Find a different beach - sandy, south-facing, and sunny - for every day of your vacation on Tenerife, the largest of the Canary Islands, an autonomous part of Spain located near the northwest coast of Africa.
Tenerife was first settled by the Gaunches, long gone since a Spanish conquistador and a thousand men arrived in 1493. Today, the island blends Spanish culture and colonial history with abundant summertime beach-going possibilities in the rain-scarce south, as well as numerous diversions in the cooler north, from intriguing pyramids to a world-class zoological park.
5 ... Visit parrots and dolphins in the north.
Begin your visit on the north coast, at Loro Parque, which first opened as a parrot sanctuary in 1972. Today, the award-winning zoological and marine park features gorillas, which the park breeds; more than 300 species of parrots, including daily parrot shows; a 60-foot-long walk-through and transparent tunnel at the bottom of the park’s aquarium, with sharks swimming all around; plus penguins, tigers and decent restaurants. The well-choreographed marine shows, however, variously featuring sea lions, dolphins and Orcas, are spectacular, though the drowning death of a trainer by killer whale here in 2009 is a reminder that for all of the training, the animals remain wild.
Next, head further south, stopping to ascend the snowy peaks of El Teide (12,195 feet), the world’s third-largest volcano, dormant since 1909. From the top, you can sometimes see the entire island, but to get there, you’ll need to clinch one of only 150 permits issued daily from the national park office in Santa Cruz; bring your passport. Or take the eight-minute cable car ride, which gets you up to about 11,600 feet.
4 … Settle into Costa Adeje, then pick a beach.
Budget travelers on a package deal - hotel plus airfare - often stay in Costa Adeje, on the south coast. It’s not hard to see why, as there’s a beach for every occasion: Playa Fañabé, lined with ample numbers of bar-restaurants, upmarket Playa del Duque near a cluster of resort hotels, and the promenade-lined Los Cristianos, offering abundant shopping. Meanwhile, if you’re seeking large, floating structures for kids to bounce on and dive from into a roped-off, small inlet, seek out Playa de las Américas.
No matter the beach, you’ll find restaurants offering a variety of inexpensive food options, including pizza, pasta, steak with béarnaise sauce, fried seafood or fish stew. For afternoon snacks, numerous shops sell ice cream bars, soda or cañas – small glasses of beer. On the sand, mobile vendors sell bottles of water, fruit and the island’s own bananas. Unfortunately, as you’re soaking up the sun, you’ll also be faced with a different type of vendor, touting on-the-beach Thai massages.
3… Dine like a Spaniard.
Tenerife largely draws its visitors from Spain, plus the rest of Europe, including Britain, as evidenced by every other restaurant near a hotel or beach in Costa Adeje offering a “full British” breakfast. But to cope with the strong sun - the islands are on the same latitude as the Sahara - and the attendant perils of too many fried breakfasts, consider aping the Spaniards’ food selection and pacing.
Accordingly, after a late night of dining, drinking or clubbing, wake up at 10am, drink a cortado - strong black coffee with a little cream - and head to the beach. Take your first meal at 2pm, then retire for a siesta, using the heavy curtains at your hotel to completely block out the sun. Later, return to the beach, take a stroll or go shopping. Find a bar, sip an aperitif and nibble on tapas. Just don’t eat dinner before 10pm.
If the Spanish approach isn’t to your liking, most restaurants will be happy to serve you after 6pm or so. Though nothing beats a late dinner, sitting in a seaside bistro, hearing the waves surge and watching the sun set while you sip Rioja.
2 … Sample the wrinkly potatoes.
When you tire of beach dining, find Tenerife culinary specialties in Costa Adeje at the touristy El Molino Blanco (922 796 282). Better still, drive north to Adeje, and keep going up the hill that the town sits on until you’re nearly at the top, where you’ll find Otelo (922 710 294), serving rabbit stew, garlic-fried chicken, and ultra-addictive papas arrugadas. These “wrinkly potatoes,” a Canarian staple, are cooked in their skins in seawater until the outsides crinkle and the water evaporates, leaving a salt crust. Dip them into the two sauces always on hand: cool mojo verde, green with coriander and parsley, or mojo rojo, fired up with red chilies. The sauces pair equally well with fish.
For the best seafood, explore the small fishing villages on the southeast part of the island, such as Manolo II (922 171 152) in San Miguel de Tajao. Select your fresh fish from the glass case - count on moray, octopus, squid and scallops - and specify how you’d like it prepared. Grilled and served in a light, garlic-infused oil is an excellent choice. Next, grab a table, order a carafe of house wine and devour your fish as the waitress delivers it in batches.
1 … Behold Tenerife’s pyramids
What do Tenerife and Egypt have in common? Interestingly, they both possess pyramids. While farmers in the northeast town of Güímar have long known about the stone piles - unhelpfully, placed in the middle of their fields - the stones’ true form and function didn’t emerge until the 1990s, when Norwegian archeologist Thor Heyerdahl began to investigate.
Subsequent excavations revealed six small step-pyramids, dubbed the Pirámides de Güímar. Today, an onsite museum pays homage in equal parts to the pyramids’ history - built to determine the winter and summer solstice - as well as to celebrating Heyerdahl, who became famous for sailing a balsa raft, Kon-Tiki, from Peru to the islands east of Tahiti in 1947. He followed up by sailing a papyrus boat, Ra II, from Morocco to Central America, to illustrate his theory of cultural diffusion amongst ancient cultures.
The museum’s exhibits and accompanying film advance Heyerdahl’s view that the Canary Islands’ population was part of an ancient pyramid-building, seafaring culture, by tracing parallels with the mummification practices and larger pyramids in Mesopotamia, Mexico and Peru, not to mention the Gaunches’ penchant for worshipping dogs. Regardless of whether you drink the Heyerdahl Kool-Aid, the island’s pyramids show that there’s more to Tenerife than great island cuisine and endless, sandy beaches.