Tenerife

The Canary Islands

Watch video: Tenerife - the island of hidden volcanoes

Tenerife is an island of superlatives. As well as being the largest - and arguably most varied - island in the Canarian archipelago, it boasts the tallest mountain in all of Spain, and one of the largest volcanic craters in the world. It also attracts more British tourists than any of the other Canary Islands, but that should not deter more discerning travellers, for the vast majority of visitors head straight for the purpose-built beach resorts of the southwest coast - Los Cristianos, Playa de las Americas and its more upmarket extension Costa Adeje - leaving the rest of the island relatively unaffected by the trappings of mass tourism.

At any rate, no amount of man-made development could dwarf Tenerife's considerable natural assets. At 3,718 metres, Mount Teide is truly awe-inspiring, an ever-present hulk of a mountain that has shaped the island's appearance, climate and culture since pre-historic times. Mount Teide stands at the heart of the Caņadas del Teide National Park, a dramatic lunar landscape of twisted rock formations, lava fields and sandy plateaux. Whilst Mount Teide and the surrounding National Park are undoubtedly the most extraordinary of Tenerife's natural attractions, the island boasts many other features that are equally rewarding for keen walkers and nature lovers, from the imposing Barranco del Infierno ("Gorge of Hell") near Adeje in the south and the sheer sea cliffs of Los Gigantes in the west to the lush Orotava Valley in the north and the rugged Anaga mountain range on the island's eastern peninsula.

Tenerife's mountainous terrain has created distinct microclimates, endowing the north of the island with a lush, fertile landscape thanks to rains brought by the prevalent trade winds, whilst the south is largely barren and generally hotter. Today's package tourists may favour the south, but historically this arid land was considered largely worthless, containing just a few villages situated up in the hills where agriculture was feasible. Both the island's indigenous population - the Guanches - and the Spanish conquerors and their colonial successors settled in the north of the island, where they made a good living cultivating wine, bananas and other tropical fruits and flowers and trading with the New World. As a result, anyone with an interest in the island's cultural heritage should concentrate their explorations on the north, where fine examples of colonial architecture abound in towns such as Garachico and La Orotava, and of course in the present day capital Santa Cruz and the former capital La Laguna, which is home to one of Spain's oldest universities. Between them, Santa Cruz and La Laguna also boast a number of interesting museums, covering subjects from fine arts, island history and anthropology to nature, science and astronomy.

The north also contains the oldest holiday resort in the Canary Islands, Puerto de la Cruz, often simply referred to as Puerto. A harbour town founded in the 17th century, Puerto's status grew when the rival port of Garachico was destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 1706. By the end of the 19th century, Puerto's mild climate and picturesque setting had come to the attention of British and Northern European aristocrats, and it became a fashionable place to spend the winter for the privileged few who could afford to do so. With the advent of air travel, Puerto boomed in the 1960s, and as a result the town has its share of hotels and apartment buildings that would not win any prizes for architectural sensitivity. Nevertheless, Puerto's old town retains all its colonial charm, the setting at the base of the lush Orotava Valley is as splendid as ever, and unlike the purpose-built resorts of the south, where there is no such thing as a local population, Puerto has grown organically over centuries and thus remains a proper community, with a working fishing harbour, picturesque backstreets and bustling squares where visitors mingle with local townsfolk.

The town also boasts a number of attractions, including the delightful Botanical Gardens, founded in 1788 by King Carlos III to acclimatise plants brought from Spain's colonies, the Loro Parque, which has grown from a humble parrot park to an award-winning wildlife centre, and the Lido Martiánez, a superb complex of seawater swimming pools designed by the renowned Lanzarotean artist César Manrique. For those who prefer swimming in the open sea, there are black sand beaches at either end of the resort; of which the Playa Jardín (also landscaped by Manrique) at the western end is arguably the most appealing.

On the whole, beaches are not Tenerife's strongest selling-point, and we believe that the island is much better suited to those who enjoy exploring natural and cultural treasures. Most of the island's natural beaches are dark and course, with the notable exception of El Medano in the south, which boasts a long expanse of soft beige sand. To remedy the situation, the island's authorities have created several man-made beaches in the southern resorts. However, by far the best man-made beach on the island, the extensive Playa de las Teresitas, is nowhere near the tourist centres, but is in fact located just outside the capital Santa Cruz - proof if any were needed that, far from succumbing completely to tourism, the people of Tenerife like to keep the best of their island to themselves, and to the few inquisitive travellers who are prepared to venture beyond the main resorts.

Mount Teide is Spain's tallest mountain

Mount Teide is Spain's tallest mountain

Mount Teide is Spain's tallest mountain Corpus Cristi celebrations in La Orotava Beach near El Médano Garachico Fishing boats in El Médano Seafront chapel in Puerto de la Cruz Mount Teide in winter Garachico's main square Lago Martiánez seawater swimming pools in Puerto de la Cruz Santa Cruz Auditorium Playa de las Teresitas, near Santa Cruz Playa del Socorro, a typical North Coast beach Plaza del Charco in Puerto de la Cruz Puerto de la Cruz' seawater swimming pools Granadilla

Accommodation in Tenerife:

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