We're going for a song (and a spot of sunshine)

At last, Tenerife's capital has got its opera house. But Simon Heptinstall hopes it won't draw the crowds

It didn't matter that we were sitting inside the world's biggest steam iron, under a ceiling that looked like the interior of a giant air freshener. As the conductor raised his baton and the orchestra launched into a spirited Beethoven concerto, the audience breathed a collective sigh of relief.

It didn't matter that we were sitting inside the world's biggest steam iron, under a ceiling that looked like the interior of a giant air freshener. As the conductor raised his baton and the orchestra launched into a spirited Beethoven concerto, the audience breathed a collective sigh of relief.

The assembled citizens and grandees of the Canarian capital have waited 16 years for the inauguration of their extraordinary waterfront opera house. During all those years of delays, wrangles and false hopes, the Tenerife Auditorio seemed to be suffering from a terminal case of mañana. But as the music started, it suddenly seems like the turning point in the fortunes of Santa Cruz.

The building is bizarre, one of the most striking modern structures I've seen. But it's more important than just a barmily indulgent concrete shape; it means that at last the citizens of Tenerife's biggest city feel they've shed the image of dowdy industrial dustbin. It's no longer the urban embarrassment hidden at the far corner of the island, away from the tourists. Santa Cruz has become, they say proudly, the new Barcelona.

After the ovations, we filed into the minimalist foyer to see what were previously wood-panelled walls flipped open like up-and-over garage doors. A warm sea breeze blew right through the building now, whistling up black-tie trouser legs and creating Marilyn Monroe moments among the befrocked.

Like a choreographed army of penguins, we spilled down the steps on to huge illuminated terraces outside. Crowds up on the main road were trying to spot celebrities. The trees in the Palm Park next door swayed, waves lapped at the edge of the terraces and, against the black starry sky, the shiny white mosaic surfaces of the Auditorio glistened like a brand new domestic appliance.

"We are now expecting visitors to take cultural city breaks in our capital," a tourism official told me, earnestly demolishing a vol-au-vent. "Look at this!" a young woman from the Canarian government gesticulated across the bay towards the container port with her champagne glass. "We are now a world-class city."

Spain's Prince Felipe was soon whisked away, generals and admirals with their swords, epaulettes and sashes marched back to their castles, flagships or whatever. Sitting down for a midnight feast in a tent next to the Lido designed by Canarian artist Cesar Manrique were ministers, mayors, the media and me.

Fair enough, they've spent a lot of their own and EU money, and put up with roadworks, dust, cranes and construction noise, while Santiago Calatrava's design inched towards completion. Now they all want to sit back like the Tenerife Symphony Orchestra and bask in the applause. I was invited along as a British journalist who has written positively many times about Tenerife's hidden attractions. Surely I'd be bowled over by this crowning glory?

Well, I confess, I liked Santa Cruz before the Auditorio anyway. But the city's lack of success with tourists from the big south-coast resorts was one reason why. Tenerife is Britain's number-one winter sun destination yet only a handful ever stay in the capital. And that's fine by me. For here's a lively Spanish city with a year-round semi-tropical climate, charming old quarter, lovely bars and restaurants, tax-free shopping, pavement cafés under huge palm trees, quiet little tree-lined squares, museums, art galleries and quirky churches. It seems untouched by the pie-and-chips atmosphere of the south coast.

But the new Barcelona? Well, there's already a long grand avenue with a wide walkway down the middle called The Ramblas. It may not be quite the pedestrian floor-show that Barcelona's Ramblas has become, but it is dotted with art, including a Henry Moore, monumental trees and those wonderful ramshackle newsagents' kiosks draped with magazines and papers like home-made bunting.

To top it all, a four-mile bus or taxi ride north of the city centre is Tenerife's best beach. Playa de Teresitas is a three-mile arc created with golden sand imported from the Sahara in the Seventies. At one end is the white-washed village of San Andres clinging to a cliff. It's really a suburb of Santa Cruz and has highly-rated seafood restaurants in the streets beneath a ruined castillo. Behind Teresitas beach is a shady area of palms leading to the wild slopes of the Agana mountains behind. I've never heard an English voice near the beach - and even though it's popular with locals, there's always plenty of room.

Back in the city, I had meetings and tours to attend. Everyone was talking about the Auditorio. What did I think? Would it attract British visitors to Santa Cruz? Crikey, don't ask me. Errr, I hope not.

In between I happily wasted half a morning sipping espresso at a shiny metal table under the huge Indian Laurel tree at Las Paraguitas café on Plaza España. I browsed some cheap-looking shoe shops on the Calle Castillo.

I had lunch in the sun, at a table in an alley full of bars and cafés called Callejon del Combate. I sat outside Condal and Penamil Restaurant, a primly period place evoking a pre-war Spain that also includes a tobacco museum and cigar shop. I had a smoked cheese salad and beer for around £5. One of the Tenerife football stars and his family arrived for lunch and everyone else stared.

One hot night I walked right across the city at 1.30am, something I'd never think of doing back home. Here, at 28C, it felt safe and sexy. Couples cuddled on benches, groups of friends sat at pavement cafés, cars rolled by heading for the late clubs on Avenue Agana. In the square outside the Museo de Bellas Artes, in the ornate bandstand surrounded by exotic trees and shrubs, a couple were dancing to a portable CD player.

The Auditorio is but one stage in a impressive revamping of Santa Cruz. The Contemporary Arts Centre that opens next year is promising and there are plans to rejig the seafront docks so there's more of a waterfront feel to the city centre. It all sounds like progress, although I like it the way it is now. Will it ever be the new Barcelona? I hope not. I think I prefer it as the new Santa Cruz.

Give me the facts

How do I get there?

British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) offers nine services a week from London Gatwick to Tenerife South, as well as a twice-weekly service to Tenerife North. Return fares from £149.

In January, Prestige Holidays (01425 480400) is offering six nights at the Sheraton Mencey in Santa Cruz from £651 per person, including flights and accommodation.

Where can I get more information?

The Auditorio de Tenerife (00 34 922 270 611; www.auditoriodetenerife.com) is a major venue for the 19th annual Canary Island Music Festival, which will be held from 7 January to 15 February.

For more details on Tenerife, contact the Spanish Tourist Office (020-7486 8077; www.tourspain.es).

What else is worth seeing in Tenerife?

Britain's number one winter sun destination offers lots of surprises, a world away from the tawdry south coast resorts.

* Mount Teide Tenerife is a geographical traffic cone measuring 50 miles across with one of the world's largest volcanoes in the middle. El Teide is Spain's biggest mountain, three times the height of Ben Nevis. Take the white-knuckle cable car to the top. It's so high you'll be gasping for breath but the stupendous view of the volcanic landscape makes it all worthwhile.

* La Laguna A World Heritage city in the middle of a semi-tropical holiday island, yet it's hardly bothered by tourists. La Laguna's old town is an enticing grid of ancient churches, convents and villas, with great, authentic cafés under the shady trees. The big student population means that it has plenty of lively bars and clubs.

* Anaga mountains Spiky-topped mountains in the far north that seem a million miles from the touristy south. Pretty fishing and farming villages are dotted around the slopes of this huge nature reserve, plus quiet cafés with awesome views and even beaches you can have all to yourself.

* La Orotava The heart of this pretty agricultural town is a maze of cobbled streets perched on a hill around the striking Iglesia de la Concepción, a church that has been declared a Spanish National Monument. The houses are Spanish colonial, with terracotta roofs, elegant timber balconies on the front and cool, verdant patios inside surrounded by galleried upper floors.

* Garachico This north western port was swamped by lava 300 years ago. A quiet little whitewashed village has risen from the ashes, literally, and enterprising locals created seawater swimming pools in the lava that filled their harbour. Garachico now has two stylish boutique hotels, and plenty of charming seafood restaurants.

* Teresitas Tenerife's best beach is a three-mile arc of creamy sand fringed by palms and backed by wild mountains. Teresitas is up in the top righthand corner of the island, the opposite end to the British hotel strip. So there's always plenty of space, and hardly a foreign tourist in sight.

* Candelaria This scruffy fishing port becomes interesting when you reach its quirky old quarter. The main street leads to a grand waterfront basilica, the centre of a legend about a statue of the Virgin Mary being washed ashore. This Lady of Candelaria is patron saint of the Canaries and attracts pilgrims from afar. On Sundays, roads are closed and Canarian families in their best suits gather for ice creams and sanctity in equal measure.

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