Tenerife: full of surprises

by Tom Kinch

So many visitors to Tenerife just stick to the familiar tourist hotspots in the south - but if you venture inland and take to the hills, you'll see an altogether more dramatic side of the island

Tenerife is not all it’s cracked up to be. In fact it’s a good deal more. Cracked up, I mean. No place in Europe is more cracked and ravaged, thrust asunder, or cleaved apart. As such, the popular holiday isle comes as a spectacular and beautiful surprise. Forget the multitudes of sun-seekers who cling to one corner of its mighty shores – just one word sums up Tenerife, and it’s not ‘tourism’.

The word is ‘volcanic’. Tenerife is covered by vast solidified lava flows, scoured by impossibly deep ravines, cloaked by high alpine forests and, above all, capped by an omnipresent, all-dominating, peak. Tenerife is all volcano. From its rocky shores and black sand beaches to its fleshpots and high-rise hotels, it is nothing but one huge ancient eruption.

This humbling-of-mankind sort of fact is worth remembering when you’re in the famous and crowded seaside towns of Playa de las Americas and Los Cristianos. If the endless 'two pints for the price of one' and 'fish and chips' signs get you down, you only have to raise your head to see the mountain and know that man and his works are but a minor blip on the Canarian surface.

It is not nicknamed the Isle of Contrasts for nothing. North of that mighty volcano – Spain’s highest peak, or 3,715m (12,402 ft) Mount Teide, to give it its proper name – the coast is green and fertile. It can rain a lot just about anywhere, with the golden exception of the island’s southern tip. This is where the main tourist meccas are to be found. Of the two neighbouring resorts, Los Cristianos is slightly more peaceful; Playas de las Americas is noisy, brash and crowded.

At Los Cristianos, the southern part of the bay is dominated by the large, luxurious, four-star (Spanish scale) Arona Gran Hotel. From its spacious balconies, we could look out over the lagoon-style pools and palms and watch the busy life of the port. There was hardly a thing here 30 years ago, until a savvy businessman realised that this southern cape often escaped the clouds that build up around Mount Teide and the rest of the island. Now the area represents the largest single tourist development in the Canaries, and has its own international airport.

The next thing to say about southern Tenerife is that it’s easy to escape from, should the madding crowds become too much. For a start, there are the ferries. If the mood takes you, there are almost hourly services to the altogether less touristy island of La Gomera, just over an hour’s sail away. But if wild beauty is what you want, you don’t have to leave Tenerife. Contrary to the popular image of the island, it is both wild and beautiful. And utterly fascinating.

In our cheap hire car, we were able to climb through four entirely different climatic zones within an hour of leaving the hotel. From the subtropical heat of the seaside to the snow-speckled tundra of Mount Teide, it was all there, including semi-desert, a Mediterranean zone full of vineyards, and huge forests that you could walk through for days.

At the top there’s a national park, which protects one of the strangest environments I have ever seen. In the middle of it, a cable car offers you the opportunity to go to the very snow-capped peak. Or would do if it wasn’t windy, which, alas, it was the day we visited.

Instead, we hurtled down the zig-zag road to the north towards Puerto De La Cruz, and ate a fantastic lunch of local dishes, including a broad bean stew and regional sausages, in a roadside restaurant just below the tree line. It was cheap and utterly delicious. Visitors who remain glued to the coastal fleshpots miss a wonderful opportunity – these roadhouses (the likes of which you’ll find all over Spain) offer terrific regional specialities at ludicrously low prices. One thing I love about real Canarian cuisine is the way that you are always served with several little bowls of freshly made salsa – guaranteed to add a punch to any meal.

At attractive Puerto De La Cruz, I witnessed some of the largest surfing waves I have ever seen. From there, you can take the motorway east and travel around three quarters of the island (via the capital, Santa Cruz de Tenerife), reaching Los Cristianos in just over an hour. Or you can head the other way, along the tortuous road that climbs over the great northwestern shoulder of the island.

The latter is worth motorist’s arm-ache, especially if you have time to make the detour to the village of Masca. Don’t go if you or your passengers are scared of heights - this is no road for the squeamish. But I’d recommend it because here, again, we were able to enjoy the Tenerife most tourists never see. Vast, empty and awesome, the vertical landscapes around the tiny, mountain-clinging village of Masca are dramatic beyond description.

We had a beer on the terrace of an ancient inn. Then it was back up the 101 switchbacks again to rejoin the main road at lofty Santiago del Teide – a small town surrounded by so many brutal but petrified lava flows, you wonder how anyone managed to survive the last eruption in 1909.

Like lava, we descended down the mountain to the sunny southeastern corner, just in time for a warm swim and a nap before dinner. The next day brought more adventure: whale-watching from a glass-bottomed boat (we found ourselves in a pod of pilot whales) and a trip to one of the best zoos in Europe. It's all part of week’s holidaying in Tenerife – an island that may have an over-touristy reputation but which, in truth, is one of the great surprises to be enjoyed in the winter sun.