The snow-covered cone of Teide dominated Tenerife and is the highest mountain in Spain. Energetic people probably climb it, but I was content to allow it to watch over me as I explored the island. In my quixotic quest to discover places that had retained their historical character, I headed west, to the village of Garachico. No beaches, no big hotels, no discotecas, but plenty of well-preserved colonial architecture and a restaurant, right on the water, that served the most delicious choco (cuttlefish). Garachico had slipped off the radar screen and sunk into obscurity because of a series of natural disasters, culminating in a volcanic eruption in 1706 that destroyed the port and covered half the town in lava. As I sat in a café by the water, I could see behind me the solidified river of black lava that had flowed to the ocean, and the series of rock pools it had created, where groups of children were now shrieking and splashing about.
Founded in the 16th century by Genoese merchants, Garachico was once the Canary island’s principal port and a centre of sugar production. I started up a cobbled side street during siesta time, when every house was closed up tight, and the farther I climbed away from the cafés and shops on the seafront, the more the town seemed to sink back in time. I turned a corner and stood looking up at the flaking, ochre façade of a 17th-century palacio, its windows shuttered and doors bolted. It had seen everything, survived the world, and appeared to return my gaze with an air of benign indifference and quiet invincibility.
By this point, I had become something of an expert in the arcane skill of avoiding big tourist developments. I took one look at my guidebook and immediately decided to forgo the entire south of Tenerife in favour of two stunning colonial towns, La Laguna and La Orotava, as well as the Santiago Calatrava auditorium in Santa Cruz, which gave me a palate-cleansing jolt of 21st-century architecture after a steady diet of ancient stones and lava.
Post-Bilbao, is there a city in the world that hasn’t tried to revive its fortunes by throwing money at a fashionable architect then sitting back and bracing itself for the onslaught of visitors con mucho dinero? Santa Cruz joined the club in 2003, having recruited Calatrava to jazz up this port city with his famously dynamic style. They gave him a stellar location — a breezy, wide-open space right on the water — and although the result got a mixed reception among critics, I adore it. I don’t think I have ever seen a Calatrava building that wasn’t white, and the auditorium is no exception. This palette works best in a climate such as Tenerife’s, which guarantees the perfect backdrop: a clear, cloudless, sapphire sky year-round. And so, sunglasses firmly in place, I walked slowly around his creation. Is it a bird, is it a sail, is it the reincarnation of the Concorde’s nose? Who knows? But there it is, swooping down over Santa Cruz with its gigantic white sails/wings and its pointy beak/nose, a dazzling rebuke to all the mediocre modern architecture that surrounds it.
On my last day in Tenerife, at a second-hand bookshop behind the church of Santo Domingo in La Laguna, I found Tenerife and its Six Satellites, written by a lady called Olivia Stone and published in London in 1887. Her photograph had a certain soulful quality: looking back at me with serious, dark eyes, Olivia, in a long, velvet dress trimmed with fringe, was seated next to a giant potted palm. Clearly an adventuress who was excited by the wild, uncharted aspect of the islands, she wrote, ‘They were practically unknown… no other English people had then travelled through the archipelago.’ Intrepid as only those Victorian lady explorers could be, she had set out, notebook in hand, determined to describe her journey — by boat, on foot, camel, donkey and horse — through all seven islands. In a chapter entitled ‘Toilsome Travelling’, she writes about a trek across the boulder-strewn region of Lanzarote known as Mal País and remarks with wonderful British understatement, that it was ‘very bad walking indeed’. I tried to imagine her stumbling across this blackened wasteland in her long, serge skirt, clutching her hat, and scribbling away, as the locals shook their heads in amazement at la mujer inglesa.
I retreated to a café, ordered a cappuccino and tried to recreate my own journey by following her account of the places we had both seen. Much had changed, but every now and then there was a flash of recognition, and quite suddenly I was looking at a particular place through her eyes and mine. Still obsessed with César Manrique, I turned to her chapter on the lava caves of Lanzarote and read, ‘The grotto forms a high dome whose roof is somewhat broken, so that the light penetrates from above through an almost circular opening’ — as it still does to this day, with the addition of just a few brilliant flourishes by Manrique. I ordered another cappuccino and plunged back into Olivia’s story, darting from island to island, mesmerised by her spirit and style, and amazed at how often, with more than 100 years separating our respective journeys, our paths had crossed. By Gully Wells
BEST THINGS TO DO IN TENERIFE
Best artistic hub
Designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, who created the new Switch House extension to London’s Tate Modern, the Tenerife Espacio de las Artes (TEA) is an angular, light-filled cultural centre in Santa Cruz. It plays with the concept of the traditional Canarian courtyard by drawing visitors into its exhibition spaces along criss-crossed paths. Expect to be challenged here: this is art as social commentary and its offering runs the gamut of the contemporary, photography and documentary. Currently showing is Recherchez les femmes!!!, featuring audio-visual works by three exciting young French artists.
Best starry gathering
Clear skies and clean air make Tenerife one of the world’s stargazing hotspots; the night sky here is as inky black as in the Sahara. It’s a great spectacle at any time of year, but come in mid-summer 2018 and you’ll get to experience Starmus, a festival for all things astronomical. Previous line-ups read like a who’s who of science: Stephen Hawking, Brian Cox, Chris Hadfield. One of the founders is astrophysicist and musician Brian May, and the bill nods to both of his passions; as well as talks, there is also live music, with previous acts including Hans Zimmer.
Even though it has been more than a decade since Spanish-Swiss architect Santiago Calatrava finished the Adán Martín Auditorio de Tenerife, its arresting concrete arcs and dramatic white half-moon-shaped roof mean it’s still Santa Cruz’s most talked-about building. The design of the waterside showstopper is often compared to Sydney Opera House, and it has completely changed the Canarian cultural landscape, with the auditorium regularly holding operatic and orchestral concerts.
By Helen Ochyra and Emily Mathieson
WHERE TO STAY IN TENERIFE
Hotel San Roque
Best hotel in Tenerife for: romance and relaxation
The town of Garachico was remodelled by volcanoes, its seafront and deep black-lava rockpools the pay-off for the old harbour’s destruction. In the mornings, it’s often crowded with day-trippers, so for a more peaceful experience wait until the late afternoon to sit in the tree-canopied main square with a cold cerveza. For absolute serenity, check into Hotel San Roque, a pretty 18th-century manor house. Here the rooms have polished wooden floors, furniture by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and deep bathtubs. There’s also a courtyard pool for sun-soaked dips until those crowds disperse, as well as creative comfort food by Danish chef Danny Nielson, including white asparagus with truffle oil, and steak with Stilton mash.
Address: Hotel San Roque, Calle Esteban de Ponte 32, Garachico, Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain
Price: Doubles from about £175
The Ritz-Carlton, Abama
Best hotel in Tenerife for: families
This is a sprawling behemoth of terracotta sandcastles towering on the cliff edge, a hotel as small town. But don’t be put off by the size. For those travelling with properly small ones and the mountains of kit they come with, Abama is a godsend. Whether its car seats, highchairs and warmed-up milk or sterilisers, bed guards and buggies, all you have to do is ask. Which makes suitcases a lot lighter. The sheer amount of space – 395 acres of Moorish gardens, several swimming pools including a family one with fountains and countless inflatables – means no tripping over anyone’s toes or disturbing the peace with a mewling baby. With more than 400 rooms, though, you need to box clever and book one of the stylish villa suites, with a sitting room and private terrace, and a pool shared only with other villa families. Accessed via cable car, the beach club has a buttery stretch of sand – unusual for the Canaries. For the younger members of the party, the kids’ club has everything from a fish-shaped library and a sweet ‘relax and nap’ corner to mini musicals and puppet shows. There are foam parties, chaotic football games and go-karting races, discos, Disney nights and origami. And in the evenings (when the kids’ club is open til, gasp, midnight), parents can duck into one of the 10 restaurants, including the two Michelin-starred MB, headed by renowned Basque chef Martín Berasategui. Or forget about supper and hit the rum at the Cuban cigar bar instead.
INSIDER TIP It can reach 28°C even in winter, so it’s a cracking place to come off-season if you’re not bound by term time.
Address: The Ritz-Carlton Abama, TF-47, km 9, 38687 Guia de Isora Tenerife, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Spain
Telephone: +34 922 12 6000
This feature was published in Condé Nast Traveller June 2017, November 2016 and October 2006
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