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New wave Canaries

These aren't one-note islands. Past the beach, Spain's little gems sing with swank architecture, colonial history and a climate that'll surprise you.

January 29, 2006|Susan Spano | Times Staff Writer

Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Canary Islands — VISITORS to the Canary Islands come here with one thing in mind: the beach. It's especially attractive to Europeans in winter, when you need a coat even on the Mediterranean.

These cold-weather refugees generally head straight for resorts on the sunny southern sides of Tenerife and Gran Canaria, about 60 miles off West Africa, so they can bake in the sun and get drunk. As a result, the islands have a reputation in Europe like that of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in the U.S.

But as I discovered almost by accident in mid-January, the islands have their own singular attractions beyond sunshine and rum punch: the 12,198-foot El Teide volcano, surrounded by its national park; graceful colonial towns founded after Spain conquered the Canaries in the late 15th century; and the invigorating city of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, a magnet for swashbuckling, contemporary architecture, including the new Auditorio de Tenerife.

The Canaries are Europe's Hawaii. This chain of seven major islands, raised from the Atlantic Ocean by volcanoes, has exotic fauna and flora, including the regal Canary Island pine and bizarre dragon tree that evolved in terrarium-like isolation.

These days, you can fly from London to the Canaries, which are self-governing Spanish provinces, in about four hours. But the sense of remoteness persists, attracting international criminals on the lam -- art thieves, terrorists, war criminals and Mafiosi -- as well as tourists. Even for people on the right side of the law, the Canaries feel like a good place to get lost.

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Spanish inns

I booked three-night stays at two traditional Spanish inns in scenic areas away from the beach but close enough to easily get to it: the Parador de Canadas del Teide on Tenerife and the Parador de la Palma on the smaller island of La Palma, both with doubles for about $130 in January.

On the way here, I missed my connection in Madrid and got to Los Rodeos Airport on the northern side of Tenerife about 10 p.m. I rented a car and headed for the Canadas parador on the flank of El Teide. The highway took me along a razorback ridge that was far more frightening than the Saddle Road on Hawaii's Big Island.

When I embarked on the 40-mile drive, no one mentioned there might be snow. That's nieve in Spanish, a word I now know well.

It was dark so I couldn't see much, except when the clouds that often veil the volcano parted, revealing precipitous drops and lights in valleys far below. I drove through lush forests of Canary Island pine, which gave way to ground-hugging juniper and broom as I ascended. Another car occasionally passed, headed down the mountain, but I had the road mostly to myself.

It began to snow halfway to the parador, at first gently, then heavily. But I kept going, unable to believe that I was driving through a snowstorm on Tenerife. Only when my economy-class car began to skid did I pull over and try to use my cellphone to call the rental agency's emergency road service number.

I couldn't get a signal.

I sat in the cold for 30 minutes, wondering if anyone ever froze to death in the Canary Islands.

Then headlights appeared. I jumped out of the car and flagged down the approaching vehicle, which was occupied by a young couple from Santa Cruz de Tenerife. They spoke no English but understood my dilemma anyway.

It was about 2 a.m. by the time my good Samaritans dropped me at the door of the Nivaria hotel, near the airport in the town of La Laguna -- their choice and, as I discovered the next morning, a good one.

The Nivaria is a small hotel with studio-apartment-sized rooms that have sitting areas and kitchenettes for about $85. It's in a renovated mansion on the Plaza del Adelantado in La Laguna.

The town was founded in 1496 by Alonso Fernandez de Lugo, who conquered the islands for Spain. As Tenerife's first capital, it attracted rich merchants and officials who gave it the colonial architecture that makes it a showplace still. On a walking tour early that morning, I saw dignified 16th and 17th century houses, including the Palacio de Nava and Casa Salazar-Obispado, whose latticework and wood balconies hang over the streets and interior courtyards are blissfully peaceful and green.

The sun came out in fits and starts, but when I looked up at the volcano I saw only thick, pillowy snow clouds, making it unlikely I'd get to the Canadas parador anytime soon.

Later, a tow truck dispatched by the rental agency tried to take me back up the mountain to get my car, but just short of where I'd left it, a highway department truck blocked the way. The road onward was closed -- and remained so for the next two days.

When I told the tow truck driver how amazed I was to find nieve on Tenerife, he laughed and said, "It's a little island, with many climates."

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