The Canary Islands

Natural Beauty and Tranquility

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Looking toward El Teide (the highest peak in Spain) on the island of Tenerife

 

There are many places all over the world that offer the traveller unparalleled beauty; however, from where I’m sitting, the Canary Islands have many destinations beat for the following reasons:

  1. Gorgeous natural beauty off the coast of Africa (part of Spain)
  2. Many natural parks, hiking trails, and hidden treasures
  3. Many micro-climates
  4. Volcanic beauty
  5. Easy to get to from anywhere in Europe
  6. Extremely affordable
  7. Very friendly
  8. Easy to travel from one island to the other
  9. Great roads for driving
  10. Excellent cuisine

Admittedly, I was fortunate to be visiting a friend who has lived in Tenerife for a few months. Alex is a world traveler and he has excellent taste. He designed my four-day trip to the Canary Islands based on answers to my questions about what I wanted to see and do. I have known Alex for many years; he knows what I like and do not like.

I will not be laying out my trip in order of chronology; instead I will write about what I enjoyed the most, first, then go from there. I will not be writing about every restaurant; however, I will highlight a few that were memorable. I will note all three hotels and I will share several travel tips.

Alex generously sent me the latest edition of Lonely Planet (we both love this guide), so that I could read about the islands prior to traveling.

Tenerife

El Teide is a magical place.

 

 

 

Weeks prior to my visit, Alex and I discussed where we would go and what we would do on my trip. He told me later that the one thing I was certain about was taking the cable car up to the summit of El Teide. This is the highest mountain in Spain, 3718 meters or 12,198.16 feet. I para-jumped out of an airplane a few years ago and I wasn’t as high up off the ground as I was on El Teide.

All of the roads leading up the mountains of the Canary Islands are narrow and not for the faint-of-heart. The views were breathtaking and worth the scare, but I’m not sure everyone would agree. I was fortunate to be with a good driver who was willing to stop whenever I needed a break or wanted to take a photo.

We stayed at Parador Nacional. This Parador was located right inside the Parque Nacional del Teide (see below). I was very happy about the fireplace and the indoor pool, but in truth, the place needed a bit of TLC. Many bikers and hikers use it as a place to stop for a bite or a resting spot. The desk person told us that we needed to make a reservation for the cable car that would take us to the summit. I went to the reception desk at a specified time and the desk person said that they only had a few spots left for a cable car going to the top in 30 minutes. We hustled and made it with time to spare (the Parador was only a few minutes away). It’s chilly at the summit all year round, so dress warmly. The peak is often covered with snow this time of year, but not this time.

Note:  twenty years ago I would have insisted that we hike to the summit of El Teide; however, on this trip, I was happy to enjoy the warmth and safety of a cable car.

Paradors are state-owned and there are 94 of them throughout Spain (six in the Canary Islands). I’ve stayed at six or seven Paradors on other trips to Spain. They can be pricey and accommodations vary from castles that are centuries old to buildings that are newer and nothing special to look at. Alex told me that there are three types of Paradors:  1) Paradors that are in a historic setting, Paradors that are themselves historic, and Paradors that are in nature; More on Paradors (click).

 

 

Parque Natcional del Teide covers 189.9 square km. and you don’t want to miss it. Drive, hike, walk; it’s beauty and splendor will astound you.

We made a one hour stop in Vilaflor, a small, pretty little town, on the way down the mountain. It was our halfway point to the ferry and worth a stop.

We took a side trip to La Laguna for a walk about and to have lunch. La Laguna is on the Unesco list of world Heritage sites. It is beautiful, young, sophisticated and I wish I had had more time there. We had lunch at Restaurante Guaydil (click for website) and it was by far my favorite meal of the trip. The cuisine was contemporary and the restaurant was packed with happy locals.

 

La Gomera

La Gomera was my favorite island of the three we visited and I hope to return there someday. We took the car on the ferry (we took the car on all three ferry trips) and after a pleasant 50 minute ride, we drove on a beautiful, windy road to one of La Gomera’s breathtaking valleys. Hermigua, our destination, was a 30 minute drive on a very scenic route.

We stayed at a boutique hotel, Rural Ibo Alfaro, moderately priced and very comfortable. The views from our room were spectacular (see photos below).

In the evening, we took a walk down to the valley to a very nice restaurant, Tasca Telémaco. We had tequila at the bar and then sat down for Almogrote (click for recipes), a cheese paste Alex is very fond of. We also had a delicious seafood Paella; I believe Alex only agreed to share the Paella because I wanted it. He feels very strongly about eating Paella in other parts of Spain where it is prepared properly. He gave me a hard time about putting chorizo in my paella — clearly I am a sinner.

We finally had a chance to hike on this island. There are many trails throughout La Gomera. We chose a trail deep in the forest — reminded me of the Amazon rain forest; very green and very damp. The trail took you to a small church, Ermita de Nuestra Señora de Lourdes. It was about 20 minutes from our hotel, near El Contadero. We walked for about 1 kilometer and came upon the church and stream. Alex told me that I was on holy ground. Very peaceful and serene indeed.

 

 

 

 

Gran Canaria

Gran Canaria is where my plane landed. I took an easy flight from Lisbon on TAP (Air Portugal). TAP is a bit more expensive than some of the other airlines, but the airplanes are generally newer and service is excellent.

Alex picked me up at the airport and drove me to our first Parador.  Parador de Cruz de Tejeda is where we had our best views. Our balcony was high atop the mountains and made the price of the hotel worthwhile. We had a nice breakfast (not cheap) and a very relaxing stay. I would definitely have eaten dinner somewhere else. The Parador had a spa, but it was 25 Euros just to use the jacuzzi (which looked amazing BTW) and the hours were not convenient. I would have splurged in the morning, but the spa did not open until 1:00 p.m. and we were long gone by then. Unlike Americans, Europeans tend to care more about their own staff and spa and gym hours are not always ideal.

Restaurante & Brewery Taxeda — This Tejeda brewery offered delicious tapas and micro brewed beer. We tried the Scottish brew and were not crazy about it; I thought it was way too hoppy. I love trying micro brewed beer and I wish I hadn’t switched to wine so quickly.

 

 

 

We were only in Tejeda for 16 hours, therefore, I can’t say very much about it. The views were spectacular and if you enjoy a curvy climb, you will love the views as you approach Tejeda. We didn’t have the time to hike on this island; however, the trails looked amazing and I’m certain they would not disappoint.

Note:  If you enjoy a good cocktail, I do not recommend staying in a Parador. The bartenders have no idea how to mix a drink — I’d say they are generalists who know the bare minimum about bar service.

 

This Type of Travel

One of the things that struck me on this trip was something Alex said to me several times (to be fair, I don’t always listen). Alex said that tourists visit the Canary Islands and never leave their all-inclusive hotels/resorts. The first thought I had was how unfortunate for them. The truth is that some people are happy to remain in their limited surroundings and just eat, drink, and enjoy the sun. It wouldn’t be fair to criticize these travelers. If that’s the way people choose to vacation, they should be permitted to do so without ridicule. I guess that is why all-inclusive properties do so well.

That’s not the way I prefer to travel. I want to eat what and where I choose to eat. I want to see as much as I can so that I know what to take a closer look at when I return. And if I don’t return, that’s okay too. Alex and I laughed about doing three islands in three days. That meant many hours on the road and three island hopping ferry rides. We originally had a whole week to explore; however, due to  my unfortunate calendar errors, our days together were nearly cut in half. It forced us to narrow down our choices and choose what was most important for this short trip. I admit it was a world-wind tour, but I wouldn’t change a thing. When you’re making memories, it’s best to go with it. We were both flexible enough to make some changes if time or circumstances allowed for it; adaptability and flexibility are key.

Be prepared for:

  • varying climates
  • a good deal of time on the road
  • making reservations for just about everything
  • some spots on the islands are very tranquil (on purpose)
  • this time of year is the peak season in the Canary Islands — the weather is mild (except for at high altitudes)
  • be aware of in-season travel and crowds in certain places
  • if and when driving, you’ll be waiting for and passing many cyclists
  • the motorcyclist will make you crazy (unless you are one)

All of the islands offer these great maps that show roads, historic sites, and hiking trails; use them, they are very helpful.

 

 

 

Scary Story:

As you know, when you travel abroad you need your passport for just about everything.  We were in the car line for the ferry and Alex wanted me to use the 30 minutes we had to explore Los Christianos, the marine area next to the ferry terminal. He thought I’d enjoy that more than sitting in a hot car. I can make a short story long, so I’m going to cut to the chase.

I needed my passport to board the ferry and I got through the line quickly. I saw Alex on the top deck and made my way to greet him. We enjoyed a very pleasant crossing and 50 minutes later we were in the car and on our way to Hermigua on the island of La Gomera. About 20 minutes into our 30 minute journey up the mountain, Alex received a telephone call on his car Bluetooth. The person said, “Christopher,” and then some other dialogue in Spanish. Alex made some arrangements in Spanish and then thanked the person several times. I was dying to know what was going on. I had dropped my passport on the ferry and someone turned it in. Alex made arrangements for us to pick it up prior to boarding the ferry the following day. Needless to say, I was and still am very grateful. I wonder what I would have been like when the desk person at our hotel asked for my passport and it wasn’t in my pocket. Alex noted that it would not have been pretty. I know I have an angel on my shoulder because had it not been found the remainder of my vacation would have been a downer. Instead I had a few cocktails to celebrate my good fortune and slept like a baby that night. If Alex had not purchased our tickets in advance, they would not have had his cell number. If Alex’s cell was turned off, we wouldn’t have been able to take the call at that moment. If cell service was spotty on the mountain, the ferry staff may not have gotten through. If I had thrown my passport away when I threw away the rest of my trash, I would never have seen it again. The “what ifs” can make you crazy.

The moral of this story:  1) Always put your passport in a safe space, and 2) Be grateful for your good fortune.

Side note:  Los Christianos is a strange sort of grungy tourist spot. The sand on the beach is brought there from somewhere else, the food spots are sub-par, and you get this “nobody wants to spend money” vibe. I wouldn’t waste my time here. There are so many other beautiful places to visit in Tenerife.

Added Bonus for my adventures:

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I took this photograph in Tenerife while dining on Maria’s (Alex’s mom) delicious Galician chicken stew. I now have a framed photograph for my apartment.

Airbnb Travel

 

 

 

The Host

Much has been written and battles have been fought around Airbnb and because so many are hosting or booking these days, I must say up front, that I am fearful I will offend one of my “host” readers. Having worked in the hospitality industry for over 20 years, I feel compelled to share some of my experiences and thoughts about Airbnb with you. It is my hope that the Airbnb experience will soon be elevated and booking will be less of a shot in the dark.

There are several different ways to view the host experience. Unfortunately, I believe that too many see it as a way to make quick and easy money. This pattern of thinking is too easily conveyed to your guests. Those who are trying to create a unique and memorable experience for their guests are more likely to reap financial rewards. Good reviews will come if you treat your guests as you might treat a friend or relative who will be staying with you in your home or using your home on a temporary basis. There are some inexpensive and simple things you can do to make your space welcoming and comfortable.

As with most matters in life, good communication is essential. The following are numbered according to their importance to me as a guest:

  1. When you describe the space on your home page, be clear about what you’re offering. If it’s bedroom and a sleeping alcove, don’t call it a two bedroom.
  2. If there are several flights of stairs to navigate, be upfront about that in your description and don’t bury it at the bottom or as an addendum.
  3. If it’s a small kitchen or a kitchenette, make that clear.
  4. If your place is hard to find, provide explicit instructions on how to get there. There is nothing worse than being lost in a foreign cities while you’re dragging two suitcases.
  5. Create a list of grocery stores, restaurants, and attractions in your area. It doesn’t have to be a book; two or three pages should suffice. Videos work nicely these days as well.

 

What a good host MUST provide:

It is all about comfort and value. Too often a host will try to cut corners in order to save money. This practice will come back to bite you in the rear quickly and end up costing you a whole lot more than what you might have saved.

  1. A good mattress is non-negotiable. It is your responsibility to provide a comfortable and well made mattress. It does not have to be plush or super expensive. Be clear about the size of the mattress in your description. If it’s a high-end mattress, say so.
  2. If you’re renting your entire apartment, be sure to have decent, clean, and comfortable furniture.
  3. Be sure your kitchen is stocked with pots, pans, dishes, glassware (wine glasses), small equipment (coffee maker, etc.) and a corkscrew.
  4. Towels that you cannot see through would be nice and good linen is important.
  5. Outlets for electronic devices are necessary these days.
  6. If you do not have air conditioning, it would be good to provide a fan or fans. I once stayed with a host couple at an Airbnb in the Cayman Islands. It was 100 degrees and the wife wouldn’t allow me to turn on the AC because she said the electricity cost too much. My thinking was, “Why don’t you just charge more?”
  7. Either show your guests how to use appliances at check-in or provide instructions.
  8. Provide a contact telephone number. If you are not going to be available, find someone who can respond to an emergency. I once had a guest stuck in my building’s elevator at 1:00 a.m. and she had idea who to contact.
  9. If you have rugs they should be clean and not sliding all over your floor. Make sure your space is super safe.
  10. You should have soap and shampoo in your bathroom.  Little extras such as razors, cotton swabs, and air fresheners are a big plus.
  11. Provide extra toilet paper and trash bags. Some guests like to tidy up before they leave and there is nothing bad about that.

Remember the difference between booking a hotel room and your place is convenience, the ability for the guest to prepare meals, tips from a local, non-cookie cutter interior (your personal touch), location and cost. Your guests should feel good about having made the right choice. The more you share in the description and communication, the happier they will be with their choice.

People are looking for experiences they cannot find at a hotel or resort. Airbnb in most big cities provides a variety of experiences such as concerts in people’s homes, cooking classes, food tours, sailing trips, and so much more. You can share your recommendations on these experiences with your guests and therefore, help shape the ultimate vacation.

Being a Super Host on Airbnb is a tremendous plus. It will give you better placement in a very crowded market — that’s not changing any time soon; if anything it will get worse. You can become a Super Host by being responsive and securing outstanding reviews. Airbnb has some good tips on their site.

Tips for being an exceptional host:  

  • a small gift upon arrival, such as a bottle of wine or a package of sea salts or bath salts, will make your guests very happy.
  • share your knowledge without pushing your thoughts on your guests
  • let your guest know that you are not too far away if they need anything. I had a bad experience in Lisbon recently; my host lived in Australia. I had to make a toll call halfway around the world — not good. No apologies were given and it was reflected in my review.
  • offer to show your guest around the neighborhood if you have the time.

Being an exceptional host is a lot of work and  personally, I have no desire to do it again. I have to say when I did do it, I enjoyed it. I was meeting wonderful people from all over the world and the extra cash came in handy. Keep in mind that there will be wear and tear on your home and by the time you pay taxes on your earned income, you may not be making as much money as you hoped or expected.

 

The Guest

As a guest you have several considerations that will help ensure you choose the right accommodation and pay the right price. So may just look at the photos and book. There are a few problems with that. As you know, if you point your camera at the right angle, you can make a trash site look good. The other consideration is that a photo will tell you little or nothing about the location. Here are a few things you should consider before booking:

  1. What are your priorities? Location, price, space, authenticity, good reviews, air conditioning, big kitchen/small kitchen, water view, mountain view, near restaurants; you get the picture.
  2. Read the reviews! People will usually convey a problem even if there is a lot of praise and fluff.
  3. Is the host a Super Host?
  4. Do they respond quickly to your inquiry.
  5. Do you have to climb a lot of stairs?
  6. Is it in a noisy, touristy area. Some travellers like that (I don not).

Look at the fee breakdown. Some shrewd hosts make the base price reasonable and then charge crazy amounts for additional guests or cleaning. If you are asked to pay more than $50 to clean a one bedroom, your being charged too much. If your being charged a cleaning fee for a bedroom in someone’s home, well, I’d rethink that one.

There will sometimes be added taxes and that’s fair. Anything else besides taxes, cleaning or additional guests seems unreasonable to me.

If a host offers to pick you up at the airport for a set amount, do some comparison shopping. I once paid a host 50 Euros and later learned I could have taken a taxi for 20. A small mark-up is acceptable, but 30 Euros?

There are other sites out there (VRBO, Homestay.com, House Sitters, etc.). Comparison shop.

The truth is sometimes hotels are a better option. You might find more flexible check-ins, you might like to have a concierge, it may mean more privacy, sometimes there is an excellent restaurant in the hotel, and frankly, the whole guest review process on Airbnb can be unnerving. And because hotels now have loads of competition, you might get a great rate at a beautiful resort with lots of amenities. This why I believe there is plenty of room for both in the accommodation space.

Be a gracious guest. If you had a wonderful experience, repay your host with an excellent review. A small thank you gift is also a nice way to show your appreciation. In many cases you’ve saved a lot of money and got to live like the locals.

Postscript

A friend contacted me about Airbnb travel for women traveling alone. In short she doesn’t feel safe traveling this way and I completely understand her concern — another consideration. She likes being able to call to the front desk and getting an immediate response/help. If you think of anything I have not included, please let me know.

 

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IN LOVING MEMORY OF GIORGIO, WHO GAVE ME NOTHING BUT LOVE & JOYNo automatic alt text available.

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