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The Azores: Atlantic escape

Once a pit-stop for European traders on their way to the New World, the Azores’ blend of volcanic landscapes, colonial settlements and native fauna make it the ideal getaway for modern-day explorers.

The Azores: Atlantic escape

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The weekend: Exploring the great outdoors

Requirements: An active break for a group of friends, within a few hours of the UK

Fits the bill: São Miguel, Azores, with its volcanoes, hot springs and dramatic landscapes

Budget: £1,000

 

Dolphins, dolphins!” Someone yells over the roar of the engine, and we all rush to the front of the boat.

Sure enough, there they are — dozens of them. Although I’m on a whale-watching trip, I haven’t seen any of the elusive cetaceans, but I can’t imagine they’re any more beautiful than the dolphins, which swim ahead of me like a shoal of giant fish.

I watch, hypnotised, as they playfully push each other out of the way, surfing on the waves created by the boat. They’re attention-seekers, leaping out of the water in cinematic arcs, as if they know exactly what the crowd wants and are egged on by the passengers’ excitement. Eventually, they tire of their game and, as suddenly as they’d arrived, vanish into the deep blue of the Atlantic.

I’d arrived in the Azores the day before on the last direct flight of the season from the UK. The archipelago sits about a third of the way from Portugal to the US, over 900 miles from the mainland, and it’s a world away from Europe. Of the nine islands, all bar one — Santa Maria — were at some point volcanic, and now their dramatic, hilly landscapes are sliced up by ravines, valleys and lakes.

Once a pit-stop for European explorers and traders on their way to the New World, the Azores’ connection to the two continents is still visible today — the isle of Terceira is home to a US air base, while São Miguel is a popular stop-off for US tourists on route to Europe.

The latter is where I’m spending my weekend, but with more time I could have hopped over to one of the neighbouring islands. Pico, perhaps — home to Portugal’s highest peak and some of the archipelago’s most impressive hiking — or Faial, with its colourful Horta marina, covered in artwork painted by passing sailors. According to superstition, the paintings ward off bad luck at sea, so to this day seamen still leave an artistic offering when they pass through.

São Miguel is the largest of the Azores. It’s been inhabited since the mid-15th century, but the impossibly green landscape looks like it hasn’t changed in millennia; the hills, undulating like the boiling lava that once flowed from them, now covered in a carpet of dense plant life. Away from the towns,only the winding roads and hedgerows serve as reminders this place is inhabited by humans at all.

In fact, around 140,000 people live on the island, primarily in and around the main city of Ponta Delgada — my base for the weekend. It’s a former colonial town, and the archipelago’s transport hub, with the biggest airport of all the islands and a port that’s popular with cruise ships in summer.

Viewpoint of Kings

I arrive back at the marina after our dolphin encounter and drive over to Cais 20 restaurant for lunch. Here, huge portions of fish and seafood are served with a dramatic view over the ocean, and plenty of local wine — the volcanic soil giving the grapes an unusual, earthy flavour. It’s a leisurely meal; time seems to move slower in the Azores, so it’s no surprise the restaurant’s doors don’t close until 5am most nights, opening again just a few hours later for lunch.

Sated, I move on to Vista do Rei (the King’s View) to admire the Lakes of Lagoa das Sete Cidades. Named Blue and Green respectively, due to their colour, they sit in the crater of a dormant volcano, and the craggy edges of the once lava-filled bowl are still discernible underneath its cloak of greenery — embedded in the landscape like some rusty farm machinery overgrown with weeds. I drive down the steep road to the water’s edge, past a sea of powder-blue hydrangeas — not native to these parts, but introduced around 100 years ago and now perfectly at home in this mongrel landscape.

Once at the waterside, it’s harder to tell which of the lakes is which, although from above the difference in colour had been obvious. Both are now a turquoise so opaque that any number of bizarre, prehistoric creatures could have once lived below the surface for centuries without discovery — Nessie would be quite at home here. The crater we’re standing in seems vast — it’s three miles wide, its walls reaching an altitude of over 1,600ft — and cut off from the rest of the island; a sense of isolation compounded by the fact I haven’t seen another living soul, not even the cows that usually graze these hills.

With the weather turning chillier, I head for the shelter of an unlikely tourist attraction in Sete Cidades village — a concrete tunnel. Built in the 1930s to alleviate flooding from the lake, the tunnel is now a popular walking route, running for almost a mile from Sete Cidades towards the coast.

The Azores are a haven for hikers, with a wealth of tidy, well-signposted trails, but this isn’t one of them. There are no lights, and I have to step over pools of water on the uneven ground, but it’s this rustic, slightly creepy charm that appeals to me. I make my way through the darkness with nothing but a small torch to guide me, and the only sound I can hear is the gentle splutter of water running through the raised canal next to me. Just as my eyes start to adjust I see the light and emerge, blinking, from the tunnel.

From here, it’s a downhill walk past flower-dotted fields, streams and rustic houses, into the seaside village of Mosteiros. Built by Portuguese colonialists in the 16th century, the settlement overlooks a stunning stretch of black sand, rock pools and a series of islets — tall, geological formations looming out of the sea like tower blocks in a flood. The largest of these gave the village its name, which translates as ‘monastery’, because of the islet’s apparent resemblance to a church. I walk along the seafront — no garish beach bars here, just holiday homes and a couple of small cafes – before the heavens open, forcing me back to Ponta Delgada.

Volcanic setting

The next day I make my way to Lagoa das Furnas — one of Sao Miguel’s largest lakes, crowning an 800,000-year-old volcano. This crater isn’t as conspicuous as that at Sete Cidades — its slopes seem less steep; softened by a blanket of dense woodland. Were it not for the thermal springs nearby, I’d have forgotten the area’s geological volatility — the volcano last erupted in the 17th century but is still considered potentially active.

I follow a trail through the trees encircling the lake until I reach a small, neo-gothic chapel, Igreja da Nossa Senhora das Vitórias. It cuts a sombre figure against the forest behind, unsurprisingly, perhaps, given its origins — it was built by José do Canto, a local landowner, as the final resting place of his wife and, later, himself.

I can’t help but be moved by this, though eventually I turn back towards the lake and make my way down to the water. On the beach, a number of canoes are waiting for me. Paolo, an instructor from outdoor activities company Picos de Aventura, waves me over and runs through the basics before sending me out onto the water. At 30sq miles, the lake is big enough to fill a whole morning of aquatic exploration, with the chanceof spotting a bird or two, including the endemic Azorean bullfinch.

After working up an appetite with my paddles, I go to watch lunch being dug up. Furnas is famed for its cozido — a stew of meat and vegetables, slow-cooked in the natural heat of a volcanic crater. Local families and restaurants come here first thing to bury their meals, returning around six hours later to uncover the pots and pull them up using a special rod, before taking them away to be eaten.

My cozido is bound for the restaurant of the Terra Nostra Garden Hotel, where I sit down to eat the mix of chicken, pork, beef, potatoes, cabbage and chourico – a spicy sausage akin to Spanish chorizo. It doesn’t look sophisticated, but the smoky flavour is delicious and distinctive — you don’t get that from an electric pressure cooker.

After lunch, I walk through the Terra Nostra Gardens — a botanical park dating back to 1780, when Bostonian merchant Thomas Hickling built a house here and imported a selection of trees from North America. Subsequent owners have since enlarged Hickling’s two-hectare garden to over six times the size, replacing his original arboreal collection with endemic and imported plants from as far afield as Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand.

A walk through the gardens is like strolling through a dozen countries in as many minutes — the mishmash of colours and tropical plants alongside distinctly European trees and meticulous topiary sculptures shouldn’t work, but, like the hydrangeas on the hillside, somehow does.

A reminder of Hickling remains in the form of an English oak that overlooks the thermal pool, whose mineral-rich waters are said to be good for the skin and muscles. At first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was an ornamental pond, with its stone surround and decorative island, but the natural, rust-coloured water always attracts bathers, even in bad weather. Once I’ve lowered myself into this giant, natural bathtub it’s nigh on impossible to get out — the warm water lulling me into a comfortably muzzy, post-cozido daze. It was yet another unforgettable and invigorating high within what felt like a secret, far-flung world.

Must do: Grab a cup and walk through Furnas village, tasting the water from its thermal springs — each has its own distinct flavour, and some are naturally sparkling.

Tradition: Don’t miss the chance to watch an Azorean folk dance, where soberly dressed men spin colourfully clothed women in time to traditional music.

ESSENTIALS

The Azores

Getting there
SATA International flies direct from Gatwick to Ponta Delgada, weekly between early April and late October.
TAP Portugal and SATA offer indirect services from Heathrow via Lisbon. www.sata.pt  www.flytap.com
Average flight time: 3h30m.

 

Getting around
Hiring a car is the best way of getting around São Miguel — international rental companies all have bases in Ponta Delgada.

 

When to go
The Azores are sunniest from June to August, reaching average temperatures of up to 25C. May to October are the best months for whale-watching.

 

Need to know
Currency: Euro (€). £1 = €1.20.
International dial code: 00 351.
Time difference: GMT -1.

 

Places mentioned
Cais 20. T: 00 351 296 384 811.
Terra Nostra Garden Hotel. www.bensaudehotels.com
Futurismo (whale watching). www.futurismo.pt
Picos de Aventura (canoeing). www.picosdeaventura.com

 

More info
www.visitazores.com
Azores (Bradt Travel Guides). RRP: £14.99

 

How to do it

Sunvil Discovery has a four-night package with B&B accommodation at the four-star Hotel do Colegio in
Ponta Delgada from £817 per person in September, based on two sharing. The price includes flights and transfers.
www.sunvil.co.uk

Europcar offers car rental in Ponta Delgada from £46 a day in September. www.europcar.com

 

Published in the Jul/Aug 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)