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La Palma Overview
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, look no further than Santa Cruz de la Palma.
Santa Cruz de La Palma (Spanish for "the holy cross") 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 has many guises, 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 trans-Atlantic 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.
Like the rest of the Canary Islands, the origin of La Palma is volcanic. The fact that some of La Palma's dramatic volcanoes are still active will add an extra frisson to your explorations, as will the fact that although it was claimed by the Spanish in 1493, both human remains and ancient utensils indicate that the island has been inhabited since pre-historic times.
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Other Canary Islands Cruise Ports:
Fuerteventura • La Palma • Lanzarote • Las Palmas • Tenerife
Spanish is spoken here, and though many locals have at least a smattering of English it could be worth investing in a phrase book if you're heading off on your own. Just need enough Spanish to mind your manners? Hola and adios (hello and goodbye); por favor and gracias (please and thank you); cuanto cuesta? (how much?); and, possibly the most useful of all, habla usted Ingles? (do you speak English?).
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The local currency is the euro (see www.oanda or www.xe.com for latest conversion rates). If you've run out of cash and don't want to change money on your ship, don't panic; there are plenty of banks along Santa Cruz's main street, Calle O'Daly, which is just a five-minute walk from the port entrance.
Take your pick from the well-stocked antique shops along O'Daly Street, where you can pick up a lovely Tiffany-style lamp for 123 euros, or a pretty cut glass decanter for 37.
Where You're Docked
You'll disembark at the port of Santa Cruz, located on the eastern part of the island.
The port itself is unpretentious and un-commercialized, which is a nice way of saying there's no reason to hang around.
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: Local buses operate around the island from the Avenida de Bajamar, and for a couple of euros you can buy a return ticket on an hourly service to the nearest beach, Playa de los Cancajos, which lies about three miles away to the south.
By Taxi: A taxi from the port (just outside the terminal) to the beach costs between 10 and 12 euros one way (approximately $13 - $15.75) -- not too bad if you're sharing, and more reliable than the buses if you're on a tight schedule. For an island tour, budget between 25 and 40 euros (approximately $32.81 - $52.50) for an hour or so, depending on your negotiation skills (do establish the fare in advance).
By Car: If your ship is in for some time, you could consider hiring a car at Autos la Palma on the Avenida Maritima, but people very rarely do this and it's not recommended on a short cruise call, as the local roads are winding, mountainous and slow to negotiate.
Watch Out For
Busy traffic as you walk into Santa Cruz from the port gates; you need to cross several junctions, and although there are crossings, traffic seems to come from all directions, so you need your wits about you.
A stroll along pretty, cobbled O'Daly Street -- 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 the Avenida Maritima, Santa Cruz's waterfront 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 regularly held here, so you could enjoy music while you walk.
Plaza de Espana, a palm tree-filled, bougainvillea-draped courtyard just off O'Daly Street, is home to an artisans' market selling high-quality lacework, embroidery and leatherwork. Don't expect cheap prices here; a small handmade leather bag cost 52 euros (approximately $68.26) and a hand-embroidered, wood-framed kitchen clock is 72 euros (approximately $94.50), but the craftsmanship is exquisite.
The Iglesia de El Salvador is a 16th-century white church -- 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.
Explore the area around the Plaza de Espana -- a must for lovers of fine architecture as it holds the Italian Renaissance-style Ayuntamiento (Santa Cruz's 16th-century town hall) and the Convento de San Francisco (on Calle Real).
Visit the star-shaped 17th-century Castillo de Santa Catarina fortress, which lies on Avenida Maritima overlooking the waterfront -- it's a national monument.
Take in the striking timber replica of Christopher Columbus' famous ship, the Santa Maria, which is known to the locals as the Barco de la Virgen and 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.
Sweet lovers will want to tuck into light-as-air custard and puff pastry tarts from a heavenly bakery on Avenida de la Puente (just go left at the end of O'Daly Street; follow your nose).
Been There, Done That
A day at the beach too tame? Take a walk on the wild side of a volcano from Fuencaliente, 20 miles and about an hour's (and a 25 euro) taxi ride 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.
Closer to Santa Cruz (about a 10 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.
If you prefer a lazy lunch to local pastries on the hoof while you're exploring, you'll find some good local restaurants near the waterfront, either on the Avenida Maritime or one street in on the Alvarez de Abreu. Wherever you eat -- and whatever diet you're on -- do order pudding, as the locals are rightly proud of their puds. Bienmesabe (a kind of almondy eggy custard) is particularly good.
Heading for the Beach: At La Fontana -- right on the seafront at Playa de Cancajos -- you can try fresh seafood in the local 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).
Close to the Port: La Bodeguita del Medio at 58 A. de Abreu -- about 350 yards from the port gates -- is a good bet, while for lunch with a sea view, the restaurant at the Hotel Maritimo (Avenida Maritima) is recommended.
Best for Foodies: A trip to the Caldera de Taburiente National Park offers fabulous views of the island's moonscape-style volcanic scenery and includes a stop for wine, cheese and macaroons. 4 hours.
Best for Volcano Enthusiasts: A 7-hour trip combines Taburiente with the island's other volcanoes, San Antonio and Teneguia, plus a call at the El Molino pottery, which produces some of the Canary Islands' most distinctive craftware.
Best for Wine Aficionados: A "Wine and Countryside" tour combines a scenic drive with a visit to the Palacio del Vino wine cellars, which are built into volcanic rock. 4 hours.
Best for Active Travelers: A 4-hour "Northern Sights" tour takes in Los Tilos laurel and pine forest (a UNESCO biosphere reserve), a haven for flora and fauna. This tour allows time for an optional walk through a banana plantation; another option is the "Hike in the Forest" tour (also 4 hours and Los Tilos-based), aimed at more serious walkers with a 2.48-mile trek led by a botanist.
Staying in Touch
You'll find an Internet cafe tucked away up Avenida Cabrera Pinto; turn left at the east end of O'Daly Street and it's up the first alley on the left after you've passed the pastry shop. Access costs 2 euros an hour (or 50 cents for 15 minutes, 1 euro for 30 minutes and 1.50 for 45 minutes).
For More Information
Contact the Spanish National Tourist Office at 44-207-486-8077.
On the Web: www.tourspain.co.uk or www.spain.info
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--by Maria Harding, Cruise Critic's England-based correspondent, also writes for The Times of London and The Daily Telegraph.
Images of volcanic landscape, Plaza de Espana and banana plantation appear courtesy of Luc Viatour.