MENTION the Canary Islands and the image that might spring to mind involves the typical beautiful sun-drenched resort – a holiday colony surrounded by blue sea and sky.
But from their volcanic beginnings, the Canary Islands have always had a more interesting side: geographically close to Africa, politically close to Spain, but culturally and ideologically closer to South America – the Canaries are a melting pot of influences with their own unique identity. Tenerife has long been a favourite of the Irish and UK holiday market, and with good reason – it offers a hot climate, good food, and the important element of familiarity, but to those willing to experience something a little more adventurous, it also offers a whole world to see beyond the resort walls.
Many of the busier resort towns are based in the south of Tenerife, in close proximity to the southern airport which handles the majority of international flights.
You can’t get much closer to the airport than Hotel Sandos San Blas, a sprawling resort and nature reserve that offers an all-inclusive option.
There are plenty of pools to swim in, and even a stream to kayak around, and surprisingly tasty buffet options for dinner, so if you do happen to be looking for a holiday where you can really switch off the grey matter and have things taken care of, then this is an option.
But you may find the days quickly dissolving into one another. A short journey to the west of the island and you can find spots like Los Gigantes – a sleepy little town that takes its name from the imposing cliffs (Acantilados de los Gigantes) that hemline that stretch of coast.
As quiet as the town is, the harbour at Los Gigantes is busy, rammed full of little bars, tapas restaurants, and stalls offering a dazzling array of hats, sunscreen, and swimwear for the forgetful visitor.
If you’re interested in getting out to experience the coastline, Los Gigantes is the place to be. Groups like Teno Activo organise sea-kayaking, snorkelling, diving, and surfing excursions across the island.
Paddling out from the little harbour in a kayak, you can get to peaceful coves near the base of the cliffs in minutes. The organisers travel alongside in a rib with supplies, which include a snorkel so you can flop overboard to have a look at the myriad of fish in the depths beneath, and a beer for when you emerge, so you can sit back on the open sea and enjoy the Sea Eagles passing back and forth overhead.
Back at the harbour there are plenty of catamarans and small boats that will take you out whale watching for the afternoon. Tenerife is one of the top whale watching destinations on the planet, and there is an almost constant movement of whales and dolphins passing through the waters, with many species living year-long off the coast.
Consequently you’ll see plenty of boats even offering money-back guarantees if you don’t spot a whale. On a short trip out to the sea between Tenerife and the small island of La Gomera, we saw scores of whales and quite a few bottlenose dolphins as well.
While it is a remarkable sight for anyone to see the great black bulk of a whale breach through the blue sea, it seemed especially significant for the children on board, who went wild each time the whales surfaced.
If the urge for escaping the usual tourist spots is still running high, north-west of Tenerife is the island of La Palma which is reached on a 25 minute flight from Tenerife’s northern airport.
La Palma, something like the Craggy Island of the Canaries, boasts around as many goats as human inhabitants (around 85,000) and is an immensely quiet island that has a noticeably different atmosphere.
While Lanzarote and Tenerife are famously arid, La Palma has an incredibly lush green environment, covered with ferns and pine forests, and produces an extraordinary amount of bananas.
As a holiday destination, La Palma is up there in the rankings for walkers and trekkers – many of whom come on direct flights from Germany.
Further adding to the quirkiness of the place is the fact that it is also a hot spot for star-gazers. La Palma is home to the Gran Telescopio Canarias, affectionately known as GTC by astronomers worldwide, it is officially the largest telescope on the planet.
Despite the small population, there are still plenty of places to make a base on La Palma whether you prefer to stay in a hotel or in smaller Casa Rural accommodation which are smaller, generally owner-run guesthouses.
With around 12,000 beds for visitors available, tourism on La Palma is still a burgeoning industry, and to experience the best of what the island has to offer it is best to hire a guide to transport you to some of the places off the beaten track.
Some of the highlights of La Palma would include a visit to the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory, situated high in the centre of the island near the heavily forested national park. Or a visit to Los Tilos (The Willows) in the wilds of the north of the island – a real life Fern Gully that’s accessed by walking through a waterfall.
The short flight means you can even island hop to La Palma for a day trip – alongside the wilderness and bananas, there are plenty of sleepy towns to visit, and exceptionally pretty is San Andreas which our guide convincingly assured us had the best fish restaurant (Restarante San Andreas) on the island.
Perhaps the best thing about La Palma and Tenerife is that all the outdoor activities stay available throughout the year, even in the winter months the temperature averages out around 20 degrees, and with regular flights to Tenerife by both Aer Lingus and Ryanair – it is well worth considering thinking a little outside the resort-shaped box next time you are considering a trip.