canarian specialities like rancho canaria (a rich meat and vegetable stew) and cabrito al homo (roast baby goat). (922 43 47 29; open 12:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. Monday to Saturday)
La Bodeguita del Medio: Located about 350 yards from the port gates, this is a good spot close to your ship. (Alvarez de Abreu 58; 922 41 59 12; open 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. Monday to Saturday)
Hotel Maritimo: Want lunch with a sea view? Head to the restaurant at the Hotel Maritimo. (Avenida Maritima)
La Lonja: At La Lonja, the chef concocts creative dishes from simple ingredients, and prices are reasonable. (Avenida Maritima 55; 922 41 52 66; open 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday)