Rock star: The volcanic attraction of Tenerife
Tenerife offers winter sun in abundance – and has a brand-new water park to entertain the family. But it's the dramatic volcano at the island's heart that really takes your breath away
Saturday 31 January 2009
A love of lava drew us to Tenerife. My elder son, a six-year-old amateur geologist with an acquisitive streak, was anxious to add a lump or two to the haphazard collection of semi-precious stones, dubious fossils and chunks of fool's gold already in his possession. His three-year-old brother, meanwhile, was happy to support this quest provided there was a swimming pool involved at some point. And my wife and I simply wanted some winter sunshine, ideally combined with a nice meal or two. If that meant carting a suitcase full of pumice back home, then so be it.
Tenerife is the largest of the Canary Islands. Teide, the huge volcano that makes up its core, is often described as being the tallest mountain in Spain. This smacks a little of pub-quiz pedantry – like saying the Isles of Scilly mark the westernmost point of England, or that South Georgia boasts Britain's highest concentration of king penguins. It might very well be true, but it takes liberties with geography.
On the other hand, standing 3,718m above the Atlantic Ocean, Teide deserves to set records. It's truly vast, with a sharp peak often veiled in clouds, aloof from the packed resorts of Tenerife's south coast, roughly 3,717m below.
It was down at sea level, within what is now the vast agglomeration of Playa de Las Américas, Los Cristianos and Costa Adeje, that Tenerife's reputation as a package-holiday destination was forged in the 1960s. It's still a favourite: more than 1.6 million UK tourists visited the island last year. They were drawn by year-round sun, beaches sparkling with white sand (imported to cover up all that nasty black lava), and the echo of British voices. But with Teide, Tenerife has a history that is measured in millennia rather than decades. Our budding vulcanologist was unlikely to be disappointed.
The coastal town of Alcalá lies about 20km north of Playa de Las Américas, one step removed from the crowds. A step still further took us to the Gran Meliá Palacio de Isora, a new luxury resort at Alcalá's northern edge.
The Palacio de Isora is a thing of wonder. Opened in July last year, it still has a squeaky-clean, just-out-of-the-box freshness to it. Everything contained within the white-marbled perimeter is about mood: delicate scents waft enticingly, chandeliers glisten, music tinkles from speakers hidden about the immaculate lawns, and ripples lap soothingly at the edge of the 230m-long salt-water infinity pool, which has commanding views of the nearby island of La Gomera.
The staff, meanwhile, dress in Nehru-collared white pyjamas – half-pharmacist, half- kung-fu master – and have a disconcerting habit of placing their right hands over their hearts when they greet you, as if merely by ordering a glass of the local Dorada beer, you have connected to the very essence of their soul. It's all very soothing indeed.
The boys, of course, ignored all this carefully formulated ambience. Instead they spent their time scampering around the resort's low-season emptiness (very few of the hotel's 609 rooms, suites and villas were occupied while we were there), marvelling at the extraordinary fountains – lit up in voluptuous neons at night – and splashing about in their very own children's pool. Our room was the most basic on offer, reached via a long corridor that occasionally opened out on to pleasant green courtyards. It was still impressive: a "garden-view demi-suite", vaguely Oriental in style, with plenty of mood lighting, a fold-out bed for the boys, and a small balcony overlooking a tinkling stream. Had we wished to upgrade, various "family concierge" facilities were also available, including special family suites and an exclusive check-in.
It was hard to tear ourselves away from all the day- beds and pagodas, the comfy hammocks by the pool, and the lengthy meals in the Pangea restaurant (one of five on site, serving everything from sushi to burgers), but from our room we could just about make out Los Gigantes – vast cliffs of lava that hurtle into the Atlantic just to the north. It was time to rock.
Banana trees are big along this part of Tenerife's coast. We drove past fields of them, corralled behind breeze-block terraces like malevolent triffids. But as we turned inland, this lush greenery gave way to steep mountain slopes of basalt, punctuated by occasional prickly pears and sporadic shrubbery.
Higher still we encountered a layer of Canarian pine forest – the needles wondrously long, having evolved to clutch moisture from the clouds. Then, after a brief stop to allow the children to examine some lava shrapnel (it turned out that it was illegal to remove stones from these protected areas), we reached the vast caldera of Teide itself: a bleak, alien landscape, the soil too poor to support much more than bright-green moss.
This brutal region is designated a national park – and what it lacks in vegetation it makes up for in sheer drama. Our narrow road ran from west to east, across lava fields that looked like freshly ploughed black soil suddenly frozen in time, while great thumbs of stone – Los Roques de García – thrust upwards near the low-rise parador and visitors' centre to the south-east of the park. We took the cable car to the top of Teide (or nearly to the top: the last 200 metres or so require a special permit to ascend) and gawped at a view that seemed to encompass the whole of Tenerife and a fair swathe of the bright Atlantic Ocean, too. The sun, low in the sky, caught the scene in vivid yellows and oranges, and the air was bitterly cold.
Returning from the peak, we headed down through the steep and verdant Orotava Valley to the north coast, then turned west towards the town of Garachico. Now, Tenerife has two beautiful cities at its north-eastern corner: Santa Cruz, the capital, with its impressive concert hall set on the ocean's edge; and La Laguna, a Spanish colonial town built on a grid system that looks like a prototype for Havana. But tiny Garachico, in the north-west, might just match them both for charm.
These days, it comprises little more than a few streets leading off a picturesque main square, but once Garachico was a bustling harbour. Then Teide erupted in 1706, swamping the place and splaying streaks of lava into the ocean. This turbulent past is scarcely in evidence now. On the eastern side of the Plaza de la Libertad stands the yellow-painted Convento de San Francisco, a former convent building that is now an exhibition space. Next door is La Quinta Roja, a smart boutique hotel built round a hidden courtyard. Each exudes tranquillity.
We broke the silence with a tremendous lunch of fish soup, roast prawns and cod at the Aristides restaurant, which lies in the shadow of the pretty, whitewashed Santa Ana church. Later, we visited a tiny walled garden where the only surviving bit of the original town, one of its main gates, still stands. Across the main road, on the coast itself, is the tiny Castillo de San Miguel, a 16th-century fort that also survived the wrath of Teide. Below it, ridges of lava have been sculpted into natural swimming pools, where those immune to the Atlantic's cold – my wife among them – can swim safely among shoals of bright-blue fish.
Those of us who prefer our water a little warmer – and slightly more, well, exciting – saved ourselves for Siam Park. Situated just off the TF-1 motorway at Costa Adeje, Siam Park opened last September and now stands as a Thai-themed waterpark quite dazzling in its ersatz silliness.
Beyond the ornate entrance, the first thing we encountered upon arrival was a family of sea lions zipping round a pool; next we walked through a replica floating market, complete with elephant statues, bamboo and coconuts; above us an enormous dragon loomed out from one of the rides, and flumes snaked hither and thither. Swimming costumes at the ready, we prepared to submerge ourselves.
Created by the owners of Loro Parque, which displays parrots, penguins and orcas at a theme park in Puerto de la Cruz on the north coast, Siam Park has rides for virtually all ages. Our three-year-old was particularly taken with The Lost City, an ornate construction of non-scary flumes topped by a huge bucket in the shape of a monkey's head, which gradually filled up and then cascaded water on to squealing tots. His older brother, meanwhile, favoured the Naga Racer, a six-lane slide that you whizz down on rubber mats, and he was blown away by the Mekong Rapids, a harrowing flume where you hurtle along on a huge inflatable doughnut. ("I can't believe we will have to leave Tenerife one day," he said after his 10th descent. "I could stay here for ever.")
You had to be slightly taller to test the loops and spills of the Dragon ride, or the Tower of Power – a slide that drops you down vertically for 28 metres and then zaps you along an underwater tunnel full of vegetarian piranhas. I nobly shouldered those burdens while the rest of the family drifted gently round the Mai Thai River, which runs round the centre of the park. Then we all ate lunch on the enormous Siam Beach, where a Wave Palace powered forth thunderous surf, and our fellow visitors browned gently on a sweep of white sand (shipped in from the Algarve).
If it all sounds pretty odd, that's because it is; but it's also tremendous fun – the other, more playful, side to Tenerife.
Later, we ventured further into Playa de las Américas in search of dolphins. The area around the harbour is stuffed with neon-lit restaurants and bars stridently proclaiming British ownership, and the crumbling concrete shopping mall that leads to the jetties themselves is not immediately inviting. But there's always a bit of glamour about a marina, and Puerto Coló*glistened with yachts bobbing behind the high harbour wall. The boats' owners all claimed a 100 per cent success rate for dolphin-spotting, and after some haggling, we eventually opted for a two-hour trip aboard a small catamaran called Eden (€20 per adult, the children travelled free, and a round of soft drinks was even included in the price).
Apparently, over 20 different species of whale and dolphin have been sighted in the channel between Tenerife and La Gomera, but after more than an hour of bumping queasily over the waves, I'd begun to have my doubts. Then, just on cue: a family of pilot whales, the baby cavorting around the boat while mum and dad looked on proudly.
As my own children choked on their complimentary Coca-Colas with excitement, I felt a surge of parental empathy. Perhaps this family had also been lured to Tenerife by the promise of winter sun, or a water-based local attraction. (It certainly didn't seem likely that they were interested in collecting small pieces of lava.) Pilot whales, we were told as we turned back to port, were in fact dolphins, a piece of information that gave us comfort during the choppy return journey: two species for the price of one.
Like the pilot whale, Tenerife defies categorisation: the giddy excitement of Siam Park is an extraordinary contrast to the more sedate pleasures of Garachico, or Teide's chilly austerity, just as the imported white sands of the south are a counterpart to the black-lava coastline elsewhere. Perhaps there's a middle way: we grew very fond of Playa de San Juan, a pebbly beach a few minutes south of our hotel, with a promenade along the shore, some pizza restaurants, and a sea wall stretching out over the harbour. The place was always empty, and we spent most of our time skimming stones into the water – making sure, of course, that we took one or two home with us.
The writer travelled with Thomson Airways (0871 231 4787; thomson.co.uk), which offers flights to Tenerife's Reina Sofía airport (Tenerife South) from 10 UK airports (Birmingham, Bournemouth, Cardiff, Doncaster/Sheffield, East Midlands, Glasgow, Gatwick, Luton, Manchester, Newcastle) from £110 return. Other carriers to Tenerife include easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com); Flyglobespan (0871 271 9000; flyglobespan.com); Monarch (08700 40 50 40; monarch.co.uk); and Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com).
To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce My Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; reducemyfootprint.travel).
Nizacars (00 34 922 792 919; nizacars.com) offers a week's car hire starting from €133.50.
Gran Meliá Palacio De Isora, Urbanizació*La Jaquita, 38686 Alcalá, Guía de Isora, Tenerife (00 34 922 86 9000; gran-melia-palacio-de-isora.com). Doubles from €210, including breakfast
La Quinta Roja, Plaza de la Libertad, Garachico, Tenerife (00 34 922 133 377; quintaroja.com). Doubles from €€110, including breakfast
The cable car up Mount Teide (00 34 922 010 445) operates daily, 9am-4pm. €€25 for a return ticket.
Siam Park (www.siampark.net), at exit 28 on the TF-1 motorway, Costa Adeje, is open 10am-5pm daily until 29 March, then 10am-6pm daily. Admission is €28 for adults, €18 for children.
Aristides restaurant, Convento San Francisco Montes de Oca, frente Plaza de la Libertad, Garachico, Tenerife (00 34 922 133 412)
Tenerife Tourism: 00 34 902 00 31 21; webtenerifeuk.co.uk
Active, but dormant. That's the crucial piece of information about Mount Teide that all visitors should bear in mind. The 13th-highest mountain in the EU (Mont Blanc takes the prize at 4,810m) has been classified as a "Decade Volcano", deemed worthy of special study because of its proximity to human habitation. However, it last erupted exactly 100 years ago, so your holiday is unlikely to be inconvenienced by a flood of lava.
The local tourism board, perhaps unsurprisingly, is not making much of this year's centenary. But Teide's brooding nature has always been part of the region's allure. The island's Stone Age inhabitants, the Guanches, were so impressed that they believed Teide held up the sky – and they were almost right. The sheer height of the mountain means that it makes its own weather, parting the clouds and forming a series of microclimates on its upper slopes: rain can give way to sun in an instant.
To conquer the 200m of Teide beyond the cable car's reach, you'll need a free permit from the Oficina del Parque Nacional de Teide, at Calle Emilio Calzadilla 5, in the capital, Santa Cruz (00 34 922 29 01 29).
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