Brochures on display in the tourist office describe Los Cristianos as a former fishing village with a bustling, colourful harbour. Never trust a place that calls itself a "former fishing village". They're usually sprawling concrete resorts and the only boats still working are booze-cruise charters.

Fortunately, Los Cristianos is a departure point for ferries from Tenerife to the other Canary Islands. I've decided on a tour of neighbouring La Gomera, despite the efforts of a travel agent who does her best to put me off.

"You'll be stuck on the coach all day," she warns. "And the trip is very cheap so the lunch won't be great. Why don't you go independently? It'll give you more freedom." I book the tour, if only to see the expression on her face.

In truth, I have little choice. It's carnival time and hotels on La Gomera are busy, hire cars are hard to come by and rumours of public transport are greatly exaggerated. My plan is to use the excursion to see something of the island, then track down a room in the port town of San Sebastian and stay on for a few nights.

Situated a hop and a skip from Saharan Africa, Spain's seven Canary Islands have long been a winter bolthole for northern Europeans tired of bone-numbing cold, exorbitant heating bills and the daily car-defrosting ritual. Tenerife is the most popular; attracting five million tourists annually, a good enough reason to catch a ferry to somewhere else.

The crossing to La Gomera takes an hour. Ship announcements boom out in Spanish and English, followed by a series of frantic whistles when a bird gets trapped in the loudspeaker. At least that's what it sounds like. Tour guide Oliver explains that what we're hearing is Silbo Gomero, an ancient whistling language originally used to communicate across the island's precipitous valleys and deep ravines.

Advances in technology meant the language was at risk of dying out until it was made a compulsory subject on the school curriculum. Since 2009, Silbo has merited the protection of Unesco, although the schoolchildren I see seem happier using their mobile phones. Perhaps they send tweets instead.

We pile onto the tour bus, which is soon straining up steep mountain roads too narrow for a car. The circular island is a mere 24km in diameter but it feels a lot larger, because of the hilly interior. And what La Gomera lacks in shopping and nightlife it more than makes up for in microclimates. One minute we're fumbling our way through highland cloud forest, the next we're face to face with mango and papaya trees in lush subtropical gardens.

Oliver flings out facts in five languages, pausing to apologise for his rusty Dutch. We learn about the importance of bananas to the local economy and how La Gomera is the only one of the Canaries not to have experienced a volcanic eruption in modern times. The island is also known as Isla Colombina, a reference to a series of visits by Christopher Columbus, who stopped by to restock his fleet with provisions and water before continuing across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas.

Lunch, with its emphasis on locally sourced ingredients, turns out to be delicious and provides an opportunity to meet my fellow sightseers. A British couple gloat about heavy snowfall back home and a German lady says she flew out of Frankfurt Airport in a blizzard, which causes theatrical shivers all round. Apparently it's no warmer in Hong Kong. According to my Facebook feed there's frost on Lantau Peak and temperatures in the city are close to zero.

After a post-lunch drive through Garajonay National Park the group board a ferry back to Tenerife; I find a guesthouse near the church where Columbus once prayed. San Sebastian hasn't made the transition to fully fledged tourist town yet. The retail mix remains an intriguing blend of curio shops and locksmiths, cafés and car parts stores. There are plenty of outdoor equipment retailers - the island is renowned for its extensive network of well-maintained hiking trails.

For all the lofty Tolkienesque scenery, however, La Gomera's most celebrated sight isn't even on the island, although it's hard to miss. Looming symmetrically through the clouds, Mount Teide is actually on Tenerife. And after an enjoyable three days exploring Isla Colombina, it's time to head back for a closer look at Spain's highest peak (3,718 metres).

There's no shortage of accommodation on the largest Canary Island. Playa de las Americas is Tenerife's alpha resort. There's bingo if you want it. Lots of bingo. There are also Sunday roast dinners and a hectic schedule of Premier League soccer matches scribbled on chalkboards. A 10-minute drive away is the Costa del Silencio, which by wonderful irony is right under the airport flight path.

For real peace and quiet I detour to Masca, a photogenic village of 90 souls hidden deep beneath the Macizo de Teno mountains and reached by the kind of impossibly convoluted road you only see in cartoons. Alas, there's no room at the inn, so I finish up in the laid-back beach town of El Medano, which seems to be a shared winter HQ for pensioners and the kitesurfing community. I spend most of my stay deciding which group to affiliate with.

Apart from one or two overdeveloped resorts, Tenerife is an exceptionally beautiful island. I set off along a deliciously fragrant road littered with pine cones towards Mount Teide. Wildflowers carpet the foothills and blossoming almond trees soothe the senses until packs of touring motorcyclists roar past me on blind bends. Gradually, the vegetation thins as the tarmac zigzags upwards into a region of parched desert scrub, wind-sculpted rock formations and cloudless skies.

After rounding yet another hairpin, Mount Teide rears up, demanding attention. At an outdoor café I join customers who sit hypnotised, unable to tear their gaze away from the dormant volcano and other-worldly landscape.

I'd whistle to show my appreciation if only I had a better grasp of the language.

Getting there: Tenerife is served by flights from most major European cities.