Think Tenerife and a typical sun, sea and sand package tourism destination probably comes to mind, but this fascinating island merits deeper exploration. Step beyond the parade of beach resorts clustered along the south coast to discover another Tenerife entirely.
Divided by the volcanic mountains that dominate its centre, Tenerife is an island of two halves – a sheltered, sun-soaked south and a wilder, tropical north. The lure of practically-guaranteed sunshine is so strong that the south sees some 75% of the island’s tourists, but with little more than an hour’s drive connecting the two sides, it is easy to have the best of both worlds.
In search of a base with traditional Canarian charm, we found ourselves in Garachico, on the north-east coast. Once a bustling trade route port, Garachico was devastated by an eruption in 1706. The town re-emerged from the basalt diminished in size but remarkably resilient, and has made a feature of its wild surroundings. In the absence of beaches, natural lava rock pools optimise the striking Atlantic setting. Meanwhile, historic buildings provide a glimpse of the old town, complete with relics of lava flow.
Once every five years Garachico commemorates its most famous event in explosive style, with fireworks, carnival processions and – the pièce de résistance – giant fire balls rolling down the cliffs. We arrived in town at the explosive and chaotic finale of the festivities and found what seemed like most of the population of Tenerife there. Fortunately, tranquillity was just around the corner.
On a quiet cobbled street behind the main seafront thoroughfare, traditional wooden doors lead into the Hotel San Roque. This boutique hotel, which must be among the most charming on the island, captures the spirit of Garachico perfectly. It was thoughtfully renovated from a late 17th century mansion to add elegant modern features, whilst maintaining a bygone feel.
The hotel’s 20 rooms are arranged on two floors around a central courtyard and a second courtyard provides a lovely setting for the swimming pool and restaurant. During the day, the courtyards are bright and airy. Palms and cacti deck the terraces in the scenery of the area and dragonflies flit around the pool. After the sun sets the courtyards are romantic and candlelit. Polished wood and a terracotta colour scheme further increase the warm ambience that is created by the cocooning layout of the architecture.
In the spacious and elegantly-designed rooms, art deco furniture and contemporary paintings contribute a crisp modernity. Jacuzzi baths increase the luxury factor and finishing touches, such as a welcome bottle of excellent locally-produced wine, help us settle in. Relaxation opportunities are certainly not hard to come by throughout the hotel, including on the roof, where sun loungers are positioned for views of the coastline and surrounding hills.
Whether it’s due to the design of the building, the earthy colour scheme or the intimate size, the San Roque somehow evokes a Roman villa. Perhaps this feeling also owes something to all the volcanic lava about town and the proximity of a looming volcano, Mount Teide. A different volcano, Montaña Negra, was actually responsible for the big eruption, but Teide is definitely the island’s most spectacular landmark. At 3,718m, it is Spain’s highest mountain and stands at the heart of an otherworldly landscape of dormant craters, lava fields and bizarre rock formations, protected within a national park.
The quickest way to take all this in is to hop aboard the Teleférico del Teide cable car. From the upper station a short, steep hike leads to the summit and an incomparable view of the island, although it is essential to book a permit in advance as daily numbers are strictly limited. This can be organised through the Tenerife Tourism Corporation, which also arranges tours showcasing the diversity of the island, from stargazing in the national park to visiting the pilot whales and several species of dolphins that bask off-shore year-round.
Due to the large variation in altitude over such a compact space, two very contrasting activities can easily be fitted into one day. During a morning spent on board the Lina Yacht we heard the word ‘dolphin’ frequently exclaimed in four languages from our multilingual group of 11, as several separate pods dropped in for a visit. Later, having driven the twisting roads into Teide National Park, we swapped sunglasses for telescopes to gaze at the sky rather than the sea, as guides from Tenerife’s world renowned observatory provided a preliminary education in constellations.
Tenerife is also an idyll for walkers, with a network of trails laced around the island. One hike that presents a compelling reason to leave the hotel pool is Masca gorge. Masca, a sleepy village perched high in the north-west hills, is the starting point for a four-hour downhill trek through a landscape evocative of Jurassic Park. The trail winds its way between vertiginous cliffs, over rocks and through stands of bamboo and palms to a black sand beach that is otherwise inaccessible by land. By the time we reached it we were glad of having organised boat tickets in advance at the Hotel San Roque to get back to civilisation without any uphill trekking.
All in all, there are plenty of ways to work up an appetite – and happily Tenerife doesn’t disappoint in the culinary stakes. Eating well is fairly effortless, particularly if you like seafood. In Garachico, the San Roque’s Anturium Restaurant has one of the most gastronomic menus in town, but every restaurant we wandered into here and across the island offered fantastic value (helped by the currently favourable exchange rate).
Particularly memorable was a side dish frequently served with the catch of the day – papas arrugadas, or Canarian wrinkly potatoes. These are cooked with a hefty dose of salty water (traditionally sea water, but times have changed), then baked and served with green and red pepper Mojo sauces – simple, but delicious. For a more gourmet experience, Sucás Restaurant, at Hotel Baobab Suites in Costa Adeje, is hard to beat.
While some of the produce is very local, such as wine from the slopes of Teide, this relative newcomer to one of Tenerife’s most upmarket areas casts a wider net. The emphasis is on modern Spanish cuisine, drawing the finest ingredients and wines from around the country. When we visited, the eight-course tasting menu featured seafood, wild mushrooms, pork and goats cheese – all innovatively prepared and stylishly presented. Appetisers and desserts added an element of fun, from mini bites of ceviche to ice cream balls on sticks. Such fine dining almost anywhere else in Europe would be likely to greatly exceed 48€ for the full tasting menu and 33€ for the menu of the day.
On this island of surprises, the stereotype of Canary island holidaying can be easily side-stepped. With a rental car and a reasonable head for heights (many of the roads are an adventure in themselves), the whole of Tenerife can be explored from any base. The charming towns of the north, beaches of the south and striking scenery of the interior are all within easy reach of the boutique experience provided by Hotel San Roque.
by Thea Macaulay
All photographs @ Danny Levy Sheehan
Car hire for the trip was provided by Rhino, The Rother Walking Guide to Tenerife (Klaus and Annette Wolfsperger) and Sunflower Books: Tenerife Car Tours and Walks (Noel Rochford) are useful guides to have on hand.