Come Aboard My Walking Cruise in the Canary Islands

Ramblers-walking-cruiseAll content was accurate when this story was published in November 2011.

The Tenerife I know is touristy, built up and commercial; a hotspot for winter sun-seekers, its coast is lined with flashy hotels, ranks of white villas and English pubs. The Tenerife I'm discovering on this cruise, a specially themed ramblers-oriented trip onboard Fred. Olsen's Boudicca, is something completely different: beautiful, remote, wild.

On the two-week journey from Southampton, I'm part of a group of 26 onboard who have booked through U.K.-based walking specialist Ramblers Worldwide Holidays. The group, 20 Brits and six Canadians, with age ranges from mid-40's to around 80, stays as a unit throughout the cruise, eating dinner together each night and going off on long hikes in every port under the guidance of John, our leader, who comes armed with map, compass and a whole lot of experience.

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As it turns out, everywhere we walk in the Canary Islands is as far removed from civilization as you can imagine -- along narrow, rocky mountain trails better suited to goats, over sheer-sided volcanoes, without another soul in sight for the whole day. This feels like a complete nature immersion, a glimpse of rural life far removed from the shopping centres and tacky dolphinariums of Tenerife and the other islands on our itinerary.

Ramblers Worldwide Holidays offers guided walking holidays all over the world, with a significant chunk of them -- 39 departures in the current programme -- on cruises, and always with Fred. Olsen. You'd think there might be an automatic compatibility between the two products, given Fred's typical older age group and the type of person who tends to go on walking holidays, but it turns out it's not so. The Ramblers are full of energy and are exceptionally fit, while Boudicca's other passengers (829 of them) seem sleepy and lethargic in comparison.

There are many advantages to cruising from the U.K., but when you're on a walking cruise in the Canaries, it's a long haul south to the islands, with a couple of days at sea. On our first few days onboard, the Ramblers group scattered around the ship, enjoying the sun, using the spa and reading, but not very secretly itching to get there and out into the hills. This was a maiden voyage for most, and they clearly weren't used to lazing around. The tedium was alleviated slightly by a special get-to-know-you Ramblers cocktail party, for which the ship over-catered, resulting in booze flowing late into the night and some exceptionally sore heads the following day.

Eyeing Up the Competition

Ramblers-hiking-groupAs with any special interest group, there was an element of eyeing one another up and swapping histories at the beginning. Everybody had serious walking boots. Most people had rucksacks festooned with sew-on badges, trophies of past hikes far more arduous than this little series. Most were using walking poles and had packed waterproof trousers. (Having planned carelessly, I regretted having judged the capricious springtime weather in the Canaries so poorly.) Most people belonged to rambling clubs at home, and most had been on Ramblers Holidays before, although very few had cruised. There were couples and singles, many of them retired; two younger women travelling together, a policewoman and a teacher; and a group of six Canadians who wanted to combine the Canary Islands with hiking, and had cruised before, so they struck gold in this trip.

The first question people asked anyone else is "Do you walk with a club at home?" That's a way of telling how "serious" someone is about walking. I'm not a club walker, but I love hiking and will take the opportunity whenever I can for long, challenging treks. I'd always relished the idea of turning it into something more formal, and this Ramblers Holiday, with its daily hikes all planned out and a cruise ship as a base, seemed ideal. But they were a friendly, welcoming crowd, and when we were out hiking, everybody was terribly polite and supportive, observing the strict but unspoken walking etiquette. Each of us had a buddy to look out for us. No one hogged the front of the line; we took turns to be at the back of the line. We apologised profusely when we accidentally pinged the person behind with a springy cactus branch, or dislodged a rock they then had to climb around.

Finally: On Land

Arriving in Tenerife, we piled into a minibus clutching our Fred. Olsen picnic bags, loaded up with sandwiches, crisps, fruit, chocolate and bottles of water. As we left Santa Cruz, the capital, we headed immediately to the west coast of the island. The bus climbed up the steep slopes of Mount Teide, Spain's highest mountain, and dropped us off in a pretty little village. We hiked along a country lane and veered off down a narrow track to the top of a barranco, the Spanish term for the deep ravines that cut through the volcanic coastline.

For the next four hours, we scrambled down the rocky path into the ravine, finally arriving at the damp riverbed at the bottom, the river itself no more than a trickle, before starting the arduous climb up the other side. Even the fittest among us were puffing and panting. I was relieved not to be straggling behind the others, and the scenery was so stunning that the exertion didn't matter -- although I was thinking to myself, "How many more of these ravines will there be today?"

Tenerife-hiking-cruiseFlashes of brilliant blue came into view every now and then, promising the sea at the end of the trail. Dazzling butterflies in cream, blue and orange flitted between the profusion of wildflowers, while bees hummed in the still air. Soon, we were picking our way along a cliff path under towering, volcanic rock faces, with views of foamy surf breaking on black beaches some distance below. As the day heated up, we spotted lizards and frogs basking in the sun, while the bells of mountain goats jangled in the distance. The walk settled into a steady rhythm, and the group fell into a companionable silence, everybody lost in their own thoughts as we concentrated on navigating the narrow, rock-strewn path.

We wolfed down our packed lunches by a farmhouse at the top of the barranco, chatting about the beauty of our surroundings, only to find that the final part of the walk involved another steep descent, scrambling down a narrow trail to the sea. More than anything, I wanted to plunge in and swim, but it wasn't to be; John told us we had to press on and meet our bus, as the ship was due to sail. That was fine by me; on these walks, you have to have absolute trust in the leaders, as they know the terrain, the length of the route and what's around each corner. The views were so stunning that most of us could have gone on forever, but all that up-and-down was thigh-trembling stuff.

We rested in a cafe with outdoor chairs at the bottom. It was more of a truck-stop than anything else, but it offered cold beer and an all-important loo. Despite the cafe's facilities, Len-from-Hampshire amazed me by producing a Thermos flask from his rucksack and pouring himself a cup of tea. So British! In fact, this was just the beginning for these veteran ramblers, who didn't like to set off without comfort items. Over the next few days as I witnessed umbrellas, foam mats and insulated lunchboxes emerge from various backpacks, my own collection of camera, water bottle and ten Euros seemed pathetically amateur (or minimalist, as I prefer it).

Back onboard, I found myself looking curiously at the non-rambling passengers. I wondered what they'd been doing all day. I did feel they looked on us, with our walking gear and rucksacks and separate minibus, as a curious species, too. None of us really bonded with the other passengers since the Ramblers ate dinner together, as well. But everybody coexisted quite happily. Frankly, I was too tired most nights to worry about making new friends; it was a quick gin and tonic before dinner, a glance at the show afterwards and then lights-out for me after all that fresh air. And, of our group, I was often one of the last to retire.

In fact, I quickly realised why the Ramblers group had been put on early dinner sitting, something I would normally strongly resist on a cruise. I simply couldn't keep my eyes open. On the day of our first big hike, I went to the show after dinner -- a tropical extravaganza by the ship's singers and dancers, who were enthusiastic and energetic. It wasn't exactly cutting-edge, but the audience was happy and grooved along to Barry Manilow's Copacabana. As for me, by 10 p.m., I was dead to the world.

Climb Every Mountain

If Tenerife was tiring, La Gomera, our next port of call, practically destroyed me, and I realised how seriously fit those walkers were. At breakfast, I casually mentioned my stiff thighs and calves, and my companions just looked at me, eyebrows raised, so I kept quiet for the rest of the day about my aches and pains, given that most of them were older than me. This is what makes a Ramblers Worldwide Holidays cruise worth doing; the tours aren't token hikes geared to the lowest common denominator -- they're real, challenging adventures. Although they're fully guided, there are risks involved; weather, paths blocked by rock falls, landmarks that aren't there anymore -- anything can affect a walk, and you need fitness, a flexible attitude and a team spirit to join in, as everybody walks together and looks out for one another. John turned out to be the ideal guide: a strong, silent type, unflappable, super-fit and not afraid to rattle off heavily-accented Spanish when needed. He told me he'd learned his Spanish guiding in South America, where the walks are much longer and tougher.

La Gomera, a tiny, volcanic speck of an island off the coast of Tenerife, wasn't exactly welcoming, the skies heavy and overcast, the mountains black and menacing. This time, we were dropped by a bus in the middle of nowhere, at the bottom of a mountain, which meant one thing: the only way was up. And, over the next seven hours, we picked our way up, we picked our way down, and we shimmied across narrow, slippery rock ledges, drops of hundreds of feet to one side, any potential fall only broken by thickets of cacti. Jagged volcanic cones protruded from the skyline in every direction. Every now and then, we were treated to a glimpse of Boudicca, tiny and gleaming white, like a beacon in the port of San Sebastian a couple of thousand feet below.

La-Gomera-hiking-cruiseBut La Gomera is quite different from Tenerife. It's much wilder, much more remote, and any human settlement is around the coast, while we were hiking in the mountains that form the island's craggy centre. There was a real sense of isolation -- we didn't stumble across any villages or convenient bars. We saw mountain goats skipping across the rocks, and we strolled through meadows of wild lavender, giant clumps of yellow and white daisies, huge, spiky aloe vera and prickly pear, and a forest of tall cacti I couldn't identify, with knobbly red flowers on the top.

The hike did actually get quite tough, and, as had been forecast, the weather closed in. After a particularly drenching downpour, a few people said they were bailing out as we reached a road -- the only road we saw all day. Fitness aside, some members of the group were fairly advanced in years, and although they could tramp on for miles, the prospect of slipping and falling didn't appeal to them. I did also realise at this point that we had some fair-weather walkers among us, for whom the black skies and lashing rain had no appeal.

The only way back to town was a long walk down the road, but as luck would have it, one car happened to be parked right in front of us, and the only human we met all day, its driver, happened to be a park ranger of some kind and generously offered to take four people back to the ship. I wasn't in the least tempted; despite being intermittently soaked by rain showers, I was loving the wild scenery and the physical challenge. So we pressed on. Four hours later, as the rest of us staggered into San Sebastian under a steady downpour, and as the adrenaline of the seven-hour tramp through the mountains began to wear off, I realised how much my legs ached. Back onboard, I made myself a big mug of tea in my cabin and slumped on the bed, getting up later only because I'd worked up such an appetite and I knew how good the curries were on this ship.

But, as for staying awake for the show that night -- not a chance.

Snow Joke

La-Palma-hiking-cruiseThe heavy clouds hanging over La Gomera were, by this time, apparently covering most of the Canaries in a huge low-pressure system, unusual for March, when spring-like sunshine is the norm and you can usually go home with a light tan. We arrived at La Palma, a popular cruise port, much bigger than La Gomera but nowhere near as commercial as Tenerife. La Palma is a craggy island with a spine of volcanic cones; the volcano at the southern tip, where we were to walk, is still active. I noticed fresh snow on the hills and quickly piled on as many layers as I could find. We scrambled out of our bus in torrential rain and hiked in single file around the narrow crater rim, black clouds obscuring the coastal villages below.

Eventually, John decided we'd give up as the wind was gusting so strongly; it was actually blowing sideways, and there was a real danger of someone losing their footing and toppling down into that crater. So we scrambled down a steep, zig-zag path made out of volcanic ash and stone; it was like walking on wet ball bearings, and everybody was lost in concentration, trying not to fall.

At the bottom, we started to tramp around the base of the volcano, along a path that, in sunshine, would have been beautiful, the sea on one side and steep vineyards on the other. But the rain was now turning to sleet and pelting us horizontally. It was pretty horrendous, but as the least experienced hiker in the group, I didn't want to complain, so I just dripped and squelched along, fantasizing about a huge, steaming cup of coffee. We cheered ourselves up by laughing at one another's sodden appearances, and the stronger walkers stayed near the back of the group to help the slower members along.

As it turned out, even the most prepared walkers, with their super-strong waterproofs and high-tech fleeces, were soaked to the skin. These walks do normally go ahead, rain or shine, but the weather had closed in completely, and everybody seemed relieved when John decided to abandon the hike and ascend the mountain on the opposite side, trudging up and up through black lava fields of scrawny vines, the ever-present spring flowers lining our path in dazzling purple, yellow and white. And still, despite the discomfort and the fact that even my trusty hiking boots were soaked through, I decided I'd rather be there out in the open air -- surrounded by the gorgeous if soggy scenery, breathing the fresh air and doing something to keep fit -- than on a coach tour.

Is It Walking or Cruising?

formal-night-Boudicca-cruise-shipI still wasn't sure by the end of the trip, as Boudicca headed north toward Southampton and home, if my travelling companions had been converted to cruising. I'm already a cruise fanatic and had certainly been converted to the idea of a walking holiday and was happily chatting to John about the Inca Trail. But as for my companions? Although walkers will go out in pretty well any weather, the snow hadn't exactly sold the Canaries as a winter sun destination, and it only got worse when we reached Madeira, with snow halfway down the mountain into Funchal and taxi drivers gleefully reporting that only the day before, 40 cars had been stuck in a snowdrift just minutes from the town.

Some people felt that the holiday was neither cruise nor walk and wanted more time in the destinations; it's true that if you're a walker, an awful lot of time is spent getting to and from the Canaries, as the ship has to get there from Southampton. Ramblers and Fred. Olsen also do Norway, the Caribbean and round-Britain walking holidays, all of which I would be tempted by simply because these guided walks are a great way to discover a place with a ready-made group of companions.

Another difference from a "normal" cruise was that, because we were out all day and so tired in the evenings, there was less celebration of the traditional pursuits of cruising, like the late night quizzes or the 11 p.m. deck barbecue laid out by the crew as we sailed away from Tenerife. We all agreed it was the "right" kind of tired, though -- a feeling of accomplishment -- and nobody seemed to mind missing the nightlife, such as it was.

Personally, I was perfectly happy, particularly with the fact that, after a few days, I felt so fit and healthy (even though I was enjoying the excellent food onboard to the full). We didn't mix much with the other passengers, but some of our group joined onboard activities like watercolour classes or the lectures, and everybody attended the excellent afternoon tea, which costs £5.50 normally but is a perk included as part of the Ramblers package. All the walkers were swapping addresses at the end of the voyage, and photos were exchanged. I certainly didn't hear anybody complaining about the ship; we followed the flashy but boxy German ship AidaBlu around a few ports and, like the Fred. Olsen regulars, the Ramblers seem proud to be on Boudicca, the prettier, more traditional ship.

Would I go again? Most certainly, but probably on an itinerary that didn't include such a long haul from Southampton and back. Personally, I'd rather have fewer sea days and more days in port for walking, although the ship certainly makes a very comfortable base. I'm not confusing a ramblers-themed cruise with a normal voyage, when I'm as happy as the next person to slob around on a sunbed and enjoy the gentle pace of life onboard.

But, I went on this one for the hiking, and as it turned out, I just couldn't get enough of it.

--Photos courtesy of Sue Bryant and Ramblers Worldwide Holidays

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