In warm Tenerife, far from the madding crowd

A trip to this tourist paradise is relatively cheap, but getting there can be a bit harrowing.

tenerife 248.88 courtesy (photo credit: Courtesy)
tenerife 248.88 courtesy
(photo credit: Courtesy)
There is a village in between the slopes of the Teno Massive, a volcanic aggregate of mountains in Tenerife, where a motorway was paved only in 1971, previously visited solely by those willing to make the journey on the only other means of transportation - by donkey. The lucky residents of the Teno area learned that there had been a civil war in Spain and that the country was ruled by Franco only after that road had been built. Tenerife itself, the largest of the Canary Islands, is a bit like that hamlet in Teno. The Canary Islands, west of North Africa, are called thus because of the dogs found by the Romans who first landed at Isla Canaria, one of the other islands in the archipelago. The entire group of islands enjoys the status of "Autonomous Community" within the Kingdom of Spain and has its own flag and coat of arms. But the name is misleading because there is really nothing reminiscent of a dog's life in Tenerife. For one thing, the weather is constantly warm, ranging between 23 degrees Celsius in winter and 28 on average in summer. But more importantly, there's that insular feeling of remoteness from the world's "noise" that make the conditions pleasant. The sheer disconnection from depressing issues such as the global meltdown and the Middle East conflict is perhaps best put in context by the fact that a public outcry over local street performers was the story leading the front page of one local daily I happened to lay eyes upon. The island's economy is heavily based on tourism with 78 percent of the total production capacity coming from the service sector. The blow this sector suffered in the wake of the global financial crisis is just barely noticeable in Tenerife. Resorts like the Playa De Las Americas on the southern coast, a magnet for British lower-to middle-class sun chasers remain full of life even in what Tenerifeans define as the low season - the 23-degree winter! Apart from Playa De Las Americas, where the English takeover may make you feel like you're in Butlin's, there are several less crowded and more "international resorts" along mostly craggy, black-sanded beaches (the man-made Playa de Las Teresitas actually boasts imported white sand). In Puerta de la Cruz, rows of hotels flanked by cafes and restaurants and fronted by a coastline promenade offer the lazy stay-in-town-near-the-hotel sunbather a relaxing beach vacation with everything you need at short walking distance - including food, light entertainment, pubs and a casino. The larger towns all contain proper hotels, which are relatively cheap and high quality, but tourists may find accommodation even in villages deep in the valleys by checking into a room in a guest house or even renting an apartment for a short period. For some outdoor adventure, you can take a trip to Mount Teide, a volcano of 3,771 meters. It takes about four hours to walk to the top from the last point reachable by car. Teide is Spain's tallest mountain and also the most visited with more than 4 million visitors yearly. The park is recognized as a national park by UNESCO. Mount Teide is one of about 15 volcanoes worldwide which, according to scientists, might erupt within the next 50 years. In the meantime, it remains dormant, blowing little puffs of smoke every now and then. On the road to Teide, grass and short turf make way to a deep forest which then gradually thins out to a dry basalt landscape with rock formations not unlike those in Grand Canyon. Beautiful as the road itself may be, the views looking out to the island are breathtaking. The stretch of asphalt traversing near the peak of Teide is, incidentally, the backdrop of many TV and cinema car commercials. Tenerife towns and villages are built in a minimal architectural style and lie in the valleys, spilling to the shores gracefully, always sprawled out and flowing with the terrain. Pigment mixed into the plaster tints each house in a different pastel color. The view of a town from afar, when driving to the top of Mount Teide or on some parts of the northern coastal road, is quite striking. A particularly fine observation point is El Lanco, on the way to a town called Icod, overlooking the entire northwestern coast of Tenerife. The Guanches, Tenerife's original inhabitants, were divided into nine small kingdoms before the Spaniards arrived. When they landed some of the kingdoms converted and allied with Spain while others resisted. The townsfolk say one of the kings who refused to surrender to the conquistadors jumped to his death from the cliff near Icod. Whether the story is fact or fantasy, a modern bronze statue at the observatory commemorates the tale. But today, the dominant religion in the Canaries is Catholicism, adopted from the Spanish conquerors. Most churches on the island are no match for European cathedrals in their humble ornaments and architectural simplicity, but the cathedral at Icod is host to the world's largest filigree silver cross, crafted by Cuban goldsmiths. For outdoor activity more suitable for kids, the island recently (September 2008) inaugurated a water amusement park called Siam Park which is one of the most advanced in the world. A sister attraction is Loro Parque, a zoo with shows by trained seals, dolphins and orca whales several times a day. At the end of the show, a multilingual message scrolls across a huge screen citing the zoo's donation to charities protecting the killer whales and urging spectators to love and protect nature. Being fed this message after a show using wildlife animals in circus acts struck me as somewhat cynical. Both parks follow Thai motifs in their styling and architecture; the Thai royal family is heavily invested financially in the resorts. Most of the buildings in Siam Park were built by Thai craftsmen using imported materials from Thailand. Both parks are modern tourism hotspots, with well thought-out facilities for the entire family making them a great place to wear out the kids a bit so that the grown-ups will be able to enjoy a relaxed evening later on. The local cuisine is heavily based on potatoes. Curiously, meat dishes are more often stewed or drowned in sauces than grilled, somehow reminiscent of the cuisine of Eastern Europe and not the Mediterranean as one would expect. A meal in a pastoral restaurant, like the fine Meson Del Norte on the road to Masca in the Teno Massive, will usually be less pricy than going to a restaurant in one of the main town squares. Food is generally quite inexpensive, and there is also a plethora of junk food outlets such as McDonald's. Tenerife is no longer a tax-free zone but even today, its low local taxes of about five percent still make it a haven for shops selling jewelry, clothes, perfumes and digital gadgets in euros. Israelis who see the duty free shops as a major stop on their vacation would do better to save their money in the airport and wait for the island itself. The carnival preceding Lent in Tenerife is, I was told, one of the most colorful after the Brazilian Carnival and particularly on this island, features, of all things, local men and women parading the streets while cross-dressed. I never bothered to investigate how transvestitism made its way into what is essentially a festival ushering devout Christians into a period of contemplation, but I suspect some atavistic Guancho tradition is at work. In 2009, the carnival begins on February 21, and will last for a week. While the festival of Mardi Gras is the longest and biggest of the year, the locals celebrate anniversaries of many patron saints almost every day with various feasts and carnivals. There is some sort of feasting going on somewhere on the island 280 days of the year. Those wishing to come during Mardi Gras would do best to book their tickets well in advance because hotels reach full occupancy during that time. A point to be considered is that just before the festival, in February 2009, a carrier called Air Europe will begin direct flights to Tenerife. Until then the only flight to the island from Israel is a connection through Madrid or Barcelona using the Spanish national carrier, Iberia. At 10 hours in each direction, the time spent in the air is relatively long, considering that a typical visit requires a few days to a week. The flights, in small and uncomfortable Airbus jets, make the journey more arduous still. Those travelling with small children might consider sedating them first, or themselves later! An Israeli company called Mona Tours is offering package deals to the island with six nights in a Bed & Breakfast hotel or a private cottage for about $1,000 to 1,300 per person - a competitive price similar to deals on Baltic seaside resorts that have blossomed in recent years, in no small part thanks to Israeli tourism. For those tired of generic Turkish all-inclusive deals, Tenerife offers a refreshing alternative, with the added bonuses of some spectacular landscapes, a most impressive volcano and fine weather all-year-round. The writer was a guest of the Tenerife Tourism Administration and Mona Tours.