TRAVEL: On the Olympic trail in Tenerife
Hannah Stephenson follows in the footsteps of Bradley Wiggins and enjoys some much-needed sunshine on this popular island.
With the Tour de France and an Olympic gold medal under his belt from London 2012, life is looking sunny for British hero Bradley Wiggins.
Yet he has the unlikely training ground of the holiday island of Tenerife to thank, at least in part, for his victories, as this is where he does some of his training.
While we were all suffering the incessant spring rain, you could find him at The Parador in Teide National Park, at the foot of Mount Teide, the dormant volcano where such films as Planet Of The Apes and Clash Of The Titans have been shot.
This desert of solidified igneous rock provided the high altitude and thin air Wiggins needed to train, bearing in mind the famous French race takes in some of Europe’s highest passes. That, coupled with tough mountain climbs and some training at sea level, also gave the celebrated cyclist the perfect terrain to help him clinch gold.
While the largest of the Canary Islands, off the north-west coast of Africa, has long been branded a summer party island and a winter haven for the retired, it’s now taken on a sporting edge, thanks to a number of initiatives aimed at those who want to keep fit rather than get fat on holiday.
While culture vultures may venture to Santa Cruz, the island’s capital in the north-east of the island, to take in the museums, Tenerife Opera House and the impressive harbour, the weather up there can be unreliable so sports nuts may be better off expending their energy in the sunshine in the south.
We travel to Playa de la Arena, near to Los Gigantes, a relatively unspoilt resort on the west coast, so-called because of the spectacular giant cliffs (Los Gigantes) which fringe the Atlantic Ocean and make our home-grown cliffs at Dover pale into insignificance.
There, the sports can begin. From Los Gigantes we catch a taxi to Masca, a picturesque village whose houses perch precariously on narrow ridges of dramatic rock formations.
Reputed to have been a pirate hideaway, it has become the well-trodden starting point for serious walkers making their way down the barranco (ravine) on the two-hour journey through dramatic scenery to the sea, where we take a much-needed swim before catching a water taxi back to Los Gigantes.
The hike proves an ideal way to avoid piling on the pounds on our return to the substantial buffet at the all-inclusive Holiday Village Tenerife, where we’re staying nearby. Spanish delicacies including serrano ham, lenguado a la plancha (griddled sole), paella, papas arrugadas (baby potatoes covered in salt), mojo (a local sauce) and aioli (garlic mayonnaise) are served, alongside more familiar European dishes.
After eating, the only activity we’re fit for is splashing around in the beautiful heated pools, but swimming teams and individuals including Team GB’s Olympic medallist Rebecca Adlington do more intense training at the two Olympic-sized pools on the south west of the island.
“What makes Tenerife special is the weather - you have year-round sunshine - and the facilities, which are among the best in Europe,” says Steven Mellor, former Olympic Games swimming finalist who runs Sports Abroad, which arranges sports training camps for clubs and groups throughout Europe.
The T3 sports centre in La Caleta provides the winter training ground for rugby teams including Warrington Wolves and London Irish, while the island has also hosted training for premiership football teams including Everton and Manchester City.
Further south in Los Cristianos, there’s another Olympic pool which is open to the public, so you could try your hand at fast-lane swimming to burn up those calories.
While most tourists soak up the sun on the various beaches fringing Tenerife, professional sportspeople head to the headquarters of the Spanish national beach volleyball team at La Caleta, home to the first professional beach volleyball facility in the Canary Islands.
Hotels are also encouraging youngsters to become more active. At our Holiday Village, my 13-year-old son had both fun and was challenged during a football camp at the hotel’s own astro-turf pitch, while keen climbers could try their skills on the Go Ape-style high rope assault course within the grounds.
Scuba diving has also become big in Tenerife, but we are happy to take the bus to Alcala, a few miles down the coast, to an out-of-the-way cove where, if you’re lucky, you’ll see sea turtles and can snorkel to spot giant sea snails, dorada, barracuda and other interesting aquatic life. Unfortunately, we don’t see the turtles that day but the snorkelling is still fun.
While the nearest we come to surfing is taking the lilo out on the relatively calm beach at Los Gigantes, hardcore surfers head for the windy resort of El Medano, near the southern airport, where challenging waters test windsurfers and kiteboarders to their limits and the resort played host to the Kiteboard World Tour in 2010.
Other water-bound sport can be found at the island’s newest water park, Siam Park, which boasts the biggest artificial wave pool in the world, which can reach up to 3m high. It’s great fun catching the waves in a controlled environment, where the surrounding beach is created with tons of silky white sand imported from Portugal. Discerning thrill-seekers can have surfing lessons in the wave pool after closing time.
While Tenerife has changed beyond recognition since I worked as a rep there more than 20 years ago, with new hotels and apartments springing up along the coast, the extensive banana plantations remain, along with the indomitable Mount Teide, the highest mountain on Spanish territory and the world’s third highest volcano at 12,200ft, which on a clear day you can see from the coast in all its rugged glory.
It last erupted in 1909 and most tourists like us opt for the easy excursion, taking the coach and then the cable car to the viewing point. You’ll need a pre-arranged permit if you want to take the 40-minute walk uphill right to the top beyond the cable car stopping point, as access is severely limited to preserve the tip of the mountain.
For those who want a harder workout, hikers armed with sunblock and water can start in the middle of the crater and take a five-hour walk to the cable car. There are also night trails when you can be engulfed in the still and calm of this immense volcanic crater.
Bradley Wiggins may have pushed himself to the limit at the foot of Teide, but keen non-competitive cyclists can take the trail along the Afur Valley from the northern resort of Puerto de la Cruz, stopping to admire the fantastic views, quiet roads and remote villages on the way to La Orotava.
For those just wanting to get from A to B without a car, there are plenty of bikes for hire around the island, enabling the visitor to escape the tourist coast on two wheels.
So, Tenerife isn’t just a party paradise or haven for the retired. It’s a sunny stop-over for the sporty set too.
Key facts: Tenerife
Best for: Escaping the British rain to indulge in sports including hiking, biking and windsurfing.
Don’t miss: The fantastic views from the top of the cable car at Mount Teide.
Need to know: There can be snow on Teide in winter so check weather reports to ensure roads are open.
Don’t forget: A water bottle, sunscreen and your fleece if you’re doing high-altitude exercise.
Hannah Stephenson was a guest of Thomson Holidays, which offers seven nights’ all-inclusive at four star Holiday Village Tenerife, a summer-only resort, from £569, with return flights ex-Gatwick in mid-October. Reg deps incl Manchester (£699) and East Midlands (£804).
For reservations call 0871 230 2555 or visit www.thomson.co.uk
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Thursday 23 May 2013
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