VISITORS to the Canary Islands come here with one thing in mind: the beach. It's especially attractive to Europeans in winter, when you need a coat even on the Mediterranean.
These cold-weather refugees generally head straight for resorts on the sunny southern sides of Tenerife and Gran Canaria, about 60 miles off West Africa, so they can bake in the sun and get drunk. As a result, the islands have a reputation in Europe like that of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in the U.S.
But as I discovered almost by accident in mid-January, the islands have their own singular attractions beyond sunshine and rum punch: the 12,198-foot El Teide volcano, surrounded by its national park; graceful colonial towns founded after Spain conquered the Canaries in the late 15th century; and the invigorating city of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, a magnet for swashbuckling, contemporary architecture, including the new Auditorio de Tenerife.
The Canaries are Europe's Hawaii. This chain of seven major islands, raised from the Atlantic Ocean by volcanoes, has exotic fauna and flora, including the regal Canary Island pine and bizarre dragon tree that evolved in terrarium-like isolation.
These days, you can fly from London to the Canaries, which are self-governing Spanish provinces, in about four hours. But the sense of remoteness persists, attracting international criminals on the lam — art thieves, terrorists, war criminals and Mafiosi — as well as tourists. Even for people on the right side of the law, the Canaries feel like a good place to get lost.
I booked three-night stays at two traditional Spanish inns in scenic areas away from the beach but close enough to easily get to it: the Parador de Cañadas del Teide on Tenerife and the Parador de la Palma on the smaller island of La Palma, both with doubles for about $130 in January.
On the way here, I missed my connection in Madrid and got to Los Rodeos Airport on the northern side of Tenerife about 10 p.m. I rented a car and headed for the Cañadas parador on the flank of El Teide. The highway took me along a razorback ridge that was far more frightening than the Saddle Road on Hawaii's Big Island.
When I embarked on the 40-mile drive, no one mentioned there might be snow. That's nieve in Spanish, a word I now know well.
It was dark so I couldn't see much, except when the clouds that often veil the volcano parted, revealing precipitous drops and lights in valleys far below. I drove through lush forests of Canary Island pine, which gave way to ground-hugging juniper and broom as I ascended. Another car occasionally passed, headed down the mountain, but I had the road mostly to myself.
It began to snow halfway to the parador, at first gently, then heavily. But I kept going, unable to believe that I was driving through a snowstorm on Tenerife. Only when my economy-class car began to skid did I pull over and try to use my cellphone to call the rental agency's emergency road service number.
I couldn't get a signal.
I sat in the cold for 30 minutes, wondering if anyone ever froze to death in the Canary Islands.
Then headlights appeared. I jumped out of the car and flagged down the approaching vehicle, which was occupied by a young couple from Santa Cruz de Tenerife. They spoke no English but understood my dilemma anyway.
It was about 2 a.m. by the time my good Samaritans dropped me at the door of the Nivaria hotel, near the airport in the town of La Laguna — their choice and, as I discovered the next morning, a good one.
The Nivaria is a small hotel with studio-apartment-sized rooms that have sitting areas and kitchenettes for about $85. It's in a renovated mansion on the Plaza del Adelantado in La Laguna.
The town was founded in 1496 by Alonso Fernández de Lugo, who conquered the islands for Spain. As Tenerife's first capital, it attracted rich merchants and officials who gave it the colonial architecture that makes it a showplace still. On a walking tour early that morning, I saw dignified 16th and 17th century houses, including the Palacio de Nava and Casa Salazar-Obispado, whose latticework and wood balconies hang over the streets and interior courtyards are blissfully peaceful and green.
The sun came out in fits and starts, but when I looked up at the volcano I saw only thick, pillowy snow clouds, making it unlikely I'd get to the Cañadas parador anytime soon.
Later, a tow truck dispatched by the rental agency tried to take me back up the mountain to get my car, but just short of where I'd left it, a highway department truck blocked the way. The road onward was closed — and remained so for the next two days.
When I told the tow truck driver how amazed I was to find nieve on Tenerife, he laughed and said, "It's a little island, with many climates."
That's an understatement. Elevations range from sea level to the more than 2-mile-high El Teide. In between are myriad microclimates that have their own distinct fauna and flora, temperatures and precipitation. It's often said in such places that if you don't like the weather, wait 20 minutes. If you don't like the weather on Tenerife or its sister islands — La Palma, Gomera, El Hierro, Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura and Lanzarote — drive a mile and you'll find conditions that are as different as Aspen, Colo., and Miami.
Far from putting me off, though, my harrowing first night and the attendant geography lesson spurred my interest in seeing more of the Canaries, named not for the bird but for the wild dogs (canis in Latin) early visitors found here.
The rental agency gave me another car, so I scrapped my original itinerary. Instead of trying to cross the island on the road to El Teide, I concentrated on touring the densely developed northern side of Tenerife, home to most of the island's residents and to Santa Cruz de Tenerife, the capital.
Lining a valley between two mountains, the city is a miniature Rio de Janeiro with a workaday container port at its waterfront. Santa Cruz, washed clean by rain and polished by sunshine that day, looked lovely and not too touristy, its colonial-era and modern buildings in happy coexistence.
I followed the tree-lined Rambla del General Franco to the Sheraton Mencey. The hotel is built around a traditional Canary Island courtyard, and the handsomely landscaped grounds are so close to mountainside farms that I could hear roosters crowing from the entry. With its grand air and amenities, including tennis courts, a swimming pool and a fountain full of turtles, the Mencey is considered the city's finest hotel. Even if it had a room for a walk-in, I wasn't sure I could afford it.
But prices are surprisingly reasonable, at least on the northern side of the island. At the Mencey I got a handsome, third-floor double with a balcony for about $192.
From the hotel I set out walking, ricocheting like a pinball down the hill from one charming plaza to another, shaded by dragon trees and Canary Island palms. Near the Parque García Sanabria, a man bade me hello. He was visiting from Cuba, which together with Venezuela is the home of many Canary Island immigrants to the New World.
Such cross-fertilization is evident in Santa Cruz restaurants that feature such Venezuelan specialties as white corn arepa sandwiches, filled with cheese or ham, and in tobacco shops selling Canary Island cigars, which many connoisseurs consider as good as the Cuban variety.
I spent an hour in the Museum of Nature and Man, which has exhibits about volcanology, fire-resistant Canary Island pine trees and the Guanches who inhabited the archipelago before the Spanish arrived. Their language and civilization died out, but the museum has intriguing remnants of them: mummies and rock carvings.
I had a late lunch of Spanish ham and pale yellow Canary Island melon, followed by a joint of succulent roast veal at the Mesón Castellano restaurant on Callao de Lima. I took a siesta before getting ready for a concert at the 3-year-old Auditorio de Tenerife designed by Santiago Calatrava.
The waterfront concert hall reflects Spain's fascination with contemporary architecture, from Rafael Moneo's airport in Seville to Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Bright white and visible from planes landing or taking off at the nearby airport, the auditorium looks different from every angle, more like sculpture than architecture.
There I heard pianist Rudolf Buchbinder play parts of Beethoven's "Emperor" concerto, then went, thrumming, back to the Sheraton.
The next day I headed for Puerto de la Cruz, the only big resort on the northern coast. I went the long way, through the Anaga Mountains on the northeastern side of Tenerife, past Teresitas beach, where the sand was imported from the Sahara. Fortunately, there was no nieve in the Anagas, only hair-raising, switch-backing roads and heart-stopping views.
As the sun set, I caught the coast highway west and made it to the Hotel Botanico, set in a garden above Puerto de la Cruz, in about 45 minutes. The $160 rate included a credible flamenco floor show and a lavish breakfast buffet.
The hotel takes its name from the botanic garden across the street. The garden, opened in 1788, has a striking abundance of mature specimens, including a monstrously leggy Indian rubber tree and a lofty Canary Island pine.
After visiting the garden, I had enough time to visit La Orotava, up a fertile valley toward El Teide from Puerto de la Cruz. The town's historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its Spanish colonial mansions, churches and convents, built or endowed by wealthy Orotava Valley sugar and banana planters.
There, I admired the Baroque altar in the Church of the Immaculate Conception, had lunch in a courtyard cafe at the 17th century Casa Lercaro and shopped at the Casa de los Balcones, a craft center that specializes in delicate Canary Island embroidery.
When my flight from Tenerife took off for La Palma, I hoped finally to see El Teide. But the volcano remained shrouded in storm clouds.
LA PALMA is about 50 miles northwest and a third the size of Tenerife, a mass of volcanoes, including still-active Tenegúia, arrayed from north to south along its precipitous backbone.
More devoted to growing bananas than to entertaining tourists, it has only a few big resort hotels and a handful of black-sand beaches. Its rugged topography, natural preserves, covering more than a third of the island, and 600 miles of sign-posted walking trails make it popular with outdoor enthusiasts.
The parador is in the mountains above the airport and has traditional features: a courtyard, polished wood floors and decorous, balconied chambers. The restaurant serves such local specialties as fried white goat cheese in tasty green mojo sauce made of olive oil and herbs. A small pool overlooks the ocean, and the volcanic black and red rock garden has a bright yellow road leveler at its center.
The leveler seemed an odd touch but, as I soon discovered, perfectly appropriate on an island where landslides, crumbling cliffs and eroding ravines make perpetual road maintenance imperative.
Most of the villages in the area lie below the highway, along narrow switch-backing lanes through spindly banana fields. It was too chilly for a dip in the artificial, saltwater pools near the banana port of San Andrés, but from a view point near the hamlet of San Bartolo, I saw the whole eastern coast draped over mountain flanks.
The next day I toured the island's snug, cheerful capital, Santa Cruz de la Palma. Its churches and convents contain Flemish art imported from the Low Countries during the 16th century sugar-cane boom.
Then I drove the cross-island highway, an engineering marvel that takes travelers through the spine of the mountains, by way of a tunnel, in about 30 minutes. When I came out, I was suddenly on the island's sunny western side, near the entrance to Caldera de Taburiente National Park, a vast volcanic depression surrounded by sheer rock walls. By midmorning, clouds filled the caldera like cappuccino foam, but I got to see into the great chasm from the Lomo de las Chozas view point.
I was leaving early the next morning, but had to make one last stop at a 17th century chapel above Santa Cruz de la Palma housing the island's treasured Virgen de las Nieves. Every five years, on the first Sunday in July, her doll-like, gold-encrusted statue is carried down the hill to town.
I stood for a while before her, fancying I might get a blessing. And perhaps I did, because when I left the Canaries the next day I finally got a clear view of snow-capped El Teide from the window of the plane.
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Bird's-eye view of the Canaries
From LAX, American, Delta, Continental, US Airways, Lufthansa, Air France, Aer Lingus, British Airways and Aeromexico offer connecting service, changing planes to Iberia, Air Europa and Spanair, to Santa Cruz de Tenerife. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $713 until March 31, increasing to $798.
Excellent airfares — sometimes under $200 round trip — are available to the Canaries from London; Paris; Milan, Italy; and Berlin.
Binter Canarias, 011-902-34-391-392, http://www.binternet.com , flies between Tenerife and La Palma. My round trip on Binter Canarias from Tenerife to La Palma cost about $80.
Fred Olsen, 011-34-902-100-107, http://www.fredolsen.es , has express ferry service from the southern side of Tenerife to Santa Cruz de la Palma.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 34 (country code for Spain) and the local number.
WHERE TO STAY:
Parador de la Palma, 922-43-58-28, in Brena Baja on La Palma, and the Parador de Cañadas del Teide, 922-37-48-41, in Cañadas del Teide National Park on Tenerife, can be contacted at http://www.paradores-spain.com . My doubles at both cost about $130; prices higher in February.
Other options on the northern coast of Tenerife: Sheraton Mencey Hotel, 38 Calle Dr. José Naveiras, Santa Cruz de Tenerife; 922-60-99-00, http://www.sheraton.com/mencey , is just off Rambla del General Franco, a stylish, tree-lined avenue in Santa Cruz de Tenerife. It has 286 rooms around a courtyard and beautifully manicured grounds with a pool and tennis courts. Rates vary depending on availability; I paid $192 for a double in January.
Hotel Taburiente, 24-A Calle Dr. José Naveiras, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, 922-27-60-00, http://www.hoteltaburiente.com , has spacious, recently redecorated rooms in a building that overlooks García Sanabria Park; doubles $84 to $122, including breakfast.
Nivaria Hotel Apartamentos, 11 Plaza del Adelantado, La Laguna, 011-34-922-26-40-52, http://www.hotelnivaria.com , has large, simply decorated doubles with sitting areas and kitchenettes in a renovated mansion on La Laguna's convivial plaza; doubles $84 to $100, including breakfast.
Hotel Botanico, 1 Avenida Richard J. Yeoward, Puerto de la Cruz, 922-38-14-00, http://www.hotelbotanico.com , has 252 commodious rooms set in a garden, with two pools and a health spa. Rates vary; my double cost $180, with breakfast.
Pension Cubana is a simple, but pleasing 10-room hotel on the pedestrian-only Calle O'Daly in the heart of Santa Cruz de la Palma; doubles $30, with shared baths. For more information, contact Apartamentos La Fuente, 49 Calle Pérez de Brito, Santa Cruz de la Palma; 922-41-56-36, http://www.la-fuente.com .
Hotel Amberes, 13 Avenida General Franco, Los Llanos de Aridane; http://www.hotel-amberes.com , has seven stylishly decorated rooms and a restaurant in a renovated 17th century town house in Los Llanos de Aridane, on the western side of the island; doubles $102 to $144.
La Casona de Argual, 6 Plaza Sotomayor, Los Llanos de Aridane, 922-40-18-16, is a restaurant and small inn in an old country house on the outskirts of town. It has four rooms decorated with antiques, sharing two baths; doubles $88.
WHERE TO EAT:
Calle Dominguez Alfonso in central Santa Cruz de la Tenerife is lined with appealing tapas bars such as Los Reunidos and Tasca el Porrón.
Mesón Castellano, 4 Callao de Lima, 922-27-10-74, in a wine cellar; the menu offers Spanish dishes, especially roasted meats; two-course lunch about $25.
Casona de Argual (above) offers creative Canary Island specialties such as chicken with tropical fruit; two-course lunch about $25.
Bar 7 Islas (no phone) is an open-air seafood restaurant on Del Remo beach; grilled fish and shrimp dishes $7-$10.