Reputations are easy to gain but often difficult to shake, as the Spanish island of Tenerife has found in recent years. Though it has much to offer travellers, many are put off by its association with mass package tourism and a hedonistic nightlife. Yet, as I found on a recent trip to the largest of the Canary Islands, that's a shame. For though the island 300 km off the west coast of Africa has some stunning scenery and is quietly cultured, it is still known primarily as a destination for holiday makers seeking nothing more than sun, sand and excess. Last year, over 47 lakh visitors arrived on this 2,034 km sq island, yet the majority saw little beyond the Costa Adeje on the south of the island. Known for the Playa de las Americas and Los Cristianos resorts, Costa Adeje hosts two-thirds of Tenerife's tourists.
A tourist's haven
Yet even the Costa Adeje is changing, and is striving to attract more discerning guests. I spent the first couple of nights in Tenerife at the five-star El Mirador hotel in Los Cristianos, and found it a comfortable base for exploration. Despite booking a whale watching trip with the accompanying concern that sea sickness might make me see everything within a very short time I decided to take full advantage of the plush breakfast buffet, tucking into a selection of local cheeses and a portion of omelette-like tortilla, one of Spain's national dishes.
As it turned out, I needn't have worried; the surface of the Atlantic was flat save for a few ripples. Our catamaran, the Freebird One, had only been out of harbour for 10 minutes when we spotted the first of several short-finned pilot whales. I looked at the rubbery greyness of a female whale as she glided by, spraying seawater into the air. The proximity was impressive.
Looking back towards Tenerife, I could see Spain's highest peak, Mount Teide. The 3,718 m-high dormant volcano stands in Teide National Park, which is just an hour's drive through villages and past vineyards from Los Cristianos. The jagged, arid landscape of the national park has something moon-like about it, and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007. Sections of the soon-to-be-released Hollywood film, Clash of the Titans, starring Sam Worthington and Liam Neeson, were filmed here. The spectacular volcanic rock formations undoubtedly impressed the film's director, Louis Leterrier.
The north of Tenerife has a more traditional feel to it than the package tourism-orientated south. The island's oldest cities are located here. San Cristobal de la Laguna, commonly known just as La Laguna, was Tenerife's capital until 1723. La Laguna is rich with grand villas and balconied houses (another UNESCO World Heritage Site) and will seem familiar to anyone who has been to Latin America. I joined a walking tour and my guides, dressed in eighteenth century tricorn hats and costumes, explained that the architecture and layout of La Laguna was used by the Spanish as the model for their colonial settlements.
Santa Cruz, situated just 9 km along the Aguere Valley from La Laguna, is now the island's capital city. As I walked into the La Noria district, traditionally the home of dock workers and fisherman, I noted a bar called Casa Nelson, named after Horatio Nelson. The famous British sailor suffered the only defeat of his career here; on July 25, 1797 his attack on Santa Cruz was repelled and Nelson lost his right arm in cannon fire. The district has a reputation for traditional Tenerifian nightlife and good food.
I made my way to a tasca (small restaurant), where you're likelier to sit next to a family of tinerfeÃ±os (locals) than a fellow traveller. I headed up a creaking wooden staircase and enjoyed a selection of sizable starters including the island's signature wrinkled potatoes, papas arrugadas, served with delicious coriander and chilli-based sauces, known as mojo and barely had room for the succulent grilled fish that was served as the main course.
Locals hope that Santa Cruz's carnival will soon gain the same popularity as the annual festival in Rio de Janeiro, for what it lacks in scale, it makes up in spirit.
Rich in cultural and natural heritage, Tenerife certainly has much to offer the discerning traveller.
Stuart is a travel writer based in London