Hurrah! At last the UK government has lifted quarantine restrictions for the Canary Islands, meaning British visitors no longer have to spend a fortnight in isolation when they get back to Blighty. Spanish authorities simply require you to take a rapid-result Covid test upon arrival.
For sun-starved Britons, this is great news. Warm and sunny all year round, barely four hours away by plane, with all the mod cons of mainland Spain, the Islas Canarias are the ideal winter sunshine destination. I’ve been half a dozen times and each trip has been a blast.
So which island should you head for? Well, Lanzarote and Fuerteventura are both dramatic, but the place I like best, and keep returning to, is Tenerife. No surprises there – the largest and most populous island in the archipelago, it’s always been a firm favourite with British tourists – but most Brits head for the southern shore, and the brash modern beach resorts of Los Cristianos and Playa de las Américas. These places are fine if you just want to drop and flop, but for a more memorable holiday, go north.
North and South Tenerife are worlds apart, and the reason they’re so different is because they’re separated by one of the world’s biggest volcanoes, Mount Teide, which divides the island into two contrasting microclimates. The north is warm, with the odd rainy day. The south is hot and dry, with sunshine guaranteed. Yet while the south is best for sunbathing, the north is far more interesting. It’s not too hot, occasional showers make it lush and green, and its rich history makes it a fascinating destination.
The north is where the Spaniards go, so it feels far more foreign and authentic. Unlike the southern shore, it’s not just a holiday resort. Spaniards have been living here ever since the 15th Century, and even in the smallest towns there’s a wealth of antique architecture. You’d hardly call it an unspoilt paradise – there are plenty of bland modern buildings, too – but here tourism is just a part of life, rather than the only show in town.
Until the end of the 19th Century, when sail made way for steam, Tenerife was the gateway to the New World. As any sailor knows, the trade winds blow from West Africa towards America, so the quickest way across the Atlantic, then and now, was from the Canaries (Columbus set off from here on his first momentous voyage). Tenerife grew rich on this transatlantic trade, and the towns along its north coast became boom towns, especially its capital, Santa Cruz. By the end of the 18th Century, Santa Cruz had become such an important port that Nelson tried to capture it for the British crown, and suffered his only defeat here, losing his right arm in the process.
At the end of the 19th Century, Tenerife endured a more successful invasion, when the first British travellers arrived. These visitors were very different from today’s tourists. The voyage took a week or more, so the only folk who could afford to make the trip were either businessmen, emigrants or ladies and gentlemen of leisure. They stayed for months, often years, sometimes for an eternity – you can see their gravestones in the English cemetery in Puerto de la Cruz, still the main resort on the north coast.
Throughout the 20th Century, Puerto de la Cruz remained a popular refuge for affluent, adventurous Britons. The first time I came here, 25 years ago, a few of them were still around. Back in 1995 I downed a few drinks with an old English émigré who came out here as a young man and stayed forever. He missed the good old days when the only way to get here was by boat. Cheap flights and package holidays had ruined Tenerife, he told me. Of course he had a point, but I reckon the drink had made him maudlin. Most modern visitors head straight for the new resorts on the south coast, and so here on the north coast some of the old ambience survives.
Puerto de la Cruz is the best base for a winter break, with lots of friendly restaurants and some fine hotels, most notably the superb Hotel Botanico, a five-star hideaway in leafy grounds opposite the gorgeous botanical gardens from which it takes its name. The beaches here aren’t up to much, but there’s a lovely seaside lido called the Lago Martiánez, built by the Canarian architect and sculptor César Manrique. The port is a pleasant mishmash of old and new. For something a bit more striking, head uphill to Orotava, a traditional Spanish town with some splendid colonial architecture.
Santa Cruz is still the capital, a bustling modern city full of things to see and do, but the must-see sight is its twin city, La Laguna, a tram ride away. A thriving university town, it was one of the first European conurbations to be laid out on a geometric grid, a model subsequently adopted throughout the Spanish colonies in the New World. The Old Town is stunning, wonderful to wander round, with loads of good places to eat and drink.
My favourite spot is Garachico, a remote little town in the north west corner of the island – a compact cluster of old houses wedged between the ocean and the mountain. It’s intensely atmospheric, like a town in a Spaghetti Western. It boasts several decent restaurants and two beautiful boutique hotels, housed in historic mansions. The San Roque is slightly smarter, but the Quinta Roja is equally attractive. They’re both super places to stay.
Why is Garachico so old and grand and yet so small? Because of its violent past. Founded in 1496, a few years after Columbus discovered the New World, it was the capital of Tenerife until 1706, when Mount Teide erupted and a river of molten lava poured down the hillside and into the harbour below. The inhabitants put to sea to escape this deadly torrent. The harbour filled with lava and was rendered useless for all but the smallest boats. Santa Cruz became the capital and Garachico became a stunted curio. The shallow pools left by the lava make perfect swimming pools.
Wherever you end up in Tenerife, a trip to the top of Mount Teide is a fitting finale for your visit. The volcano is still active (it last erupted in 1909, no time at all in geological terms) and the moonscape at the summit is like the surface of another planet. From this snowcapped peak, 12,000 feet above sea level, you can look down on the verdant north and the parched south and the blue ocean beyond. It’s one of the most thrilling places I’ve ever been. I can’t tell you how glad I am that we can finally go there again.