Island in the sun
There are some hidden gems in Tenerife
I've never been the bravest when it comes to theme parks. So when I found myself standing in the mouth of a very tall dragon, staring into a black hole and surrounded by gushing water, I was reluctant to fling myself into the abyss.
Instead I stood hesitantly, my inflatable dinghy drooping beneath me, as a crowd of children grew ever impatient in my wake. When it seemed they would wait no more, I clamped my eyes shut, and made the leap.
Siam Park calls itself the most spectacular water park in Europe, and is one of the most popular attractions in Tenerife. As soon as I hurtled down the first slide, screaming all the way, I could see why.
After careering through the dark tunnel of the Dragon, I was flung ten metres towards the sky as the slide morphed into a giant funnel. The split-second of weightlessness at the peak felt like minutes, and all I could do was lock eyes with my fellow slider and scream some more.
The Dragon isn't even the most extreme ride at Siam Park. That honour is bestowed upon the Tower of Power, which looms some 90 feet over the expansive grounds. Designed to emulate a Thai temple, a long slide runs straight down the length of the building. From the top, an almost vertical freefall sends victims hurtling at speeds of up to 80km an hour, in a plunge that is terrifying even to watch.
And if that wasn't unnerving enough, the ride finishes in a shark tank. Granted, you'll be moving so fast that you'll barely be able to make out the nurse and bull sharks, but it certainly adds a Bond-like thrill to the proceedings.
If your nerves aren't quite up to it (or you can't face the hour-long queue) then the Mai Thai River winds a leisurely path through the aquarium, giving you a better look at the sharks and rays. There are plenty of other chilled out options – the huge beach area has gentle waters for swimming, or you can roll in the surf when the waves are switched on.
For some real luxury, you can hire a private cabana, complete with a jacuzzi, stocked up mini-bar and outdoor shower. Hire also includes a fast-pass wrist band, which is vital for skipping the long lines. Most have a wait of around 20 minutes, which can become grating in the strong sun.
It's this reliable sunshine, of course, that draws so many Irish visitors to Tenerife. Temperatures sit comfortably in the 20s throughout the year, making it the perfect spot for some winter rays. In November, the average is around 20C, with eight hours of sunshine a day and the sea a comfortable 22C.
But while it would be easy to spend your holiday lying on the beach or by the pool, the island's volcanic landscape is well worth exploring.
The Sandos San Blas Nature Resort is a hotel offering a unique opportunity to combine relaxation and exploration. Developed next to a ravine, experts lead guided tours through its rocky peaks, cacti patches and over a lake, on a wooden raft. The ambling tour is an interesting foray into the history of the island, one which is often forgotten among the neon bar signs and stag parties.
At set points, actors spring up to tell their stories. A woman, toiling by her tomato cart, bemoans her absent husband. An older man appears high upon the rocks, pickaxe in hand, to complain that he is left to do all of the work. Finally, a man scantily clad in animal hides offers up a sacrifice to the gods, before perching on a rocky ledge and blowing his horn to the heavens.
Theatrics aside, the ravine is strikingly attractive. It's hard to imagine, when stood on the busy roadside, that a vibrant sanctuary sits just beneath view. Colourful plants and flowers dot the environs, striking quite the contrast to the dusty landscape above. The natural lake that you pass through is a stunning shade of green, due to its high algae content, with calm waters that you drift upon leisurely. It's only when one of the frequent budget airlines flies overhead that you remember you're not in the wilderness, but in one of the more popular holiday destinations in Europe.
The evidence of this is all around you in Tenerife. Irish bars proliferate in the tourist towns, as well as English pubs and, oddly, a high number of tattoo parlours. But as with many tourist resorts, there are gems to be found, if you know where to look.
Take Playa de las Américas, for example. You'll find a sprawling strip filled with the usual suspects – a string of bars, most with baby-faced teenagers outside, luring clientele with fliers and flirting.
But among the rubble is Papagayo Beach Club (papagayo-beachclub.com), a Caribbean-styled bar perched on the shore. Luxurious beach beds are spread out up to the water's edge, past the natural pool and up towards the cabana-style restaurant. From the breezy deck you can relax, mojito in hand, blissfully unaware of the debauchery unfolding just minutes down the road. The area does calm down somewhat in the winter months too, when the streets and resorts have a little more breathing room.
It's easy to find good food on the island. The Canarian specialty of Papas Arugadas (wrinkly potatoes) is on most menus, cooked with a healthy amount of sea salt and served with a spicy "mojo" sauce, which varies from place to place.
There are lots of options for tapas too, with bars offering up plates of croquettes and jamon. As you'd expect on an island, seafood is plentiful and delicious. Bream is popular, as is tuna and fresh calamari.
The small and pleasant village of La Caleta is famous for its seafood restaurants. The pick of the bunch is Masia del Mar, where beautiful dishes are served up by charming men in bow ties. Outdoor tables extend out over the bay, where you can watch the last of the day's swimmers as you tuck into dinner.
The waters surrounding the island are filled with more than just delicacies. From the imposing cliffs at Los Gigantes, I hopped aboard the 'Gladiator' on a whale-watching tour, hoping to catch a glimpse of some of the whales and dolphins inhabiting the area. The problem with a lot of similar excursions is the unpredictability of the wildlife – often the only glimmer of a fin is one you see through squinted eye, far on the horizon.
But we had barely left the harbour when a family of pilot whales swam alongside us, so close that you had to resist the urge to reach out and touch them. From the front of the boat, I walked along a small plank, keeping a firm grip on the railings. Under my feet, I could see the figure of mother and child, as they swam in the clear waters beneath me. Their square jaws emerged from the sea every few seconds, as they dipped in and out around the boat's bow.
They stayed with us for a while, playing in the wake, and keeping to their pack. The cliffs loomed in the distance, standing starkly as they kept watch over the blue waters. It was a sight to behold, and one that proved that there's more to Tenerife than meets the eye.
Aer Lingus (0818 365000; aerlingus.com) fly from Dublin to Tenerife three times a week, from €112.99 one way, including taxes and charges. Tickets to Siam Park (siampark.net) cost €33 for adults, €22 for children. A cabana starts at €400.
Where to stay
Abama Golf & Spa Resort (+34 922 126 000; abamahotelresort.com) is a five-star hotel in Guía de Isora, on the south west of the island. The facilities are top notch, with beautiful pools and a stunning white sandy beach. The restaurants serve up divine food – try El Mirador for excellent seafood and views across the water to La Gomera. Low season rooms start at €182, B&B.
The nature reserve isn't the only reason to visit Sandos San Blas Nature Resort and Golf (+34 922 749010; sandos.com). The hotel itself is home to rooms that are sleek and chic, as well as stylish bar areas and an extensive spa. You can also borrow the hotel's kayaks and visit the onsite museum. Rates start at €200 for a double room, all-inclusive.
On the black sands of Playa de Fañabe, the Hotel Iberostar Anthelia (+34 922 713335; iberostar.com) is a great base for a stay in Tenerife. With three pools, one specifically catering for children, the resort is large without feeling crowded. There are also private, adult-only suites, proving popular with grandparents who want to holiday with the family, while having some space of their own. Rooms start at €180, B&B.