This week marks the 22nd anniversary of my adventure of a lifetime. It was a re-creation of the 1492 voyage of Christopher Columbus. Three years earlier, I had been asked to join the crew of the “Welsh Rover,” a newly built, 52-foot sailboat. And so, after shakedown cruises to New England and Bermuda, and 500 years to the day after Columbus cast off from the southern coast of Spain, we were hoisting sail at the Spanish port of Huelva under the eyes of King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia. The Rover and 36 other boats from 20 nations were setting off in the wake of Columbus. The Admiral left us with a buffet of fascinating ports and landmarks to visit and explore. Here are some of my favorites. – Jay Lloyd
PALOS , SPAIN
Columbus scurried around European capitals looking for backers and was rebuffed in London and Lisbon, but he found a sympathetic ear at a faithfully maintained monastery near the sleepy town of Palos. At La Rabida, which looks today as it did then, visitors can stand in the great room where Columbus explained his plan to the monks. Your eye will be riveted on the window overlooking the Tinto and Odiel rivers where he launched his voyage. An imposing statue of Columbus, a 1929 gift from America, dominates the seascape. It was the monks of La Rabida who interceded with Queen Isabella to finance the Columbus voyage.
In contrast to the sleepy nature of Palos, nearby Huelva is a bustling port city with an eclectic collection of restaurants and cafes. Festivals are frequent and tend to become all-nighters that include well-attended bull fights that often don’t begin until two in the morning. Every festival here is accompanied by an abundance of tapas and the traditional Spanish paella, a saffron infused blend of rice and whatever meat or catch the local community produces. Here on the southern coast of Spain, with a fresh bounty from the sea and black olives from local groves, it becomes a meal to be shared by few or many.
PORTO SANTO, MADEIRA ISLANDS
While Columbus headed straight to the Canary Islands from Palos, we took a small detour to exotic Porto Santo, the smaller of the Madeira Islands but rich in Columbian era history. It’s a lazy island off the Moroccan coast of Africa, where beaches stretch more than five miles and are dotted by seaside cafes. Porto Santo is a land of farmers and fishermen, where no one locks front doors and the climate is mild year-round. Small, cozy restaurants and cafes are filled with visitors who arrive by high speed ferry or commuter plane from Madeira, 30 miles to the south. There are stunning mountaintop views and hiring a taxi for half a day gave us plenty of time to enjoy the vista and stop for lunch and drinks at a beach bistro. The centerpiece attraction is a small, stone house that was the home Columbus shared with his wife, a daughter of the island’s governor. It’s also a treasure trove of Columbian artifacts and displays. It was in Porto Santo, so a legend goes, that Columbus befriended a dying Portuguese navigator, who told him of islands to the west across the great ocean. This legend suggests Columbus actually knew where he was going and what was there.
GRAN CANARY, CANARY ISLANDS
Columbus steered directly to the Canary Islands, about 65 miles west of southern Morocco, to refit the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, landing at the main port city of Las Palmas. He didn’t know that one day, the town would be a magnet for European visitors seeking resort hotels, a golf course, a clutch of international and Spanish restaurants, along with a pulsating night life scene. And the building where he was greeted by the island Governor is now a museum, largely devoted to his life and voyages. The Welsh Rover, however, sailed into Puerto de Morgan on the opposite shore where barren cliffs rise over sandy beaches and there’s a major marina where boats fly a global array of flags. Restaurants, resorts and rental apartments share the landscape with an active fishing fleet and restaurants serve a catch straight from the sea under constant spring-like weather conditions. A visitor can even take a submarine ride for a rare undersea experience.
Though wildly popular with Europeans, relatively few American visitors show up in the Madeira or Canary Islands. Apart from a few packaged tours that include charter flights, reaching the islands usually requires a flight to Madrid in Spain and then a connecting flight to Madeira or Las Palmas. But if you’re looking for something different, here’s how to go:
From Philadelphia: U.S. Airways operates non-stop flights to Lisbon and Madrid. Connections in Lisbon fly to Madeira. From Madrid, connecting flights take you to Las Palmas.
For Huelva, Spain: U.S. Airways flights to Madrid from Philadelphia connect with flights to Seville and then a train or shuttle gets you to Huelva. From Huelva, you can reach Palos and La Rabida by local cab or tour bus.
Bien Viaje – Bon Voyage!