IF there is such a thing as tourist hell, it might look something like the view from my taxi as I rode from Tenerife Sur airport in the Canary Islands to the ferry dock: a wall of anonymous concrete-box condos along a beach covered with a thousand blue deck chairs, lined up like parading soldiers. I smiled, for this tourist was only passing through on her way to a place she was pretty sure would be paradise, just an hour’s hydrofoil ride away.
The Canary Islands, which belong to Spain, have become well known as a haven for mass package tourism, thanks to the success that two of them, Tenerife and Gran Canaria, have had in attracting sun-hungry northern Europeans. Poorly connected by air to the United States — there aren’t any direct scheduled flights from here — the Canaries don’t see many Americans, who have their own, more convenient versions of Tenerife in the Caribbean.
I’m always reluctant to dismiss destinations said to be spoiled by tourism — mainly because popular destinations are usually at the other end of frequent, and cheap, airline connections. The Canaries, while difficult to reach from here, are an inexpensive two-and-a-half-hour hop from most major European cities, including Madrid, where I was traveling last May (I got a round-trip Madrid-Tenerife ticket on Iberia for about $160). What’s more, I’ve found that it’s usually pretty easy to ditch the crowd in so-called touristy places by taking a short ride off the beaten track by car, boat or train.
I suspected this might be true of the Canaries and, as I planned my 10-day trip there from New York, I found evidence to support my theory. There are seven main islands in the archipelago, and the four least trafficked, according to the guidebooks, receive a fraction of the visitors of Gran Canaria, Tenerife or Lanzarote. Scanning the descriptions of the less popular Canaries, I became most interested in La Gomera, a round volcanic island 20 miles west of Tenerife. Although it is 146 square miles, less than a tenth the size of Rhode Island, La Gomera has an astonishing variety of landscapes — lush, terraced farm valleys, desert-dry coasts, and a high-altitude laurel forest covered in perpetual mists, an ecosystem so rare it has been designated a Unesco World Heritage Monument.
There was more good news: La Gomera had only one large tourist resort; the rest of its tourist accommodations are a few small hotels and a network of vacation rentals. On the Web I found a site for a private tourist agency, CIT (www.canary-islands.com). Part of a network of independent agencies in the Canaries, CIT connects local homeowners with tourists seeking to stay in a village house or apartment. There were pictures, maps and detailed descriptions of more than two dozen apartments and houses on the site, and the prices were reasonable — between $35 and $60 a night for the property, depending on the season. (May, when I was visiting, is off season in the Canaries, which are busiest in the winter and during summer vacations.)
Normally I’d hesitate to book a private apartment for more than a week without first seeing it. But I knew that in Spain, where similar lodging programs operate nationwide, rural tourist home stays are inspected and regulated by local governments. In the Web pictures, the apartments and houses appeared modest but comfortable. I chose a one-bedroom apartment in the Casa La Punta complex in the village of Hermigua (population 2,000) that was described as close to shops and markets, high on a ridge overlooking the sea and the Pico del Teide volcano on nearby Tenerife.
Casa La Punta also had a fully equipped kitchen, television and a washing machine. It seemed like a lot for only $42 a night. I sent an e-mail message to CIT, and received confirmation by e-mail a few days later.
And so, on a sunny, cloudless day, a shiny new catamaran deposited me and about a hundred other passengers at the ferry dock in San Sebastian, La Gomera’s biggest settlement. Most of my fellow passengers were Germans, headed for the beach community of Valle Gran Rey. That beach has the safest swimming on the island, which has rocky, rough black-sand beaches that are poor by, say, Caribbean standards. Valle Gran Rey is La Gomera’s main tourist area, a backpacker’s haunt that consists of a profusion of tiny budget hotels and cottages along a black sandy strand on the island’s southwestern fringe.
Hermigua, my destination, was off in the opposite direction, in a deep, narrow valley that cut through the north of the island and ended at the sea. Getting there (or anywhere else in La Gomera, for that matter) involves a tricky ride over a mountainous road, so I’d decided to stay in San Sebastian for one night, and leave the next morning. Shouldering my gear, I walked about 200 yards to the center of town, and inquired about a room at the clean-looking but plain Hotel Garajonay. I negotiated a deal for a single at $25 a night (breakfast was $3.27 extra), not really expecting much. When I turned the key and saw the bright, large room with windowed doors opening to a little deck with chairs and a pretty view of cottages clinging to San Sebastian’s steep slopes, I felt happy I’d chosen this particular Canary island.