Every great journey begins with a little mystery. When I told people I was going to the Canary Islands, the general response from my friends was, “Oh, that’s exciting. Um.. Where exactly are they?” While most people had heard of the Canaries, whose name conjures up an exotic place, nobody knew their exact location on the globe. Confession: I didn’t either. And I had surely never heard of anybody surfing there.
Though technically part of Spain, the Canary Islands archipelago sit much closer to the northwestern coast Africa, a mere 60 miles from Morocco; the seven islands are regularly dusted with windblown sands from the Sahara. Tenerife (“ten-a-reef-ay”), the largest and most populated island, holds strong historical ties to Cuba, and has a sister-city relationship with Miami, but the climate is much more akin to the best parts of California. Crisp ocean breezes, very low humidity, arid landscapes, and the wines of the region reflect this perfection. Best of all, the surf is similar to California, too, in terms of consistency, except the water is warmer.
Dozens of terrific and mostly empty surf breaks are scattered around the islands, but one of the most reliable is right off the most touristy part of Tenerife at Playa de las Americas. My most powerful memory of the trip involves me tiptoeing out, mildly terrified to attempt my first reef break as a surfer who tends toward the beginner side of intermediate and favors beach breaks. Crossing the slippery black lava rock proved to be more of a challenge than I anticipated, but the surf guide reassured me that the sea urchin spines—like the ones currently in his toe—would pop out of my feet without a problem since it was a full moon.
Waves that appeared to be two-foot peelers from the beach stood up with five-foot-faces by the time we made it out as the tide had shifted. It didn’t matter that I barely caught a wave that day—we stayed out for over two hours, bobbing just outside the crashing waves, happy to be soaking in nature’s mineral bath. Sometimes I’d just catch the wave on my stomach and enjoy the powerful sensation of zooming toward shore, skimming over the water at breathtaking speed, paddling back out and doing it again. The crystal-clear water was bluer and more inviting than anything I’d ever surfed in SoCal, Hawaii, or Costa Rica.
During a week of exploring the island of Tenerife, I discovered endless pleasant surprises like these reef breaks and volcanic shorelines, black sand beaches, alpine conifer forests, terrific golf courses, and a towering volcano. From its ultra-luxe resorts to tiny boutique hotels and wineries, the Canaries are evolving quickly and I suspect they will grow popular with North Americans soon enough.
As the Canaries were the last place Columbus visited before coming to North America, Las Palmas—one of the outer islands—has long been viewed by Europeans as a stepping stone to the New World. Remnants of the Old World are ever present on Tenerife whose architecture speaks of classic European Spanish Colonial, with a strong splash of Arabian flavor. Charming cobblestone streets aside, not all of the architecture evokes romantic notions as some of the old convents are undoubtedly home to the ghosts of the many nuns reportedly locked away inside during their early teens, when parents could not afford a dowry for yet another daughter. One tragic story centers on a young nun who escaped with her lover, fleeing in a boat, only to be captured and forced to watch her lover killed in the village square below, where bullfights and executions were held for medieval viewers’ pleasure.
Today, Tenerife features a lively beach scene with cavorting Europeans (five million visit the various isles each year). Tremendous variety and microclimates characterize the islands, as if the weather reflects the patchwork of different things to see and experience here. Parts of the islands see light, misty rain every day; other arid desert regions see no rain at all. Little humidity and cool ocean tradewinds keep the temperature in the 70s and 80s, like a slightly warmer southern California, without the June gloom.
Golf at the Buenavista course on the northwest coast of Tenerife island is a worthy trip. Unlike so many ocean courses, the great majority of holes have terrific ocean views, not just a few signature tee boxes on the water. Each terraced fairway sits just below the previous hole on the rugged volcanic landscape. The 15th tee box is a stop and stare, and that I did. While I didn’t see any breaching whales that day, I attribute my significant score to being distracted by the epic scenery.
As a volcano fanatic since the fourth grade, I couldn’t wait to see the highest point in Spain–Pico de Teide Mountain, 12,195 feet. The world’s third largest volcano last erupted in 1909. Long winding roads through gorgeous Canarian Pines forests, straight from a Dr. Seuss story, deliver us to the base of the mountain. A fairly crowded but mesmerizing tram ride provided never-ending views of the surrounding coastal plains and deep blue sea. Be sure to get there early in the day, especially in the tourist season so the ride up isn’t unbearably packed.
Tenerife’s middle elevations are filled with boutique hotels and family-owned wineries, and authentic small batch wines where the owners either labor to create their own small brand or simply sell off their private crop of grapes to the other small vintners in the region. Charming places to have lunch, sip a fresh glass, and meet no Americans were as plentiful as waves on the sea. Tenerife is also rife with upscale hotels. One of my favorites, which maintains an intimate feel despite spacious, lush, grounds that invite a walk, is Gran Hotel Bahia del Duque Resort. Don’t miss lunch at Bodegos Frontos, where you can enjoy a typical Canarian lunch in the Frontos wine cellar. Think fresh local fish, perfect plantains or arepas filled with sweet mango.
Another indelible memory of those sweet verdant isles involves more of its cuisine, namely Canarian potatoes or Papas Arrugadas. Delectable tiny treats from another dimension, these tender potatoes, the size of golf balls, are cooked slowly in a reduction saline-solution until only a light salt crust remains on the light brown skin with a delicious soft white inside… that leaves you no choice but to have yet another. I will never forget these Canary Island originals—simple, but perfect, as the best things in life generally. Ubiquitously found throughout the island, these nuggets are almost as regular a staple as bread, and we had the privilege of preparing our own at Bodegos Frontos.
So what will bring me back? Chilled Listan Negro rosé from a small batch winery, shared with a friendly kitty in the wood-and-stone courtyard of an authentic European vineyard; a handsome, friendly surf guide who endured my broken Spanish (Vamos a comer! Por supuesto! Donde es la playa?…tranquilo-o-o-o-o…) and helped me conquer my fear of the beautiful wild blue waves and the rocky reef below; and traveling up those smooth roads, round and round to the top of a 12,000-foot volcano, a mountain whose staggering looks are exaggerated by its proximity to sea level. But perhaps most of all, an afternoon spent doing exactly nothing, just lazing around the largest swimming pool in Europe, at Hotel Gran Melia Palacio de Isora, filled with cool natural saltwater, 6,000 miles from home with somebody I love.
I’ll tell people that I want to go back for the glamorous golf, the wine tasting, the surfing, but the bare bones truth is… I can’t stop thinking about those salty, tender, little potatoes.
Get there: AIR EUROPA offers direct flights from Miami.
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Latest posts by Jen Davidson
- Surf, Spanish Seashores and Salty Spuds in the Canary Islands - October 13, 2009