Beach Baroque: Families flock to Tenerife to go wild in its weird and wonderful theme parks

Mother Nature has provided ample evidence of her ingenuity on Tenerife, the Canary Islands' largest chunk of planetary real estate. Clearly, her first decision was to think big: Teide, the island's huge central volcano, stretches a mighty 3,718m from the Atlantic. Then, she went a bit Baroque: the black lava rock pools in Garachico on the north coast, for example, and the peculiarly long-needled Canarian pine tree. Finally, she provided some exhilaration: the dramatic ridges and valleys of the Anaga range in the north, the dazzling azure seas that hug the island's shores. Oh, and the year-round sunshine. There, she seems to be saying, I've done my bit. What have you lot got in the locker?

Well, said mankind, we can think big, too. The Pirámides de Gímar were an impressive first attempt: ancient relics of the indigenous Guanche society, they can still be seen just off the main TF-1 motorway that runs along the eastern seaboard. Then came the Spanish, with the gracious colonial city of La Laguna, followed by Santa Cruz, the capital. Much later the vast resorts of Playa de las Amricas, Los Cristianos and the Costa Adeje sprang up: playgrounds for tourists that have transformed the landscape of the south coast since the 1960s. Here, imported white sand replaced the black lava evidence of a very human sort of ingenuity, as we extracted the maximum reward from nature's bounty.

So, we'd thought big, just as Mother Nature had. What next, though? Well, that's where man-made exhilaration, with a dash of our very own sense of the Baroque, comes in. When the two finally collided last year they resulted in Siam Park, an exotic amalgam of Thai-themed village and spectacular family water park, which lies just inshore from the Costa Adeje. As an expression of mankind's desire to sculpt the natural landscape for our own pleasure, the park is at once unlikely and oddly impressive; as a way of extracting squeals of delight from your offspring it is very hard to beat.

Of course, Tenerife has long been a tremendous place in which to entertain children. Some of that entertainment is provided by Mother Nature herself: the chance to swim in azure seas, play in year-round sunshine, or go on dolphin-watching excursions in the channel between Tenerife and La Gomera. Some is man-made: most of the resort developments around Los Cristianos and Las Amricas are designed with families in mind swimming pools, crches and on-site family entertainment are part of the all-inclusive package deal. Coupled with regular flights from the UK (and a manageable journey time of just over four hours), Tenerife's many virtues have combined to make the island one of Britain's favourite holiday destinations, with more than 1.6 million of us visiting last year.

And where there are families, theme parks will surely follow. Aqualand on Costa Adeje, for example, is a diverting combination of waterslides and animal shows; you can buy a joint ticket for this and for the Aguilas Jungle Park, inland from Los Cristianos, where youngsters can tackle a 300m course of rope bridges, passages and tunnels. Pueblo Chico in the Orotava Valley is equally child-friendly: an attempt to represent Tenerife's major landmarks in 1:25 scale. Loro Parque in Puerto de la Cruz, meanwhile, is still one of the Canary Islands' star attractions. Part zoo, part aquarium, part theme park, it has a 16m-long underwater tunnel in which to view its marine species, a "Penguinarium" with real snow, and the largest collection of parrots in the world a new "Katandra Treetops" aviary opened here earlier this month. But newest, boldest and, well, wateriest of them all, is Siam Park.

I love a flume, I must confess. My local swimming pool has one, and I'm never quite sure whether I enjoy it more than the elder of my two sons (who just scrapes a height requirement I achieve all-too-comfortably). But to describe Siam Park as containing flumes is to understate things dramatically. The largest water theme park in Europe has an astonishing number of different ways of getting you wet. You can, for example, be dunked downwards on a vast inflatable doughnut, or sent forth from the top of a 28m Tower of Power that has you travelling at 43mph through an aquarium of tropical fishes. There's also the largest man-made wave in the world on which to body surf, or for the adrenalin-shy a "lazy river" on which to drift.

And the Thai theme? It's everywhere, despite Siam Park being around 7,000 miles from Bangkok. Beyond the pink twin domes of the entrance, the first thing my family and I encountered was a floating market, complete with elephant statues and plenty of bamboo; many of the rides are hidden within traditional Thai architecture. It's difficult to know what Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, the princess of Thailand, would have made of it all when she opened the park last year, but she can't fail to have been impressed by the sheer pizzazz of the place.

There are rides and activities for all ages: our three-year-old was particularly taken with The Lost City, an ornate construction of gentle flumes topped by a huge bucket in the shape of a monkey's head, which gradually filled up and then poured water on to squealing tots. His older brother, meanwhile, favoured the Naga Racer, a six-lane slide you whizz down on rubber mats. And me? I became addicted to the Tower of Power, then hurtled down the Dragon ride (which starts from the top of the world's largest dragon statue, apparently).

It was on Siam Beach, the broad scoop of white beyond the rides and the water market, that my family and I finally caught our breaths. Here, from our private Thai-style cabaña, we watched children squealing in the shallows of the wave pool and teenagers cavorting in the surf. Behind us rose the park itself: big, Baroque and exhilarating. It might not quite be Tenerife as nature intended, but when your children tell you they never want to go home, you know you've come to the right place.

Tenerife: Five great beaches

Playa de las Teresitas

The great escape from the island's capital, Santa Cruz, lies at the end of a suburban bus ride (route 910). The giant cliffs rearing up around the cove add to the scenic drama of Tenerife's most stylish artificial beach. Despite the proximity to Santa Cruz, outside of summer weekends they remain surprisingly quiet. The waves are gentle and facilities good, with plenty of little kiosks lining the front and a few basic eateries behind, serving delicious simple fish dishes.

Playa de las Vistas

This huge sweep of sand in southern Las Amricas is always busy, although it's rarely overcrowded. The sea defences mean that only tiny waves lap the sands, but a blustery natural stretch alongside draws surfers and bodyboarders; with lessons and rentals available. The bars and restaurants of Los Cristianos are only a short walk away.

El Mdano

Just east of the island's southern airport is easily the best natural beach on the whole island. El Mdano is a great place to watch the windsurfers and kitesurfers who throng to ride the bay here though when they're out in numbers you can expect the winds on the beach to be uncomfortably strong. The waves in the bay are usually gentle, and the seafront boardwalk links a string of modest cafes and eateries, none of which are too touristy.

Playa Jardin

Puerto de la Cruz's naturally grey main beach is rarely too crowded. The promenade beside it is lined with pleasant cafs and bars. The seas here can get rough; when they do its best to retreat to the elegant seawater pools at the other end of town, designed by surrealist Canarian artist Csar Manrique.

Playa del Duque

Flanking the most expensive resort in the south the Gran Hotel Bahia del Duque is the most stylish beach in Las Amricas and one of the least busy. Plenty of decent bars and restaurants lie alongside, and various watersports including jetskiing and parasailing are offered on the adjacent Playa del Fañabe. A 10-minute walk away is the quiet fishing village La Caleta: great for seafood in the evening, and snorkelling in the bay during the day.

Christian Williams

Travel essentials: Park life

Pirámides de Gímar (00 34 922 514 510; ), Calle Chacona, Gímar. Open 9.30am-6pm. Entry 10.40.

Aqualand (00 34 922 715 266; ), Avenida de Austria 15, Costa Adeje. Open daily 10am-5pm. Admission 24.50. A twin-park ticket, including admission to Jungle Park (00 34 922 72 90 10; ) at Urbanizació*Las Águilas del Teide, Arona, is 35.

Pueblo Chico (00 34 922 334 060; ), La Orotava. Open 9am-6pm. Entry 12.50

Loro Parque (00 34 922 37 38 41; ), Puerto de la Cruz. Open daily 8.30am-6.45pm. Admission 31.50

Siam Park (00 34 902 060 000; ), exit 28/29 TF-1, Costa Adeje. Open daily. Admission 28. Four-person private cabañas cost 300 per day. Twin-park ticket for Siam Park and Loro Parque is 49.

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