Islas Cies, Galicia: Spain’s treasured islands

Theyre home to one of Spains finest beaches, but have no automobiles , no hotels and visitor numbers are strictly limited

As with all the best adventures, we never actually intended to go to the Islas Cies. The beaches of northern Galicia were our destination. Well, they were until my spouse clicked her weather app and assure blanket rain for a few weeks. Suddenly we weren’t running north after all.

Travelling up from Portugal, we had got as far as the industrial port city of Vigo, which has a sunnier climate than northern Galicia. Without lag, we hit the internet in search of a plan B. One alternative kept popping up: the Islas Cies( Illas Cies in Galician) off the west coast. The images seemed amazing: crystalline water, tree-lined coasts, forest-covered mountains and white beaches.

Islas Cies

All the same, I wasn’t convinced. For one, I had never heard of them. Second, was a near-uninhabited archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean really where we wanted to spend our vacations? There were no autoes , no nightlife , no hotels and nothing to stop my children landing up in Newfoundland should they happen to get swept out by the tide.

In the end, it was the children( we have two boys, aged 9 and 10) who decided for us. Legend has it that the fleet of Francis Drake( still called ” the pirate Drake” in these components) used to hide out in the archipelago’s secluded coves. There’s even talk of buried plunder. So these are real-life treasure islands, basically. Once they were aware of these salient facts, there was no question: we were going.

As if to get us into the buccaneering spirit, an angry squall was blowing as the ferry left the Bay of Vigo- the set of a chapter in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea. After a bumpy 40 -minute ride, the islands came into view.

For once, it seemed the images on the internet had not been subject to any decoration. Even under that first afternoon’s leaden skies, the Cies’ natural, untamed beauty was undeniable. The good weather soon returned and for four glorious days we simply sit back and lapped everything is up: bathing in the oceans and seas, playing on the sand, napping in the shade.

Enchanting as the islands certainly are, their magic does not lie in their natural assets alone. Yes, the scenery is stunning. Yes, it feels like a troupe of cutlass-wielding pirates could land on the beach any minute. But what also induces the Cies islands stand out is they way they have been organised as a holiday destination: to my mind, they are a world-class example of eco-tourism done well. So what’s their secret?

The right path … self-policing by guests preserves the islands’ natural beauty. Photograph: Alamy

Strange as it may sound for a place with a pirate past, regulations play a big part in making great holidays in the Cies. The Spanish national park authority, which manages the islands, love its reglas . No leave rubbish. No wandering off the tracks. No camp fires. No loud music. No fishing. No unauthorised camping. No harming the animals( even when they steal your son’s ice-cream ). No removing shells or sand, stones or plants.

It all audios strict, for sure, yet the reality was very different. Everyone is left to their own devices. This is self-policing at its best: a kind of” please leave this facility as you would like to find it” doctrine for a whole archipelago.

The lighthouse on Montefaro offers astonishing positions. Photograph: Alamy

In fact, the only officialdom we considered on our four day-visit was a group of bib-wearing volunteers. Far from brandishing rulebooks, they were there to pick up litter that had washed up on the tide.

Of all the rules, two stand out: no autoes and no more than 2,200 visitors a day. The result is a wonderful, back-to-nature tranquillity. The main islands- Monteagudo, or North Island, and Montefaro( also known as Lighthouse or Middle Island)- cover-up between them around 4.5 sq km, so there’s more than enough space for everyone.

Plus, most folk tend to stick to the main beaches. With its travelling brochure seems, the sweeping white Praia das Rodas, which connects the two main islands,attracts the lion’s share of attention. But walk a little and you’ll have the protected coves of Praia de Nosa Senora or Praia das Figueres almost entirely to yourself.

What’s more, the depict of the islands’ salt-white sand leaves its inland haunts even more uncluttered. Of the network of well-signposted roads, the two most rewarding routes head up to Monte Faro, the highest of the islands’ three lighthouses( at 175 metres ), and to the panoramic viewpoint of Alto do Principe( 111 metres ). Both are steep in sections but perfectly doable, as my two pre-teen children attested( albeit spurred on by the hope of buried rich ).

For me, the second standout of this Galician gem is its spirit of egalitarianism. On Cies , no one cares what brand of sunglasses you wear or if you own a yacht. There’s no posh hotel sitting on a headland , no private marina in the bay. Like shipwrecked sailors, you’re all in the same boat- or, more accurately, on the same desert island.

Camping Islas Cies is a low-key, well-run site- the only place to stay on the islands. Photograph: Alamy

The archipelago offers only one place to stay: Camping IslasCies. It’s a no-fuss affair, with clean shower blocks, a well-stocked shop and exceptionally friendly staff. Although there are pitches aplenty, we were persuaded by the promise of proper beds to opt for a fixed, family-size “bungalow” tent.

For sporty forms, there are snorkelling lessons( EUR3 0) or kayaking( EUR3 5 ). Boat trip-ups can also be arranged around the archipelago’s third island, the Robinson Cruso-esque Isla de San Martino. For energetic kids( and snoozy mothers ), the campsite organises free children’s activities every morning and evening.

The islands have three restaurants, all with breezy terraces. Stick to the fish. On the menu are bream, bass, monkfish, tuna, mackerel, sardines and turbot, to name but a few. All are caught the same day and savour especially divine grilled. At around EUR1 4-18 for a main dish, prices aren’t cheap but most sections are big enough for two. Costs in doubloons, meanwhile, are open to negotiation- especially if you’re holding a cutlass.

* Visiting the Islas Cies requires a permi t , which are able bought online with a campsite booking. Ferries sail from Vigo, Cangas and Baiona, daily in Easter week and June-September, plus weekends in late April, May and October, from EUR1 6 return( under-1 2s free ). The campsite is open at Easter week and June-late September, from EUR8. 90 a night adult, EUR6. 90 child, plus EUR8. 90 per tent; fixed tent hire EUR5 5( small ), EUR8 5( large )

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