THE OTHER SIDE OF TENERIFE; Pole-vaulting shepherds, spicy Canarian potatoes, non-stop fiestas & only Spanish is spoken here..
ANYONE who thinks polevaulting isn't a high-adrenaline sport hasn't competed in the Tenerife shepherds' jump league.
There's no soft landing at the end of these leaps. Instead, craggy mountain men vault across ravines as carelessly as if a miscalculation would have them nose-diving into a sandpit rather than plummeting on to jagged rocks.
"Nowadays it's a sport but shepherds like my grandfather used these poles out of necessity to follow their herds," explains our guide Jos.
We meet the vaulters as we round hairpin bend on a road that winds along Tenerife's craggy northwest coast.
They look more Tyrolean than Spanish with their long poles and jaunty alpine hats and are bouncing down the cliff face as merrily as mountain goats.
Shepherds' jumping was inherited from Tenerife's Guanches tribes, conquered by the Spanish back in the Middle Ages.
Their culture all but died out but sports like shepherds' jumping, stick fighting and Canaries wrestling show the blood of the Guanches still courses through the veins of Tenerife people today.
If you don't move far beyond your hotel in the popular resorts of Los Cristianos or Playa de las Americas the chances are you won't come across the real Tenerife.
These resorts are in a tourist zone where you rarely hear Spanish spoken and where the food is as authentically Tenerife as bangers and mash.
Even the so-called local music played in resort bars is likely to be flamenco from Andalucia, about 1,200km away.
So we save Carmen and her castanets for another time and instead follow a Tenerife folk band as it weaves through the streets of La Orotava late on a Sunday morning.
The locals have poured out of Mass and it's party time in this ancient town.
Orotava, with its steep cobbled streets and terraced gardens, was founded about 500 years ago by 12 grand families - and became known as The Town of the Aristocrats.
We're only about an hour's drive from Playa de las Americas but probably the only people in the main square not speaking Spanish.
The Tambara Group Folklorico are belting out songs for this week's fiesta (you can't go far on this island and not come across a fiesta).
"In my village we have more than one a week," grumbles Jos. "Which is fine until the fireworks go off at four in the morning. How can you sleep?" Our hotel up in the mountains definitely has no noisy neighbours, hidden among banana plantations... and next door to the village cemetery. It's a little gem of a hotel called the Rural Casa Blanca where farm buildings have been restored to become simple-but-stylish accommodation. It was almost 11pm when we arrived there ... to find groaning trays of Tenerife dishes waiting in our rooms. And the night porter's wife brought us a bottle of local wine so we could sit on our terrace for a picnic under the stars.
It's thanks to Tenerife that many of the world's really ancient wines are still around. The island has 24 different varieties of grapes, many of which became extinct in mainland Europe after a nasty fungus struck in the 19th Century.
The red wine is particularly good, but if you don't believe me read Shakespeare, who quaffed as he waffled about the merits of Tenerife plonk. It was also good enough to toast the signing of the American Declaration of Independence....and it is infinitely better than the cough medicine-like local banana liqueur sold in the island's souvenir shops.
Bananas are grown in the fertile volcanic soil. Not that all the soil on Tenerife is good for farming - camels were brought over in the 15th Century to ship rich soil to arid regions. Nowadays, the farmers drive tractors but you can still take a camel ride on the island.
Our terrace has views across the banana plantations to the Atlantic Ocean below. Today we're heading up, above the clouds to the summit of Mount Teide, at 3,715m the highest mountain in Spain.
In front of us is a lush laurel forest that once covered the whole of Southern Europe until the last Ice Age. Canaries and tiny robins chirrup in the greenery but as warm weather lovers they stick to the lower altitudes, rarely going above 1,500 metres.
As we climb higher into the mountains, the laurels give way to Canary pines, conifers unique to these islands. The trees have thick bark to help them withstand the rages of the summer forest fires.
If you visit the pretty village of Masca in Teno Rural Park you can also see native Phoenix palms with their blackened trunks, again so-called because they're able to rise above the flames.
The landscape changes from green to sepia to the black lava called el tabonal negro inside Mt Teide National Park. For such a small island, Tenerife has an astonishing amount of space set aside as national or natural park, all with wellmaintained walking tracks thoughtfully labelled easy/hard. You can pick up maps at visitor centres or download from www.webtenerife.com Mt Teide National Park is a lunar-landscape, a plain of twisted rock and molten lava from the last time the mountain blew its stack in 1909.
This is a volatile part of the world, geologically speaking. And if I were a New Yorker I'd be a bit nervous, because any time now (and in geological terms that might be five minutes or a million years) a big chunk of Tenerife's neighbour La Palma is apparently going to slide into the Atlantic and send a tsunami washing over Manhattan.
A cable car takes you to the top of Teide where the air is dizzyingly thin at the summit but the view is dramatic. After a few hours' crunching along volcanic gravel trails and stopping to admire lizards sunbathing on rocks, it's time for lunch at the Teide Paradore.
These paradores are owned by the Spanish government and are usually restored historic buildings in dramatic locations. The Teide paradore is an alpine chalet-style hotel with an open fire for those snowy winter afternoons.
Waiters rush around with steaming platters of papas arrugadas - a local speciality of wrinkly potatoes smothered in green "mojo" coriander sauce. The spuds look like shrivelled mini turnips but taste out of this world.
After lunch, we follow a volcanic trail back down the mountain to the town of Garachico in the Isla Baja region.
Here rock pools have been created by lava that flowed down from Teide in 1706. These waist-deep seawater pools are fun for a dip, particularly when the sea is choppy.
As towns go, Garachico's had more than its fair share of disasters.
Once it was a thriving port midway between the old and new worlds.
Then in the space of roughly 150 years it was devastated by a mighty Atlantic storm, hit by the plague, engulfed by flood waters, burned down not once but twice and... wait for it... attacked by a plague of locusts. Then came the volcano. You wonder if someone upstairs had it in for them.
Today, it's hard to imagine the devastation as you wander around Garachico's peaceful cobbled streets lined with pretty historic houses painted in the russet colours of the Canaries. The town has become a centre of the arts with small shops and workshops selling handmade crafts and jewellery and boutique hotels overlooking the squares.
The colonisation of the town by artists began with the restoration of the Hotel San Roque, a small family-run hotel that was once an aristorcrat's manor. What was once the servants' courtyard is now an enclosed pool terrace with a scattering of tables for long, lazy lunches and a swimming pool carved out of volcanic lava.
The original and very grand family courtyard has become a showcase for the work of Tenerife painters and sculptors.
It's one of the more tranquil places on the island with rattan chairs so comfortable that even Jos the insomniac might be able to catch forty winks before the guitars and fireworks of yet another Tenerife fiesta rudely disturb his snooze.
Green is go for family eco hols..
FIRST Choice has introduced a range of Greener Holidays - family escapes in hotels that look after their local environment and communities. One of these is the four-star Iberostar Bouganville Playa, where seven nights' halfboard costs around EUR599 for two adults and children, flying out from Gatwick on December 18. Go to www.firstchoice.co.uk/greenerholidays For the Hotel Rural Casablanca go to www.hotel ruralcasablanca.es and for the Hotel San Roque go to www.hotelsanroque.com
The Iberostar Bouganville founded 500 years ago The town hall at unspoilt La Orotava... by 12 grand families, and known as The Town of the Aristocrats eties of grapes, many of which became Garachico, with its bathing pools created from lava that flowed down to the sea, is a great place to cool off Party time in La Orotava...hardly a week goes by without a fiesta in some part of Tenerife