The road to Masca, Tenerife, is not easy on the stomach, but we have already made the decision to go for it. At an earlier crossroads, in the face of waning enthusiasm from those who knew no better, our guides were asked if the winding ascent to Masca would be worth it, worth the time and the trouble and the theater on our last day on the island. On Tenerife, this “microcontinent” just an hour across, the density of the diversity surprises only the guests, and as guests, we had caught on quickly. Just three days in, our group is already certain we can divert mid-journey to some volcanic monolith or mojo masterclass around the corner on a whim. But should we?
An exchange of knowing glances from our guides, and, well, a no—we should not miss Masca, hamlet on the edge of the world, challenging as the road may be. And so our van continues its measured, considerate pace up the volcano. I am thrilled.
At its peaks—including El Teide, the highest peak in Spain—tiny Tenerife is a world all its own. As the largest island in the Canary archipelago, it hangs like a footnote off the coast off western Africa, and yet as a territory of Spain, life here remains distinctly and proudly Iberian. It is a blend well-aged. Five centuries ago, Spain propped up cities in Tenerife that became models in its world-shaping colonization efforts, a fact now canonized by UNESCO. Britain threatened once quite seriously, but the bond has otherwise matured matter-of-factly in the time since, almost in disregard for the distance between the island and the mainland. A walk around town in Tenerife, in Santa Cruz for example, is greeted by the same architecture and ambience thriving in Costa Brava. Even prices—kept in check by EU status and actually lower than my native Brooklyn’s—and, now, the culinary scene—featuring multiple Michelin-starred restaurants—mimic the Spanish way of life to a tilde.
Behind the name:
The Canary Islands are named not for the bird, but for the dogs (“can–” root, as in canine) that appeared to overrun the island when the Spanish first arrived.
But at its peaks it is still a world all its own, not Spanish but distinctly Canarian in its geology, landscapes and dramatic visuals. Tenerife, in the Canarian way, is a canvas beholden to our earth’s most violent fits of inspiration; that it is painted over in Spanish red gives it only another amazing layer of richness as a travel destination. Tenerife is a place of microclimates juggling tropical sun and the “sea of clouds” by the hour, up and down its steep slopes. It’s a place with no natural beaches—the sand so alluring to European tourists has been brought in from the Sahara—and with places that feel unnatural to Earth. Teide National Park, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, looks like Mars, and far from light pollution, its high volcanic perches are actually among the world’s best locations for viewing the real Mars through a telescope. Dragon’s blood trees and tajinastes abound, and yet, apparently, this is Spain.
The Spanish, and the Brits, flock to the black and yellow beaches of Tenerife’s southern coast in numbers year-round in pursuit of some familiar Caribbean-style values: island time, fruity drinks, sand, sun, water. The rest of the experience is unfamiliar—from the speckling of immense, near-palacial accommodation options to the more topographically striking northern rim—but it may soon be a single-flight hop from the US, as talks are currently underway to connect the island to New York with regular direct service. At the moment, it’s a regular flight to Spain and then a three-hour hop to the Canaries.
Flying into Tenerife from Spain, on Air Europa, Iberia or whatever, the views out the right side of the plane are pretty extraordinary. Flying north again, the left is logically the place to be.
In the end, my group never makes it to Masca, this place of such astounding and challenging Canarian beauty. The fog becomes too thick to see through. We settle instead for a guy we appear to just find on the cliffside who bounds over rock faces for our amusement with a spiked regatón—the tool of the traditional salto de pastor, once employed by Canarian shepherds atop these heights. I try for myself, and then try to contort my body around the regatón per the traditional training exercise, and for this my wrists and back shout traditional Canarian obscenities at me. I am thrilled.
For all its windy roads, for its unexpected flash fogs and despite the fact that we missed the unmissable Masca, the Tenerife I discovered is awash in adventure not familiar to the American market. It is Europe with an exotic tilt, jamón ibérico on a volcano.
Here’s what to see in Tenerife and how to see it—plus a few places to eat on an island that in the end, is surprisingly easy on your stomach.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites (2)
1. Teide National Park — My favorite part of Tenerife and to me the very soul of the island. Teide National Park draws its name from El Teide, the conical apex of this island volcano and the “world’s third-tallest volcanic structure.” The 12,000-foot caldera is of course in the park, and accessible by gondola or some inspired hiking, but the hellish worlds of black rock and Seussian vegetation strewn around it are more memorable. Teide, in fact, means “hell” in aboriginal tongue, a telling piece of local history. Look for massive, Mars-like rock protrusions like the Garcia Rocks, filming locations for movies about space and, at night, more stars in the sky than you’ve ever counted before.
2. San Cristóbal de La Laguna — A tracery of winding, well-aged streets and the island’s former capital of four centuries. It’s a pleasant and disorienting day out in the way that the best old (smaller) cities are—which is not a coincidence, given it became the model for much of the later Spanish imperial efforts, especially in the Americas. As its UNESCO page notes, it’s “a living example of the exchange of influences between the European culture and the American culture.” Not every building wears this legacy so plainly, but the ones that do are shaded in colonial mattes and strain under the weight of zany, old, height-of-the-empire-style roofing. La Laguna is 550 m up the island’s giant, sweeping volcano, and not on the coast, exactly—but its proximity to Santa Cruz makes it easy to roll the two into a day.
George Washington drank Canarian wine
Canarian wine was for an era a special indulgence—so special that it’s said that George Washington cheers-ed to American independence with a cup of the stuff. Shakespeare was also noted to have indulged himself, even mentioning it in works like The Twelfth Night.
To do and see
1. Salto de pastor — The aforementioned means of agility for early Canarian shepherds involving a giant, wooden, pointed staff (called a regatón). It was once necessary for navigation across uneven terrain. In 2015, it’s a relic of pre-colony tradition practiced competitively for sport. People like the guy below (can’t recall his name, but a cool guy) commit startling time to their mastery of it and will demonstrate their skill for visitors as prompted.
By tradition, for example, you have to be able to lift the head of the regatón above your head from the ground employing only the strength of your wrists at the other end. And contort it fully around your body without changing your grip. Both are insanely hard. For help finding a practitioner, try email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org (see Alma de Trevejos below).
2. Punta del Lomo banana plantation — Having grown up in the American northeast, I always love seeing tropical fruit grow where it’s supposed to. At Punta del Lomo, you can do that. As a finca, the property offers guests much more than banana-viewing, but the only value I can speak to is in the guided walking tour of the banana lands, where many banana truths are spilled—like how every tree has its “father” and “son” beside it. Still, be reasonable with the amount of time you spend here.
3. Garachico — Once the largest port—a huge port—on Tenerife and the engine pumping the once-celebrated Canarian wines into to British Empire and beyond. After a massive volcanic eruption in 1706, the city and and its industry were devastated almost completely, and so today a humbled Garachico is split into two, at the line where the lava stopped. On one side is Garachico rebuilt, only a few hundred years old, and on the other is a spattering of spared, original structures (including a huge convent). More history followed, but forget that for now. Garachico today represents the appeal of the north coast of Tenerife over that of the more-touristed south. Down south, Costa Adeje, Playa de la Américas and Los Cristianos—probably the three most popular spots for vacation-seeking visitors—are blossoming as first-class, first-world respites in the modern mold, with insular, albeit grand, hotels. The uniqueness of Tenerife is missing. In Garachico, meanwhile, the topography is more dramatic and the lifestyle remains relatively uncompromised. Don’t miss Las Piscinas del Caletón, a collection of amazing natural (close enough) swimming ravines and infinity pools in the rocky coast.
4. Masca — Just unreal views. The pictures and the informed will tell you enough. Don’t miss it.
5. Stargazing at Alma de Trevejos — For a number of reasons—not the least of which being the outstanding elevation and island identity of Tenerife—the heights of the largest Canary island are among the world’s best stargazing spots. At finca Alma de Trevejos, where much more is available, there’s a telescope spot as though dreamed up by a Spanish youth, with soft cushions and a mechanized sky-mapper all set up for you. Carla (her short-lived blog?), with Tenerife Sky, can be packaged into an evening with an email or call from Alma de Trevejos (though it’s best to offer early notice to ensure she’s available), and she’s worth it. On a night with more cloud cover than usual, we telescoped into three planets (Jupiter, Saturn and Venus) and a giant goddamn moon.
6. Whale-watching — I guess. If you’re into this sort of thing, Tenerife will not disappoint. Its warm, deep waters and perch off the African shoulder make it full-on whale country. Even the 20-something British clowns drinking beer on our boat were impressed (“Boys, boys—you see this?! F—king unbelievable!”). Four species of whale frolic about year-round while 21 others—including blue whales, which were seen in the days before we went out—pass through on their migration courses. We saw pilot whales, and it was cool, but the water was choppy, and so it’s important to note that whale-watching is not for the seasick-prone. It’s also a little long, but in any case it’s nice to step off the land and onto this geographically interesting corner of sea.
Go to La Gomera:
Take a day trip to La Gomera, another of the seven Canary Islands and perhaps the most suited for a book or TV special. Its dense, fairy-tale forest and Roque de Agando are special enough but the real novelty here is the whistle language, which is literally a language of toned, rhythmic whistles and no words. It’s like no other communication device on Earth. Viator looks to have a good La Gomera option (with hotel pick-ups).
The island of Tenerife is, suddenly, booming with places not only to eat, but in fact to find culinary adventure. The links to Spain are a factor here, as is the worldwide expansion of palates in general. Here are a few highlights from the Tenerife I tasted:
1. M.B. — The “signature restaurant of the renowned Basque chef Martín Berasategui” has two—two—Michelin stars. It’s inspired Spanish cuisine that guides simple flavors into a sophisticated, phenomenal, 11-course tasting menu (right) that takes at least as long as you think it would to complete. It’s also without question one of the best meals I’ve ever had—and for about $120, it’s an unthinkable value.
2. Kabuki — Another Michelin-starred restaurant and just a few hundred feet from M.B. inside the same Ritz-Carlton. I didn’t eat here, but chef Ricardo Sanz is clearly doing some incredible Asian things.
3. Mercado La Pepa — A newer and more economical culinary outlet in Los Cristianos (in the south) full of smaller, often-tapas-style offerings from around the globe. Niko sushi (niko means “enough” in Japanese) and Olé, where staff can artfully slice you the world’s best ham (literally jamón ibérico), were my favorites. A great spot for a lunch.
4. Mojo — Not a place, but a thing to try. Mojo is the name of the sauce you’ll find served all across Tenerife—or rather, the two sauces. There’s red mojo (with red chiles) and there’s green mojo (with cilantro), and both are excellent on meats and especially potatoes.
5. Potatoes — There are a few kinds, but the small ones cooked in salt water are the ones to hunt down. Fortunately, they’re served as a starter/sharing plate at many Tenerife spots. Complemented by green mojo, these are the best potatoes I’ve ever had.
6. La Granja Verde — A green-focused finca recently planted on the Tenerife rock (in La Orotava) and an exciting new venture. Check out the llamas and black Canary pigs and literally pick herbs from the garden for your tea before enjoying their creative cuisine (like eggplant with coffee sauce). It’s like an ecosystem that serves food. They have mojo-making and plenty of wine, as well.
7. El Aderno — An award-winning bakery in Santa Cruz that’s just amazing. The tiny donuts were 25 (Euro) cents each and the rosquetes de vino—a local, wine-accented bread sweet that’s hard to describe—are said to be the best anywhere.
8. Barraquito — Coffee, milk, condensed milk, lemon, cinnamon, liquor. What’s not to like?
9. Meson del Norte — A convenient stop on the way to Masca and an established local hotspot. After an incredible cheese/mojo/palm honey opener and then chicken skewers with carrot glaze, my main (steak) was a little disappointing, but for beer (Dorada) and experimental cheese Meson del Norte is worthwhile. There’s a buzz about this place. Plus, it’s well-situated on the Tenerife slopes.
10. Gofio amasodo — Harking back to the island’s pre-colonial days, gofio is grain that has been toasted and milled into a powder. It’s cheap, malty, powerfully nutritious, and semi-sweet—and often used as a flour across Tenerife. Gofio amasodo is a dessert derivative that rolls gofio with the likes of honey, nuts, cheese, and water. It tastes like farm-to-table energy bar, and it makes for a satisfying finishing course after mojo. La Orotava, in particular, is a good place to get it.
The best weather in the world?
Apparently, Los Gigantes and Puerto Santiago in the west of Tenerife claim to have the best weather in the entire world. Both are shielded for winds and troubling weather by cliff faces. True or not, there is phenomenal kayaking and watersports beneath these cliffs.
Rooming options in Tenerife are in no short supply, especially in the south. The more upscale properties in particular—like the Hotel Iberostar Grand Hotel El Mirador—are grand and sprawling as if anachronistic. The atriums bloom into Iberian-accented palaces, and the suites come with patios that can host mojo-and-potato parties for everyone you could conceivably meet in a week. Right now, rooms there start at €104/night—which is another good Tenerife deal.
To me, however, the essence of Tenerife lay in the north, and not the south, and so as far as hotels go, the sister Iberostar Grand Hotel Mencey in Santa Cruz is a better bet. Location and views (below) are supported by more modern comforts, and rates somehow begin at just €36/night (it will jump).
The best lodging option, however, is a finca. No question. Specifically, Alma de Trevejos, it of the ultimate telescope spot, is a mountaintop, agrarian campus in the Canarian tradition. There are animals (black Canary pigs), mountain views and hikes, beautiful colonial stylings, an epic wine cellar, the “sea of clouds,” and an Antonio, the resident jack-of-all-trades who, as desired, can cook meals for you (including potatoes with mojo and free breakfast for up to six) during your stay. The bedrooms are part of an actual house, with a common room and two bedrooms, and the entire property—with only genial Antonio and his family inconspicuously sharing the premises—can be had for just €180/night. For everyone.
More photos below:
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