The Canary Islands, just 120 miles off the northwest coast of Africa, have a well-deserved reputation as Europe’s Hawaii. In addition to nearly year-round sunshine, you’ll find beautiful beaches, relatively warm water, locally-sourced food and wine, world-class biking, abundant hiking, and endless water sports. While travel to the Canaries has been somewhat cumbersome for U.S. travelers in the past, there’s now a direct, 5.5 hour United flight from Newark. Prices are so good in the Canaries that you’ll likely save enough money to justify upgrading to business class.
Tourism in the Canary Islands is sponsored by the Spanish government, so prices truly are a fraction of what you’ll find in Hawaii and many other beach-holiday destinations. During the off-season (August through November), you’ll save an additional average of 60 percent on food, lodging, and activities.
It’s not the ubiquitous canaries on the islands that gave the archipelago its name. The Canary Islands are actually named after a magnificent canine species which greeted early European travelers here. The Presa Canario is a large sheep/guard dog that nearly went extinct in the 1960s. You’ll still find these dogs on these islands, plus plenty of unique birds, large lizards, black pigs, and thousands of other terrestrial and marine species.
While there are eight inhabited islands that make up the Canaries, the island of Tenerife is the best place to start. The largest of the islands in the group (just over 700 square miles), it’s big enough that there’s always a different village to visit or activity to choose, but with everything close enough that you can easily circumnavigate the island in a day.
Arguably, on Tenerife, there’s more scenery, activity and culture per square foot than virtually anywhere else on earth. The southern part of the island is dry and desert-like, with the central area forested and mountainous. The island’s north end, which feels more tropical, is a world-class bird watching destination. Both the north and south have unique climates, so you can always find that perfect weather for surfing, windsurfing, hiking, or biking.
Tenerife encourages outdoor activity. The unfailingly good weather encourages a morning bike ride, midday hike, and afternoon surf session—all followed by fresh, scrumptious food and innovative cocktails with Atlantic sunset views. Tenerife is the last land mass as you head west from Africa. Next stop: Cuba. While you’re gazing out at the ocean, it’s easy to see why early explorers considered Tenerife to be the edge of the civilized world.
The Island vibe is upbeat, with a symphony of cultural infusions from Spain, Morocco, Africa, and South America. There are archaeologically-significant indigenous sites dating back thousands of years, plus buildings from the 1500s. Architecturally, Tenerife celebrates the past and embraces the future. But what gives the island a head-and-shoulders advantage over other holiday spots is the abundance of easy-to-access activities. It’s a true outdoor playground. Traditional sports like tennis and golf are abundant—but the secret sauce is adventure.
Tenerife takes its environment seriously. Ecotourism is a way of life here. There’s even an “Ocean Beer” brewed by a nonprofit that donates all proceeds to marine animals. Nearly half of the island is protected, so there are plenty of wide-open spaces where all you see is a pristine, untouched landscape. The marine life is also protected, so there’s an abundance of whales, sea turtles, and fish close to shore.
You can drive or bike from the sandy beach and jungle rainforest to the base of 12,188-foot Mt. Teide in an hour or so—and there’s a tram and hiking trail to the summit. Save some energy for strolling through charming villages, where you’ll enjoy al fresco dining and a lively club scene. With very little traffic, abundant vineyards, some of the world’s most amazing botanical gardens, spectacular views, and great prices on everything from luxury hotels and adventure lodges to guides, it’s hard to imagine a better return on your adventure travel investment than Tenerife.
Choose Your Own Adventure in Tenerife
Bike from sea level to Mt. Teide: There’s a reason that Tenerife is the training ground for many Tour de France riders, ranking among the world’s top road bike destinations. The biking scene is spectacular, with meandering lanes, lung-busting hill climbs, long rolling cruisers, and minimal traffic. The views of the ocean, cloud forests, and volcanic lava fields are jaw-dropping, and there are plenty of spots to stop for a cold drink or quick dip in the ocean. One of the most popular rides is the 33.2 kilometer route from the coastal village of Las Cristianos to the slopes of Mt. Teide. You gain 2,109 meters, with an average 6.4% grade. Bike Point Tenerife provides both rentals and guided tours.
Hike from coast to jungle (via volcanic peaks): From miles of coastal boardwalk to well-kept trails that wind through the moonscape-like lava fields of El Teide, there are more than 1,000 kilometers of trails on the island. You’ll pass through deep canyons, mystical cloud forests, and stark lava flows. Tenerife is one of the few places in the world where you can hike from sea level to nearly 12,000 feet, taking you through multiple biospheres in a matter of hours.
While there are plenty of short, half- or full-day hikes, the crown jewel is an island-crossing hike divided into six stages of about 22 kilometers each. It starts at Punta de Teno on the east side, then ascends Mount Teide (you can skirt the volcano and cross through Teide National Park), and finishes up in the town of Punta del Hidalgo. There’s also the classic 040 Hike, which starts at sea level and ascends the 4,000 meter Mount Teide before heading back to the ocean. The route can be done in 12 hours by a moderately fit hiker. Contact El Cordón NaturExperience for guided hikes and other outdoor activities.
Surf breaks for everyone: Whether you’re a beginner or expert, Tenerife is one of the world’s ultimate surf destinations. There are more than 30 surf spots, so if the waves aren’t to your liking, you can try another site for more favorable conditions. Locals generally don’t wear wetsuits, but you can rent shorties if you like. It’s On Private Surf Coaching specializes in private and small group surfing lessons on the island’s optimal breaks.
Wind and kitesurfing: Tenerife, with its 300 days of wind per year, hosts some of the world’s top windsurfing competitions, including the Windsurf World Cup. Within a few kilometers you can find everything from small to big waves. El Médano, on the south side of the island, is a paradise for experienced wind and kitesurfers, but you’ll find great breaks and services for all levels of expertise.
Kayaking & SUPing: You can easily take a boat out to see dolphin and turtles, and enjoy marvelous whale watching. For close up views of marine life and Tenerife’s coastal cliffs and rock formations, renting a kayak or stand-up paddleboard is the way to go.
Diving: There are more than 60 dive sites around the island, with visibility between 10 and 30 meters. Protected marine life around Tenerife includes moray eels, parrotfish, Mediterranean rainbow wrasses, African striped grunts, and barred hogfish to name just a few. One of the best diving spots is Barranco Seco, at the base of the majestic Gigantes cliffs that tower hundreds of feet above the ocean floor. There are four shipwrecks to explore. The island has plenty of certified scuba schools designed for everything from an “experiential” beginner dive to more advanced underwater experiences. You can also rent snorkeling equipment at any of the dozens of local dive shops.
Swimming: While there are abundant hotel pools and public beaches in Tenerife, don’t miss the natural lava pools. Tenerife is home to some of the most beautiful natural volcanic pools in the world. Many of the swimming spots have been semi-developed by local communities, so there are ladders, surf breaks, and mini waterfalls. One of the best “natural” pools is found in the area of Garachico. The Volcano of Garachico erupted in 1706 and destroyed the eponymous town. Now the town has been rebuilt, and is a magical spot with vibrant shops, boutique hotels, and excellent restaurants. There’s a long beach promenade with access to dozens of lava pools and great sunbathing spots.
Paragliding: The landscape on Tenerife is perfect for paragliding, with big escarpments, great launch spots, and plenty of thermals for uplift. Even if you aren’t an experienced pilot, you can sign up for a tandem ride, and experience the magnificent views of the mountains, water, and amazingly diverse landscape. The ocean and beach views are breathtaking from the sky. If you’re lucky you’ll see whales and dolphins frolicking below.
Training: Tenerife is a training destination for athletes from all over the world, but you don’t have to be a pro to enjoy state-of-the-art facilities for swimming, tennis, triathlons, and soccer. You can sign up for multi-day or multi week programs to up your game and meet other like-minded athletes.
Dancing the night away: Reputedly home to the world’s second biggest carnival (after Rio), Tenerife is unsurprisingly packed with dance and night clubs. The Santa Cruz de Tenerife Carnival (Jan. 20-Feb. 26, 2023) lasts over a month, attracts a couple hundred thousand visitors, and is a riot of color, music and dance. There are parades, masked balls, costumes, and plenty of food and drink. The party scene during the carnival is 24/7, but if you plan right, you can squeeze in a bike ride or midday hike. Need to brush up on your salsa steps? More than 30 dance schools in Tenerife will be happy to oblige.
Where To Stay
There are loads of wonderful hotels, lodges and guest houses on Tenerife. We love MYND Hotels on the south of the island for its strong roots in sustainable tourism, excellent community spaces, and access to biking, hiking, swimming, and climbing. On the north end in Puerto de la Cruz, consider Riu Garoe. The pool is fabulous, and don’t miss the spa and wellness center. In Tenerife’s more central metropolitan center, the Laguna Gran is close to shopping, galleries, and excellent restaurants.
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