The promise of all that sunshine, along with the island’s dramatic volcanic scenery and the gorgeous sandy beaches of its south coast (albeit now lined with sprawling luxury resorts), is what makes Tenerife a favorite sub-tropical escape for winter-weary Europeans — and on a recent chilly February day, got me on a plane to the island.
The first hint that we are approaching Tenerife is the imposing cone of a mountain emerging in the distance from the shimmering ocean. With an altitude of 3,715 meters (12,188 ft), Mount Teide has the distinction of being the highest point in Spain, as well as the highest point above sea level in the islands of the Atlantic. Created by successive volcanic activities going back three million years, Mount Teide as we see it today was formed a mere 170,000 ago, with its base emerging from the Las Cañadas crater (the remains of an older, eroded, extinct volcano) at a height of around 2,190 m (7,190 feet) above sea level. Teide and the surrounding 18,900 hectares (47,000 acres) form the Teide National Park, which we visit the following morning.
After a slow drive up through a forest of tall Canary Island pines still veiled in morning mist, we emerge into a striking lunar landscape. The road runs southwest to northeast across the caldera, with frequent parking areas in the most photogenic spots. The jagged rocks that fill the great amphitheater of the Las Cañadas escarpment rise like gigantic bronze sculptures against the crystalline blue sky. A dusting of fresh snow has fallen on the summits during the night, highlighting the top of the central volcano with a silvery sheen. Rough footpaths beckon the more adventurous visitors to take a closer look at the dramatic craters and lava formations. I prefer to stick with the panoramic views.
The Road to Masca
Leaving the surreal rocky wasteland of Teide, we continue north, deeper into the steep volcanic world of the center of the island, toward Masca. This tiny mountainside village in the remote northwestern hinterlands is unanimously rated as one of the must-see spots on Tenerife. Reaching Masca is a tense experience, an endless succession of switchbacks on a narrow, cliff-hugging road weaving up the mountain and then down to the village. The journey is rendered all the more unnerving by the unexpected density of the traffic, including tourist busses that clog the way. But the views that are revealed with every turn defy superlatives.
Masca itself is a cluster of simple stone houses balanced on the edge of one of the deepest ravines on the island, and linked by rough walkways dotted with prickly pears and palm trees. The uniqueness of this hamlet tucked in the fold of the ancient Teno Massif is in its exceptionally scenic location framed by steep ravine walls, against a soaring pinnacle backdrop that hints of Machu Picchu. Then, far to the west, the ravine opens onto the ocean to reveal a view of the island of La Gomera on the horizon. Past Masca, we continue our way north toward Santiago del Teide. At the Cherfe lookout point, we enjoy one last remarkable vista of the hamlet before heading toward the coast for a quick look at The Giants.
The Wall of Hell
Los Acantilados de Los Gigantes (Cliffs of the Giants) are gigantic basalt rock formations that rise vertically from the sea to heights of 500 to 800 meters (1,640 to 2,625 feet). They stretch northward for 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the port of Los Gigantes to Punta de Teno, the westernmost point of the island. To the Guanches, the indigenous habitants of the Canaries, they were known as the “Wall of Hell.” Enough said.
A Morning with Whales
Thanks to their year-long temperate climate, warm waters and deep seafloor protected against the strength of the Atlantic Ocean, the Canaries attract an abundance of marine mammals. Bottlenose dolphins and Pilot whales are year-round residents of the waters between La Gomera and Tenerife, making it highly favorable destination for whale watching. The sun is shining brightly over Puerto Colon, a busy marina in the southwester town of Costa Adeje, when we board the Monte Cristo, a spacious custom-built catamaran ideally configured to ensure spectacular viewing, for a morning excursion. As the coastline fades behind us, we are expectantly scanning the horizon. The crew soon announces a sighting at ten o’clock. The comma-shape dorsal fin of a Pilot whale is clearly visible in the distance. But as we head toward it, more pop up, tantalizingly closer, in pairs and trios. We slow down to a crawl and the notion of time vanishes as we just enjoy the show. Some of the magnificent cetaceans are just resting before their next food dive, others already replete are now lazily drifting on the calm surface waters, dozing off we are told. Playful dolphins join in off and on.
After an hour or so we head back, cruising along the spectacular coastline, with a stop in a particularly inviting cove and an opportunity to jump off the boat’s diving platform for a swim – yes, even in February.
Thalasso in Tenerife
Beyond its wealth of natural wonders, one of the main deciding factors in choosing Tenerife for this recent girlfriends’ winter escape was the lure of over-the-top pampering at the Arona Gran Hotel. Reopened in late September 2021 after extensive renovations, the Arona Gran is a large luxury adults-only hotel stretched along the seafront at the popular southwestern tip of Tenerife. In addition to its panoramic view of the old fishing port of Los Cristianos across the bay, it reliably delivered glorious blood-orange sunsets over the neighboring island of La Gomera.
And it is home to an irresistible Thalasso Spa! Originally developed in France, the Thalasso treatment (from Thalassa, the Greek word for Sea) is defined by the therapeutic uses of seawater, its components and various sea-based products (such as seaweed, sea salt and mud). In addition to the different massage techniques, body and facial treatments, Thalassotherapy also includes a circuit made of a seawater swimming pool with a variety of pressure jets and hydro-massage stations, Roman thermal bath, sauna, Turkish bath and Thermal beds. We became frequent visitors of the spa though-out our stay. Hint — the circuit and the treatments are very popular with the guests. Book ahead.
Good to Know
- Getting there – Tenerife has two airports: the Tenerife North Airport (or Los Rodeos) and South Airport (also known as Tenerife South-Reina Sofia Airport in honor of the former Queen of Spain). South Airport is the busiest, with regularly scheduled flights from the Spanish mainland and most major West European cities, as well as between the main islands of the archipelago.
- Getting around – There is a good network of busses linking all the major towns on the island and reasonably priced taxis are available. Car rentals are readily available for those who prefer self-drive visiting. A highway circles the coast, and excellent, well marked roads linking the various points of interest. However, the topography of the center of the island makes for white-knuckle driving in some places.
- Visiting — Teide National Park: The best options for visiting Teide National Park are with a rental car or on a guided tour. Public transportation to and from the park is quasi inexistant. There are two visitor centers in Teide National Park: one at El Portillo and the other at Parador Nacional. Cable car to the top —The Mount Teide Cable Car lower station is easy to reach by road and stands at 2,356 m above sea level. It consists of two cabins that can hold a maximum of 44 passengers and travel to the top in under 8 minutes. (N.B. it was not functioning at the time of our visit due to high winds at the summit). The lower station offers spectacular views of the peaks surrounding Mount Teide. Hiking in the park — visit volcanoteide.com to get updates on trail closures, facilities, and weather. To hike Mount Teide Peak (Pico del Teide), a free permit is required, which needs to be secured prior to your visit.
- Whale watching — although a large number of operators offer a variety of whale watching options on the island, we were especially impressed by Monte Cristo Catamaran Cruises for the immaculate condition of their ship, their small passenger limits (maximum 24 passengers per cruise) and the professionalism and friendliness of the crew. Advanced reservation are required, and include hotel pick-up and return upon request.