Gran Canaria, Spain

This almost perfectly circular isle is known for its historic towns and an incredible diversity of scenery. This includes its sandy south, where golden beaches extend back into desert-like dunes.

Its capital, Las Palmas, on the northwest of the island, was a stopping-point for Columbus on his 1492 adventure to the New World. The ornate former governor’s house in the historic Vergueta district, where it’s claimed he stayed while his ships were repaired, is now a museum in his honor.

Step further back in time at the Cueva Pintada archaeological park in Galdar, almost due west of Las Palmas. It’s an excavated centuries-old settlement of the canarii people who lived in on Gran Canaria before the Spanish arrived. Boardwalks extend through the site, allowing you to see where their houses once stood, and the showpiece is the ‘painted cave,’ itself daubed with geometric shapes.

Seventeenth-century Arucas recalls the style of towns that the conquistadors exported to South America, yet with a massive neo-Gothic Church of San Juan Bautista, built of black rock as a reminder of its volcanic location.

Ten miles or so southwest of Las Palmas, Teror is a charming spot to while away the afternoon. Brightly painted houses line the quaint streets, with ornate balconies to take in the scene below. Its star is the neoclassical Basilica de la Virgen del Piño, located on the lively main plaza.

Gran Canaria has been described as a “continent in miniature,” due to its varied scenery of mountain peaks, pine forests and tracts of farmland tucked into valleys that lead down to the coasts. Indeed UNESCO declared a huge swathe of the island, around 40% in total, a Biosphere Reserve in 2005 because of its exceptional diversity.

This includes the stunning Bandama Crater, just to the south of the capital. The massive caldera extends over 3,280 feet across and its bowl descends 650 feet. From its viewpoint, you can see far and wide across Gran Canaria.

Discover the dunes behind Maspalomas Beach, a 12-mile stretch between the Faro Lighthouse and the Playa del Inglés. A postcard-friendly symbol of the island, they’re constantly reshaped by the winds into picturesque rippled patterns. You’ll almost feel as though you’re crossing the Sahara when you explore on foot or especially by camel, until of course, you catch a glimpse of the sparkling ocean.

Indeed it may the Atlantic waves that attract you above all, in which case stand-up paddle boarding could appeal to your active side. Heading slightly further offshore by boat, keep watch for various marine mammals, such as dolphins, finback whales, pilot whales or sperm whales, depending on the season.