Azores Islands Travel: Off-the-Beaten-Path Garden of Eden

Azores Islands Travel:

Best of Sao Miguel, Terceira & Pico

Mention the Azores archipelago and the response is likely a puzzled look and a confused question. “Hmmmm…sounds familiar but I can’t quite place the location. South Pacific? Caribbean? Indian Ocean?”

 The Azores are actually located in the North Atlantic. There are reasons the archipelago might seem simultaneously familiar and yet hard to pin down. Waves of immigration over the last three centuries have resulted in more Azoreans living in North America than their homeland. Yet thanks to conservative tourism policies, trips in the opposite direction have historically been made largely only by the diaspora, and Azores Islands travel has remained the realm of the off-beat explorer.

Read: Learn how the Azores isolated location has played a role in the development of its music.

A well-kept secret and an Eden for outdoor enthusiasts, the Azores have earned top rankings for sustainable tourism by the likes of National Geographic Traveler. This autonomous region of Portugal is close enough for a romantic get-away or adventurous long weekend with the kids, while also offering plenty to happily fill an extended vacation. I spent two weeks exploring its scenery, reminiscent of Hawaii, Iceland and Ireland, with highlights such as a pineapple plantation, geysirs, and vast expanses of patchwork emerald fields.

The Azores Islands’ location means the climate is temperate and not tropical. According to lore, the Azores are the legendary “Fortunate Isles,” a winterless earthly paradise inhabited by the heroes of Greek mythology. Perhaps given this moniker, it’s not surprising there is a long history here of man living in harmony with nature, even converting environmental challenges and idiosyncracies to good use.

Distinctive Culture at the Village of Furnas

 Case in point is the enchanting village of Furnas on the main island of Sao Miguel. Set inland from the southeastern coast, Furnas is nestled in a valley renown for both its verdant charm and active geology. Among Furnas' myriad manifestations of the area's volcanic origins are dozens of thermal mineral baths, each with different properties, and a mystical crater lake, Lagoa das Furnas.

 Just beyond the lake, a road leads to a belvedere, from which there is a spectacular view of Furnas, looking like a Mediterranean-style Brigadoon, with the red-tiled rooftops of its whitewashed stone buildings visible through atmospheric mist.

 Further down the ribbon of road is a lunar landscape where muddy holes in the scorched earth belch plumes of smoke, and scores of men with hoes tend anthill-shaped mounds. At 12:30 pm sharp, pairs of the men tunnel through the piles of dirt to extract huge covered metal pots buried below; each duo carries off their bounty to a cheering crowd. The scene seems an unlikely setting for preparation of a cultural and gastronomic treat but no visit to Furnas is complete without savoring a lunch of Cozido das Furnas, a traditional Azores stew cooked underground for eight hours with volcanic heat.

Minutes from these subterranean ovens, the elegant dining room of Terra Nostra Garden Hotel provides a refined atmosphere to enjoy the earthy local dish of pork, beef, cabbage, kale, potatoes, carrots, chicken and chouriço sausage; the Art Deco gourmet restaurant also offers other fare from an eclectic menu.

Cozido das Furnas being served in Terra Nostra Gardens Hotel restaurant..jpg

Cozido das Furnas straight from the volcanic subterranean ovens is served in style at the Terra Nostra Garden Hotel. Photos: Meg Pier

After a leisurely lunch being pampered by the attentive wait staff, I walked off the calories with a long stroll through the adjacent botanical park. Terra Nostra Gardens was founded in the 18th century by Bostonian and American consul Thomas Hickling, who built his home “Yankee Hall” alongside a thermal spring.

Read: Meet Carina Costa, scientist & second generation gardener with Terra Nostra Garden!

Today, bathers young and old enjoy the warm waters of the expanded pool that is the park’s frontispiece. The Garden’s magical 30-acres teem with indigenous plant life as well as thousands of exotic species from all over the world, woven together with serpentine water canals, mysterious grottoes and a whimsical lily pond.

View of Furnas from within Terra Nostra Botanical Gardens, Photo: Meg Pier

View of Furnas from within Terra Nostra Botanical Gardens, Photo: Meg Pier

Thermal Pool and site of Yankee Hall within Terra Nostra Botanical Gardens, Photo: Meg Pier

Thermal Pool and site of Yankee Hall within Terra Nostra Botanical Gardens, Photo: Meg Pier

In fact, the whole of Sao Miguel is like one big nature conservatory. At a mere forty miles long and ten miles wide, the island is small enough that its sights are within easy reach of the capital of Ponta Delgada, a small modern city on the southern coast. Hotel Marina Atlantico, a gleaming glass landmark located across from the harborfront promenade and marina was the perfect base—and where I enjoyed quite possibly the best massage I’ve ever had! Just a short walk away are sights such as the charming Campo do São Francisco square, the historic Church of Sao Jose, and the 16th-century Forte de São Brás.

Lagoa das Sete Cidades, a Gorgeous Geomorphic Gem

 Lagoa das Sete Cidades, or “Lagoon of the Seven Cities” is just one of Sao Miguel’s many geomorphic gems, and a forty-minute drive east from Ponta Delgada, through rolling hills of idyllic pastures seamed by criss-crossing rows of brilliant blue hydrangea bushes. I let out a gasp as I crested a hill and caught sight of adjoining lakes at the bottom of the crater below, one a brilliant jade, the other a translucent azure. A trail runs along the crater’s perimeter for those seeking a 360-degree perspective; hiking the circumference takes about three hours, and is one of the most beautiful vistas you’ll encounter during your Azores Islands travel.

Lagoa das Sete Cidades.
Lagoa das Sete Cidades

The entrancing aquamarine waters of Lagoa das Sete Cidades, Photos: Meg Pier

 In the opposite direction from Ponta Delgada is Caldeira Velha, a secluded thermal pool beneath a cascading waterfall, reached by a path through a deep forest of cedar and laurel. Amidst prehistoric-looking vegetation, a handful of bathers lounged in steaming waters made rust-colored by iron-rich minerals.

Communing with Nature at Caldeira Velha Photo: Meg Pier

Communing with Nature at Caldeira Velha Photo: Meg Pier

 The islands that make up the Azores share roughly the same point on a compass and a similar history, discovered by Portuguese and Flemish navigators during the early-mid-15th century. Yet each island has its own distinct personality.

Terceira: UNESCO World Heritage SIte & Lava Beaches

The island of Terceira, a half-hour hop from Sao Miguel by plane, lays claim to being home to the oldest settlement of the Azores. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Center in 1983, Angra do Heroismo, or Bay of Heroes is said to date to 1450 and was a wealthy port during centuries of trade between Europe, Africa and the Americas. The enclave was also the scene of more than its share of power struggles and named in commemoration of its citizen’s successful defense against attack in 1829.

Military commanders once kept a watchful eye on the horizon from Pousada Forte de Sao Sebastiao, a 16th century fortress that dominates the clifftops above Angra do Herosimo. The stronghold is now a luxury retreat, part of Portugal’s pousada system—historic hotels housed in former castles, convents, palaces and fortresses.

 In Terceira’s village of Biscoitos, lush green hills roll gently down to an other-worldly beach where visitors can bath in pools of aquamarine water surrounded by strange rock formations of black lava. The Azores’ volcanic origins means white sand beaches are virtually non-existent but the fantastical geology makes for memorable swims.

The other-worldly black lava beach of Biscoitos on the island of Terceira
The other-worldly black lava beach of Biscoitos on the island of Terceira

The other-worldly black lava beach of Biscoitos on the island of Terceira, Photo: Meg Pier

 In the center of Terceira, it’s possible to get up close and personal with an extinct volcano by descending into the belly of Algar do Carvao, a cave that is more than 425 feet deep and features a massive "cathedral" dome, a subterranean lake and artistic patterns on the wall created by ancient gases.

Connect with Earth & Sea on Pico: Vineyards & Whale Watching

Another puddle-jump away is Pico, one of our favourite places to visit in the Azores. It’s an island named for the enormous volcanic cone in its center, which dominates the skyline. The fertility of the black earth here was cultivated to grow grapes centuries ago—the viticulture proved so distinctive that Pico's vineyards were designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 2004.

Magnificent Mt. Pico can be seen from everywhere on the island. Photo: Meg Pier

Magnificent Mt. Pico can be seen from everywhere on the island. Photo: Meg Pier

Vineyards sprawl across the Pico Photo: Meg Pier

Vineyards sprawl across the Pico Photo: Meg Pier

Ensconced between a swath of luxuriant vineyards and the aquamarine surf of a dramatic shoreline is guest house Pocinho Bay, the labor of love of two former sociology professors from Lisbon. This exclusive sanctuary of six suites opened 12 years ago after extensive renovation of the former winery’s seven basalt structures, each exquisitely decorated with exotic art from the proprietors’ own travels to locales ranging from Guatemala to Malaysia.  

Watch: Visit Pico in this video, and connect with local traditions tied to the rich, fertile, potent power of the black earth & a quest for connection with the divine.

Once an epicenter of the whaling industry, Pico is now a base for eco tours that hunt whales for communal rather than combative purposes. Espaço Talassa in the tiny village Lajes about 40 minutes west of Pocinho Bay offers excursions on 29-foot, Zodiac-style vessels--a far more intimate experience than the large vessels used for such excursions in the U.S. The company, founded in 1989 by a former whaler and a French sailor just two years after the whaling trade went extinct, employs both ancient tradition and the latest technology to locate whales, using spotters in observation towers as well as underwater microphones.

Be prepared for a wild ride. After receiving word from a spotter stationed high in the hills along the coast, our skipper made a beeline four or five miles out to sea at high speed. The bouncy ride atop the waves was well worth it—eventually, the engines were cut and we drifted alongside a pod of more than a dozen female sperm whales, which each average 50 feet in length and weigh about 20 tons. For twenty minutes or so, we rocked in reverent silence, feeling privileged to be in the company of these peaceful giants.

Espaço Talassa whale watching boat, Photo: Meg Pier

Espaço Talassa whale watching boat, Photo: Meg Pier

Getting up close & personal with whales off the coast of Pico. Photo: Espaco Talassa

Getting up close & personal with whales off the coast of Pico. Photo: Espaco Talassa

Inspired to take a trip to this eco Eden? Currently direct flights from the U.S. are available on SATA and depart from Boston. Smart money is betting that there will soon be more planes lifting off from American soil for this patch of paradise. Why? A consortium headed by Jet Blue founder David Neeleman recently acquired a 61% interest in TAP, a Portuguese-owned airline which now offers service to the Azores from Lisbon.

This article first appeared in Long Island Pulse Magazine, May 2017