Tenerife; searching for a soul and finding a few surprises

A few days in Tenerife and it didn’t fail to live up to expectations. If, like me, you believe that travelling to foreign climes is about immersion in another culture, experiencing local character or enjoying cuisine and places that are different, this is not for you. Of course, on the largest island in the group some parts do remain unspoiled and they are frequently visually stunning but, in its headlong rush to attract and exploit the tourist, Tenerife’s identity and history have been significantly obliterated by timeshare apartments, hotels and shopping malls. There were some pleasant surprises tucked away in a destination that attracts twelve millions sun-seekers annually but, for the most part, it’s sad and breathtakingly awful.

Our rural retreat on the banana plantation was located in the north-west corner of the island; an area that has the least tourist development and which consequently retains the last remnants of the pre-Thomas Cook Islas Canarias. But we’d decided to take it slowly and see something of the south side first. The convenient overnight stay near the airport was in San Miguel de Abona, an urbanización comprising holiday rentals, a golf course, clubs, retirement villas, timeshares and shopping facilities. Oh, and several Indian restaurants.

Don't panic, we're here to help.

Have you ever read reviews of hotels on TripAdvisor or similar sites? As most people are only motivated to set the record straight when they have a grievance it has always been enjoyable to read about hapless holidaymakers blaming hotels for swollen feet, holes in the road, insects on the lawn or surly staff that don’t acknowledge a birthday. These days you can’t always trust the reviews as there is more than a little suspicion that ‘good’ reviews have been planted. They can, however, give you some insight into what to expect and so it was at the Vincci Hotel Golf, where we’d planned to crash. One positive ‘reviewer’ has photographed the newly-made bed, the bathroom and poolside sunbeds, which was useful if completely unbelievable, but less convincing was another eager contributor who enthused about the sight and sound of aircraft passing overhead on approach to the adjacent airport. Nonetheless, the hotel was clean and comfortable if a little run-down. In true Spanish tradition builders were sanding and varnishing the decking around the roped-off pool but I guess they have to do it at some time. When I first went to Spain I was fascinated by how inept the maintenance work was and how low the standard. Now, a career in construction and too many years to mention later, I’m left scratching my head at why that hasn’t changed. Pepe was not only sanding down the decking in a wind that blew the dust into the pool but was also splashing varnish onto newly-painted white walls. The electrician attending to the poolside lights had the air of someone unaware that touching two wires at once might kill you and I suspect he was the guy who wired the telephones into the rooms; it wasn’t until I had paid for access to the internet and plugged in the cable they kindly provided that I was told by the reception staff that ‘the signal didn’t reach up as far as the eighth floor’. I didn’t see mention of that on TripAdvisor.

Bargains, offers and mementos - but not of Spain

The perpetual dilemma suffered by the expatriates we saw in Tenerife is how to live in a foreign country without it  being, well, foreign. After all, in seeking an all-year tan and a cheap lifestyle there are so many things to avoid quite apart from the smell of the sewers – language, poor driving, that funny food, strange habits like keeping out of the sun and those little dark houses with small windows. Developers, being a clever sort, know about these things so rows of speculative ‘villas’ and apartments are built in the international ‘turret and pergola’ style, simultaneously presenting eye-wateringly poor design with the promise of a utopian lifestyle to an undiscerning clientele.

If you can't trust the spelling can you trust the service?

Our surroundings reflected just that; the accommodation cramming the urbanización Del Sur had at its centre, the heart of the development no doubt, the shopping plaza – a parched and shadeless citadel holding fast against all and everything Canarian. This soulless expanse of cheap bars, restaurants, empty units and peripheral expatriate services was as depressing as the couples wandering slowly through it with miniature dogs, cheap wine and cheddar cheese slices. With the developer long gone – I couldn’t help wondering if he had retired not to his own place in the sun but to a house in Hampshire or the Cotswolds – the paint was beginning to peel, the roads and footpaths were cracking and the ‘for rent’ signs in the empty shop units were bleaching in the sun. The area was livelier in the evening, but there was nothing Spanish about what was on offer – Asian favourites, tandoori specials and English beer. There was one Spanish outlet that sold souvenirs to holidaying northern Europeans; the owner was British. This was a microcosm of awfulness.

A little research provided us with the details of a local restaurant at a pretty village in the mountains called Valle San Lorenzo. The Mesón Era Las Mozas is well off the beaten track in the back streets and served a late lunch in a shaded courtyard. It is patronised by local people and survives because the food is excellent. We drank Canarian red wine – Tacoronte-Acentejo – from the oldest wine-producing area on the island and which is surprisingly good, local ham and cheese, a hot dish of beans cooked with pork and a vast salad. The drive takes you out of the tourist areas and up into the lower slopes of the mountains so your journey has the added advantages of spectacular views, greener surroundings and cooler air.

None of that foreign stuff.

In the evening we drove to Los Abrigos, a traditional but now slightly fake fishing harbour a few kilometres to the east of the hotel. We didn’t know that we could have walked along the rocky shoreline to it. It holds a few little restaurants, each claiming to sell the best local fish, but it was the temperature rather than the ambience that made it pleasant. Again the Canarian wine was excellent; a chilled bottle of Tierra de Frontos blanco from Granadilla de Abona was near perfect. The view took in hotels and apartments stretching away to the Costa Del Silencio and, beyond, Playa De Los Cristianos; inland and between unfinished concrete buildings that might be apartment blocks or might be hotels there was more development encroaching on the backdrop of the mountains. There was a pervading sense of sadness about it all – a feeling that perhaps the island had lost its soul and was still in mourning.

Tomorrow we’d head for the bananas.