They used to call it ‘Tenergrief’. The Canary Island was famous for beer, fast food and sunburnt noses. As one of Europe’s prime winter-sun holiday destinations, it sold on the basis of cheap heat. I once joked, “if it was any cheaper, they’d call it fiver-rife”.
Simon Heptinstall, is a travel and food writer extraordinaire from Wiltshire. He once persuaded a 2-star Michelin chef to cook him a meal on top of a Norweigan glacier. Discover more about Simon’s discoveries on Twitter https://twitter.com/sheptinstall
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That was back in the pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap days of massed package deals when only a tiny percentage of Tenerife visitors hired a car and explored the island. Fast forward to today… and more than half the island’s visitors hire a car.
That’s because the holiday world has found that Tenerife is a world-class destination. We’ve all discovered that if you have a rented car you can stay at the beach but easily explore the whole island too. And with a dramatic volcano, lush forested mountains and elegant historic colonial cities, there’s plenty to see.
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First, here’s a bit of geography: like the rest of the Canaries, Tenerife belongs to Spain but is a long way south – just off West Africa. That semi-tropical climate brings reliable all-year sunshine.
The island is 50 miles wide and shaped like a traffic cone because there’s one of the world’s largest volcanoes in the middle. El Teide is Spain’s biggest mountain, three times bigger than Britain’s highest, Ben Nevis. It’s a fantastic geographic feature considering it’s only a short drive from the sea.
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El Teide is Tenerife’s first must-see attraction – a natural wonder of the world set in a dramatic volcanic landscape. Park at the foot and take the white-knuckle cable car to the top, but dress for altitude. Those in beachwear look pretty silly in sub-zero temperatures at the top. It’s so high you’ll be gasping for breath… and not just because of the stupendous view.
This massive mountainous windbreak divides the island in two – north of the lump is less touristy, the weather is wetter and cooler, and vegetation lusher. The south is drier, more arid and hotter. This is where the main package resorts were built and where most visitors stay.
But if you are expecting a no-go zone for the middle-class where you are forced to eat greasy fry-ups served on paper plates with plastic knives and forks, you’re wrong. The south now has plenty of glitzy five-star resort hotels, upmarket shops, gardens and promenades. Even the pavements are smooth, clean and decorated with trees and traditional mosaics and tiles. When I returned after a ten-year gap, I could hardly believe my eyes: the first thing I saw as I drove into Las Americas was a smart row of shops selling Armani and Cartier.
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I soon found that today’s Tenerife is full of whale watching trips, boat tours, balloon rides, and restaurants offering ‘real Canarian food’.
With a hire car it’s possible to drive round the whole island in a day but Tenerife’s attractions deserve more time than that. For example, you can spend a memorable day exploring the winding lanes through the spiky-topped Anaga Mountains in the verdant far north – they seem a million miles from the touristy south coast. You’ll find pretty fishing and farming villages dotted around the slopes of this huge nature reserve.
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Nestling under the Agana peaks is the little-visited island capital – Santa Cruz. This bustling city is a mini-Barcelona with sophisticated nightlife, including its own long avenue called The Ramblas, plenty of lively pavement restaurants and a stylish waterfront lido. The striking seafront auditorium opened last year and now hosts world-class concerts. Charming cobbled backstreets and squares lined with classic Spanish colonial architecture have recently been beautifully restored. With museums, galleries and great shopping, it’s worth a city-break on its own.
Santa Cruz’s great secret is Playa de las Teresitas. This three-mile long strip of golden sand was imported from the Sahara in the seventies to create easily the biggest and best beach on the island. Teresitas may be only a short drive from the southern tourist strip but that means it’s generally only used by a locals.
I also enjoy driving through the banana plantations to the historic city of La Laguna, which has been designated a World Heritage Centre for its ancient town centre. And my favourite seaside spot is the pretty little whitewashed coastal town of Garachico, which was swamped by lava that swept down from El Teide 300 years ago. It has since risen from the ashes, literally, and enterprising townsfolk created little seawater swimming pools in the lava that filled up their harbour.
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Perhaps the best example of the ‘new’ Tenerife is the beautifully presented ‘ethnographic park’ at Guimar. This mysterious collection of pyramids was discovered by Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl. He believed that thousands of years ago North Africans brought a sun-worshipping culture in boats built from bundles of reeds to the Canaries on their way to Latin America.
The park was built in an arty Scandinavian money-no-object way with geometric stone terraces, beautiful gardens and stylish basalt buildings. The pyramids are one of those rare tourist sites that make you think. When I visited they certainly made me think… about how wrong I used to be about Tenerife.
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