Friday, 29 January 2010

Packing away the cliches - the other side of Tenerife

Tenerife. The very word unleashes a tidal wave of travel snobbery. The cliches come easily - boozed up "Brits abroad", leather-skinned OAPs seeking winter sun, an endless strip of caffs and bars serving up all-day breakfasts... you know the drill. But the truth is that those tired old cliches are beginning to look distinctly threadbare - and lazy.

I've just spent three nights on the island for the British Guild of Travel Writers' AGM (I know, tough job) and the prospect of sunshine in January had me eager to board that Monarch Airlines plane, but other than that I had no great expectations about what I would find the other end.

Frankly I should have been more excited. What we found was an open-arms welcome, fabulous food and wine and a range of activities to really get stuck into - no time for lying on the beach. My top tip for what to do on the island? Whale watching. Thanks to its volcanic structure, the waters around the island are warm and deep, meaning the resident whale pods can remain just off-shore year-round making Tenerife the perfect place to go whale watching at any time of the year - and particularly friendly to the seasick. We saw dozens of playful pilot whales on our short catamaran trip, many of which teasingly approached the boat and swam within easy camera-snapping distance, setting off a cacophony of whirs and clicks. Even the most cynical of travel journos could appreciate the magic in that.

The food was another surprise. Spanish cuisine has long been a favourite of mine and many of the very best elements appeared in Tenerife in super-fresh form. There was, unsurprisingly, an abundance of fish but bananas were perhaps the most memorable ingredient. Tenerife grows a quite staggering amount of bananas, the crop weighing in second only to grapes, and on our first night we paid homage to this with dinner at a local banana plantation. The plants (the world's biggest herb) loomed large in rows stretching off into the distance each side of us as we munched on canapes with a banana theme, before taking our seats in the surprisingly commodious warehouse/sorting area for delights such as a crispy, cheesy salad with banana vinaigrette and thin pork slices in banana and red mojo sauce. A string quarter accompanied the food, providing an atmosphere of easy elegance despite the industrial surrounds.

There were other great meals (though none so banana-related) throughout the trip but for me the real highlight of it all was the drive over Mount Teide, the island's volcano and Spain's highest point. Tenerife's volcano is not one of those tame long-extinct ones that has barely burped for millenia and looks like nothing more than a humped hillock. Oh no, this is a proper peaked throat which last erupted in 1909 and is described as "unstable". Fear of imminent death aside, it's a spectacular sight and the twisted rock and lava flow scenery in the caldera was somewhere I could have explored for days, seeking out ever-odder shapes to photograph.

So, yes you might have seen it on Spain Uncovered back in the day or heard tell of club 18-30-style shennanigans in bars such as Linekars, but if you're still basing your perceptions of Tenerife on this, it's well past time for a rethink - and a visit.

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