Canary island paradors: keys to paradise.
Snow-capped Mount Teide, with serrated black volcanic flanks, towers over the national park and dwarfs our hotel, the island's parador. This isolated 37-room inn is situated on Tenerife, the most majestic of Spain's Canary Islands that lie 180 miles off the Moroccan coast. They are nicknamed "Las Islas Afortunada" because of their wonderful climate.
Clouds floated over crater walls and cast shadows on the caldera's pumice floor. Lava ridges, streaked with pale pinks, greens and magenta, flow down 12,500-foot Mount Teide, Spain's highest mountain.
Las Canadas, called the "caldera" or kettle in Spanish, helps form the mountainous spine of Tenerife. The Roques de Garcia, giant volcanic dikes that twist high above the crater floor, and the massive Roque de Cinchado, that towers like a tortured golf ball on a tee, loom a short walk away.
Silence fills this lunar landscape high above the island's beaches crowded with Europeans in winter. Here, the next eruption is a rumble away. Exotic plants, accustomed to the high altitude, cling to the dry cinder floor. At night the stars sparkle and flash.
Such is the magic of the paradors, some of Spain's most romantic inns. We visited three, Tenerife's Parador Nacional Canadas del Teide, La Gomera's Parador Nacional Conde de la Gomera, and the Parador de la Palma. On our next visit we'll stay at the Parador Nacional El Hierro, where volcanic peaks and sea meet on the Canary island of Hierro. (See www.paradores-spain.com.)
Author James Michener wrote that "The noun parador is derived from the verb parar (to stop). They stand in spots that tourists would like to visit ... and in the opinion of travelers they are the best inns in the world."
Tenerife's parador, a picturesque mountain lodge, is the only building in this beautiful natural reserve on this Spanish "island of eternal spring." On our first day we looked out on a brilliant morning and began the arduous climb up Teide. If you measure Teide from the ocean floor, it is the planet's tallest peak.
We enjoyed breakfast, picked up our packed lunch and maps and began our arduous, serpentine hike on the sliding lava. Hours later at the summit, dirty, sweating, tired and wet from the snow, we gazed out on other tiny islands, mere specks on the vast, Prussian blue Atlantic.
On the far horizon loomed Lanzarote, a wind-buffeted, volcanic island averaging three rainy days a year. From 1730 to 1736 volcanoes spewed streams of black lava, slag and ash. Today, tourists luxuriate on its beaches and eat delicacies cooked over fuming volcanic vents.
Each island has its own character and landscape, but all are paradises for hikers. Tired, but exhilarated, our boots crunch on volcanic cinders and our knees ache as we make our way down to the parador's terrace to sip cool Dorado beer.
Soon "Papa Teide" turns crimson in the sunset and we recall the previous night's moonlight drive, climbing higher and higher through sweet-scented pine forests. At one turn we looked down on a tangerine moon, surreal over a black velvet sea.
Another day our path descends into a miniature Grand Canyon full of grotesque rocks, vaulting pinnacles, soaring towers and looming black crater walls; one spot is aptly called the cathedral. Relaxed and tired, we returned each evening to our cozy room; its natural tan, olive and wheat colored walls are offset by a polished mahogany desk, closets and floors. Our window looks out on "Papa Teide." Then we relaxed with a glass of wine in sitting rooms with paintings and furniture reflecting island life.
In an elegant, yet rustic, dining room we savored a sumptuous island stew of pork, beef, cabbage, squash, garbanzos, string beans, corn and a tasty "conejo al salmorejo," a rabbit dish served with "papas arrugadas," potatoes in their skins, followed by a delicious custard flan. The parador's five-course meals are the island's best.
Boom! The lights went out. Candles were lit. A magic moment. Too soon, lighting is restored and we adjourned to blazing fire to sip a Spanish brandy before strolling in the cold mountain air under a star-spangled netherworld.
After a sound sleep, a buffet breakfast of steaming coffee, juices, goat cheese, dried, tasty serano ham, tortillas de esponol and an assortment of yogurts, cereals, fruits, eggs, breads and rolls awaited us.
The original building stands next to a modern wing added in 1996 with a gym, pool and sauna. We trod in the footsteps of earlier guests, astronaut Neil Armstrong, King Juan Carlos and Queen Fabiola of Belgium when we visit the vivid mountain garden and the displays of history, geology and archaeology.
We follow an old shepherd's trail that makes a horseshoe curve through giant finger-like rocks under the snow-encrusted cracks of the crater's rim. Near Montana Blanca, or White Mountain, we pass under caves high above, then through an obsidian-bright lava field, with tiny moss-green pines. Above us looms Papa Teide.
Near an overlook we encounter a smiling, dusty elf, a German woman, 76, making her way with a hiking stick. She lives in a nearby pueblo and hikes daily to maintain her health and spirits.
Her aging eyes sparkled as she said, "My life is colors. I love colors. I live for colors. These mountains are my Picasso. You don't need a museum. Go to the mountains."
As the 75-minute car ferry nears the neighboring island of La Gomera and its port of San Sebastian, we spot the white-walled parador perched on a cliff above the town. Its 6,000 inhabitants enjoy a fine harbor filled with sailboats, and a black sand beach.
Columbus stopped here to take on water on his First Voyage. We visit the Gothic Torre del Conde, where Beatriz, his fabled lover, barricaded herself in 1488, the church where Columbus worshipped and the house where he allegedly stayed, now a fascinating museum. It is the best preserved of all the towns Columbus visited.
The island, whose highest peak rises 5,000 feet, enjoys a subtropical climate. For two million years volcanoes have not erupted here and erosion has gouged out deep ravines amid marine cliffs; its rocky pinnacles shelter a great diversity of flora.
In 1969 the four-star Parador Nacional Conde de la Gomera was built as a Canarian-style plantation house; it offers breathtaking views of Mount Teide on the horizon and far below the white-walled dwellings and terra cotta roofs of San Sebastian.
At its entrance a large shield depicts Beatriz de Bobadilla's family tree. Beatriz, or Beatrice in English, was King Ferdinand's favored lover. His wife, Queen Isabella, felt less kindly toward the hot-blooded beauty, exiling her here and forcing her to marry the murderous Count of Gomera. When he died she fell into the embrace of Columbus.
This architectural gem delights with its period decorations and white walls inscribed in Gothic letters with the names of Gomera's scoundrels, pirates, lovers, conquistadors and infamous ne'er-do-wells. Its high entrances formerly allowed horses to enter. Antiques fill the parador.
Its library houses portraits of Ferdinand and Isabella, books, magazines, antiques and was our choice for an after dinner sherry after a day of hiking. Here we read that the Phoenicians, Persians and Carthaginians all knew of the Canaries. Pliny the Elder records an expedition to these Fortunate Islands during the reign of Emperor Augustus.
The islands' original inhabitants were a mysterious aboriginal people called Guanches who lived in a neolithic subsistence culture until they were conquered and enslaved by conquistadors. Gomera was annexed to Castille in 1496.
The lavish dining room, hung with prints and oil paintings, offers cuisine equal to its atmosphere, while its terrace overlooks the famed gardens where we learned about the whistling language of silbo from Domingo Danas who has worked for the parador for more than 40 years.
He purses his lips and whistles an ear-piercing "Hello, welcome to Gomera" in El Silbo Gomera, the island's whistling language. Then he whistles his name, which sounds like "whee-whee-ho."
Native Americans used smoke signals, but the Guanches communicated with their mountain families by whistling across the island's deep ravines and canyons. The Guanches found that over distances their shouted words were often confused, but their whistles could be understood up to three or four miles. Greetings and warnings developed into a language. Later, intonations and variations were added.
Danas and his colleague Paulino agree to demonstrate. Paulino disappears at the far end of the garden, where he places his fingers in his mouth in varying positions, creating a limited whistling alphabet.
Domingo whistles, "How many children do you have?"
Paulino whistles back. Domingo smiles and says, "He wants me to repeat the question." He whistles the question again. Back comes the whistled answer, "Five."
Later, Paulino verifies this answer is correct.
Then Domingo, who once demonstrated his art for Spain's King Juan Carlos, tests Paulino with the whistled "How is my wife? Tell her to bring three bananas."
Paulino, whose father taught him silbo as a young goat herder in the mountains, walks back and delivers the correct message. Domingo learned the whistling lingo from his father at age 15.
One tale stated the whistled language originated when the conquistadors cut out the tongues of rebellious Guanches. Another told of a rich land owner who studied silbo secretly, and then visited his tenants in remote ravines. As he advanced, he heard his coming whistled from hill to hill. Instructions were given to hide a pig here, a cow there, so he could not claim his share upon arrival.
Silbo flourished over the centuries, and then fell into disuse. But in 1940 an Austrian historian, Dominik Wolfel, worked years to compile all known silbo words and came up with an amazing 2,909. Tourism breathed new life into the ancient language. Tourists love the sound of silbo, locals are using it again and it's taught in the schools.
Danas said, "This beautiful, tranquil garden is my true home."
Here, amid a profusion of blossoms, stand mango, acacia, orange and lemon trees, century-old Canarian palms and pines, cuida trees from Cuba, whose gourds are played as musical instruments, and 25-year-old dragon trees with orange berries. Known by Arab poets, the tree's resin was sold for its magical powers. Roman women used the resin as a cosmetic. Many trees and plants are known only in the islands.
At dawn our car follows twisting mountain roads to the central plateau sheltering a rare Tertiary laurel forest, a subtropical evergreen cloud forest, one of the planet's oldest forests. Similar forests flourished in the Mediterranean basin eons ago.
We parked on a cobbled side road and hiked down through a cool, dark moist forest out of Tolken's "Lord of the Rings." Some 400 species of flora abound. Moss hang and lichen spread through the dense, fern-covered forest. Blades of sunlight pierce foliage as the serpentine path curves over the damp earth.
Smaller paths split off; distant villages appear as white dots far below and beyond. One expects ancient highway men to pounce from the dark otherworldly mist.
The next day we relax pool side and I write: "This aerie approaches perfection on a sunny day as hawks ride the air currents above us. There are no cares here on Mount Olympus."
The next day we descended on the Perraza hike, a steep, rocky, serpentine path that followed a deep ravine that falls away thousands of feet revealing vast panoramas; below a few remote, tiny, white pueblos sit on the restless sea. Palms, mountain daisies and agave cactus greeted us on the tough climb back to the road.
Each day we hike in the Alto de Garajonay, offering breathtaking, distant vistas of a solitary, verdant mesa in the distance, terraced fields, laurel and Canarian pine forests and misty views of white caps.
Each island, like each parador, is a world apart. The two-hour ferry trip takes us to "la isla bonita" or the beautiful island, passing isolated Gomera villages perched high on sheer cliffs above the tossing sea. Below, fishing boats ride at anchor.
We stand on deck, enjoying the air as we near the island of La Palma annexed by Castile in 1493, ending the bloody conquest of the Canaries. With its rich forests, the island became a shipbuilding center. In the 16th century its capital, Santa Cruz de la Palma, became one of the most important ports in the Spanish empire.
We dock here and then drive a short distance into the mountains to a new parador that rests in a serene setting backed by peaks and fronted below by Atlantic swells. A perfect base to explore the island, it is only a 20-minute drive to La Caldera de Taburiente National Park.
The parador sports a plant-filled patio, pleasant sitting rooms, a well-appointed library, and a cheerful dining room. Our room's french doors opened onto a dark wooden balcony that overlooks the pool and the tossing Atlantic. It's inviting with green carpets, dark wooden furniture, white stucco walls and comfortable chairs and beds.
"One difference between this parador and others on the Spanish mainland is that tourists come here to spend two weeks, not two days," its manager said.
Again our focus is hiking, this time in the Parque Nacional de la Caldera de Taburiente, the last refuge of the island's original inhabitants. We wind upward to Cumbrecita, where we look out on a crater whose diameter is six miles and whose walls drop 6,000 feet.
Crenelated shafts of rocks shoot up around us and fall away into treelined valleys of sweet-scented Canarian pines. Landslides, collapsing rocks and trails that disappear off sheer cliffs are the norm. As we hike, hundreds of lava spires jutted up from the caldera's walls. The lime green pine needles shine. The year's early snow has vanished.
A German warns, "Ahead the path is too narrow. The drop is 1,500 feet. Best stop here." We tried another route, crossing crude wooden bridges over hair-raising steep gorges. In a wink, days of hiking passed.
One day we drove to Mazo to visit the Escuela Insular de Artesania with its vibrant handicrafts, the beautiful, centuries old Church of San Blas, the ancient Cueva de Belmaco, home to the Benahoare people, and the volcanoes of Fuencaliente.
We parked near a Fuencaliente sign that stated: "The Fuencaliente Town hall will not be responsible for any loss of personal belongings or cars." The lot sat uneasily beside the rim of a black volcano that blew in 1949. Farther on stands another crater that erupted in 1979, creating Spain's newest land mass. Far below palm trees dot this craterscape.
Yet another drive and hike led up to the isle's famed observatory, where astronomers study phenomena from star bursts to the expansion of the universe. Then, after scores of dizzying hairpin curves, we parked and hiked near the Pico de las Nieves (Peak of the Snows). The broad dirt road quickly becames a narrow path through sweet-smelling, charred Canarian pines whose thick bark withstands fires. We looked down on clouds floating above the churnng seas.
Too soon we returned for a farewell drink and meal at this fine parador, where we vowed to return to the islands and their wonderful paradors.
Harvey Hagman is a regular contributor to The World & I Online. He is a freelance photojournalist, travel writer, and international correspondent.