Encounter nature and winter sun on these southern European islands

Zygi fishing village port, Larnaca, Cyprus
Zygi fishing village port, Larnaca, Cyprus

Encounter nature and winter sun on these southern European islands

by Karen Bradbury
Stripes Europe

Around the time of the summer solstice, residents of northern Europe are blessed with seemingly endless hours of daylight. But all that glorious light comes with a cost. The bill comes due from November through February, when the weather is often gray for days on end and darkness falls before the sun has even bothered to make a cameo appearance.

While there are few places in continental Europe where you can expect to splash and swim between Christmas and Valentine’s Day, Europe’s southern reaches are much less sun-starved. A few days’ time strolling beneath the green fronds of palms or casting one’s gaze across a glittering bay may be just the antidote to a bad case of the winter blues. Here are a few cities, all of which happen to be located on beautiful islands, where life during the low season doesn’t grind to a halt and encounters with nature are there for the taking.

Larnaca, Cyprus

The island nation’s third-largest city after Nicosia and Limassol can boast of a palm-lined seafront, a yacht-filled port and a busy strip heaving with bars and restaurants. Things to explore include the Larnaca Castle and its collection of antiques and Byzantine wall paintings; the 9th-century Church of St. Lazarus; the narrow streets of Skala, the city’s old Turkish quarter and the Catacomb of Phaneromeni Church, a rock cavern reputed to possess mysterious healing powers. Finikoudes and Mackenzie Beach are fine places for a stroll in any season.

Between November and March, up to 20,000 flamingos make Cyprus’s salt lakes their home base. These lakes, bone dry in the summer, fill up with the rains of winter. Tiny shrimp eggs, which somehow manage to survive the summer drought, hatch into the food that gives flamingos their vibrant pink color. The salt lake nearest to Larnaca is easily reached by a short drive or a long stroll along the road leading to the airport.

Ajaccio, Corsica

The capital of this French island is obviously proud of its connection to Napoleon Bonaparte, who was born there in 1769. The house of his birth serves as a museum devoted to the life and times of the much-debated military leader and his family. Art lovers won’t want to miss the Musee Fesch and its extensive collection of Renaissance paintings. Having feasted on art and history, visitors can turn their sights toward sampling Corsica’s famed cuisine, including its charcuterie, cured meats and sausages, alongside various cheeses made of sheep and goat’s milk. Should a poster advertising an “oursinade” be spotted, an offer to feast on sea urchins awaits.

The most mountainous of all the Mediterranean islands offers a handful of places in which it’s possible to downhill ski. The resort of Val d’Ese, approximately one hour’s drive outside of Ajaccio, offers nine slopes suitable to all levels of expertise as well as spectacular coastal views. Snowshoeing, cross-country skiing or photo safaris to spot bighorn sheep are other ways to ensure a winter break here is an active one.

Maspalomas, Gran Canaria

The Canary Islands, located just under 100 miles off the Atlantic coast of northwest Africa, offer reliable winter sun and enough warmth to make a dip in the ocean an enjoyable prospect. With its seven-mile sandy beach and vibrant nightlife scene, Maspalomas recommends itself as a top destination. This town is famed for its carnival celebrations, particularly its drag queen competitions and the big parade, best attended in the most outrageous costume one can find.

A unique means by which to experience the huge sand dunes just south of town is on the back of a camel. Half-hour plods through a nature reserve while perched on a double-seated saddle are led by turban-clad guides from the Sahara. The experience, suitable for all ages, goes for around 12 euros per person.

Funchal, Madeira

Madeira is a small but picture-perfect island located in the Atlantic Ocean about 670 miles southwest of mainland Portugal. Its mild winters with frequent rain showers keep the flora lush and verdant green. Funchal, Madeira’s capital, is a city of just over 100,000 inhabitants and offers many flavors of fun. Not to be missed is its vibrant central market with fish and flowers in varieties not seen elsewhere, a quaint old town and fantastic botanical gardens. A must for first-time visitors is a ride to Monte by cable car, followed by a steep and fast descent back to town by means of a wicker toboggan expertly steered down the pavement by the fancy footwork of two dapper gentlemen.

A type of hike that’s unique to Madeira is the levada walk. Levadas are narrow canals that were carved into the hills centuries back to allow for the cultivation of sugar cane and other crops. For a walk that’s all downhill, board a bus from Funchal’s central bus station to one of the nearby towns and meander your way back alongside one of these ancient waterways. The official Madeira tourism website maintains a constantly updated list of the trails open to hikers, which can change due to landslides or other natural phenomena. Consult http://www.visitmadeira.pt/ before setting out.

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