Tenerife is the striking (and slightly saucy) grand dame in the archipelago family. Attracting over 10 million visitors a year, the island’s most famous southern resorts offer Brit-infused revelry and clubbing, combined with white sandy beaches and all inclusive resorts. But step beyond the obvious tourist spots and you’ll find a cultured and civilised island of extraordinary diversity.
This potpourri of experiences includes tropical-forest walks and designer-shop struts, dark forays into volcanic lava, a sexy and sultry Carnaval celebration that’s second only to Rio, and a stash of museums, temples to modern art and creaky old colonial towns. But above all else, this is an island of drama, and nothing comes more dramatic than the snow-draped Pico del Teide, Spain’s tallest mountain and home to some of the most fabulous hiking in all the country.
Puerto de la Cruz is the elder statesman of Tenerife tourism, with a history of welcoming foreign visitors that dates back to the late 19th century, when it was a spa destination popular with genteel Victorian ladies. These days the town is a charming resort with real character. There are stylish boardwalks, beaches with safe swimming, traditional restaurants, a leafy central plaza, lots of pretty parks and gardens and plenty to see and do. There are also plenty of predominately German tourists and foreign residents here, hence the proliferation of bakeries selling delicious German-style breads and cakes.
Don’t forget to wear your shades when you first hit Tenerife’s southwestern tip. You’ll need them, not just against the blinding sunshine, but also the accompanying dazzle of neon signs, shimmering sand and lobster-pink northern Europeans. Large multipool resorts with all-you-can-eat buffets have turned what was a sleepy fishing coast into a mega-moneymaking resort. The sweeping, sandy beaches are some of the most lively and child-friendly on the island. The nightlife is for those with high energy and high spirits and there is a predictably dizzying array of restaurants.
That said, the old town of Los Cristianos, still retains (just) the feel of a fishing village while just beyond is Playa de las Américas, with its high-rise hotels, glossy shopping centres and Las Vegas–style fake Roman statues and pyramids. The Costa Adeje flows seamlessly north of here and is home to luxury hotels, sophisticated clubs and restaurants and superb beaches.
Many independent travellers bound for the western islands end up having to spend at least one night here and most aim straight for Los Cristianos, which has the best facilities for independent travellers. If you get lost, do what the locals do – orientate yourself by the hotels and large buildings.
Las Galletas is a small resort town a few kilometres south of the Las Américas strip and, in comparison, is as quiet as a Sunday afternoon in a library; for many people that is its attraction. A block back from the boardwalk, the leafy Rambla Dionisio Gonzalez, with benches and playgrounds, leads to the tourist office and the sea.
These two towns have merged into one, and a worrying number of cranes can only mean more building is under way, but for the moment at least the low-rise, and low-key, town that sprawls along the rocky, cove-infested coastline is a million miles from Las Américas and is certainly one of the more attractive resort towns in Tenerife. Just to the north of the town rise the awesome Acantilados de los Gigantes (Cliffs of the Giants), rock walls that soar up to 600m out of the ocean. The submerged base of these cliffs is a haven for marine life, making this one of the island’s supreme diving areas.
The best views of the cliffs are from out at sea (there’s no shortage of companies offering short cruises) and from Playa de los Gigantes, a tiny volcanic beach beside Los Gigantes’ port that offers a breathtaking view. If you are looking for more sunbed space, head to Playa de la Arena, a larger volcanic beach in Puerto de Santiago. Both resorts have a large British expatriate community, which means plenty of restaurants serving beans on toast.
The east coast of Tenerife is the forgotten coast of the island and at first glance that’s hardly surprising: the landscape of the east is dry, dusty and sterile, but it is speckled with bright and colourful little villages, which bring life to the otherwise stark surroundings. If you have the time, then it pays to explore this region a little more. There’s some pleasant low-key beach towns and a much more local vibe than can be found in the international resorts of the south coast.
If you’re approaching the east coast from the southern resorts, do yourself a favour by taking the winding TF-28 highway, formerly the principal thoroughfare, which crawls along the scenic mountain ridge above the coast. The alternative is the very busy motorway (TF-1), which links the south to Santa Cruz in an approximately 40-minute easy drive.
Standing sentry over Tenerife, formidable El Teide (Pico del Teide) is not just the highest mountain in the Canary Islands but, at a whopping 3718m, the highest in all of Spain and is, in every sense of the word, the highlight of a trip to Tenerife. The Parque Nacional del Teide, which covers 189.9 sq km and encompasses the volcano and the surrounding hinterland, is both a Unesco World Heritage site and Spain’s most popular national park, attracting some four million visitors a year. Most serious hikers have heard of Teide, but few realise beforehand just how spectacular the mountain and surrounding national park is. It would be easy to pass a week in and around the park tramping the various hiking trails and not get bored. Most casual visitors arrive by bus or car and don’t wander far off the highway that snakes through the centre of the park, but that just means that the rest of us have more elbow room to explore. There are numerous walking tracks marking the way through volcanic terrain, beside unique rock formations and up to the peak of El Teide.
This area was declared a national park in 1954, with the goal of protecting the landscape, which includes 14 plants found nowhere else on earth. Geologically the park is fascinating: of the many different types of volcanic formations found in the world, examples of more than 80% can be found here. These include rough badlands (deeply eroded barren areas), smooth pahoehoe or lajial lava (rock that looks like twisted taffy) and pebble-like lapilli. There are also complex formations such as volcanic pipes and cones. The park protects nearly 1000 Guanche archaeological sites, many of which are still unexplored and all of which are unmarked, preventing curious visitors from removing ‘souvenirs’. Surrounding the peak are the cañadas, flat depressions likely caused by a massive landslide 180,000 years ago.
The park is spectacular at any time of the year. Most people attempt to climb to the summit in the summer – and with the weather being at its most stable then this makes perfect sense – but to really see the park at its pinnacle of beauty, early spring, when the lower slopes start to bloom in flowers and, if you’re lucky, the summit area still has a hat of snow, is best. Many visitors, having driven up from the hot coastal plains, are surprised at just how cold it can be in the national park. Deep winter in particular can see heavy snow shutting the main roads through the park and access to the summit can be closed for weeks on end.
El Teide dominates the northern end of the park. If you don’t want to make the very tough five-hour (one-way) climb to the top, take the cable car.