There are two separate realities in Tenerife, largest of the seven Canary Islands. The southern end of the island is a beachy playground full of vacationing sun seekers while the rocky landscape of the north is populated by locals and is laced with terraced farms, wineries and hiking trails. On a recent trip, I opted for the latter… and was pleasantly surprised.
Owned by Spain and located off the coast of North Africa, Tenerife has an average temperature of 23ºC, a circumference of 250 km and a population of 900,000. That number swells to almost six million with the tourist influx every winter. In the mid ‘70s the government wanted to jump-start the economy and started offering package tours that brought visitors from the U.K. to the south of the island, where hotter weather prevails.
I was searching for a more culturally authentic experience and made my home base the La Laguna Gran Hotel in San Cristobal de La Laguna. The northeastern town of 125,000 was named capital of the island when the Spanish conquered the indigenous Guanches people and claimed the Canary Islands in 1496. At 550 meters above sea level, the town, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was dotted with imposing buildings that once belonged to nobility but now are mostly government offices. My guide, Cathy Michel, told me to look for crowns embedded in the crests above the buildings’ front entrances. “That signifies royalty,” she explained.
To learn more about the island’s natural history, I headed to Anaga Rural Park on the island’s northeastern tip. Standing at one of the park’s highest lookout points, I gazed at evergreen tree tops that surrounded a gentle sea of clouds. It took my breath away. The forest was full of plants whose seeds had been blown there by the trade winds from the Mediterranean. It was raining slightly and water dripped from the laurel leaves, soaking the earth. The humidity of this region is what irrigates the farms below. “They capture the water and use it for crops, especially bananas,” Cathy explained. At the visitor’s welcome centre, we watched a video describing this island of 321 volcanos (only one is active), famous for its wine, goat cheese, dragon trees, palms and junipers.
Another local guide, Pedro Mederos, explained, “In Anaga, the highest altitude is around 1,000 meters. On the way up, you can see the plants change. In the lower areas, live rabbits, partridges, and Paloma pigeons. The locals hunt the rabbits and partridges for food.”
Most Canarians live in modern abodes or renovated historic properties but in the village of Chinamada, the homes were quite different. High in the hills of Anaga we found caserias, or cave houses fit for a fairy tale. Walking along the cliff edge, Cathy and I heard music and as we passed a doorway carved into the rock, a man popped out carrying an instrument that looked like a ukulele. “I’m playing a timple, I learned from my father who loved folksongs,” he told us with a big smile. Valentine Ramos Ramos explained that he was born in this house in 1962. “I was named after St. Valentines because I was born on that day.”
Having worked up an appetite, we decided to have lunch in Taganana, known as the village at the end of the world. In reality, it is near the end of the coastal road in Anaga. The big draw was beach-front restaurant Casa Africa, where we filled up on fresh-caught fish, octopus, creamy potatoes and colourful salad.
The south is known for its beaches, but the north has a few, as well. At Las Teresitas Beach we walked down to the water and watched sun bathers gingerly dipping their toes in the ocean. “The sand at this beach used to be black from the volcanic rock, but the government had gold sand brought in from the Sahara Desert because the black sand grew too hot in the sun and burned people’s feet,” Cathy explained.
Driving 10 km south from the beach, we came to Santa Cruz, which became Tenerife’s capital in 1823. With a population of 250,000 it is the island’s largest city, and is known for the landmark Auditorio de Tenerife, designed by architect Santiago Calatrava and completed in 2003. One of the city’s newest attractions is La Casa Carnaval, the Carnival Museum. Walking into the building, the first display to meet my eyes was the Carnival Queen’s costume from 2018. An astounding assemblage of red and gold, glitter and feathers, I discovered it had wheels underneath. “The costume weights 360 kilograms. The queen must walk into her costume, then she is crowned with a 11-kilogram headpiece,” Miriam, the museum guide explained.
The next day we drove to the centre of the island to Teide National Park where you can climb the island’s only active volcano and Spain’s highest peak, Mont Teide (or take the cable car, like me). Volcanic lava chunks spewed from the last eruption of the 3,700-meter-high mountain in 1909 were scattered about everywhere, giving the area an almost surface-of-the-moon appearance.
Down the road from the cable car, Parador de las Cañadas del Teide was open for lunch. The waiter said goat and rabbit were the most popular dishes, but I opted for soup and shrimp, both delicious. At the front desk, I learned the hotel offers guests a stargazing program since the area’s dark skies have made it one of the top astronomy locations in the world. The 37-room property attracts outdoorsy guests who want to mountain climb, as well as cyclists who use the area for high-altitude training. “Lance Armstrong came here for five years to train. And British cyclist Chris Froome stayed here. Guests like the location and food,” explained Alejandro Garcia Valerio, the hotel’s director.
Driving back up to the northern coast to Puerto de la Cruz, I joined the crowds and walked along the sea wall, gazing out at the crashing waves. For a pick-me-up, I headed to Plaza del Charco for a barraquito coffee (Licor 43, sweetened condensed milk, steamed milk, and espresso) at one of the square’s outdoor cafes.
Further west, in Icod de Los Vinos, I searched out the island’s oldest dragon tree. Tenerife is covered with these spikey, odd trees that are not really trees, but a cactus-like plant. From the terrace of Casa de la Drago, a café and gift shop, I spied the magnificent, 500-year-old tree on a protected site next door. Fittingly, the café served a Drago’s Blood liquor made with the bright red liquid extracted from dragon trees. Syrupy and sweet, it went nicely with a splash of soda water.
Another beverage that Tenerife excels at is wine. At Monje Winery, owner Felipe Monje took me on a tour and pointed to one of the vines, “It’s 200 years old. Vines here live a long time. Other places they only make it to 50 or 80 years.” An amalgamation of agricultural plots that had been in the family for generations, the winery was started by Felipe’s father in the 1950s and now produces 14 wines, the majority of which are sold in Spain, although some are available in the United States. Alas, not Canada.
Near the end of my trip, I visited Garachico, once an important shipping town on the island’s northwest corner. When a devastating volcano erupted in 1706 and swallowed the harbour, the town went into decline. Now revived, it is a charming destination with cobbled streets, churches, and historic buildings. At the boutique San Los Roques hotel, owner Dominic Carayon gave me a tour of the hotel, a restored 17th century building. “It had been abandoned for 10 years and was in bad shape. It took four years to finish the renovations,” he said. Wooden floors, warm colours and intriguing art objects highlighted the inviting property and the fine food offered in the hotel’s restaurant Anturium – aged goat cheese starter, fresh fish main with Canarian wrinkly potatoes boiled in salt water, and a sweet, creamy flan – matched the mood perfectly.
Tenerife has so much more to offer than sun and sand. If you really want to eat, drink and live like a local, go north.
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