Our trip to the Canary Islands - Tenerife and La Gomera

Dec. 16-30, 2003

Tenerife is one of the Canary Islands, which are 200 miles west of the coast of Morocco at 28.5 deg. north, the same latitude as Savannah, Georgia. The seven Canary Islands have been occupied since the 1400's and are entirely European in appearance and outlook. They are Spanish and part of the European Union; there is no African influence. The islands are well developed, with modern roads, efficient bus service, well-supplied modern grocery stores, banks with ATMs, modern schools and hospitals, etc. The islands have benefited from massive EU investment in new roads, bridges, tunnels, etc., also new ports which are well serviced by ferries.

Our trip was 15 days long and was organized by Ramblers Holidays of Britain. I had booked it in September. The first 7 days were on the small island of La Gomera, followed by 7 days on the main island of Tenerife. The 2 islands are connected by ferry and hovercraft services and are about 15 miles apart. Both islands are volcanic and quite hilly with large valleys running down to the sea. Tenerife has a big volcanic peak called Mount Teide which at 12,000 feet is the highest point in Spain. It has snow on the top and is considered an active volcano.

The main industries are agriculture (bananas, papayas) and tourism. Another industry on La Gomera is cutting volcanic stone blocks for cladding commercial buildings - the stone is porous with holes in it and is purple, the colour of rusted steel.

Only a few tourists visit La Gomera - it is a very quiet and peaceful island, but Tenerife is busier, more commercial and very popular with British and German vacationers and retirees.

 

Our trip out and first impressions:

We got up at 2:50 AM on Dec. 16, drove 1 hour to Luton airport north of London and parked at the off-site parking place. The flight left on time at 8 AM on Monarch Airlines. We had a previous bad experience with them flying to Morocco in 1996-7, but they seem to have improved in the intervening years, with acceptable food and free drinks. The flight took a little over 4 hours.

Coming in to Tenerife, we could see that some of the farm-land was covered by flat-roofed burlap structures about 20' high and covering around 3 acres. At first, I thought they must be roller-skating rinks, but on closer inspection, they turned out to be plantations. Bananas, avocadoes and mangoes are grown inside the burlap tents, which reduce the sun and wind.

It was obvious that Tenerife is volcanic - the south side of the island is very dry, with only cactus and scrubby grass growing, and 9-foot high poinsettia trees growing wild. There are big gullies running down to the sea from the mountains, to carry the rain water whenever it comes.

On landing, we noticed that the sun was strong and warm. Our guide, Clive Scott, met us all and accompanied us on a bus to the nearby sea port where we took a ferry for 90 minutes to La Gomera. It was warm enough to sit outside in shirt sleeves, even at sea. We saw dolphins and pilot whales jumping beside other sailboats. The ferry was clean and mostly empty. On arriving in the main town of San Sebastian, we walked for 10 minutes from the ferry port to our hotel (they took our suitcases in a truck).

The Hotel Garajonay was in the town of San Sebastian, Gomera. It is 2 star, 4 storeys high, in the middle of a block on one of San Sebastian's two main streets, surrounded by stores and apartments. It had a nice breakfast room and a roof-top terrace overlooking the hillside where roads and paths lead to the higher part of town. We slept for 2 hours on arriving because of our early start, then had dinner at a local restaurant: fresh fish which was very good and red Spanish wine for $17.82 a bottle.

The hotel receptionist was a 34-year-old mother of one child and said she'd only been off the island twice. The minimum wage in the Canaries is 550 Euros a month ($10,692 a year).

Christopher Columbus landed at San Sebastian in 1492 on his trip to discover America. He went to church and took on fresh water for his boats. There is a small fort in San Sebastian that now houses a display of historical maps of the island and the town.

Our Ramblers group:

Our Ramblers hiking group consisted of 18 people plus Clive who led all the hikes. We were the only "foreigners". We all got along really well; people varied in age from 49 to 75 - 12 men and 7 women. The group included a couple of millionaires, an heiress, a mover, a construction foreman, and several retirees. It turned out that one chap had worked for Nortel Networks, and another one works at Kellogg Brown & Root in Leatherhead where I am contracting.

Keith (the mover) bought a sandwich on the ferry crossing from Tenerife to La Gomera. He was not sure what filling it contained, so when a lady asked him if the sandwich was OK, he said, "Yes, I'd recommend it - if I knew what it was!"

The Spanish usually eat dinner quite late, but because we stayed in more touristy areas, they catered to us eating earlier. The service was good and the prices reasonable. The restaurants offered soup as an appetizer, a choice of meat or fish with a few vegetables and either boiled potatoes covered in salt or French fries. We had either red wine or beer, but switched to rose wine when we got tired of that. Most of us got tired of this unchanging menu after 10 days although the food was usually quite tasty with French sauces. At one restaurant on La Gomera, dessert was presented with aplomb: an ice-cream drumstick served in its wrapper.

Hiking on La Gomera:

Each day we got up about 7:45 for breakfast at 8, left the hotel at 9 or 9:30 on a local bus up to the hiking departure point, hiked all day, returned to the hotel about 5 to rest and let legs and feet recuperate, and met at 7 for dinner at one of the restaurants nearby.

La Gomera is very hilly, with a well laid out network of hiking trails. Our leader for some strange reason liked descending more than ascending, which did in everyone's legs and knees. The typical 3-hour descent of at least 2700' (non-stop) was followed by about 4 miles of non-stop walking on the road and a brief stop at a bar for drinks. I got blisters on my feet and my knees hurt for the first few days. Besides being stiff and sore from the long walks, everyone on the tour caught a head cold that was going around, and I missed 7 hikes. (I didn't do as badly as one woman in our group, who missed all of the hikes and ended up in a wheelchair because she threw her back out.) Louise did all of the hikes but 2, and the ladies said she "blossomed" since arriving from wintery England. The conditions for walking were good - volcanic rock has lots of traction.

One day when we climbed 3000', I led some of the group in order to set the pace and not be left behind. I used my new-found power to point out such natural phenomenon as a tree that an errant Canadian beaver had felled. We also thought we should rent camels from a nearby camel safari park to get us back down again.

The climate was dry and sunny but not too hot. The temperature was 20-24 deg. every day, so the local people were wearing their winter coats, hats and scarves. It rained on the day we transferred back to Tenerife. Because rainfall is scarce in the desert areas, the farmers have set up extensive networks of pipelines and small reservoirs to water their banana plantations and terraced fields.

My days off:

After 2 days of strenuous hikes, 3 of the bachelor fellows and me decided to take a day off and ride the ferry (a small hovercraft that carried passengers only) to another town on La Gomera, Valle Gran Rey ($9.75 return). It was quicker and more fun to go by boat than by road. We only knew it was a small resort town half-way round the island, but after looking around we found it to our liking. It has pleasant 2-storey apartments that can be rented by the week, a few small bars and restaurants, and beautiful beaches with black volcanic sand. I swam in the sea and liked jumping in the waves. We thought this would be a nice place to come for a relaxing holiday.

On another day off, I took some of our clothes to a laundromat and then used a computer ($3.20 an hour) at an internet café. Two 10-year-old Spanish boys beside me were playing computer games the whole time, shouting and yelling as they shot villains on the computer screens.

Puerto de la Cruz, Tenerife:

Puerto de la Cruz is a pleasant tourist centre, with extensive pedestrianized streets featuring lots of tourist shops and about 6 restaurants on every block. There is a long sea wall that you can walk on and watch the big waves crash in (no swimming except at a couple of beaches at either end of town). The town is overlooked by a big casino and suburbs extending up the hills - a bit reminiscent of Vancouver. It is beautiful at night. The area is very popular with British and German tourists and ex-pats, many of whom stay for 3 months in the winter in rented apartments. The climate is a huge drawing card.

Puerto de la Cruz was originally a fishing port surrounded by acres of banana plantations until the 1970's, when they were all built over with new hotels and stores. (Such development is continuing all over the island of Tenerife.) The city has a fabulous zoo called the Parrot Park (admission $34 each). We spent 5 hours there and enjoyed seeing the show of trained sea lions doing tricks. We looked through the city's small botanical garden with tropical plants ($4.85 each). We swam at "The Lido" ($5.35 each) on Boxing Day. It consists of a huge series of outdoor swimming pools filled with sea water. The pools were beautiful, with islands in the middle made out of volcanic rock. We enjoyed it even though the water was as cold as Lake Huron.

Culture:

The Spanish are a very noisy people. They whooped it up on Christmas eve, staying up all night for family parties, yelling and setting off firecrackers, which made all the dogs bark continuously. Nobody got much sleep that night with the constant racket.

There was also a fun fair on the sea front about 4 blocks from our hotel in Puerto de la Cruz. We visited it every evening to mingle with the local people. The funniest thing was one of the big rides - each time it started up, they blew a horn from a Mack truck which was so loud, you could hear it inside our hotel with the windows shut.

It was amusing to see the Spanish teenagers in action - the girls got all made up and wore their best mini-skirts. But the guys just sat in gangs in far-off corners and looked like they were plotting how to get into trouble.

Our hotel in Puerto - 2 stars?:

Our hotel in Puerto de la Cruz was on a pedestrianized street but surrounded by local apartments. The bus driver had to stop in the middle of a nearby road to let us off and collect our suitcases, so naturally everyone behind began honking their horns. The hotel was 5 storeys high, with a roof-top terrace which overlooked the ocean 3 blocks away. Although a 2-star hotel like the one on La Gomera, the rooms in this one were plain and consequently noisy with sound echoing through the hotel and from the streets outside. The room didn't have a TV or radio, and the single rooms were like jail cells. The breakfast (included) consisted of orange juice, cold coffee and hard bread rolls. When we went to breakfast the first day, one of the guys whispered to me, "We're trying to figure out how to bribe the guards to give us some extra rations." The proprietor was a German lady who had obviously come from running a concentration camp. She let Louise make tea one evening, but said it would not be possible to have any milk. Louise also asked for a bar of soap - she said we couldn't have one because we hadn't used up the first one.

Conclusion:

We always enjoy active holidays, but the Ramblers hikes were especially strenuous and tiring. However, the mix of English people on our tour always gave us someone to talk to. Louise and I also enjoyed the times we spent looking around on our own. The Canaries are too hilly and busy for bicycling. Tenerife is not as nice as some of the resorts we've seen in France or Italy. However, it could form a suitable base for 3 months if you wanted to escape the winter weather. The ideal would be cooking for yourself rather than eating in restaurants.

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