I have been waiting to go to the Islas Cíes for what feels like a lifetime. A wonderful family we met while on holiday in the Dominican Republic spun us a tale of these magical islands in Galicia near their home. The Cíes Islands, a nature reserve known by the locals as the Spanish Seychelles because of its jewelled green water, sparkling white sands and untouched forests. Where else can you go and smell pine and eucalyptus in the same breath of air? We parted ways with promises to go camping on the islands together next year but even though we saw each other many times (so much so that I now consider them family), it took us fourteen long years to make good on our promise. It was worth the wait.
You can take a boat to the Islands from a number of different ports, but we set off from Baiona – a perfectly charming Medieval town in Pontevedra. It was to this town that news of the discovery of America first arrived when Columbus’ Pinta ship arrived in 1493 – a replica of the ship can be visited and the date is still celebrated to this day! Along with all the charming waterfront hotels, the old castle has also been transformed into a Parador which is a magical place to spend a night.
The boat ride is a short 40 mins from Baiona to the islands and while the sea isn’t too rough, if you suffer from sea sickness (like me), make sure to sit at the top in the fresh air! The views are absolutely spectacular and on a clear day it’s a pure joy to laze in the sun and look out for seals and dolphins (and mermaids too.. because you never know.)
The Cíes are a protected national park and as such the only way you can stay on them is to camp! The charming camp site is tucked behind the famous white Rodas beach – named the most beautiful beach in the world by The Guardian – and sits underneath a small pine canopy. You can either bring your own tent or stay in one of the pre-pitched scouting style tents which come with proper camp beds and mattresses along with pillows – just make sure to bring a sleeping bag and a torch! It’s a small camp site, which is nice as there aren’t long queues for the bathrooms or showers, and there are a number of cafes and restaurants dotted around the Illa de Montefaro (the middle island where the campsite is based). I would strongly recommend skipping the restaurant on the campsite, and wandering further up the path (away from the where the boats drop you off) to the Bar Serafín. This tiny little bar has a wonderful outdoor terrace under a canopy of trees and a beautiful view of Rodas beach and the sea. We had some deliciously fresh fish grilled with just lemon and some of the tiny fish deep fried and tasting of the sea. With a glass of Albariño in my hand, surrounded by my family, I literally couldn’t have been happier.
You can’t visit these beautiful islands without a dip in the water and after lying on the beach, dozing under the bright sun for an hour or so, I plucked up the courage to wander in. I’m not going to lie, despite being August (and still supposedly summer) the water was possibly the coldest I have ever felt – and I’ve swum in a glacial lake in Canada! It was physically painful to swim, not because my limbs were cold (for they had just gone numb) but because simply breathing hurt! I still went in a couple of times though, I couldn’t resist, but I would recommend caution to those who aren’t strong swimmers. As I lay there on the beach I gazed out to sea, and wondered if someone across the world in Boston was gazing back at me.
Perhaps before jumping in the water though, it’s best to make the most of the early mornings by exploring the islands many hiking routes. We started the weekend with the lighthouse mountain route – a slowly winding route that takes you to the very distinctive lighthouse of the Islas Cies. It’s not a difficult walk at all – we saw old ladies with walking sticks and parents pushing strollers at the top, and the views are spectacular! Before you hit the final staircase, make sure to keep an eye down to the left of the track so that you can spot the A Porta lighthouse. This second smaller lighthouse is much prettier in my opinion and there’s also a walk to visit that lighthouse too, but we skipped it, content with the picture perfect view from above.
As you walk you’ll be surrounded by the swish of feathered wings around you and the wild call of the gulls – the Cíes are home to the worlds largest colony of seagulls! When I first read that I was a bit nervous, but these gulls are nothing like the vicious creatures of Brighton Pier! They’re beautiful and free, untouched (in my mind) by the poisons of oily seaside fish and chips! I especially loved seeing the baby seagulls, though they’re the same size as the adults, they have speckled brown feathers and carry themselves completely differently, with their heads tucked in as much as possible as if they’re shy or scared.
The next day we headed back to the Northern Island (Monteagudo) for the Agudo Mountain Route. Despite not seeing any charming lighthouses and not a sign of a gull, this was actually my favourite of the routes we walked. After skirting past Figueiras Beach – a haven for anyone who wants to be truly one with nature as it’s a nudist beach – we walked into a sea of green serenity. The forests are filled with pine trees and the paths are paved with fallen Eucalyptus bark, which makes for a heady and intoxicating scent. There are swathes of Eucalyptus trees across the whole of Galicia, and these took me back to my many adventures walking the Camino de Santiago – I love the bark of the tree and the way it peels off to create a woody and soft carpet. It’s funny how scents instantly transport you back in time to a memory of another place – pine always reminds me of the island of Capri in Italy, but perhaps now, after that beautiful walk, I’ll smell pine and think of the Cíes instead.
At the top of the island are some of the most beautiful rock formations I’ve seen. The younger among us clambered up and down the steep edges, searching for that perfect view as the sun started to set, but I think I got the best view seeing them like tiny gulls at the top of the rocks. The Cíes were all I had hoped for and more – what started out as a vague plan to camp on some pretty islands ended up as a breath of pure air in my hectic life: swimming in clear waters, hiking through untouched forests and eating and drinking some truly delicious food and wine surrounded by my family is all I could ever ask for. Even if you don’t love camping, you’ll love being here, I promise.