CIES ISLANDS, Vigo, Spain — The sand was so white and the ocean so perfectly aquamarine that the beach could have been mistaken for a tranquil Caribbean escape. Put your foot in the water, however, and you’re quickly reminded that this is an island off the coast of northern Spain, not Aruba. The ocean here is best for those with the fortitude to brave summers swimming in Maine. The polite euphemism for this is refreshing.
Despite the chill in the ocean, the Cíes Islands are an undiscovered gem to many outside of Europe. One brazen British travel writer even declared it the top beach in the world. Locals, and a few smart tourists, pack the ferries that depart from the small city of Vigo daily during the summer months. Because the Cíes Islands are a nature sanctuary and only reachable by boat, the number of visitors is restricted to 2,200 a day. Reserving a spot on the ferry in advance is a necessity.
The Cíes Islands may be a nature sanctuary, but I felt as if they were my personal sanctuary for the day when I visited last month. The islands are actually an archipelago. You can find the spectacular Playa de Rodas, a small crescent of sandy perfection, connecting the twin islands of Monteagudo and Faro.
The day I visited the summer season was reaching a drowsy end and the pace was beginning to slow. The beach was active with families and backpackers, but it wasn’t uncomfortably crowded. It was one of those glorious September days when the temperature was perfect and the sunshine unending. I opted to hike the island first, and save the beach as my reward for physical activity.
I was nearing the end of a vacation in northern Spain, and after a week of driving from city to city, and devouring far too many tapas along the way, I was excited to experience a bit of nature and much needed exercise. For some reason I’m unable to say no to tortilla española when I travel. My Cíes Islands day would hopefully help rectify some of my culinary misdeeds.
I read fantastic things about the beach here, but confess that I was nervous about one aspect of the islands. They are home to the world’s largest colony of seagulls. About 22,000 pairs call this place home. When I think of birds, I tend to group seagulls with pigeons. I’ve also been known to call them dump chickens (not a scientific term) because of their strong presence in landfills and dumpsters. Do they really need their own private European island? I apologize if I’m offending any of you gull aficionados.
The seagulls were not a nuisance when I went hiking, although they were keen on watching me eat lunch that afternoon. There are four main hiking trails on the island. Two of them bring you to light houses, one of them brings you up to a scenic mountain top, and the fourth is a walk through the forest that leads to a scenic vista.
I opted for the Alto del Príncipe route, which brought me up to the top of Agudo Mountain. This is billed as a relatively easy hike, but my tortilla española-enhanced girth was making it a bit of a challenge. That girth also kept me from approaching Figueiras Beach, which is the nude beach. I didn’t want to scare off beachgoers with a lethal combination of a big gut and pale, dough-like skin. I’m told that Figueiras is just as beautiful as Rodas.
The effort involved in the not-so-easy, easy hike gave me a stunning view of Monteagudo and Faro. Mission completed I descended, suppressed the urge to peek at the action on the nude beach, and headed toward Rodas beach.
But before I collapsed on the sand, I decided I earned a glass of wine for my efforts (there are two restaurants on the island). I avoided another tortilla española and opted for a sandwich instead. It didn’t take long for a nature preserve-protected seagull to show up near my table.
If he could talk, this seagull would have said “Hey buddy, are you going to finish that sandwich?”
When I imagined that the seagull was talking to me, I knew that it was time for me to put down the wine and head to that glorious beach and start enjoying a well-deserved vacation nap.Christopher Muther can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.