The Canary Islands, although just off the coast of Africa, is part of Spain. It is the only place in European territory where one can find sun during the winter months. The idea of escaping the cold Northern European winters for some weeks of sun has long appealed to me.
Christmas season is traditionally the peak season in the Canary Islands. This Christmas was to be even more packed than usual due to the Sept 11 catastrophe. Europeans who would normally fly to the USA and other far away holiday locations had reset their sites on the Canaries, since a European destination seems to be a bit more safe. All of the Canary Islands were full. In fact, I had to visit three travel agents before finding a free spot. I had been told that there was no availability until late January. Even the first rental car company I tried to book a car with by Internet had no cars free to rent.
The island where I was lucky enough to find a vacancy was Tenerife. I knew nothing about it, but started to download information from the Internet. I soon learned there was a volcano in the middle, lots of beaches and that the place our hotel was located, Playa de Las Americas, was the tourist center of the island. Temperature was said to range between 20 and 26 degree centigrade (68 to 79 degree Fahrenheit) this time of year.
After arriving, of course, I learned a lot more. Briefly, Tenerife can be divided into two areas:
* The southwest corner where Playa de Las Americas and Los Christianos are located
* The rest of the Island
Play de Los Americas and Los Christianos represent about 5% of the island in size but it is where 90% or more of the tourist population seem to live. It seems to have the best weather of the island and it is packed with restaurants and bars, and indeed it has a long beach promenade lined with enormous hotels. It has much more of an international atmosphere than a Spanish one. For example, the first night we wanted to eat Tapas but were unable to find them there. Most of the restaurants on the Playa seemed to offer the same international menu of Pizza, Spanish omelets, burgers, paella and of course Sangria.
The rest of the Island was a jewel waiting to be discovered, and for this reason, a rental car was a must. For example, there were the delightful villages of Masca and Garachico. Masca is a small mountain village while Garachico is a bit more developed and built next to the sea. Masca is much simpler while Garachico is on its way to becoming a small city.
In Garachico we found a small well preserved (possibly rebuilt or restored) Mission which reminded me of the many Missions in California. And in fact, it occurred to me that the Canary Islands were probably developed in much the same way that California was developed. Spanish priests had traveled there to educate the simple local inhabitants and bring religion to them.
We also found a small fort on the ocean, surrounded by tide pools bristling with sea-life. Next to the fort were several outdoor cafes and bars. Garachico seemed to be more than just a pretty tourist town, it also had a feeling of a community. During the day we say several gatherings of locals. In the evening, the city showed a Walt Disney Christmas cartoon in the center piazza to the little children of the village.
Masca was much more isolated and quiet with little to offer except breath taking views of the countryside and luscious vegetation. There was a charming little restaurant serving a menu of vegetable soup, goat cheese salad, and corn bread pie. We ordered a pitcher of Lemonade to wash this down.
Christmas Day we traveled about an hour to the beach of Las Teresitas. Most of the beaches of Tenerife are black beaches, since Tenerife is a volcanic island. The pretty beach of Las Teresitas is made of white sand imported from the Sahara. Las Teresitas is located a few minutes from the capital city of Santa Cruz, so Christmas evening we spent exploring the main town of Tenerife.
Santa Cruz is a pretty, old Spanish city, unspoiled and seemingly unnoticed by the touristic Las Americas crowd just 60 kilometers (40 miles) to the South. There was a Christmas market in the center of the city. The streets were nicely decorated with flashing Christmas lights. The main street through the center was filled with people out for an evening stroll through the town. Locals enjoyed a warm evening in the outdoor cafes and bars. It was a delightful Christmas evening.
The volcano in the center of the Island is called El Teide. It can be seen from just about anywhere on the island, as a white snow covered cone, on those days that it is not surrounded by clouds. Clouds obscured the view of the cone about half of the days I was there. On the other days it was a temptation waiting to be visited. The visit finally came towards the end of the trip. The road up passes rocky cliffs and desert-like fields where several movies which featured moonscapes (e.g., Star Wars) were filmed. Although the peak reaches 4,000 meters (12,000 ft) the road only goes up about half that way. The remaining stretch is usually reached by a funicular, which on that day, was closed due to ice. To see a video clip about Tiede, which you will enjoy even if you do not speak Spanish, Click Here
General Observations: The further from Las Americas you get, the better the food. Local delights include small potatoes boiled in salt water and then dipped in a tomato/galic sauce. Delicious tapas are found in a little display case in simple bars. Great and inexpensive food can be found in the most unexpectedly simple restaurants.
The weather was warm every day allowing out door dining just about every evening. It rained for a couple of hours about 4 or 5 of the 14 days we were there. But after the rain let up the day could still be nice enough to go the beach.
The island brought back many memories of California. The rocky cliffs, the gentle fog, the winding roads, the vegetation which ranged from Pine Trees to Cacti, the oceans waves pounding on the rocks and even the Spanish mission in Garachico all made me think of my home in Northern California.
From my description, some might think that Tenerife would be a paradise if not for the touristic area around Las Americas. However, it was somehow ideal to stay in Las Americas and to leave it for day excursions. This densely populated area has 24 hour English speaking doctors (which I needed) and restaurants that stay open until 4 am (which I also enjoyed). On the other hand, it was only in the Las Americas area that restaurant employees stand in front of the restaurants aggressively "inviting" those passing by to come inside. Also in this touristic area, we were constantly accosted by Asian women selling flowers, black men selling watches and other jewelry and black women offering to braid hair. To see a video of Las Americas Click Here
In the end, I had such a nice time that I would certainly return to The Canaries in future winters. But now that I have sampled a little of what Tenerife has to offer, I hope to visit some of the other Islands of this Archipelagos.