The Two Sides of Tenerife

Tom Swick: Contemplating and celebrating the world of travel

09.10.09 | 10:10 AM ET

La Orotava, Tenerife (Photo by Tom Swick)

It was my fourth day in the Canary Islands when I thought of Donald Rumsfeld. The former Secretary of Defense, you will recall, famously divided a continent into “Old Europe” and “New Europe” (using criteria that were more along the lines of American sympathies than vaunted antiquities). But the image—in my mind—of smoky cafes and self-parking cineplexes stayed planted, and recently rose to the surface in Tenerife.

My first three days were spent in the north of the island. The lobby of my hotel was decorated with objets d’art, as was the corridor leading to my room. At breakfast, soft-spoken families picked their way through an eclectic buffet (which included soft pretzels for homesick Bavarians). They whispered in a motley of languages and had that European ability to dress for vacation and still look chic.

The hotel sat on a hill overlooking the town of Puerto de La Cruz. Steep winding streets led down to a tight cluster of shops and banks that eventually opened up to a rock-strewn shore. Old Europe meets the sea. The rocks were black and crawling with locals out for a swim.

A cobblestone street led past an Irish pub, dipped down to a small port-cum-beach, and then cut back to the town plaza. Families strolled, children played, Russian workers rested their weary souls on benches, the occasional woman passed in a hijab, young African men drifted listlessly from one potential customer to the next, one arm serving as a portable jewelry store. At night, in another timeless ritual, an Elvis impersonator played one of the cafes.

The owner of El Templo del Vino was German. But the menu featured the typically fractured syntax (“We dispose about cheese from all over the world.”) and delicious tapas: octopus salad, grilled squid, small green peppers, as well as rabbit and the famous “wrinkled potatoes” (small spuds boiled with sea salt until the skins shrink).

The place had the feel of a distant, diluted Spain.

A Cuban bar, Pub Cana de Azucar, sat just up the street from the plaza. Sugar cane was the principal crop of the Canaries until it became the mainstay of the West Indies. (Here it was replaced by bananas.) Poor economic conditions in the 19th century caused large numbers of Canarians to leave the islands. Many went to Cuba; others, later, to Venezuela. (Which means that, thanks to Castro and now Chavez, a lot of Miamians have Canarian blood.) The language spoken in the Canaries is closer to Caribbean Spanish, with its propensity for swallowed endings, than it is to Castilian. The music of Cuba, a New World country stuck in the past, gave the bar a retro feel. Most of the patrons looked to be locals.

A still older Europe was found in the stately mansions of nearby La Orotava. (It is amazing what you can do to a house by sticking an ornate wooden balcony on an outside wall.) Farther to the north, La Laguna had the languid air of a university town during summer recess, as well as a reputation for nightlife. Which seemed at odds with the story of the young man of good family who was executed on the main plaza while his lover was made to watch from the windows of the convent from which she had escaped, and in which she was condemned to spend the rest of her life.

Even the port city of Santa Cruz—hometown of José Martí‘s mother, now famous for the concert hall designed by Calatrava—had a gracious downtown, with streets lined with Royal Poinciana trees and a Plaza de Espana that mimicked Madrid’s.

Then I traveled to the other side of Mt. Teide, the tallest mountain in Spain. It rose like a dividing wall in the middle of the island, and appeared to cut Tenerife in two halves, not just north and south but ancient and modern, workaday and holiday. Going from La Laguna to Playa de Las Americas is like driving (in less than two hours, with fewer changes in temperature) from Quebec City to Miami Beach. You discover Rumsfeld’s vision of a bipolar continent on an island in the Atlantic.

Even the land flattened a bit, though there were hills behind the new developments, many of them already terraced with houses. Everything looked open, spacious, bright, recently built (or under construction). Here, along the coast at least, was New Europe on vacation (or in retirement): descending the slide of a Thai-themed water park, whale-watching on a boat with commentary in four languages, sipping gazpacho adorned with a spool of sea salt foam, smoking post-coital cigarettes on 800 thread count sheets.

There is apparently a wilder side to southern Tenerife; if European students had Spring Break, this is where they’d spend it. But my hotel, like many of the resorts, had created its own world, a vast complex of shops and restaurants and lounges and one of the largest swimming pools in Europe. (New Europe = Big Europe.) To get to it you descended from the spacious open-air lobby down a flight of stairs (where’s Scorsese when you need him?) and walked through a monumental courtyard, its regimental arches always giving me the feeling that I was strolling down a modernistic version of Via Roma in Turin. The walk to my room was down a long, stark, shadowy corridor.

Techno music pounded softly. The breakfast buffet included rice crackers along with tortilla Espagnole. In the evening, guests sipped mojitos while stretched out on beds in the outdoor lounge. Despite snatches of Spanish, it didn’t feel like Spain; it was one of those neutral places with no identity beyond its allegiance to fashion. It catered to people from places like Birmingham and Hamburg and Moscow and Toledo who have timeworn streets and age-old practices and moody skies back home, and who on holiday want nothing more than to bask in the sunny anonymity of the hip.

Yet even in this place you could hear late at night, when everyone else was asleep, the primeval shrieks of stray cats fighting.

Tom Swick

Tom Swick is the author of two books: a travel memoir, Unquiet Days: At Home in Poland, and a collection of travel stories, A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania with a Maverick Traveler. He was the travel editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel for 19 years, and his work has been included in "The Best American Travel Writing" 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2008.

7 Comments for The Two Sides of Tenerife

Stephanie 09.10.09 | 4:08 PM ET

I’d never heard of Tenerife until I moved to England and learned it is considered to be the “cancun” of Europe. This article sheds a bit more light on the subject, thanks.

Rickiebear 09.11.09 | 1:30 PM ET

We have had many very good holidays in Puerto de la Cruz, it is all and more than the article says, go on give it a try.

JJ 09.12.09 | 4:10 AM ET

Europe does have a Spring break (and Spain a Holy Week), only people spend it all over the place, not concentrated in a single city (or couple of them).
On the other hand, did you notice the change of temperature from the coast to La Laguna? During summer, it goes from mild to positively cool, mainly during evenings.

Rickiebear 09.12.09 | 5:13 AM ET

When traveling up from the sourthern airport, through the higher ground of la Laguna, it is often foggy (hence the new airport), and raining, this clears again as you enter Puerto de la Cruz. I have observed many time the cloud line just above the town of Oratava. The norther of Tenerife is lush and green whereas the south is dry and ‘desert-like’. Fourty years ago there was little local habitation in the south.

mv.derrick@gmail 09.21.09 | 1:42 PM ET

This article takes me back to my trip to Tenerife in 1991. At that time the roads leading from the airport to Playa de las Americas were all new, as were the fleet of white taxis that were of the Mercedes, Volvo, and Peugot kind. I felt as if I were in South America with the snow capped Mount Teide behind me as I enjoyed the black stone pebbled beaches lined with royal palm trees. McDonalds was high, the local food was remarkably cheap and good. 1/2 roasted chicken, salad, fries, and a glass of wine for $5.00! I too traveled from the desert like south to the more lush Puerta de la Cruz. The golden imported sand of the Sahara made the beach a sight to behold. Can’t wait to go back!!!

Vivid Canaries 09.22.09 | 7:09 AM ET

I think in the UK Tenerife does get an awful lot of bad press as it often regarded as a mass market ‘chav’ holiday destination.

However, there are also some fantastic parts of Tenerife such as Puerto de la Cruz

Rickiebear 09.22.09 | 12:23 PM ET

I first went to Tenerife with my parents in 1970, there was only one holiday town, Puerto de la Cruz. My father hired a taxi for the day and we toured the island, there was nothing in the south, just a ‘place’ where the ‘new’ airport was to be built. We have been going back ever since always to Puerto. We how have a second home there ready for retirement.

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