AROUND THE ISLANDS
For a small island, only 86km long and 56km wide, Tenerife has a startling range and number of distinct ecological zones arising from the islands mountainous topography which is dominated by a huge and barren volcanic backbone centre on Mount Teide. The islands mountains stand in the way of prevailing cool northerly trade winds, forcing them to condense as cloud and bringing moisture to the island and keeping its northern side damp and green, while having little effect on the southern side which is left to bake in the sun.
At the northeast end of the island the capital and largest city, Santa Cruz, is at the heart of a large sprawling urban area that also encompasses the old university town La Laguna, and houses around half of the islands population of 650,000. Preventing the expansion of this urban area further north is the steep, wildly rugged, forested and impenetrable Anaga region where modern infrastructure has only recently arrived to its remote villages which remain great gateways for quiet hikes through the areas mist-smothered laurel forests or along its beautiful unspoilt rocky coastline.
There are more good hikes through the thick forest of Canarian pines on the north side of the island. This is at its thickest on the old volcanic ridges surrounding the islands most verdant region, the heavily populated, fertile, terraced and thickly planted Orotava valley, where the islands first resort, the stylish Puerto de la Cruz, became fashionable over a century ago.
Further west along the coast pines give way to the deforested dry, rocky and steep-sided Teno massif, an ancient volcanic area. And though theres more good hiking here, the area is best known for the presence of the giant cliffs Los Gigantes, from which a quiet neighbouring resort has taken its name.
Like the African continent only 300km to the east, the islands southern side is dry and dusty. Only a few hardy shrubs and cacti can take hold in this sun-baked desert, although the ubiquitous sunshine has resulted in the construction, from scratch, of the lions share of Tenerifes big resorts. Lining the coasts of the south and attracting thousands of tourists are Playa de Las Américas, Los Cristianos and the Costa del Silencio strings of hotels, restaurants and bars, many of which line the islands major (artificial) beaches.
A much more stunning and memorable island landscape, though equally barren, is that around its central volcanic plateau. The massive 3,718m volcano Mount Teide, the highest point on Spanish territory and symbol of the island, is at the centre of this region and surrounded by Las Cañadas, a vast beautiful tree-less volcanic wasteland containing gnarled and twisted lava contortions which are protected as a national park.
Theres another national park on Tenerifes closest neighbour in the Canarian archipelago, the small round and much less visited island of La Gomera, 28km away. But in complete contrast to Tenerifes national park the Parque Nacional de Garajonay, a UNESCO world heritage site, is a haven for the worlds premium remaining deep green and misty laurel forest. Also in contrast to Tenerife, the resorts in La Gomera are remarkably small-scale.
CLIMATE AND WHEN TO GO
For islands at this latitude, level with Morocco 300km to the west, their climate is generally milder than youd expect - mainly thanks to the northeast trade winds but also because of the cool Canary current in the surrounding Atlantic ocean. As a result the variation around the islands is marked and since there is only relatively minimal seasonal change the choice of where to go tends to be as important as when.
Winds and currents have the greatest effect on climate on the north side of the island, where northern slopes catch cool trade winds, forming a cloud base that results in less sunshine, more rain and cooler temperatures than at the southern end of the island. The only wind that affects the south is an occasional hot, dry, gentle and dusty Calima blowing from the Sahara sometimes for days at a time. The climatic table below summarises variation around the island using data from the coastal resorts of Puerto Cruz in the north and Los Cristianos in the south. This pattern of variation also exists on La Gomera which, though tending to be a little cooler all round than Tenerife, also has a colder, wetter north and sunnier, drier south. Moving inland from the coast to higher ground on both islands, temperatures become progressively cooler, with Mount Teide often experiencing freezing temperatures and occasionally snow cover.
So, holiday-makers intent on spending time on sunny beaches would do best to stay in the south of either island at any time of year, while those seeking an active holiday in the summer, would be best off in the cooler north. Spring (MarchMay) is a particularly pleasant time for outdoor activities since many endemic species flower at this time.
Thus, with remarkably little variation year round in the weather conditions in the Canaries, the peak times for tourists to visit reflect the weather conditions back home rather than on the islands. Thus, the busiest times to visit and in contrast to resorts on the Spanish mainland are from mid-December to February, when many northern Europeans are keen to escape long and dreary winters. The islands are also popular at Easter and during summer holidays (JuneSept) when the nightlife in the resorts gets particularly busy and numbers are further bolstered by visitors from the Spanish mainland, arriving to escape the heat of their plains. Theres a slight low season between these times (March, May, Oct & Nov) with the notable exception of the carnival period (Feb or March), when Santa Cruz is at its busiest; an excellent time to catch the islands native nightlife in full swing.