Go beyond the resorts to the pretty coastal towns and verdant hills of the north for raucous fiestas, starry skies and wild open spaces
Brian May can be very persuasive. Yes, I mean that Brian May, the Queen guitarist and defender of badgers, who told me recently, in no uncertain terms, that I really ought to visit Tenerife. We’d met at the Royal Astronomical Society in London — which smells of intelligence and leather-bound books — where May was reminiscing about his student days on the island.
He was there in the 1970s, conducting research for his astrophysics PhD, which, against the advice of his contemporaries, he abandoned to join Queen. A sage decision, it transpired. “I feel the pull of Tenerife all the time,” he told me, wistfully. “Whenever I talk about it, I have a homesick feeling.”
May was promoting the Starmus Festival, a jamboree that will bring together the unlikely bedfellows of rock music and astronomy on the island for a week next summer (27 June-2 July). The rocker will be there as both musician and astrophysicist, after having finally completed his PhD in 2006. Expect gratuitous guitar riffery, stargazing and talks from astronauts, among other interstellar stuff. Though May was on a PR drive for the festival, his affection for Tenerife seemed genuine. He gazed reverently into space at the mere mention of the island and made statements such as: “I go there and my soul breathes a sigh of relief.”
Nurturing a restless soul myself, I booked my flights the next day. And that’s how I wound up here, cruising along a freeway in southern Tenerife, where white, wispy clouds hang high in the sky and the sun shimmers on the Atlantic Ocean.
Southern Tenerife is synonymous with pile-’em-high-sell-’em-cheap resorts, offering a bit of Britain abroad for those only after a week on the beach. Resorts such as Los Cristianos and Playa de las Americas have perhaps deterred some from visiting the island. I, for one, have kept well away. Turns out, it’s been my loss.
One of the most hackneyed things you can say about Tenerife is that it’s like a mini-continent. It isn’t. Nevertheless, considering its size as the largest and most populous of the seven Canary Islands, it is surprisingly diverse.
The south gets a raw deal. Aside from a handful of sandy beaches and the tourist resorts, its landscapes are comprised of little more than volcanic rocks. But as I peel off the highway and head north on mountain roads, the austere terrain and naff resorts of the south are replaced by sleepy Spanish villages, where old men with characterful faces sit outside shuttered houses putting the world to rights. Suddenly the island blooms with lush, subtropical vegetation. Banana trees sway in the breeze and potatoes sprout from terraced fields. The weather changes mood, too. From nowhere brooding clouds roll in, and briefly unleash rain.
“The north and south are like two different islands,” explains Carlos Torrens, of Tenerife Guides, whom I meet in Garachico. Carlos is not just talking about the weather, which has now reverted back to sunshine and blue skies. “If you’re looking for gastronomy, culture and architecture, and you want to mix with the real Tenerifian people, you have to come here to the north,” he affirms.
Garachico is beautiful. Overlooked by menacing mountains, this pretty coastal town, with its cobbled streets and pastel-coloured buildings, used to be the island’s largest port. The Tenerifian wine that William Shakespeare adored would have been loaded onto vessels here and shipped to what is now Canary Wharf — which takes its name from the Canary Islands. Those wealthy mercantile days are long gone for Garachico, though. In 1706 a volcanic eruption obliterated the port. The lava consumed everything in its path before cascading into the sea, where it formed natural bathing pools — now the town’s leading attraction. Every cloud…
I watch the day expire from a restaurant along the promenade, which really should find a snappier name than Canada de Garachico Espacio Gastronomico. As well as more syllables than a Shakespearean play, the eatery serves exquisite local fare. I gorge on generous portions of tumbet mallorquin (a sort of ratatouille), local ham and the chef’s bread, a home-baked loaf stuffed with a devilish cheese and ham sauce. Aided by the local wine, I then slip into a deep slumber in a sumptuous boudoir at Isla Baja Suites, a boutique hotel located above the restaurant. The last thing I hear is a wave breaking on the shore.
No sex please, we’re British
“We get a lot of requests for threesomes.”
If you want to gain an insight into the sexual persuasions of Tenerifian people then I recommend dropping by Bodegas Monje, a small winery that I visit the following afternoon. Perched in verdant hills, with views across the Atlantic, this bucolic vineyard might seem unassuming, but don’t be fooled. Beneath its sunny veranda lies a labyrinth of cellars that I can assure you are not just used for ageing wine. These darkened vaults are where Bodegas Monje hosts its Wine&Sex parties, which, apparently, are not as smutty as they sound. “It’s elegant and erotic, but not vulgar,” says the vineyard’s owner, Felipe Monje. I pull my unconvinced face.
After an awkward conversation in Spanglish, I learn that no sex actually takes place at these parties, just the suggestion of it. Hosted four times a year, these sultry jamborees are glorified wine-tasting events where guests are encouraged to write their fantasies on pieces of paper, drop them into an old wine barrel and watch, with a glass of plonk, as actors simulate them on stage. There are whips and chains, apparently, but Felipe maintains it’s clean. So what’s the funniest request he’s fished out of the so-called ‘fantasy barrel’?
“One lady wanted to beat up her husband,” he says. I shift the conversation back to wine.
You don’t see much of it on British shelves, but Tenerifian wine is fantastic. “The volcanic soil and different microclimates are what makes it so special,” says Monje, whose ancestors first planted vines here in 1750. “Wine is the basis of our culture.”
It certainly seems to be flowing freely in nearby La Orotava, my next stop. Clinging to Tenerife’s fertile hills, the town’s cobbled streets throng with revellers, as they commemorate Corpus Christi, a Catholic holiday celebrated with gusto by local residents. Dressed in traditional garb, locals cram into narrow streets to dance, sing and coax folk songs from battered guitars. Mainly, though, they guzzle red wine from hollowed cow horns. There are many glazed eyes in the crowds, like the ones you see on Sunday afternoon at Glastonbury.
“They’ve been partying for three days,” says Carlos. That explains it.
You might consider me lucky to have stumbled upon such a spectacle, but to be honest, the odds were firmly in my favour. Roughly 140 festivals take place every year in Tenerife — you’d be unlucky not to see one.
While La Orotava’s inhabitants nurse sore heads that night, I head towards Teide, the 3,718m (12,198ft) volcano that dominates the island. I scaled this monster earlier in a cable car and the views were spectacular. Unfortunately, so was my altitude sickness. Mercifully, I’m not climbing the beast again. Tonight I’m stargazing from its foothills with Carla Tavio and Luis Seco of Tenerife Sky, a company that capitalises on the island’s reputation as one of the best places in the world to observe the night sky. We pull into a layby and step into the darkness. Luis, who claims to have “his feet on the ground and mind in the stars,” assembles the telescope by torchlight, while Carla points out constellations above us. Never have I seen stars in such high definition. After some tinkering Luis invites me to the telescope, which he has trained on Jupiter and its four moons. I stare intently. It’s like nothing I have seen. “The best is to come,” smiles Carla, before revealing Saturn, whose rings appear as clear in the telescope as they do in the textbooks.
Gazing at the planet I find myself thinking about Brian May. “I feel the pull of Tenerife all the time,” he’d said. And then it occurs to me: this island was never simply a destination for him, but the start of a journey into another world.