By Mary Anne Evans
I’ve been visiting Tenerife for the last 15 years and each time I find something new to discover on this surprisingly diverse island. Tenerife may be just 86 kms long and 56 kms wide (smaller than little Rhode island) but it packs a real punch.
So what is there on this island off the west coast of Africa, once the hub of Atlantic exploration to America then of the all-important trade routes?
For a start glorious beaches, rocky coves and subtropical rain forests, plus a year-round temperate climate that sustains over 4,000 species of endemic flora and fauna. If you’re thinking of Hawaii you won’t be far off.
Then there’s Spain’s highest mountain, delightful towns of Spanish colonial architecture and small villages that cling to the steep hillsides.
But that’s not all. Tenerife has a rich history. This was the island where Christopher Columbus restocked before his long voyage to America in 1492. It’s where England’s Admiral Nelson lost his arm in the battle of Santa Cruz in 1797.
Coming more up to date, Tenerife is where the European Space Agency tested its moon rovers, and where Olympic cyclists come to train.
If I’ve wetted your appetite for a new destination, here are some great reasons to visit Tenerife. And for the USA it starts with its new accessibility.
Getting to Tenerife
Tenerife is a favourite with the Brits but it’s relatively little known in the USA. All that changed at the beginning of June when United Airlines launched its direct service from Newark, New Jersey. Now this new, easily accessible island off the west coast of Africa is just a 7-hour flight from America’s east coast. Who knows? Maybe it will come to challenge Florida as a winter destination.
Which part to choose?
The island is small so you can combine different experiences from a lazy beach holiday in the south to strenuous walks in the north.
The southern part of the island is the major resort area. It stretches along a shoreline that mixes long stretches of sandy beaches with small rocky coves carved into lofty headlands that drop abruptly down to the sea.
The top hotels here vie for the prize for the most elaborate architecture, a mix that manages to steer clear of too much kitsch and successfully (on the whole) incorporates Moorish influence with Spanish colonial style.
There’s plenty of accommodation here, from those top hotels to some pretty swanky self-catering apartments, to small boutique hotels, guest houses, bed and breakfast and budget accommodation.
Done enough sunbathing? It’s time to take to the sea.
It may sound tame but my preferred sport, if you can call it that, is whale and dolphin watching. It’s a leisurely pastime, enjoyed from a catamaran that sails along the Costa Adaje. I might not be able to distinguish a pilot whale or bottlenose dolphin (the usual visitors) from a Bryde’s whale or rough toothed dolphin (infrequent visitors) but who cares? Watching these magnificent beasts cavorting in the deep seas around you and swimming alongside your now silent and stationary boat is an extraordinary experience.
I leave it to others to look at the creatures of the deep rather more closely on a scuba dive. My other half tried diving off the old Canarian village of Las Galletas where fishing boats bob up and down in the harbour and scuba divers bob up and down in the sea. It was, he said afterwards, pretty good swimming among the Atlantic and Mediterranean sea life and getting up close to green sea turtles and manta rays, octopus and shoals of fish.
For the even more sporting, a hefty wind blowing for over 300 days a year fills the sea around with ambitious kite surfers.
Visit the volcanic past at Mt Tiede National Park
Mount Tiede stands high up in the middle of the island, dominating the landscape. Driving into the 10-mile wide volcanic crater is an experience in itself. You leave the greenery of the trees and the intense blue of the sea to enter an extraordinary lunar landscape. It looks as if this is how the world began.
A cable car takes you up 1,200 metres (3,937 ft) to the top of the dormant volcano. Spain’s highest peak gives you some pretty breath-taking views over Tenerife, other Canary islands and out into the Atlantic. It’s cold up there so go prepared.
You can trek up to the summit which rises 4,000 metres. You’ll have to be pretty fit; this is one of Europe’s most challenging trails, taking around 12 hours.
At night Tiede national park brings the stargazers. Tenerife is one of the world’s great starwatching destinations and it’s serious stuff. The government even passed a law controlling flight paths to protect the night time conditions.
Unless you’re an expert, it’s best to book a tour with an expert to point out Saturn and its rings, near and far-distant galaxies and the craters on the Moon. We went on a tour with a remarkably knowledgeable stargazer. To our delight he was the guide who had taken my partner around the parts of Santa Cruz linked to Nelson and his ill-fated attack on the island. As I mentioned, it’s a small island.
Walk the rainforests of the north
In the northeast of Tenerife, ancient forests clad the volcanic Anaga Mountains formed by an eruption around 7 million years ago. In the humid subtropical forest, vines trail from the glossy broadleaf trees and mists swirl in at any time of the year. Well-marked trails take you down steep paths past half-hidden caves and terraced fields and into the sunlight where glorious views take in the small villages and the Atlantic ocean.
The Anaga Mountain range is not just a tourist attraction; in 2015 UNESCO declared the Anaga Mountains a World Biosphere Reserve, home to Europe’s largest number of endemic species.
There are plenty of spectacular drives which often include hairpin bends and steep climbs around Tenerife. For one of the most dramatic of them, head for the little hilltop village of Masca in the western Tenof Massif. Take the road from Santiago del Tiede in southern Tenerife up to the village which stands between two gorges of the Teno Mountains. Before the roads were built in the 1970s this could only be reached by mule. Its remote location made the village a natural fortress; it was the last stronghold of the original Guanches inhabitants in 1496 when the Spanish finally conquered the island.
Masca was built along a ridge between steep ravine walls. It’s a very pretty village of old stone houses and steep rough paths meandering off the main street, but it’s the views from here that are spectacular. In spring bright coloured flowers cover the valley floor; the hillsides are covered with terraces, planted with fruit and almond trees. And beyond lies the ocean and a view of the neighbouring island of La Gomera.
From here drive north on the equally winding road down to the coast. If you follow the road to the Teno lighthouse, Tenerife’s most westerly point, you’ll find little coves where you can sunbathe on the rocks. You might try clambering down to the sea. But take care; this is not the place for timid swimmers.
Spanish Colonial Towns
Wander through the Old Town of San Cristóbal de la Laguna where the grid plan layout of the streets, old houses with their wooden balconies and tree-lined squares may seem familiar. This delightful and historic small city, the first one built after the Spanish conquered Tenerife in 1494, became the model for Latin American cities like Old Havana in Cuba and San Juan in Puerto Rico.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, San Cristóbal was the island’s capital until 1821 when it gave up the honour to neighbouring, and bigger Santa Cruz de Tenerife.
To the west, pretty La Oratava attracts visitors for the variety of traditional crafts for sale in its specialist shops in Casa Eladia Machado. The museum in the 17th-century Casa de los Balcones is also a place to visit. If you’re here in June, you’ll catch the Feast of Corpus Christi when the streets are carpeted in intricate designs made from flowers and coloured sand. The religious parade processes through the streets; performers and spectators dressed in old Canarian costumes play old instruments and dance past you in a glorious fiesta of colour and noise.
Further along the coast you come to Garachico, rebuilt after total volcanic destruction in 1706. You get there either along the coast or if you’re coming from the south, down a steep road with impossibly tight bends that will challenge even the most competent driver. There’s the convent of San Francisco, the Casa de Piedra, a park, the castle of San Miguel and wonderful and inventive natural swimming pools carved out of the rock.
Santa Cruz de Tenerife
Santa Cruz is known for three things. It’s been the capital of Tenerife since 1723; it’s a major port for cruise ships…and it’s the place where Horatio Nelson lost his arm in 1797. It was also where the Spanish conquest of the island began in 1494. Only a few streets have echoes of the Spanish past, but Santa Cruz is a vibrant city and the place for main shopping and good restaurants.
It’s also the place to be between February and March when the city explodes with the world’s second largest carnival.
The Top Family Attraction
Set aside a day for a trip to Siam Park. This tribute to Thailand is an extraordinary fantasy for its owner with huge models of strange creatures greeting you as you walk through. The largest water park in Europe is judged (by those who know) among the best such watery kingdoms in the world. Paths take you past giant bizarre creatures to the attractions. Take the youngest to the Bohdi Trail along jungle-like tree paths ending at a sandy cove with its white sand and artificial waves. There are water slides, glimpses of sharks and the truly terrifying Naga Racer where you can race five others abreast as you plunge head first on a mat down to the finish.
But take note: Siam Park is a very popular attraction and you’ll find queues if you go at peak times.
The Food of Tenerife
Tenerife may not be famous for its food, but it’s pretty good and getting better.
Expect fish and seafood in a variety of forms. Fishermen deliver fresh sardines, grouper, pollock, tuna (very good when marinated before frying), bream and other fish daily.
Meat is mainly pork, goat and rabbit; very little cattle is raised on Tenerife.
Tenerife has large avocado plantations which are a big export as well as being a favourite local fruit.
Not to be missed are papas arrugadas which translates rather unappetisingly as wrinkled potatoes. They’re delicious, grown on rich volcanic soil which gives them their special flavour. They’re boiled then roasted.
Eat them with mojo – a sauce which goes with everything. You’ll mostly come across mojo rojo (made from red pepper and garlic) and mojo verde (coriander and parsley).
Gofio is a real local speciality, going back to the original Guanche inhabitants. It’s a kind of flour made of toasted grains. You’ll see a large bowl of it at breakfast to sprinkle on your cereal or mix it with milk. You’ll also see it used in desserts. I think it’s an acquired taste, but try it, you may love it.
And of course…bananas. Everywhere you’ll see banana plantations, large stretches of land covered over with what looks like sacking. It’s big business in Tenerife. Not only do the plantations grow and export their bananas, many of them also offer tours, and meals, some of which are exceptional. They’re mostly in the south and on hillsides stretching down to the sea.
Tenerife bananas are sweet and delicious. And of course they make a liqueur from the fruit.
Where to Eat
Tenerife has five Michelin starred restaurants (one with 2 stars, the rest with one). But seek out smaller restaurants which can be first class at very inexpensive prices. As in all places popular with tourists, try to avoid the main tourist areas and the obvious tourist traps. That might mean rejecting the views by the sea and walking down small alleys but you’ll find it’s worth the detour.
Tenerife has some surprisingly good wine but output is small so you’re unlikely to find it anywhere but Tenerife. Try and visit a winery or two, particularly up in the hills where the volcanic soil gives the vines a particular taste. Book a visit through the tourist office; learn about the vines and enjoy excellent snacks with the tastings.
Tenerife Tourism Website: https://www.webtenerife.co.uk/
United Airlines flights to Tenerife: https://www.united.com/en-us/flights-to-tenerife
Where Nelson lost his arm: https://mechtraveller.com/2022/05/where-nelson-lost-his-arm-at-the-battle-of-santa-cruz-de-tenerife/
Mary Anne Evans is a former magazine editor and now a freelance travel writer living in London but partly spending her time at her 400-year old house in the remote French area of the Auvergne. She is the author of guide books to Brussels, Bruges and Stockholm, and contributes to Frommer’s Guides to London and France. She also writes extensively about Scandinavia and the Nordic countries. Her website is Mary Anne’s France.