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.

Traveling as an American Expat

My New Backyard (Europe and Africa)

 

 

Happy New Year! It’s nice to be back after a couple of weeks of celebrating and traveling.

If you prefer a travel blogger who provides the easiest way to get there and all the places to go, stay and eat; that’s not me. I’ll give you a glimpse of what I experienced and then some thoughts on culture, value, ease, etc. I may occasionally plug an exceptional restaurant and/or hotel. I want this to be fun and it won’t be if I have to chronicle my trips from start to finish.

I titled this piece “Traveling as an American Expat” because I noticed that each time I have left Portugal it has been very easy to exit and even easier to re-enter. I’m not stating that every American has the same experience that I have, but I have admittedly been pleasantly surprised. I have left Portugal a dozen times and I have only had to show my resident visa once and that was in Edinburgh and it took all of three seconds. I look around at border patrol/customs and I notice others do not have it as easy; this is especially true for middle easterners and that makes me sad. I won’t go into political implications and biases, but suffice it to say that I am ashamed of how many in this world are treated because of their residence or religion.

Allow me to come clean about a few things before I begin:

  1. I am extremely fussy. I like things a certain way and I’m rarely if ever completely satisfied; ask my friends.
  2. I often learn as I go. Because I sometimes make impulsive or rash decisions, I usually make a mistake and then try not to repeat it.
  3. I don’t take pictures of everything and I don’t go on social media every time I have an experience. I’m trying to be more present and that means less time on my cell phone.
  4. I don’t rely on TripAdvisor or sites where people share their opinions. I find that the average person’s standards are not up to snuff. I’m feeling somewhat hypocritical because I have been known to share my dining critiques on social media. Some people will write nice things because they can never say anything bad. Some people will always be nasty because they have no idea how else to be. Some people will write about food:  quality, taste, value, and so on and they know nothing about food.
  5. I truly love traveling off-season. The deals are hard to beat and there are so few tourists, you get a true sense of what it’s like for the locals. You may discover that some places are closed off-season or hours might be curtailed; a minor inconvenience I am willing to put up with. Be sure to research the weather if that is a factor for you. I prefer to travel to places where temperatures are mild in winter.

 

Asilah, Morocco

 

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I took this photograph from the living room  our Airbnb in Asilah

 

I took a day trip to Tangier over 15 years ago. I have always felt that since I had a guide and I only spent eight hours there, that it wasn’t fair to say much about Morocco. The last time I took a ferry from Tarifa, Spain and to be honest, it was more about stepping foot on the African continent. I wanted to travel to Morocco the same way this time; however, the ferry schedule off-season is sporadic and getting to and from Tarifa would have been no easy task. Instead, I took a comfortable and very affordable (34 Euros roundtrip) bus to Seville, Spain and then a flight on RyanAir (120 Euro round trip with checked bag). RyanAir is a no frills airline. Check-in is sometimes chaotic; however, the staff is efficient and travel is a bargain. I had a new airplane on my return flight which was very comfortable. Honestly, the flight is 30 minutes and the best part of that is that if you have to pee, you can hold it in. When you arrive in Tangier, you breeze through passport control because there are no other people at the airport. I don’t believe there are more than 10 flights going in and out of that airport in a 24 hour period; it’s almost eerie it’s so void of people.

My friend Patrick rented a car to get to Asilah and there were no other people at Avis so we got our car in five minutes. Again, we left the airport without seeing very many other people. Take note that if you decide to drive on Moroccan highways (toll roads) you need Dirham because they don’t accept anything else except Moroccan money at the toll booths. The roads are new and easy to drive on; except for the very strong winds that Patrick was forced to navigate.

When we arrived in Asilah we followed our GPS to the house, but it took us to a huge public outdoor bazaar. There were hundreds (maybe thousands) of Moroccans participating in an outdoor festival. When were a little lost looking for our Airbnb. The crowds were walking in the streets and the people did not really seem to notice our car, nor did they care to move for us. It was a strange experience. We had to crawl through the crowds of people. We eventually got hold of our host who told us that we could not park outside of the house which was located inside a walled city — the Medina (not the famous one). The Medina was filled with shops and homes and very narrow streets. We had to park in a paid lot in the middle of the festival and walk to our house. It was only meters away from the parking lot, but prior to setting out to find our place, we had no idea how far we’d have to lug our bags.

 

We found our house, which was not quite like the photos, but isn’t that usually the case. Still, it was a beautiful house with ocean and Medina views. We would all have been happier if it wasn’t so cold in the house. It took us 24 hours to figure out how to make it warm and we only had 48 hours. The best thing about the house was Fatima. Fatima and her husband are caretakers for the house and they truly did take good care of us. We had a terrific breakfast and they made us a fire. Fatima quietly disappeared and made-up my bed during breakfast. I’m nearly 60 years old and I’m not sure anyone has made-up my bed since I was five years old — that was a real treat.

The house was in the Medina (not the one in Saudi Arabia), a walled city in Asilah, (click for more from Lonely Planet).

We had a full day to explore the Medina and the surrounding area. Fortunately, we are all walkers and so we walked. The Medina had narrow streets and pathways and lots of artisan shops (see my big purchase below).

We decided to celebrate New Year’s Eve at a restaurant in Asilah and we stumbled upon:

Port IV (click) Restaurant

This is probably Asilah’s best place to eat right now and we enjoyed it immensely. The service was good and almost all of us were happy with our choices (no photos, sorry). Having a full bar was a bonus and the owner made me a very authentic gin martini. I was one happy fella. Although I was unable to stay up till midnight, I did enjoy being with friends and being in Morocco; it’s a night I won’t soon forget.

 

Tangiers (Tanger for the locals)

 

 

As I mentioned earlier, I visited Tangier years ago. I had only seen a small part of the city and from what I have heard, it has changed quite a bit. I stayed at the Movenpick Hotel and Casino for two reasons:  First I got a great off-season rate for this four star property and second, I was in the mood for some blackjack. Both paid off. My room was spacious and beautifully appointed (some really nice bathroom products as well) and the casino was pleasant and on the second day, I celebrated a small winning streak. I had a nice meal at Miami Restaurant which was nearby. Their French pastries were especially lovely. Most Moroccans speak French and there were French pastries at every turn (you see smatterings of French culture). There was a great deal to enjoy and celebrate. I went home a winner in every sense of the word.

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The two official languages are Modern Standard Arabic and Amazigh (Berber). Moroccan Arabic (known as Darija) is the spoken native vernacular. The languages of prestige in Morocco are Arabic in its Classical and Modern Standard Forms and French, the latter of which serves as a second language for many Moroccans.

Languages of Morocco – Wikipedia

 

 

Note:  I walked into the center of the city and if I’m going to be honest, although the city was clean and no one warned me to be careful, I did not feel safe. Beggars follow you and they do not take no for an answer; it can be off-putting and disturbing.

 

Seville, Spain

 

 

I am in love. Seville is a beautiful, culturally rich, culinary mecca, just three hours door-to-door from my place in Faro. I only just returned home, but I have already booked a hotel for the end of February. I now know that Seville will be my home away from home. I am delighted to have rediscovered this breathtaking city.

You will enjoy these two pieces written by my food writer friend Joanna Pruess. She wrote about Seville for Specialty Food Magazine. Joanna primed me for my Seville adventure with her delicious point of view and fabulous recipes:

Tasty Bites of Seville (click for article)

Savoring Seville (click title)

The Seville bus station, train station, and airport are all linked by a four Euro bus that has many stops throughout the city and runs every 20 minutes or so. The bus and train stations are centrally located and easy enough to get to. These days Uber rides are very inexpensive and although I love to walk, you can’t beat a five Euro Uber ride across town. The drivers usually speak English and they are (for the most part) good drivers.

I stayed at very nice Airbnb for 65 Euros a night. It was a two bedroom apartment in a great area — 20 minutes by foot to just about everywhere.

Note:  I have mixed feelings about Airbnb (see one of my earlier blogs). Some hosts are gracious and generous and truly want you to have a great stay. Others, seem to only care about making a buck. Be sure to read reviews and check for amenities. After awhile, you become better at discerning the true intentions of the hosts. They also have a review policy I totally disagree with:  both parties have to complete a review in order for the review to be posted. If you write a warranted poor review and the host does not review you as a guest, the review will not be posted by Airbnb — it seems like a way to ensure only good reviews get posted. I’m not sure how Airbnb gets away with this.

The weather in Seville was great for walking around the city and spending time outdoors. I don’t believe it snows in Seville and when the sky is blue, it is an intense blue.

Shopping

I had one objective as I explored Seville. Paella is one of my favorite dishes to cook and I was determined to bring two ingredients back to Portugal:  Bomba (click) rice and saffron. I’ve tried many different kinds of cooking rice and Bomba is by far the best for paella (https://www.jamieoliver.com/recipes/rice-recipes/chicken-chorizo-paella/ Jamie Oliver’s recipe.

Also  . . . Spanish saffron which is less pricey in Spain. I paid 14 Euros for about an ounce of saffron — it’s fresh and beautiful and I can’t wait to cook with it. I use it when cooking rice with meat dishes as well. I also purchased hand sliced jamon (Spanish cured ham) and some homemade nougat. Purchasing food in other countries is one of the best things about travel and there are many items that you should only purchase in the country where it originated or was made. Note:  if its fresh food and you’re flying, be sure to have it vacuum sealed.

There are many shopping areas throughout the city; small boutique shops are my favorite. I was also impressed with the number of small art galleries. The artwork I looked at was quite beautiful and not outrageously expensive. A plug for El Cortes Inglese, a big chain store where I can spend hours just milling about. It’s like the Harrod’s of Spain. I’m praying one comes to Faro or the Algarve soon; hey we have an IKEA and Zara, so . . . what are you Spaniards waiting for

 

Don’t miss out on Contenedor if you visit Seville. It’s fresh, delicious, quaint, and well priced. Make a reservation (click for website).

I have already booked a hotel for a few days at the end of February and beginning of March. I did not book an Airbnb because I do not plan on cooking and I’d prefer amenities like a gym and indoor pool when I’m doing a quick culinary exploration trip. Yes, I’m spoiled, but after 40 years of busting my ass, I deserve it. I will write more about Seville after that trip.

My big purchase in Morocco:

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I purchased this hand-woven Moroccan runner in Assilah. The merchant said, “I don’t haggle,” but I got the rug for about 80 Euro less than ask. He didn’t know what he was in for when I walked into his shop. I have all the information about where the rug was made and how it was made.