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The Alternative Tenerife

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Posted by Rhiannon Batten at 03:31 on Tuesday 13 September 2011

As we launch our Greentraveller Guide to Tenerife, Rhiannon Batten describes her visit to the island earlier this year where she discovered the natural beauty of the island, away from the crowds of mass tourism

Finca Saroga is a small, rural hotel in the north of the island with a mix of characterful en-suite bedrooms and self-catering studios set around a pretty, jasmine-scented courtyard. Photo Richard HammondFinca Saroga is a small, rural hotel in the north of the island with a mix of characterful en-suite bedrooms and self-catering studios set around a pretty, jasmine-scented courtyard. Photo Richard HammondThe Oasis Moreque hotel, in the Tenerife resort of Los Cristianos, fulfils all the stereotypes of a Canary Islands holiday. Its plain bedrooms, all-you-can-eat buffet dinners and bar menu of hazard light-coloured cocktails are surrounded by a manmade tangle of high-rise hotels and Union Jack-flying pubs. So it came as a surprise to see its walls decorated with glamorous black and white images of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. They stayed at the Oasis in the 1960s, when it was the first hotel in Los Cristianos, then a small fishing village surrounded by banana plantations and empty hills. 

Fifty years on, it would be easy to assume that the largest of the seven Canary Islands has been transformed by mass tourism, and that the landscapes and experiences Burton and Taylor enjoyed now exist only in the monochrome snapshots they left behind. Yet, as we discovered on a recent tour of Tenerife, there is also a very different, much greener, side to the island. 

Take our base, Finca Saroga (fincasaroga.es), a small, rural hotel in the north of the island. Once used as a banana-packing plant it now contains a mix of characterful en-suite bedrooms and self-catering studios set around a pretty, jasmine-scented courtyard. Its huge flower and vegetable-filled garden is one of the main attractions for would-be guests – not just to wander around but also to eat; on the night we opted to have dinner in we were served a delicious homegrown salad topped with a rainbow scattering of edible flowers. 

The terraced hillside around Finca Sarago. Photo Richard HammondThe terraced hillside around Finca Sarago. Photo Richard Hammond
The walk down the spectacular Barranco de Masca ravine passes a rugged, prehistoric-looking landscape of toothy volcanic rock, palms, cacti, fig trees and small waterfalls. Photo Richard HammondThe walk down the spectacular Barranco de Masca ravine passes a rugged, prehistoric-looking landscape of toothy volcanic rock, palms, cacti, fig trees and small waterfalls. Photo Richard HammondAll that organic goodness was just the thing we needed to set us up for a hike the following day. Starting out from the picture-perfect hillside village of Masca, in the northwest of the island, we followed El Cardon’s (elcardon.com) walking guide, José (Pepe) Martinez, down into the spectacular Barranco de Masca ravine. The route passes a rugged, prehistoric-looking landscape of toothy volcanic rock, palms, cacti, fig trees and small waterfalls, and there are great views (if you dare take your eyes off the precarious path). Some walkers stop for a picnic on the beach at the barranco’s base before retracing their steps but we chose to take the boat from there on to the nearby town of Los Gigantes. A good decision, as we caught sight of several dolphins zipping along beside us. 

But then the waters around Tenerife are increasingly becoming an attraction in their own right. The following day, after a dip in the gorgeous naturally formed  (http://bit.ly/p3DxXD), we met up with David Novillo, of diving operator Ocean Dreams Factory (oceandreamsfactory.com), to hear about a marine conservation project his company has established on the island’s southwest coast. 

Rhiannon enjoys a dip in the saltwater swimming pools at Garachico. Photo Richard HammondRhiannon enjoys a dip in the saltwater swimming pools at Garachico. Photo Richard HammondOver-fishing and unregulated diving had severely affected the marine ecosystem in the bay around the tiny fishing village of El Puertito, he told us. One of the more obvious results of this was an invasion of sea urchins which David’s project then spent years slowly tackling. “We wanted to do something that wasn’t just about money, about going out on dive after dive,” he explained. “We wanted to do something that meant there would still be good diving to be had here in the future”. 

Sticking to his word, the project has persuaded the government to establish regulations for the local diving industry and Ocean Dreams Factory now works with schools to get local children interested in the island’s marine life. It also takes tourists out on volunteer dives where they help the organisation carry out underwater research. In a virtuous circle the money they pay for these goes back into marine clean-up work. 

Enjoying the diversity of plant life at the lush botanical gardens at Oratava. Photo Richard HammondEnjoying the diversity of plant life at the lush botanical gardens at Oratava. Photo Richard HammondBut perhaps the most exciting project we came across was a €10 million green building project,  ITER (casas.iter.es). Set on land belonging to Tenerife’s Technological Institute of Renewable Energies, not far from the island’s main airport, the project began in 1995. Architects were asked to submit ideas for a village of “bioclimatic” homes – buildings that would be adapted to the local climate and self sufficient in their energy needs – and, from the 397 architects who applied, 25 houses were selected. 

The first of these opened to the public last March (the final few houses are still being built) and the finished properties have been available as alternative holiday homes since December. Guests pay to stay there but their visit allows the project’s managers to monitor the effectiveness of the different technological solutions to sustainability each house is fitted with, from thick walls and solar panels to high-grade insulation, light sensors and natural, wind-powered, air conditioning.

We spent our final night on Tenerife in one of the houses, Italian-designed El Caminito. For us visiting guinea pigs it was pretty luxurious, with an open-plan living and dining area, two bathrooms, two double bedrooms, two single bedrooms and a smart wooden kitchen; for breakfast, guests are given a little bag to hang outside their door, which they’ll find filled with fresh bread when they wake. 

That evening we headed to the beach, an empty and wild little pebble-strewn cove five minutes’ walk from El Caminito. The view from here may not have been quite as it was in the 1960s but it’s worlds away from Los Cristianos.

>> See also Rhiannon Batten's article in the Guardian newspaper: Behind the Green Door - Tenerife's Eco Village

One of 25 “bioclimatic” places to stay in the 'Casas Bioclimatidas' village that are adapted to the local climate and are self sufficient in their energy needs. Photo Rhiannon Batten.One of 25 “bioclimatic” places to stay in the 'Casas Bioclimatidas' village that are adapted to the local climate and are self sufficient in their energy needs. Photo Rhiannon Batten.

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