I thought of the diary of parish priest Lorenzo Curbelo as I drove to Timanfaya National Park in Lanzarote. "An enormous mountain emerged from the ground with flames coming from its summit," he wrote. "It continued burning for 19 days. Some days later, a new abyss developed and an avalanche of lava rushed down over Timanfaya. All the western beaches and shores were covered with an incredible number of dead fish of all species - some with shapes which islanders had never known before."

That volcanic eruption must have seemed like the end of the world back in 1730, especially to farmers and fishermen living 800 miles from their motherland in Spain. The eruptions continued for six years and created many of the 300-plus volcanic cones in Lanzarote, one of the seven Canary Islands.

Volcanoes are one of many reasons why people visit the Canaries, and the Teneguia volcano in La Palma last erupted as recently as 1971. But the main draw for British people, who make over three million visits a year, is the mild climate. That has led to mass tourism development in Tenerife, Gran Canaria and, to a lesser extent, Lanzarote and Fuerteventura. But there are still plenty of charming places away from the crowds.

The average temperature hovers around 22ºC year-round, making the Canaries attractive for a winter break only four hours' flying time from the UK. But sunshine isn't guaranteed, and constant Atlantic winds mean winter days can be wet and a little chilly. In summer, however, the plus side is that you don't get the baking high temperatures you might experience in the Mediterranean.

The islands lie off the coast of North Africa with Lanzarote, the most easterly, being only 60 miles from Morocco. Over 200 miles to the west is little-visited El Hierro, once considered "the end of the known world". Columbus called in at some of the islands on his way to discover the new world in 1492, and by 1496 they were claimed by the Spanish crown. The original inhabitants, the Guanches, were a primitive, fair-skinned people who have left little trace, apart from mummies in museums.

With beaches, dramatic landscapes and lots to see and do, the Canaries don't deserve their sometimes tacky image. Avoid half a dozen of the biggest resorts and you'll start to discover what makes them so distinctive.

When I visited the Casa del Vino, a wine museum and restaurant in a dramatic clifftop setting near the town of El Sauzal, it was full of locals rather than tourists. It's one of the top restaurants in Tenerife, serving delicacies such as stewed rabbit accompanied by wines from the nearby hillsides.

Tenerife's government has introduced a gastronomy plan - not just for visitors but to keep alive traditions for its own people, who start learning at school rather than getting stuck into turkey twizzlers.

The largest and most popular of the Canary Islands is only about 70 miles from north to south, yet it has two distinctive climates courtesy of Mount Teide which, at 12,195ft, is the highest peak on Spanish soil. The high volcanic crater surrounding the mountain traps the clouds, giving the north a mild but damp climate with lush vegetation, as in the Orotava valley with its banana plantations.

In the north are the elegant resort of Puerto de la Cruz (no beach but an attractive lido) and the modern capital, Santa Cruz, which stages a chaotic and colourful carnival claimed to be the largest in the world after Rio (February 12-21 next year). The former capital of La Laguna is nearby, with a church dating from 1502 and some lovely 18th century mansions and convent.

A motorway takes you from Puerto de la Cruz or Santa Cruz to the south in less than an hour, passing Tenerife South airport, which is used by all flights from the UK. The south is dry, absolutely barren and much hotter than the north, with most mass tourism concentrated in the big resorts of Playa de las Americas and Los Cristianos. More up-market resorts include Adeje and Los Gigantes, and throughout the south are five-star hotels, often with spas and sometimes golf courses attached.

Tenerife is the most diverse island but its beaches are a disappointment, being mainly small and of dark volcanic sand. The golden beach at Teresitas, near Santa Cruz, uses sand shipped in from the Sahara, but there's plenty to do rather than laze all day on a beach. Drive above the clouds to Mount Teide and ride a cable car to the top, then take the steep road down to Garachico, a little port with 18th century buildings and great fish restaurants.

Gran Canaria
This is probably the best choice for lovers of beach resorts, as the south has great expanses of golden sand including the vast dunes of Maspalomas. But beaches inevitably attract big development, and the few miles running from San Agustin to Playa del Ingles and Maspalomas are highly urbanised.

Raucous nightlife makes Playa del Ingles especially popular with young people and gays. If you are neither and not broad minded then choose another area - the dunes are described as "very cruisey" by one website, and we're not talking about ships. Quieter resorts in the south include Puerto Rico and the more-recently developed Puerto de Mogan.

Gran Canaria has a similar but lessmarked north/south climatic split to Tenerife, but it's worth visiting the north if only to see Las Palmas; the largest city and port in the Canaries, it is home to about 375,000 people. It's good for shopping, and most of the history is in the Barrio Vegueta district, which has a 16th century cathedral, the Canary Islands Museum and Columbus Museum.

The mountainous interior is traversed by one main route, which is well worth taking to discover a variety of landscapes that has given Gran Canaria the moniker "continent in miniature". Deep ravines, fertile valleys, artificial lakes and the Bandama crater are the highlights, with pretty villages such as Tafira and Tejada. You can take an organised 4x4 trip to go off-road, or a walking holiday staying at small, rural hotels a world away from the coast.

Despite reading what the priest had to say about the 1730 eruption, nothing prepared me for the bleakly-impressive Timanfaya National Park, or Fire Mountain. The wellworn "lunar landscape" cliché is actually a good way of describing the devastation wrought by the volcano, as much of the island is covered by black lava which is used for buildings and walls and contrasts pleasantly with whitewashed houses and blue sky.

Timanfaya is not an experience you can enjoy in solitude, however, as it's Lanzarote's leading attraction. You drive up a mountain to a visitor centre and restaurant where meats are grilled over the intense heat still coming up from the earth, and where water poured into a hole shoots up as a plume of scalding
steam just seconds later. The temperature just below the surface is 350ºC - more than enough to do your sausages nicely.

But to view the most impressive volcano you have to pile into a bus with dozens of others, and listen to a recorded commentary while "weird" music such as the soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey is played.
Although it's more atmospheric to trek part of the way up on a camel, the views are more impressive on the bus tour.

Don't think Lanzarote is a wasteland, as there is some greenery in the north and the volcanic grit is very fertile; it is used to grow vines and vegetables around villages of the interior such asYaiza and Teguise. Plants are protected from the prevailing winds by little semi-circular walls - made from lava, of course. Lava flows also created the Jameos de Agua caves, another major attraction.

Lanzarote also has golden sandy beaches, the main resorts being Puerto del Carmen, Playa Blanca and Costa Teguise. There are no huge tourist complexes or high-rises comparable with Tenerife or Gran Canaria, but development is marching steadily towards the virgin beaches of Papagayo, near Playa Blanca on the southern tip. A court ruled last year that 22 of the island's major hotels had been built illegally with town hall corruption suspected, but it's highly unlikely any will be demolished as some campaigners demand.

Although it is the second largest island, it's also the least populated, with only about 30,000 inhabitants. Lack of water, poor agricultural land and coastal erosion are the main reasons for this, but the big attraction for visitors is simple - sand, sand and more sand.

In parts of the island you can't tell where the beach ends and the dunes begin, as it resembles the Sahara. Many of the 150 beaches are so long you're almost guaranteed a spot to yourself, and development is so far limited, mainly to Jandia in the far south, and around Corralejo in the north.

Fuerteventura is very popular for windsurfing and also diving, including the offshore Isla de los Lobos. Inland there's little to see, but the former capital of Betancuria, now a sleepy village, is worth a visit.

La Gomera
You can't fly directly to this island, but it's easily reached from Los Cristianos in Tenerife by hydrofoil (40 minutes) or ferry (90 minutes).

It's popularity for day trips makes the port and capital, San Sebastian, crowded during the day, but once the trippers have gone it becomes, like the whole island, very tranquil.

Even on a day trip you should try to see some of the interior, climbing through banana plantations built on steep terraces to deep, wooded ravines.

The Garajonay National Park is on a high plateau, with extensive forests of laurel and many unique botanical specimens. Playa de Santiago, with a pebble beach, is the only resort of note.

La Palma
When I stayed at a small hotel in Barlovento in the north of La Palma, I was surprised that most of the guests trooped off after breakfast kitted out with hiking boots and rucksacks. But exploring is what this island is all about, and the landscapes are spectacular.

It was just as well I hadn't come for sunshine,
as the eastern side of the island is often damp. The western side is sunnier, but often battered by Atlantic winds. Puerto Naos (west) and Los Cancajos (east) are small resorts with strips of dark sand, but you're making a mistake if you come here for a beach holiday.

La Palma's three national parks include the Caldera de Taburiente, a huge volcanic crater over six miles wide and nearly 5,000ft deep. In the south is the Teneguia volcano, which last erupted in 1971 and will erupt again one day. At present, though,all looks very peaceful.....

El Hierro
Few people have visited this western outpost, only reachable by internal flight or ferry. The smallest and most remote of the Canaries has no sandy beaches and a rocky coastline punctuated by cliffs, attracting a few divers and hikers wanting to experience the fertile El Golfo crater. We now know it isn't "the end of the known world", but it probably feels like it.

Canaries facts

When to go
Year-round, as temperatures are fairly constant.

Getting there
Low-cost airlines are expanding and most other flights are charters. Flights operate to Tenerife South and Gran Canaria (Las Palmas) from most UK airports, while Lanzarote and Fuerteventura are now gaining more routes. Monarch Airlines (www.monarch.co.uk) is operating an extra 64 flights a week to the Canaries this winter including new departures from Gatwick and Luton to Gran Canaria and Fuerteventura. EasyJet (www.easyjet.com) is adding Stansted to Fuerteventura, while Aer Lingus
(www.aerlingus.com) adds Gatwick-Tenerife South. Other major carriers include Ryanair (www.ryanair.com),Thomson Airways (www.thomsonfly.co.uk) and Thomas Cook Airlines
(www.thomascookairlines.co.uk).Thomson operates the only direct flights to La Palma, from Gatwick and Manchester.

Tour operators
These include:

Hotel-only bookings can be made through Monarch (http://hotels.monarch.co.uk) and Youtravel.com

Getting around
Car hire is widely available, and bus services link main
towns and resorts. All islands are served by Binter
Canarias (www.bintercanarias.com) flights from bases at Tenerife North (note - UK flights operate to Tenerife South) and Las Palmas. Inter-island ferries serve routes including Santa Cruz (Tenerife) to Agaete (Gran Canaria); Los Cristianos (Tenerife) to La Gomera, La Palma
and El Hierro; and Playa Blanca (Lanzarote) to Corralejo (Fuerteventura).
One of the main ferry operators is Fred Olsen (www.fredolsen.es).

Tourist information
Spanish Tourist Office: 020 7486 8077, www.tourspain.co.uk


All prices and details were correct when published in tlm - the travel & leisure magazine, please check before you travel to the Canary Islands.