Sunday 23 September 2018

Tenerife: Finding gold on the Canaries' Treasure island

Sun holidays in the Canary Islands

Las Teresitas beach on the island of Tenerife
Las Teresitas beach on the island of Tenerife
The magnificent Basilica of Candelaria
David Blake Knox

David Blake Knox

When our Aer Lingus flight touched down at Tenerife airport last month, the skies were overcast with banks of heavy cloud, and before long it began to rain.

The forecast was bad, but our guide tried to put on a brave face.

"Don't ask me about the weather," he warned us, "In any case, the forecasts are always wrong. Meteorologists - what do they know about anything!"

It seems they know quite a lot about the weather, since we enjoyed only one day of uninterrupted sunshine in the week we were on the island. It was uncharacteristically overcast for the time of the year. However, there can be practical benefits to cooler temperatures.

I had been to Tenerife some years before when the weather had been beautiful, and I spent most of the long hot days basking beside the pool, or making the occasional trip to a nearby bodega to sample some of the local brew.

This time, I was determined to explore more of the island.

The magnificent Basilica of Candelaria
The magnificent Basilica of Candelaria

Our group, who turned out to be lively and entertaining company, was staying on the northern side of Tenerife in Puerto de la Cruz. Our hotel was called the Catalonia Las Vegas and my room offered a wonderful view of the seafront from where I could watch the Atlantic Ocean crashing against the dark rocks of the shoreline.

Although this is a major centre for tourism, it has kept much of its authentic local character, and many small bars and restaurants can be found along the steep and winding streets.

On the first morning, our group travelled further north to visit La Laguna, once the capital of the island.

In some ways, La Laguna is not a typical Canarian town: its streets are broad, straight and flat, and the town contains many buildings that date back to its early colonisation by Spanish conquistadors.

The main square in La Laguna includes an imposing Dominican convent that was built in the 17th Century. High above its entrance door, we saw a curious wooden structure with heavily-latticed windows.

Our guide explained its original purpose. Nuns were not allowed to leave the grounds after entering the convent. However, on special occasions, they were permitted access to this wooden building, and they could look out through its lattices. This meant the nuns could observe the bustling life in the square below without anyone seeing their faces. The story conveyed a poignant image to me: one of longing and self-denial. There were once five large convents in La Laguna. Now, only two remain, with just a handful of nuns in each of them.

David Blake Knox
David Blake Knox

When I looked out the window of my hotel room the next morning, the sea seemed to have merged with the grey horizon. However, our group set off for the Teide National Park, named after Mount Teide, a dormant volcano, and the highest peak in Spain.

The park is situated at such a high altitude that it rests above the clouds, which means clear blue skies are guaranteed. On the vertiginous ascent to the park, we drove through an enormous pine forest. The trees that grow there are reckoned to be among the toughest species on earth. In order to survive the periodic volcanic eruptions, they have developed layers of thick bark that makes them fire-resistant.

We passed through the island's famous "sea of clouds" before reaching a deep depression in the rock formation that resembled Mars, with ochre-coloured volcanic dust, and boulders of every shape and size strewn randomly about. Crossing this huge crater is like moving through a living geology museum.

This is where US astronauts received specialist training before the first manned journey to the moon.

The unearthly feel of the landscape may also explain why it has become a favoured location for a certain type of movie. Clash of the Titans was filmed here, as were episodes of Doctor Who, as well as various instalments of the Planet of the Apes series. It was also here that the cult movie One Million Years BC was shot - allowing Raquel Welch to reveal the unexpected appeal that fur-lined bikinis held for our cavemen ancestors.

The park doesn't only attract fantasy movie-makers: it draws more than four million tourists every year, making it the most visited national park on earth.

Because of its altitude, lack of light pollution, and proximity to the equator, this is also one of the very few places where, at night, it is possible to view both the Northern and Southern constellations of stars. Astronomers have been coming here since the 18th century, and Teide Park can boast one of the world's most important observatories.

Tenerife is also home to what could be the world's oldest tree. The Dragon Tree (El Drago) in the northern town of Icod de los Vinos is at least 900 years old, stands at 18 metres and has blood red resin.

The Las Vegas hotel provided our group with full board during our stay. Meals were served in buffet form, and while there was a good deal of choice, it seemed a shame not to venture outside the hotel and test the local cuisine.

One day I had lunch at the Pomodoro Bistro on a terrace overlooking the sea. I ordered grilled vieja - otherwise known as parrotfish - one of the island's most popular specialities. Its delicate flavour reminded me of fresh mackerel. I accompanied it with a glass of local white wine which had a lovely fruity tone.

Loro Parque is a delightfully designed zoological garden that lies just outside Puerto de la Cruz. It was recently judged to be the world's best zoo, beating the famous San Diego Zoo for the first time. I spent almost four hours there one afternoon, and managed to see only a portion of what was on offer.

Ten years ago, Loro Parque opened another attraction on the other side of the island called Siam Park. It claims to be the largest water park in Europe, and welcomes families.

One day, our group travelled to the resort of Playa de las Americas on the southern coast of Tenerife. Beaches on the island generally look black due to the presence of dark volcanic sand. However, most of the beaches at las Americas are man-made, with white sand imported from North Africa.

Much of the centre of this town is spanking new as it was built only in the past few years. With its numerous bars, nightclubs and restaurants, las Americas is now regarded as the party capital of the Canaries.

The town seemed aptly named because it reminded me of a gigantic American shopping mall - and it seemed appropriate that I should eat lunch in the local Hard Rock Cafe.

There was plenty of entertainment to be found back in Puerto de la Cruz. This included a karaoke night in our hotel, which featured performances that ranged from the accomplished to the amateur - both of which were, in their different ways, equally enjoyable.

Another night featured an Abba tribute band from Romania - a happy coincidence as the original Swedish quartet had just announced plans to release two new tracks after a long silence.

For a relatively small island, Tenerife has a great deal to offer tourists. The weather is (usually) sunny and warm, but seldom is excessively so. Parts of the island are densely populated, but there are also large areas where you can enjoy a virtual wilderness.

Due to past volcanic activity, there is little top soil on Tenerife, and, consequently no livestock can be grazed, and very few crops are grown. Nonetheless, the island has a wide range of restaurants offering cuisine of the highest standards, even though most of the ingredients have to be imported.

I arrived on Tenerife determined to explore the island. I did so, and left, knowing there was still much more for me to discover.

Getting there

Travel Department, experts in guided holidays, offers a seven night, four-star full-board trip to Tenerife from €619pp, with departures until November 2018.

Packages include guided excursions to the very best of what Tenerife has to offer.

Visit traveldepartment.ie or call 01-6371600.

Sunday Independent

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