As the Saharan winds whip up a dehydrating frenzy, the Calima blocks out the sunrise across the ocean to the east. That’s right, I’m in Tenerife doing my best Attenborough. British holidaymaker staple since the 1940s, banana plantation extraordinaire and proud to boast of 362 days of sunshine a year.
Don’t be fooled by the fruit machines in the airport or the football-shirt-wearing Luddites on the promenade though, there is something changing in the night sky.
I landed on the island on a humid Thursday afternoon in July. For some ungodly reason, I had chosen to travel out in the first week of the school holidays, so the airport was a seething mass of parents and spawn. This week, it didn’t matter where you landed, you were in for a ride.
Our driver made short work of the 30-minute transfer across the southern tip of the island. The roads make you long for something sporty and mid-engined to drive yourself though.
The hotel appears on the horizon like a terracotta Tuscan palace in the middle of the desert. The Ritz Carlton Abama is sprawling, to say the least. I sauntered into the cathedral-sized lobby, complete with boutiques and piano bars, and up to the reception desk for human signage. Our check-in takes place over cocktails at Club Level. This is the Ritz members’ style club – a hotel within the hotel, if you will. Perched on the tenth floor and presumably accessed by elevators with controls too high for children, Club Level is a sanctuary for those who need their hotel stay to have a modicum of privacy. There are complimentary drinks and an additional army of staff along with a private pool and culinary creations throughout the day. When you’ve travelled to a UK tourist hotspot in the middle of the school holidays, you’re glad of the sanctuary. It is, of course, family-friendly, though the children here are all dynasty-bound, not crayon-chewers.
Our suite is across the courtyard from the lobby, past the jazz band and tropical gardens complete with koi carp, next to the rather tranquil Persian garden. Mentally, I am already planning a world record-breaking game of hide and seek. Although I am sure that parents across the resort are also playing this game competitively, ensuring that their spawn become someone on the staff’s charge for a precious moment of respite. Or until the child’s name is heard on the tannoy. If you did lose your namesake I expect there is a high chance you would be passed a crisp white envelope by a doting member of staff with your child’s’ location enclosed for collection. As and when you should so wish, of course.
When you go into a suite, there are things that count. The bed needs to be Sinatra-grade. The wardrobe needs to be walk-in, and you need to be able to block out the light to a Las Vegas standard. Dark-side-of-the-moon dark. Everything was in order. I did see other suites whilst I was there, of course, lying dormant with thousands of square feet on offer. I could never find them twice though.
The first order of business was dinner. Our reservation at Txoko was for 9:00 pm. It had passed 9:00 pm. I was doing my best to remain courteous and entertain everyone, though secretly visualising the chef tapping his foot and sharpening his knife. I needn’t have worried – this modern Spanish restaurant conceptualised by Martín Berasategui was a far more relaxed affair. But I should be clear: The Review strictly frowns upon arriving late for supper. Especially for a chef that holds eight stars.
Thick marble tables, thousands and thousands of polished black tiles, and very natural wood panelling were the culinary cocoon for this dining experience. Spain meets Scandinavian design. The time was 9:10 pm, yet there were still some very polite and well-dressed children dining with families. Come to the Abama for the people-watching alone. I watched a gentleman’s family-of-four get up after dinner, kiss him politely and leave. I couldn’t work out if he was being punished or rewarded. “You spend an hour here darling, I will pop the kids to bed”. “THANK CHRIST”.
There were more pressing matters that required my attention over and above the Swiss father’s predicament though. The menu arrived and, as the time was now 9:30 pm, I wondered if it was still acceptable to order a starter. I haven’t eaten in a hotel that had more than one restaurant for some time. I scanned the menu and saw oysters, Iberian chorizo, and white fish ceviche (Peruvian style). Despite all these carnivorous options, my choice was tactical: I asked what was good. Most waiting staff take this question 50/50.
“You couldn’t spend the five minutes I was away choosing something using your own free will and the piece of cardboard with instructions I handed you?”
Or “let me grab some of tonight’s cuts of meat for us to talk through”. Sweet release. Txoko knows me already. It realises that dining is a collaborative process and everyone has a part to play. Mine is to be interested in food, to be engaged, at which I score very highly, I assure you.
Iberian charcuterie casalba and a selection of cheese. Meat, dairy and an Aperol Spritz for garnish. Perfection. This allowed me maximum time to continue watching the soap opera of lonely Swiss dad. He had that retired look, but in the way Obama does. Michelle’s there just prodding him gently saying “how’s that book deal coming along? I need to see some pages, okay?”
The main course arrived with a little more pomp and ceremony than expected. When I was shown the 45-day aged tomahawk, I thought ‘I have to’. I have to. I shrugged my shoulders gently like Scorsese and looked at my dining companion as if to say ‘you’re wearing the right dress to take this on with me, right? And even if you aren’t, the suite is less than 50 metres away’.
I don’t know the exact weight because I was a little overcome trying to work out how punchy the wine needed to be – but it was formidable, put it that way. You must know the best steak restaurant you have ever eaten in. Everyone has that place. It’s sacred. Mine, which shall remain nameless, was my go-to establishment for five years until Martín Berasategui prepared a banquet.
Even though we still had a quarter left, we went for lemon pie, coffee, and brandy. This was a cut of meat prepared in such a way that I had to ensure it was safeguarded for generations, so had it wrapped and delivered to the room in my absence. With only three nights to fully immerse ourselves in the experience, it was becoming clear that dining out was going to play a big part of our trip.
The following morning, we contemplated having breakfast down in the tropical gardens, but decided that the slight din of families would be too much to bear with heavy heads. So, we made our way up to Club Level to nibble delightful pastries and drink freshly-squeezed orange juice. The club faces out towards the hotels par-72 championship course designed by former Ryder Cup player Dave Thomas. As I slide into my thirties, I am often asked if I play golf. Like most people, I can practice comfortably at a driving range, but wouldn’t want to hold up proceedings of real enthusiasts by actually playing. The island itself has nine golf courses, with the Abama being generally regarded as one of the toughest in Spain. I think 22 water hazards alone confirms that.
For us, the morning would be spent exploring the southern tip of the resort and heading towards the islands Playa beach and pier. Given that the resort has 313 rooms and 148 villas, moving people around is a serious task. There are shuttles to take you down to the beach or up to the golf course, but if you really want to get around, book a villa with a golf cart. We decided that, rather than wait for the shuttle, we would enjoy the resort and walk the 600 metres to the Funicular Panormaico. Your options are to walk down the winding lane to the beach, adding 15 minutes to your journey, or take the idyllic cable-car down. It is, of course, manned by a gentleman who has honed his act, repeating this short 60-second journey hundreds of times a day. “Please keep your arms and legs inside the aircraft at all times”.
The beach is open to guests and public alike, but the majority of people sunning themselves here or dining at the beach club are staying at the resort. Take a stroll around the cliffs and along the pier whilst you are there and head down the stairs in the rocks to the natural swimming pools. Watch the kids diving off the rocks and cliffs, and when it all becomes too much, head back into the shade for a cocktail at the Beach Club. Facing out towards Gomera Island, the restaurant is a great place to watch the sun come down.
We decided after lunch to go and explore the adult-only pool and area around the villas. It seemed to be filled with couples and groups generally taking it a lot easier than some of the parents I’d seen over the weekend. Waiters are ferrying champagne to day beds whilst people sip cocktails on the pool’s edge, overlooking the ocean. This is clearly my pool. I don’t mind the families and children. If you have them, then more power to you, but I don’t. So, I’ll enjoy my pool, you enjoy yours. Life choices.
The hotel has a huge offering for families. The Annabel Croft tennis academy offers year-round programmes based on the coaching model created by Annabel at the academy’s National Tennis Centre headquarters in London. The resort also has its Ritz Kids programme for children aged between 4 and 12 years between 10:00 am and 6:00 pm. What surprises me more than the number of balls in the pit or toys in the soft play area is the mere €6 per day cost. That must be the most cost-effective childcare package in the world. They have films, sports, stories, cooking classes, workshops, music lessons, and much more We have our own activities planned for the evening though, so we return to the suite to prepare for the night’s manoeuvres.
We met our waiter at the Club Level entrance and he escorted us to the rooftop terrace of the Citadel. Tonight, we would be stargazing and dining alfresco with the team from M.B. The restaurant holds two Michelin stars and aims to offer an authentic exploration of Basque cuisine. They also only accept children over six years old and the dress code isn’t listed as formal. It’s elegant. We are, however, on the roof watching the sunset through the Calima, dressed equally elegantly, but without an audience.
I should point out now, due to a wedding taking place at the Beach Club, we were unable to take the customary MB picnic on the sand for the stargazing, so the wonderful resort team decided to host us on the roof. Had I not been told this by our waiter, I would have been none the wiser. As with any culinary experience, I find it best to be led by the chef. If there is a tasting menu, I will almost always ask the sommelier to pair accordingly and arrange a wine flight. The wines of Tenerife are a triumph, so be sure to ask your sommelier for some. Our first tipple was a magnum of Ruinart Blanc de Blancs. My apéritif of choice is always champagne. It clears the palate and reminds you that you’re there to relax in equal measure.
Next time you are out with friends that you don’t usually dine with, when the waiter asks if you would like an apéritif, choose champagne. See how many of your friends order the same. Lead, follow, or get out of the way. Our first uncorking that night was accompanied by caviar and a selection of artisan butter. As the sun set lower in the sky, we were joined by a clipboard and laser-pointer extraordinaire, Javier. A tour operator and astrologer, Javier would be joining us throughout the evening to help study the stars. There are 200 billion in our galaxy alone and 8,000 or so are visible to the naked eye. I assumed that he would be in possession of a telescope of some kind, but apparently not. He explained that this was because Tenerife is host to the largest solar observatory in the world, so when something needs to be seen in the night sky, he goes to the Teide observatory. If we didn’t have another six courses planned that evening, I would probably have bitten his arm off to have a behind-the-scenes tour. Alas, another reason to visit again.
Having had our astrologer stood on the terrace with us watching the sunset for 45 minutes, I asked if he wanted to join us for a drink. If someone is going to join you during a Michelin-starred meal with only a clipboard and various official-looking lanyards for sustenance, the least you can do is offer them a chair. What followed was translucent king crab cannelloni on bearnesa and citric green apple juice. A triumph of flavours and plating. The two stars are well-earned. The truffle gelatin on a bed of smooth foie-gras cream with sweet and salty elements was concerning to read at first. ‘Truffle gelatin’, I thought, ‘that could go so well or so wrong’. Not surprisingly, the richness of the truffle and the foie gras paired beautifully. Every time I go out to dinner, I inevitably find a dish that I would love to be able to recreate at home. This time, it was the calamari in textures on an unctuous cream of bacon and crispy parmesan cheese. It was rich and creamy, the sort of appetiser that you only get in single numbers when really you need a large tray.
By the time we got to the fresh pasta ravioli stuffed with truffle, emulsified with mushroom juice and sheets of black truffle, I was trying to see Mars and Venus and ask a million questions at the same time. Javier did a great job of conversing during the waiter’s several trips downstairs to the restaurant, and then monologing when it was time to dine again. The Ley de Cielo or Sky Law limits outdoor lighting, and the cloudless nights make the Canary Islands one of the best locations to stargaze in the world. We spotted satellites, constellations, learnt about the movement of the Earth, and how to navigate celestially.
The final main courses of the evening arrived: grilled bluefin tuna belly on Iberian dashi broth spaghetti, spring onions stuffed with raifort and crispy seaweed and pigeon breast flame on a cocoa bed, pickle foam, beetroot and crunchy yoghurt. I am a big fan of pigeon; it is entirely underrated game that has such rich meat. As the hour was approaching 11:00 pm and dinner had begun in earnest at 8:00 pm, Javier suggested we move the party to the other side of the hotel roof as ‘that was where the action was’. After fumbling around with the maintenance team for twenty minutes whilst I sipped brandy and looked upward, I suggested that by now the wedding would have moved inside, so perhaps we should venture down to the beach.
This also offered the opportunity to gatecrash a Spanish wedding.
Everyone agreed and we decamped, brandy and wine in hand, to the front entrance to await transport. After ten minutes and no sign of a vehicle, we decided to hop into Javier’s people-carrier and drive ourselves. Large resorts are great at providing amenities at allotted times, but sometimes things get lost in the scale. The beach was indeed empty, and we finished the evening led in a row on sun-loungers, staring up at the Alpha and Omega.
The following afternoon we had treatments booked at the spa. My interest in having a stranger massage me is entirely linked to my state of mind and physical wellbeing. Having spent a late evening on the beach, I was happy to sit and let the various jets and steams wash over me before escaping to the bright sun in the garden cabana with a coffee. Having spent the better part of an hour watching an amorous mother and daughter take ridiculous selfies in the spa pool, they eventually got their comeuppance for being so garish. The daughter slumped onto a lounger, clipped a shelf, and sent a sizeable vase tumbling to the floor. She spun around just in time to see me mouth the words ‘oh dear’ in my best David Niven tone of voice. I then sauntered off to join my partner in the sauna. As with all locations, 99% of the people are well-heeled travellers. Then there are the 1% that won a competition or haven’t seen running water before.
For our final evening, we had an early reservation at Abama Kabuki, the resort’s Japanese fine-dining restaurant at the top of the estate, nestled in the golf courses tropical palms. I don’t really know how I initially felt about going to a restaurant on a golf course, in a smoking jacket and white chinos. To my knowledge clubhouses and golf club restaurants have always had a stiff upper lip to them, but I certainly wouldn’t describe them as standalone. I looked into the eyes of our golf buggy driver and asked “too much?”
“No señor, perfect”.
I don’t know what the driver’s opinion was really going to do to convince me that I wasn’t overdressed, but my grandmother always said ‘better to be overdressed than underdressed’.
It transpires that the Michelin-starred Abama Kabuki is below the Club House with a picturesque panoramic garden terrace that looks out over the sunset-lit coastline. We were seated with an aperitif just in time to watch the sun crest over the water below. As I surveyed the clientele in attendance, it was clear that this group had travelled from all over the island. The restaurant opened a few years after the Abama launched and is one of two restaurants on the estate open to the public, so of course, the level of service is exemplary. When a new resort opens, each restaurant must strive to make a name for itself over and above the noise created by the launch. By opening after the initial launch furore, Kabuki has been able to assess the clientele frequenting the resort and tailor itself as such. For sure, Ricardo Sanz cuisine is a fusion of Japanese and Mediterranean cuisine that intersects at the point where modernity harmoniously meets tradition. The restaurant’s flagship in Madrid holds a Michelin star for this very reason.
I adhere to tradition with a give-and-take approach: I like to adhere to certain protocols and bend others. The restaurant asks that you wear long trousers because, in all fairness, we are a long way from the beach. That you don formal shoes, presumably not patent, and that your child be at least six years old. Once again, I have made my position on children very clear. I don’t mind their company, I just would prefer to not hear your toddler screaming at 11:00 pm during my tea ceremony. Luckily, tradition is upheld at Kabuki. Victor, our sommelier, is the first to greet us at the table. I can make a vain attempt at pairing wine with most things, but Japanese cuisine is not one of them. I decide that I am out of my depth and order sake. I think Victor spots my trepidation though and offers a wine flight with the tasting menu, thank Uke Mochi.
We begin with nasu no kiso, kumquat, gyoza and goma edamame: a collection of well-manicured hors d’oeuvres that define the word moreish. The ginger and pineapple flavours of the bright orange kumquats act as a palate-cleanser. For a brief moment, I think the overall meal is going to be one of artistic canapés, the sort of dishes that circulate at events, leaving you watching the waiters out of the corner of your eye, hoping they will return to your group with another platter. I finish off my final gyoza and watch the last pink hues vanish from the clouds outside on the terrace. The overall style of kabuki is in many ways ceremonial. The decor is striking yet relaxed, once again fusing the Mediterranean and Japanese styles.
Next to arrive is the otsukuri or sashimi: thinly-sliced fatty tuna with bread and tomato; white fish with cumin and citrus; and tuna tataki with tonnato sauce. It is rare that I can dine and feel smugly healthy at once. I am eager to see the fish that these meticulously-plated dishes have come from, but I decide to forgo my usual request to tour the kitchen. Not because I am worried about my fellow diners, but to some extent, because I don’t want to pull down the veil on this theatrical encounter. As you would expect, the sashimi is rich and delicate in equal measure and seasoned with a delicate coalition of spice and citrus. I don’t remember the last time I talked so much about the dishes during a dinner service.
As dish after dish arrived at the table and all too quickly vanished in a delightful whirl of culinary elation, I almost missed the wagyu beef loin nigiri.
As we reached the witching hour, Victor does his utmost to continue the libations, we out-dine him, and he sadly finishes his shift. The time is gone 1230am, and whilst there’s still a smattering of guests, I feel that it is a little later than it should be, so decide to retire. With the tip weighted down under an empty sake bottle on the table, we slowly make our way towards the staircase. It’s at this point that our attentive party of waiters approached us to ask if we are okay.
“Everything was wonderful,” I say, trying to convey more sincerity in my voice than I ever have. “Have you had the matcha tea ceremony yet? You simply must”.
I realise that we have missed the final part of this eastern puzzle. “We were just taking a quick look around”. I hope to god they haven’t found the tip on the table and realised that I am secretly a Japanese cultural luddite. My mother travelled the world when I was a boy, leaving me to be managed by a variety of friends and relatives. She continued to expand her cultural lexicon, leaving me to squander my teenage years in Blighty. She had visited Japan twice, so no doubt was all too familiar with the matcha tea ceremony.
We returned to our table, having left a sufficient amount of time to maintain the ruse and not give ourselves away. Now you don’t need to be a Zen master to officiate a tea ceremony, but you do have to be highly-trained. The graceful choreography requires and exacting standards are a time-honoured tradition. The matcha has a vibrant green colour and smells light, fresh and grass-like. It’s silky smooth on the palate and, when powdered, resembles a smooth eyeshadow. I wonder what the caffeine count is. As the clock strikes 1:00 am, we sit calmly, sipping our tea in silence, staring out to the coastline through the palms. It really does make for a rather poetic end to the evening.
Ultimately, I have never really been a resort type of person – assuming the hype that surrounds the idea of there being ‘something for everyone’ is simply too much for any hospitality task force to live up to. The word ‘resort’ is too often used to denigrate a location though. If you pair a handful of industry-leading restaurants, undeniably perfect weather, and the ability to have that boutique edge, you really are leading the field. The Ritz Carlton Abama is an elder statesman, a patriarch, safe and secure in its residence as an innovator and a location that is changing the perception of what a family friendly luxury resort can be.