Taking a peak

The Opera House in Santa Cruz, Tenerife
The Opera House in Santa Cruz, Tenerife
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For an alternative view of Tenerife, David Overend abandoned the sun lounger in favour of a mountain climb.

Tenerife in autumn – sea, sand and sun bathing, avenues lined with palm trees in 80C temperatures; it’s the perfect combination for thousands of holidaymakers eager to escape chilly Britain when the clocks go back.

Many may go no further than the hotel pool, the hotel bar and evenings out in the nearest restaurant, but many more will take the opportunity to savour some sublime scenery. And a few, a very few, will go one step further and climb the highest mountain in Spain.

There they can experience life above the clouds, where the oxygen-rarefied air is so clean, so pure that it quite literally can take the breath away.

The sun burns down from a much-cliched azure sky and strikes the sulphur-tipped cone of one of Tenerife’s ancient creators – El Teide, a volcano that’s not dead, just sleeping. If you listen very carefully, you might hear it breathing. Or it might just be the wind stirring the dust.

The air is thinner, the tanning factor higher, the atmosphere soul-calming and yet uplifting. Not the faintest scent of sun lotion, just a hint of an unstable world simmering beneath the surface.

A few minutes by cable car will lift visitors to just 200m from the steaming summit – but unless you have a permit (which is free) you’ll not be able to stagger those final few feet to the very top of the 3,718m-high volcano.

The permit system isn’t bureaucracy gone mad – it’s there to help manage the thousands of visitors who come to Mount Teide every year and to mitigate damage and erosion to the summit cone (it’s a metre or so lower than it once was – thanks to people taking home stones from the top to keep as souvenirs of their visit) by limiting the number allowed to climb it each day.

And if you haven’t got a permit, or (before 9am) proof that you have stayed in the Altavista refuge the night prior to your climb, you simply won’t be able to go to the very top.

Permits are available on-line and are easy to obtain from the Teide National Park web site. You need to specify a two-hour time slot during which you plan to arrive at the start of the Telesforo Bravo trail (the one to the summit) and provide a passport or ID number for each member of your party, and you must book at least eight days in advance of your intended summit attempt date. Plus, the person who made the booking has to turn up on the day.

After that, it’s up to you to take those final few steps that put you on top of the world (at least as far as Spain is concerned).

Take a deep breath and head off upwards from where, if the weather is kind, you’ll be able to see a few more of the Canary islands basking in the sun, as well as the extraordinarily rugged beauty of the Teide caldera, formed by the collapse – thousands of years ago – of another mighty volcano.

Although Tenerife – upwards – stops at the summit of Mount Teide, the geographical centre of this extraordinary island, it continues to spread out below in a series of climatic and environmental bands each with their own individuality and charm.

While Teide may be one of the most stunning national parks in Spain, over to the west lies the equally absorbing Teno, an important refuge for endangered species and where laurel forests, cloaked in lichens, cover the eroded volcano-sculpted slopes.

This old massif (now designated a rural park) also boasts high coastal cliffs and fertile valleys. For those who seek peace and a return to nature, nothing compares with walking the paths that rise and fall through this ancient scenery. Luxuriate in the flora and fauna (no snakes; the only things serpentine on Tenerife are the roads) before spending a very leisurely lunch.

Try the tapas at the mountainous Meson del Norte restaurant, in Las Portelas, or drive over to La Orotava where the Sabor Canario restaurant sits comfortably in an ancient building on a slim side-street in one of Tenerife’s more cosmopolitan towns.

Better still, visit the old, lava-split port of Garachico and seek out Bodegon Plaza (Casa Juan) for a real taste of Tenerife in the simplest of surroundings.

And the capital, Santa Cruz, where a mini Sydney Opera House sits somewhat uncomfortably opposite an unsympathetic development of twin towers, has lots to offer.

It’s become a cosmopolitan mixture of ancient and modern – elegant boulevards for luxury shopping; magnificently-ornate buildings; a must-see market; and a few quiet streets that mark all that’s left of the ancient city.

Tenerife has it all – fantastic landscapes, enticing beaches (many of black sand, thanks to the volcanoes), eateries with food to die for, wines to relish beneath the (almost) North African sun, and towns happily clinging on to their heritage and history.

Some may fear strangulation from development, but if Tenerife plays its cards right, the future could be good. It offers the best of all worlds – from the tourist traps of Los Cristianos and Los Americas, to the eyrie-like mountain hamlet of Masca, reached on narrow, hairpin roads which cling to cliff faces. And, of course, Teide.

Although the island’s forests have been hit hard this year by fires sparked by a long-term drought, there’s no doubt that Tenerife seems to be coping well with the economic threat facing the rest of Spain.

Long may it do so.

Getting there

David Overend flew to Tenerife with Thomas Cook and returned with Ryanair.

He stayed at the Beverly Hills Club in Los Cristianos.

Summit permits (free) to climb Mount Teide are obtainable in person from 
ICONA, Office PN de Teide, Calle Emillio Calzadilla 5, 38002 Santa Cruz de Tenerife (922 29 01 29 or 922 29 01 83). Opening hours (Monday to Friday except public holidays) 9am-2pm. You must produce your passport (and have it with you when you get to the mountain). Alternatively, fax or email a minimum of eight days in advance: Fax 922244788, email teide@oapn.mma.es 
For further info, phone 922290129.

If you can speak Spanish, log on to http://bit.ly/igvknFdiscoveringtenerifeonfoot.blogspot.com/