Remember last year/century/millennium's article about the wine regions of Spain? Well sorry, gang -- I left one out. And because you deserve the full scope of academic knowledge, I went back.
And found an island paradise (seven of them, in fact), virtually undiscovered by Americans, where the food's cheap and good, the local wine flows like water (and costs not much more) and it's springtime all year.
Where? The Canary Islands. Though they lie off the west coast of Africa, far from mainland Europe, they're as much a part of Spain as Hawaii is of the U.S. And, just as in Hawaii, each island has its own unique flavor and personality.
I spent nine fine days on Tenerife, the largest and most diverse of the Canary Islands. It's a continent in miniature, with everything from arid desert to hilltop rainforest to a snow-crowned mountain (El Teide, 12,000-plus feet high) to sun-splashed topless beaches. Every winter, tourists from frigid northern latitudes hit the resort towns of Las Americas and Los Cristianos on Tenerife's southern tip to swim, parasail and just slurp up rays in "the Caribbean of Europe."
You could easily laze away a week or two here, splayed flat on a towel in the sand, vegging out to the beat of the Atlantic surf. Or you could cram every day full of everything from windsurfing to whale watching; from upslope Jeep safaris to offshore minisubmarine jaunts; from mountaintop snowball fights to underwater "BOB" dives in bubble-headed wetsuits.
In the city and resorts, it's easy to get around the island by cab or on foot. Renting a car is also no hassle. The roads are pretty well marked, and if you push it, you can drive all the way around Tenerife in a day. But it's much more fun to explore the back roads and tiny towns slowly, sipping coffee with the locals at a mountainside cafe, bodysurfing at the instant beach made from four million bags of Sahara sand, and sampling the specialties -- cured ham, olives, almonds, fruits, cheeses and fresh-caught fish -- in every corner of the island.
Whatever your daytime pleasure, the Canaries' after-dark action puts an island twist on your basic Eurohip club scene. Things are dress-down casual here, relaxed, more spontaneous. Leave your fancy duds and shoes at home, and do the barefoot beach boogie into the wee hours. Or try your luck at an all-night oceanside casino. You can sleep when you get home.
Tenerife is so small that you're never very far from wine country. Not surprisingly, given the hot climate, the best vineyards -- on the slopes of El Teide and on cool, terraced hillsides in the northeast -- lie at high elevations. Most eateries throughout the islands have at least a couple of Canarian bottlings on their wine list. Prices are outrageously low, and the crisp whites and dry, fruity roses pair perfectly with the lightly spiced local seafood, chicken and pork dishes. Just be aware that waiters here don't always repour when your glass is running low, so be ready to hoist a bottle now and then.
You'll find English spoken in most resorts and in larger hotels and restaurants throughout the islands. But if you get hungry, and it's Espanol only, you can fake it with a few hand signals of your own devising. Regardless, be sure to save room for some liquid dessert: Most restaurants bring out a little glass of something yummy -- nectarine liqueur, warm coffee cordial with cream, or my hands-down, drink-'em-up fave, the rum-and-honey blend called ronmiel -- on the house. Caprovetse!
The South Coast
Though you'd hardly expect great food at a seaside resort restaurant, there's a jewel of a place -- El Obregon -- hidden among the tourist traps of Las Americas. They make a fabulous mixed grill here (meat or seafood: If there are two of you, get one of each and share) and black squid ink paella. Killer mojo sauce. We ate there four times. Ask for Victor.
Chicken farms are the main claim to fame of Adeje, a tiny town high in the hills behind Las Americas. Its best-known restaurant, Oasis, is so renowned for its garlic chicken that all you need to say to a cab driver is "Adeje" and he'll drop you at the front door. But a short hike up the hill brings you to Otelo I, where you get drop-dead stunning views with your pollo al ajillo, without all those pesky tourists. The rabbit salmorejo is worth ordering, too.
In Los Cristianos, take a break from solar worship and stroll a couple of blocks inland to Bocata Park. Don't be put off by the dinosaur names on the menu: The pizzas, in particular, are highly tasty (try the margarita, with ham, cheese, fresh tomato and marjoram) and highly underpriced. And if you're craving tapas, they'll lead you inside to the back bar and show you the day's selection. Just point, nod your head and look hungry.
On the Road
Few tourists venture to the west coast of Tenerife on their own, but the jaw-dropping panoramas and laid-back pace can make it a highlight of your trip. We stumbled on a picturesque little restaurant, La Pimentera, carved into the hillside in the town of Masca. Surrounded by grapevines, avocado trees and an explosion of bougainvillea in full, multicolored bloom, we ordered -- in fractured Spanish -- some local goat cheese, a straight-from-the-garden vegetable soup and a main course of sauteed chicken livers with red peppers and onions. Little did we know that our shy waitress and her chef-husband own the place -- and that they not only speak perfect English, they're British expats who fled the rat race to follow their dream.
More fractured Spanish, and the ol' point-and-nod trick, at Cafe Restaurant Wimara, in the northern wine town of Tacoronte. A bit too late, we discovered a whole English translation on the back of the menu. (Not that it helped much, though, unless you could say "blaks beans," "chiken," "chart of pate' fine grasses" or "misty onion hoops" with a straight face.)
Bodegon Tocuya, in the university city of La Laguna, gets its funky look and feel from dusty old bottles, graffiti on the walls and wine barrels everywhere. After 10 p.m. or so, especially on weekends, the joint really jumps with wall-to-wall twentysomethings. There's no menu and no table service, so you just grab a seat, wade through the crowd to the bar and order. The ponytailed guy behind the counter will carve you slabs of cured ham from whole pig legs dangling from the ceiling, then pile it on a plate along with salami, spicy chorizo sausage and some salty-tangy white cheese. Warning to Californians: Can't stand the smoke? Sit near the door. This is Europe. "Tobacco-free" is practically an oxymoron here!
R E C I P E S
Here are a couple of muy simple, muy tasty recipes that'll bring the flavor of the Canaries home to you -- even if you can't fly south for the winter.
Mojo Verde de Cilantro (Green Cilantro Sauce)
1 t powdered cumin
1 head garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 bunch cilantro (Chinese parsley), washed, stems removed
1/2 to 1 small, spicy green pepper (or 1/4 cup drained canned jalapenos)
1/2 cup olive or other vegetable oil
2 oz. vinegar or lemon juice
1/2 t salt, or to taste
Optional: 1/2 medium avocado
Combine ingredients in a blender or food processor and blend until smooth. Serve cold or at room temperature as a sauce or dip for meat, seafood, potatoes, vegetables, etc.
Papas Arrugadas (Wrinkled Potatoes)
5 lbs. small to medium potatoes
5 T salt
Water (to just cover potatoes)
Combine ingredients in a saucepan and boil potatoes over medium heat until tender, about 20 to 25 minutes. Drain the water. Put pan back on medium heat, shaking it frequently until the salt forms a crust on the potato skins. Serve hot (or cold or at room temperature) and pass the mojo.