You’re heading to Spain in the summer, so you’ve probably considered an island side trip to Mallora or Ibiza. But how about a destination a little less, well, obvious? For a vacation off the beaten path, you can’t do better than the Illas Cíes, a tiny archipelago in the province of Galicia.
And I mean off the beaten path as in when I visited last summer, we never once heard another American accent on the islands. As we juggled Spanglish at a small market to purchase a quick lunch of cheese, chorizo, and pan – a loaf akin to what we call French bread in the states – the suntanned older gentleman behind the cash register asked where we were from. When we told him the United States, he said, “How did you hear about us?” (The answer: the magic of the Internet, and friends in Vigo.)
Why You Should Check Out The Illas Cíes
Illas Cíes (a 40-minute ferry ride away from the port city of Vigo) haven’t yet attracted the acclaim they deserve. Oh sure, they’ve made headlines a time or two – The Guardian even listed them first on a roundup of the world’s best beaches. But next to the trendier Ibiza or Majorca – and with a limit of just 2,200 people allowed to be on the islands a day – you’d be forgiven for never having heard of Illas Cíes. It turns out 2016 saw record numbers of tourists in Spain so if you don’t want to fight crowds, but still crave those Spanish beach vibes, head for Illas Cíes.
But this is not just a beach destination: Illas Cíes is also a national park, the scene of a historic battle, and home to pre-Roman ruins. Technically three islands – Monteagudo, do Faro, and San Martiño – make up Illas Cíes. The first two are where the action happens, and are connected by the Praia de Rodas, or Rodas Beach. The islands boast a uniquely Galician flair from the fresh seafood fare right down to the name of the islands. In Spanish it’d be Islas Cíes, but Galicia has its own distinct language, so most local signs are written in Galician and Spanish.
Life is lived en plein air on the Illas Cíes as patios beckon travelers to dine under the sun or stars, and activities like hiking or simply lounging on the beach will give you that tanned, windblown, fresh-from-the-island glow before you know it. Here’s how you can spend a delightful weekend – or longer – on the islands.
Wine And Dine
First, the food. Galicia has been called Spain’s seafood capital, and it’s true. Start a meal off with pulpo (aka octopus) because Galicians know how to prepare it right: cooked and drizzled with olive oil and paprika. Or sample pimientos de Padrón: a plate of fried peppers that are mostly savory, but watch out for the spicy one or two!
You could pick just about any fish off a menu; navajas and empanadas de zamburiñas are not to be missed. But what Galicia is really known for are mariscos (aka shellfish), so try mejillones, vieiras, or cigalas – that’s mussels, scallops, and crayfish. And, of course, you also can’t go wrong with jamón Ibérico, or Iberian pork – expensive outside the region, it’s inexpensive and delectable in Galicia.
Pair that fare with a bottle of Spanish white wine – also quite affordable. Even if you’re a red wine aficionado, you might just change your mind with one sip of an albariño. Made with grapes of the same name grown in the Rías Baixas region of Spain in, you guessed it, Galicia, this light, fruity, sweet-but-not-too-sweet white is a taste you won’t want to miss.
Both Monteagudo and do Faro have bustling cafeterias great for a cup of café in the morning or a bite at lunch. Both joints – Restaurante Rodas and Restaurante Illas Cíes – boast stellar ocean views. There’s also the market (you’ll see it referred to on maps as the supermercado) where we purchased our chorizo, cheese, and pan – the perfect beach picnic. But for dinner we found ourselves returning to Bar Restaurante Serafín. A Christmas-light-stringed, tree canopied patio overlooks the ocean at the restaurant where you can sit in the evening breeze (don’t forget a light sweater or jacket even if you go in the summer) and order that inexpensively priced seafood and white wine.
A quick heads up: though the Illas Cíes are just a couple hours north of Portugal, clocks there are one hour later, and have been since the 1940’s when Spanish dictator Francisco Franco aligned Spain’s time with Nazi Germany. Between Berlin time and the Spanish habit of dining late, you won’t be eating dinner until after nine at night – at the earliest. Many eateries actually close between 4:00 PM and 9:00 PM.
So, as in the rest of Spain, plan on a late lunch. Around 8:00 PM each night, breeze into the island bar – located underneath Restaurante Illas Cíes – for a drink to tide you over till dinner. Try Estrella Galicia lager from 100-year-old family-owned beverage company Hijos de Rivera. Then, arrive at Serafín promptly at nine. You’ll be assured a table, as the crowd will be comprised mostly of you and the other foreigners – we spoke to a family from Portugal and heard British accents a time or two. More locals will roll in as the night advances.
How To Get Your Tan On
What do you do when you’re not eating? Obviously, you want to hit up those world-renowned beaches, but also make time to hike to see more of the island. Ambitious trekkers could cover the two main islands in one day, but we’d recommend breaking the journey up into two hikes over a couple of days.
Mountainous trails wind around the southern end of do Faro island on the Monte Faro Route, transporting hikers up to a magnificent lighthouse. Along the way you’ll stop at a hill crowned with rock formations and a bird observatory – the islands are home to the yellow-legged herring gull, European shag, and guillemot. Keep walking and you’ll see the sparkling Atlantic Ocean on your left, and glimpse your best view of the maddeningly unobtainable San Martiño island, accessible only by private boat.
Up quickly turning railed switchbacks, you’ll finally reach a solar-powered lighthouse. On the way back down the Faro da Porta Route cuts to the right to lead to a second smaller lighthouse. This hike takes just a few hours, and following the trails back you can stumble across pre-Roman ruins and a dock where wetsuit-clad snorkelers brave the cold water. And I mean cold like Pacific Northwest cold. Like you probably-don’t-want-to-be-swimming cold. But you just might be tempted after that long hike, and then the water is incredibly refreshing.
The other half of the hike, the Monteagudo Route on its island namesake, largely passes beneath pine and eucalyptus trees. There’s another bird observatory and a lighthouse tiny compared to the others but still festooned with a solar panel and seagull or two.
Of course, make sure you have at least one day of dedicated beach time. Bring along plenty of beach reads, and be vigilant about that sunscreen. You’ll want to linger on Rodas Beach, but know the islands do offer other beaches like the clothing-optional Figueiras or snorkeling-ready Nosa Señora if you want to mix it up.
Culture Isn’t Lacking At Illas Cíes
If history is your thing, hit up the Interpretation Center built in the ruins of the 11<sup>th</sup> century Monastery of San Esteban. You might also hear about the shipwreck during the Battle of Vigo Bay in 1702. For centuries after people sought the ship’s treasure, rumored to be near the islands. The fortune is so fabled it’s even mentioned in Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Sweet Dreams On The Island
Okay, by this point you’re exhausted. Where will you sleep? Surrounding that market and bar is the Camping Islas Cíes campsite. Yes, campsite. But this isn’t camping as you know it. The sight of sturdy canvas tents with the ever-present ocean view may make you doubt me, but know each tent comes with a mattress big enough for two, and we were pleasantly surprised when we laid down. There was plenty of room on both sides of the bed for our suitcases. A clean white sheet covered the mattress, adorned also with a body pillow we could both rest on at night. We rented a sleeping bag, unzipped it, and used it for a blanket for around $7 a day – an unbeatable and cozy solution to the fact we hadn’t lugged sleeping bags or blankets across the Atlantic Ocean on an airplane. The temperate climate requires nothing more.
And the showers are by far the cleanest camping showers I’ve ever seen – spotless enough to walk around barefoot – and a few coins get you hot water. There’s even Wi-Fi to be had, and places to charge smartphones via solar power. All this costs around $55 a day for two. Yes, you might get a little dirty. The plus is that camping allows you to connect to nature and live outside for a few days. Life slows down a little; without any cars on the islands your own two feet set the pace for a laid-back escape.
The next time you’re planning an island retreat in Spain, I heartily recommend you venture to the Illas Cíes. This is Spain as you’ve never seen it.
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Photography by Lacy Cooke