Features

Tenerife: World of wonders

1 Jun 2022 by Tom Otley
Teide volcano national park – Credit MikeMareen/iStock

Off the beaten tourist track, Tenerife revels in year-round sun, pristine nature reserves, abundant sea life and gorgeous, secluded beach resorts.

You only need to look up to appreciate the various microclimates of Tenerife. On the beach of Playa de las Americas you are surrounded by fast food shops, all-day bars, gift shops and happy tourists and, a dependably warm temperature averaging 22°C year-round. Look inland, though, and the uninhabited cloud-covered slopes of Mount Teide, Tenerife’s most famous dormant volcano, are a reminder of the island’s variety.

Some 200 miles off the coast of West Africa, Tenerife has two climatic zones dividing the island into a dryer and warmer south and a wetter and cooler north. Triangular-shaped, its landscape of black (and imported yellow) sand beaches, rocky headlands and fertile mountain slopes is unique, even compared to the other Canary Islands.

The Canaries: Choose your island

Driving up the south-west coast, banana plantations nudge up to the edge of sheer cliffs dropping down to the sea and the remains of former tomato and avocado fields show only stone terraces now. Turn inland and the landscape becomes one of lush vegetation and jagged outcrops as it grows cooler. Yet even on the mountain ridges, when the clouds part, you can look back and see the whitewashed coastal strip of hotels and villas. From a geographical and meteorological point of view, Tenerife has it all.

A byword for reliable winter sun, Tenerife attracts mass tourism with almost five million holidaymakers each year while also having a niche of higher-spending visitors. The island is large enough to cater for even the most privacy-seeking celebrity, and among the resorts of the south-west coast there many 4- and 5-star options, including The Ritz-Carlton, Abama as well as exclusive apartment and villa complexes. Undoubtedly many of these visitors never leave their gated compounds once they have arrived, lounging around their private plunge pools, but they are missing out.

Hotel review: The Ritz-Carlton Abama, Tenerife

Protected sea life

To appreciate the reality beyond the marketing, a good (and easy) place to start is Los Gigantes from the viewpoint of Archipenque. These dramatic cliffs of igneous rocks plunge into the sea, stark, brutal, elemental and witness to the creation of the islands, formed some 20 million years ago. There are no shallow waters around the Canaries – the beaches reach the water then quickly shelve to thousands of metres; conditions that provide a home for the fabulous sea life, including whales and dolphins. There are numerous boats that offer trips to see them.

One morning we took a catamaran with White Tenerife (whitetenerife.com/en/) for a dolphin- and whale-watching trip from Puerto Colon. The whole western side of Tenerife has been designated the Teno-Rasca marine strip – an area of around 70,000 hectares where pilot whales, bottlenose dolphins and giant turtles can be encountered year-round. When choosing a boat trip, ask about their qualifications and association – White Tenerife has a designated Blue Flag boat (meaning it is experienced in dolphin- and whale-watching); is a member of the World Cetacean Alliance and is a signed-up member of the Tenerife Tourism Sustainability Charter. Perhaps we were lucky, but within an hour dolphins were playing around the twin hulls of the catamaran and swimming under us, allowing perfect shots of their sleek bodies gliding through the clear waters, and a little further out the slightly more shy pilot whales kept their distance but were unworried by boats nudging close enough to take photos but far enough away to avoid disturbing them.

Los Gigantes cliffs - Credit Jack Malipan/iStock

Part of this balancing act was a matter of sensitivity and knowledge and having expert guides. The same applies to walking in the mountains. Another day we went out with El Cardon (elcardon.com/en/), a nature tourism agency of more than 25 years’ standing. It offers a range of tours from half-day strolls along mountain paths to expert hikes of several days at high level. Tenerife is the largest of the Canary Islands and there is plenty to explore within its 2,034 sq km. Pico del Teide is the highest mountain not only in the Canaries but in the whole of Spain. Visit its 3,718m-high peak for sunset walks and to look at the stars in a Starlight Reserve free of light pollution (en.fundacionstarlight.org/).

Island microclimates

Inland, the biodiversity of the island is astonishing. Many visitors head to Masca, which is like a mini Machu Picchu when viewed across the gorge, a small town of houses perched on a ridge with ominous mountains casting shadows when sunlight pierces the clouds. In case anyone might get nostalgic for the life that people lived here just two generations ago, our guide pointed out that his grandparents had left school before being teenagers to work the land and only learned to read and write much later. The islands were poor, and many lived a subsistence existence before tourism. The near-abandoned villages have now been brought back to life and renovated through agro-tourism, so these impossibly small houses with large views are now available to rent. It’s an experience far removed from the mega resorts of the south.

The climate affects even the politics of the island. When Tenerife was divided into municipalities it was done almost in cake pieces, so that each district got its portion of different microclimates in its slice. The beaches weren’t much use before tourism, but the dry lowlands were irrigated from further up the mountain and the more verdant uplands used for farmland. Dividing the island in this way meant that each municipality had various types of soil and climates to ensure it could feed its citizens and contribute to the whole. Until the arrival of tourism in the 1970s, it isn’t surprising that other than those who earned a living fishing, the majority would choose to live where the climate provided food. The exports were bananas, still grown in profusion today, and tomatoes. International markets were fickle, however, and from the 1980s food production began to be replaced by tourism.

Puerto de la Cruz,Tenerife – Credit Balate Dorin/iStock

Today Tenerife is dependent on tourism. Prior to the pandemic it made up 33 per cent of GDP and 36.5 per cent of its employment, dropping to 17.8 per cent in 2020 and falling even further in the first half of 2021 before recovering to 57 per cent of pre-pandemic tourism GDP at the end of the year. Its latest strategy focuses on improving infrastructure along the coastline, and enhancing the Teide National Park Visitor Centre and Teno and Anaga rural parks.

On our final day in Tenerife, we took a walk around Buenavista del Norte, which was like a warmer version of a Cornish coastal walk, except with a a Seve Ballesteros-designed golf course hugging the seashore (the Melia Collection Hotel Hacienda del Conde provides somewhere to stay while you play). The Canary Islands have welcomed visitors for decades, and yet retain their individual characters. Whether it’s Tenerife or one of the other islands, there will be one that is right for you.

FLY AND STAY

British Airways Holidays offers seven nights at 5-star The Ritz-Carlton, Abama from £1,649pp*, travelling on selected dates between November 1 and November 30, 2022 inclusive. Includes business class (Club Europe) return flights from London Heathrow airport, 23kg luggage allowance and accommodation with breakfast. Book by June 30, 2022 at britishairways.com/tenerife

*25% hotel saving included, based on a Deluxe Room Villa

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