John Carter: Drag Queens and Drummers

For well over two years, the thoughts I’ve expressed here have been, overwhelmingly, about past travels and future hopes. As we made our nervous way through the ups and downs of Covid, I tried to remain positive, hoping you would join me in my “support bubble of optimism”.

Because actually going anywhere was out of the question I’ve often strayed from the subject of travel and holidays, for which I apologise, but hope my ramblings were of interest, and maybe even amusement.

The reason for this reflective mood is that I’ve finally managed to clamber back into the saddle. Managed to pack a suitcase, take a plane and actually go somewhere. Finally, I have a travel experience to share with you. Oh, frabjous day!!!!

My destination was Tenerife. As the reason was the Annual General Meeting of the British Guild of Travel Writers, I had a load of fellow-scribes as companions. There were over 80 of us, and it was an enjoyable and educational experience.

The first eye-opener came on the evening our hosts – the Tenerife Tourist Board – invited us to what I thought was going to be a display of Flamenco, possibly with guitars and that unique, hollow-palmed, clapping and wailing that goes with it. All I had been told was there would definitely be dancing.

It turned out to be a burlesque show. I have never been to one, so this was a new experience for an old duffer who has had more experiences than most. I feared it might be salacious, but it was nothing of the sort – just a lot of extremely athletic young men and women who were clearly well-trained acrobats and displayed amazing skills usually seen in the circus ring. 

The fact that the ladies wore revealing costumes added to the spectacle – enough fishnet to equip a Hull trawler, and exotic feather headdresses to gladden the heart of an Apache or Sioux chieftain. And some of the lads didn’t hold back in the leather thong and fishnet department, either.

Inevitably there was a drag queen. I say “inevitably” because I was told by one of my more experienced younger colleagues that no burlesque show is complete without one – or, indeed, several.

We had to settle for one, who appeared, as my young friend predicted with uncanny accuracy, in the guise of Marilyn Monroe and, later, Jayne Mansfield (and, bizarrely, Elvis Presley, but we won’t go into that). 

Unfortunately, it was obvious that Her Majesty should have abdicated before everything got out of control in the waistline and derriere areas.  Still, he/she was all part of the fun, as far as I was concerned. A game old bird, if you’ll forgive the expression.

Of course, it wasn’t all jollification, for we were there to conduct the serious business of approving minutes, dealing with matters arising, raising points of order and agonising over our future – as a professional body and as individuals. Journalism of any sort is nowadays an uncertain trade, and travel journalists are more vulnerable than most. So we had stuff to fret about.

However, when fretting time was over, we explored as much of the island as we could, visiting Fincas and Bodegas and getting to know what makes Tenerife tick. Some of my more adventurous colleagues went surfing and mountain biking and hiking. Good for them, I thought, having used age and a dodgy knee as an excuse for opting out of anything that threatened to be strenuous. 

We stayed at a couple of super hotels. The Sheraton La Caleta boasts five stars and offers swimming pools and a spa/fitness centre, and courts for tennis and something called “padel” – which turns out to be tennis played on a smaller court. 

My room was spacious and verging on the luxurious, with a large bathroom which, in addition to a huge bath, had a walk-in shower (very handy for those of us with dodgy knees). 

The day we travelled to the north of the island, the Sheraton closed for refurbishment, having apparently been bought by Hilton. Apart from changing the branding, I can’t imagine what needs to be done to improve a most impressive establishment, but no doubt the new owners will find something that needs re-arranging.

The Botanico, at Puerto de la Cruz, is another top of the range hotel with pools and a spa and a selection of restaurants. Its architecture is “Thai-influenced”, according to the brochure in my bedroom.

This may be because it is owned by the folk who operate the award-winning Siam water park on Tenerife, and who hosted us to an evening barbecue, with lasers and fireworks, and steaks. (Huge steaks seem to be a feature of the island’s cuisine, at least when it comes to catering for a horde of hungry hacks. But be warned they’re not always top quality.)

We ended our visit with another al fresco drinks party – though as we were there for business purposes, we called it a meeting, thus following precedence from on high. 

On arriving at the venue we were greeted by – wait for it – two drag queens!  They were much younger, taller and slimmer than he at the Scandal club (the location of the burlesque show), but one of them, I’m sure, was sporting a beard, which was a complication I had not expected.  But then I am an innocent in such matters.

There were also drummers. They came in teams and drummed relentlessly, for far longer than one expected. The explanation for their presence was that they are a feature of Tenerife’s annual carnival. “It is the second most popular carnival in the world”, claimed one of our hosts.  I thought of Rio and Notting Hill and New Orleans, but said nothing.

Then on came the carnival dancers. More feathers and fishnet and lots of cavorting – to the relentless beat of more drums, naturally. 

If our hosts wanted to convince us that Tenerife is a fun destination, with top quality hotels, then they did so in spades.  I’ve visited the island many times over the years, have seen it grow steadily in popularity, and believe that popularity is well-deserved.

All in all, this was a great way to begin travelling again, though it reminded me of one of the occupational hazards of the professional traveller – the professional tour guide. One, a female, sat in the front of our bus and talked as relentlessly as those darned drums. Her voice was like a masonry drill. 

But she was one small flaw in an otherwise excellent travelling experience.

P.S. On an entirely different subject, I popped into my local Civic Centre this morning for my second booster. A young nurse asked a lot of questions, ending up with “Are you pregnant?”

“Yes”, I replied.  “But do my parents need to be told?”

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John Carter

Long-time presenter of TV’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ and BBC holiday programmes

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