The Queen of Crime set sail for the healing sunshine of Tenerife in 1927. The previous year marked Agatha’s annus horribilis, with her mother’s death and the virtual collapse of her marriage. The island interlude followed the writer’s mysterious disappearance, an unacknowledged breakdown during which she was presumed dead or abducted. Tenerife provided an escape from press intrusion while “the island of eternal sunshine” found its way into Christie’s crime fiction.
I’ve come to Tenerife to see if Christie was right to linger in this sunny island for shady people. I’m hoping for chance encounters with Cluedo continentals and slightly sinister mingling with English caricatures who pace country houses in search of arsenic. Puerto de la Cruz is a promising start in my quest for suspicious parlour games and period flavour. The resort is, indeed, redeemed by genteel gardens, a bracing seaside promenade and bars overlooking Atlantic breakers. Following in Agatha’s footsteps, I head to Tauro Park, the heart of the expat community in the novelist’s day, complete with Anglican church and English library. I take in the orchid gardens of Sitio Litre manor, where tea and cake is served in the shade of a wizened, 500-year-old dragon tree. This gracious manor has been owned by English families continuously since 1774. It’s a schizophrenic spot – sultry hacienda meets prim English colonial gardens – perfect for plotting murder. Sadly, my sole companion is a sullen iguana rather than a smug, moustachioed Belgian detective. Nearby, the compact fort overlooking a black volcanic beach is a setting for the Agatha Christie Festival, presided over by Christie’s only grandson, Mathew Prichard.
Looming menacingly in the background is Mount Teide, Spain’s highest peak and the world’s third largest volcano. No wonder Agatha Christie was more impressed by the volcano than by the black sand beaches. With its lunar landscapes, lava fields and twisted rock formations, Mount Teide is my goal for a guided hike along the Samara route. “It’s a dormant volcano, not a dead one,” reminds Pepe, our guide, with just the right frisson of danger for Christie fans. These volcanic badlands often feature as film sets littered with extra-terrestials, crazy car crashes or time machines. I wonder what Christie would have made of Dr Who, Fast and Furious, the Bourne franchise, or the action-packed Wrath of the Titans, all shot on Tenerife. Somehow, I think the world’s bestselling crime-writer would have preferred the recent BBC dramatisation of her chilling And Then There Were None.
The road to the volcano base camp passes old craters and lava streams. “The last big eruption was in 1909 but you never know about the next one,” teases Pepe. The cable car jolts and sways in its eight-minute ride upto La Rambleta station on a “sunset and stars” experience. My new companions look disturbingly like Crimewatch suspects but turn out to be fellow travel-writers. On this tour, a glass of sparkling wine accompanies views of Mount Teide casting its shadow over Gran Canaria. I scramble across volcanic clinker to the lookout over Pico Viejo Crater and the promised sunset. In Christie’s The Companion, a crusty colonel says, “The Peak of Tenerife is a fine sight with the setting sun on it.” Ours is a sunset with a twist, as in any well-plotted crime novel. Just when I think the slightly underwhelming spectacle is over, the real light show begins, with candy colours melting over 3,500 metres of Mount Teide and slowly turning the ocean apricot.
Back at base camp, the sunset and stars experience continues with a Canarian buffet and volcanic local wines. We hoover up Tenerife goats’ cheese and wrinkly potatoes in a spicy red mojo sauce before stargazing at Las Cañadas. Billed as the best stargazing spot in Europe, these velvet skies deliver. A team of astronomers greets us with giant telescopes and laser beams and we’re soon swept away by a heady mix of Greek mythology, Spanish charm and heavenly constellations. “It depends how much wine you’ve drunk if you see the Plough,” says Jose, my tame astronomer. We start with the constellations visible to the naked eye, pointed out with a flash of a laser beam. “Use the pole star to guide you – we are in motion but the stars stay in the same position,” he urges.
The Great Bear constellation is the starting point for stargazing in the Northern Hemisphere and its shape is teased out of the sky. Slightly adrift in “the science bit”, I secretly long to possess a laser pen and command these celestial bodies myself. Heavenly awe kicks in with the storytelling: there’s Cassiopeia, the vain queen, bordered by daughter Andromeda and Perseus, her Greek hero husband. There was tantalising mention of a “sausage-dog lover” but that got lost in the Spanglish. Constellations are a form of storytelling, the imaginary lines we draw between stars. And then I look at the moon through the giant telescope and am so dazzled by its detailed topography I wonder if I have ever looked at it before. The astronomer does not mention mortals flickering, flashing and fading but the message hangs there.
Morning shifts from the cosmic to the commonplace, more familiar Christie territory. Lava landscapes and lush valleys lead me to Isla Baja, the wild north of Tenerife. With its palm trees, banana plantations, rocky headlands and low-slung cottages, the north is lovelier than the south. Above are paragliding thrill-seekers in tandem flights. My first stop is spinsterish Garachico, the island’s chief port until a volcano struck in 1706. Today it’s all cobbled streets and convents, secret patios, balconied Canarian houses and lava-rock pools. Its patina of nostalgia makes it the perfect crime scene, if only Agatha had known. The crime-writer also missed a trick in Masca, a neighbouring hamlet overlooking pine groves and gorges: all it lacks is a family feud and a snooty widow propelled to her death down a boulder-strewn gorge. Instead, I join unfeuding families for a paella lunch in the Meson del Norte Inn, where the only blood visible is on the meaty steaks.
That just leaves killer whales to conjure up the macabre. When Hercule Poirot muttered about the perils of “a lot of sharks”, he didn’t have Tenerife’s waters in mind. From Puerto Colon, Captain Paula’s whale-watching catamaran sails towards the island of La Gomera. Despite admonitions not to be sick over the side, the waters are calm and whale sightings almost guaranteed. Tenerife, rivalled only by the Azores, provides the best whale breeding grounds in Europe, helped by ready supplies of giant squid. Pilot whales with bulbous heads come calling, even if the killer whales are presumably too busy killing to stop by. As for dolphins, Captain Paula puts us right on bulls, cows and calves, “and if under four metres, technically it’s a dolphin even if you think it’s a whale.” A school of dolphins led by an alpha female surfs
by, bow-riding our boat. Apparently, her bottlenosed male buddies form a pod of their own and the two camps only meet for mating.
I wonder if Agatha knew that dolphins were as civilised as Tenerife.
Go Wild for Tenerife
Tenerife Tourist Board: webtenerife.co.uk
Hotel Bahia del Duque: bahia-duque.com
Hotel San Roque: hotelsanroque.com
Sunset and Stars: volcanolife.com
El Cardon hiking adventures: elcardon.com
Headwater (walking holidays): headwater.com
Ramblers (walking/cruise and walk): ramblersholidays.co.uk