It takes a few seconds for my eyes to focus looking through the lens of the giant telescope.
Then, suddenly, there it is. Saturn. With the famous rings around it.
There is a sense of exhilaration as this is something impossible to see with the naked eye.
Minutes later I’m looking at Pluto with four moons to the left of it, again a first in my list of life experiences.
I’m in Tenerife, thousands of feet up in the Teide Natural Park, gazing up at a black sky filled with bright stars and the white haze of the Milky Way.
Mount Teide is the first UNESCO World Heritage Site certified as a Starlight Tourist Destination because of its clear skies.
Tenerife’s location in the middle of the ocean, its lack of pollution and the park’s high altitude and distance from any towns or cities make this one of the best places in the world for star gazing.
It’s a magical night made possible by local astronomer Juan Vicente who has brought his telescope to our hotel, Parador Canadas del Teide, a beautiful mountain lodge at the foot of Mount Teide which arranges such evenings for its guests.
We are on a walking tour of the ever popular island with the newly formed Canaria Ways holiday company, an offshoot of the well-established CaminoWays.com.
Arriving just hours before on a direct, four hour Aer Lingus flight from Dublin, we drove up from the coast to the national park, which is in the middle of the island, climbing all the way.
Dinner in the hotel included a speciality starter of the region, small wrinkled potatoes baked in salt with three different mojo sauces – Tenerife boasts 24 types of the humble South American spud – followed by a steak with passion fruit and mashed purple potatoes for me and pulpo, or octopus for others. Then, it was out to the stars.
It’s gone midnight now but nobody’s in a hurry to go indoors. How often do we get a chance to appreciate the spectacular light show above our heads?
The magic continues the next day when we hike the moon-like Teide Park itself, a volcanic wonderland which attracts four million visitors a year, one of the busiest national parks in Europe.
There are some magnificent views including those of the Teide Volcano itself, which stands at 2,300m at the base and rises to 3,718m at the top (12,198ft), the highest point in Spain and the third highest volcano in the world.
We’re told it takes seven hours to climb but there is also a cable car to the top. Keen hikers can stay overnight in a mountain hut 400m from the top and watch the sunrise the following day before descending. But a park permit is required and numbers are limited to just 40 a day.
Teide’s landscape is so alien looking it has been used in numerous films including One Million Years BC, which shot Raquel Welch to fame, Clash of the Titans and the sixth instalment of The Fast and the Furious. The latest Sylvester Stallone film, Rambo: Last Blood, was also filmed here in 2018.
Despite the desert-like conditions, 220 different plant species still manage to grow here in the rich mineral soil.
The volcano first erupted 170,000 years ago with the last major activity coming at the end of the 14th Century. Scientists say it is still sleeping but slowly dying and they do not expect it to blow again.
After the national park, we are back on the road to Santiago del Teide where we have a workshop making the local mojo sauce from bell peppers, garlic, oil, red wine vinegar and with coriander for the green sauce and chillies for the red.
With varying degrees of success we then sit down for lunch in La Casona del Patio and sample our efforts with toasted cornmeal ‘gofio,’ another local delicacy, and goat’s cheese with red mojo and quince followed by half a roast chicken.
Tenerife itself was created by volcanic eruptions and there are 321 volcanoes on the island forming 11 different micro-climates. The central mountain range splits the island in half with a dry south and a wetter north.
We see that first-hand the following day in the Parque Rural de Anaga in the north of Tenerife, where we begin a stunning day’s walking in a lush rain forest with cool temperatures before slowly descending to the sun-drenched coast with its spectacular, rocky views.
We follow a spectacular trail above the shoreline which leads through several tiny hamlets before ending at a tiny black sand and stone beach at the mouth of the Afur ravine where some of our party plunge into the ocean to cool off after several hours walking.
But unbeknown to us, the toughest part of the long day is yet to come. The hike up the steep ravine to our waiting van is a killer, a relentlessly uphill, exhausting trek with no shade on a baking hot day. It takes far longer than expected and I run out of water an hour from the top. So be warned, take plenty of fluids with you.
Fortunately, there’s a café-bar at the top which is a glorious sight to a man gasping for a cold one.
Our days in Tenerife are not all spent out in the wilds and we visit picturesque towns and villages on our trip and stay in some beautiful historic buildings oozing with character.
After the luxury of the parador the first night we moved on to the lovely coast town of Garachico where we were booked into the gorgeous Hotel La Quinta Roja with a picturesque courtyard and wooden balconies.
We had a sumptuous dinner of banana croquets, watercress soup, steak with figs, pepper, tomato and aubergine with thinly fried potatoes and a sorbet of cherries, blueberries and mango mousse with chocolate sauce, hazelnuts and redcurrants.
One of the highlights of Garachio is the seafront where swimming areas and staircases have been carved into the rocks.
Our final night’s stay was in the La Laguna Gran Hotel, a four star colonial building in the heart of San Cristobla de La Laguna.
This is second biggest city on Tenerife after nearby Santa Cruz and is the island’s cultural capital and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Its old town is full of stunning 15th, 16th and 17th century buildings, palaces and churches and its grid system was used as a model for cities in the Americas, including Cartagena in Colombia and Old Havana in Cuba.
Much of the beauty is out of sight until you walk into the courtyards which abound everywhere.
We had dinner in the Gran Hotel and even tried out a cheese and wine tasting session the following day before it was time to head for the airport and home.
Written By: Jim Gallagher
Our trip was organised by Canaria Ways: www.canariaways.com
They offer self-guided walking holidays on various islands with packages including boutique properties and Paradores. Guided tours are also available for groups. For Tenerife walks see https://canariaways.com/ways/tenerife
A four night Teide walking break costs from €570 pps, including airport transfers, accommodation with breakfast and 2 dinners, transfers to trail/hotel, holiday pack with practical information, 24/7 support number. Flights are separate.
A seven night volcanic landscape break, walking in Teide Natural Park, Villaflor, Santiago del Teide and Garachico costs from €1,040 pps, including transfers, accommodation with breakfast and 3 dinners.
A tailor-made nine to 12 night walking tour costs from €1017 pps.
Aer Lingus operates up to 7 flights a week from Dublin to Tenerife and up to 2 flights a week from Cork during their winter schedule. Fares start from €66.99 one-way including taxes and charges. Visit aerlingus.com.
To organise stargazing contact Juan Vicente on firstname.lastname@example.org
Information on the Parador de Las Cañadas del Teide see: https://www.parador.es/en/paradores/parador-de-las-canadas-del-teide