Best Cultural Experiences
of the Portuguese Islands
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Interested in the archipelagos of the Azores and Madeira? Read on for BCD's big picture on the best cultural experiences to have on these island chains, and then click on the link below to access a collection of in-depth articles, interviews & videos!
The Azores and Madeira are autonomous regions of Portugal; while these groups of islands are located far from their Motherland, the connection is deep and dates back to the 15th century when Prince Henry the Navigator made Portugal an empire through initiating what became known as the "Age of Discoveries."
The Azores are a chain of nine volcanic islands in the North Atlantic with characteristics that call to mind Hawaii, Iceland and Ireland. Across the Azores, there is a long history of man living in harmony with the nature--even converting environmental challenges and idiosyncrasies to good use. The islands share an Eden-like atmosphere but each one has a distinct personality and cultural traditions.
São Miguel, known as "The Green Island", is the largest and most populated island of the Azores. Among its natural wonders are Lagoa do Fogo or "Lake of Fire" and Lagoa das Sete Cidades or "Lagoon of the Seven Cities," a twin lake situated in the crater of a dormant volcano. A highlight is the enchanting village of Furnas, set inland from the southeastern coast and nestled in a valley that is renowned for both its verdant charm and active geology. Among Furnas' myriad manifestations of the area's volcanic origins are thermal mineral baths and a crater lake, Lagoa das Furnas. The Terra Nostra botanical garden, founded in the 18th century by Bostonian and American Consul Thomas Hickling is a magical 30-acre maze of indigenous plant life as well as thousands of species from all over the world, woven together with serpentine water canals, mysterious grottoes and a whimsical lily pond.
The skyline of the Azorean island of Pico is dominated by the massive Ponta do Pico, which is the highest mountain in Portugal...but there is plenty of other dramatic and inspiring scenery to feast your eyes on, including the rugged coastline, architecture that melds beautifully with the landscape, and lush vegetation, including vineyards that are a UNESCO-designated "Patrimony Mondial," or "heritage of the world. The relationships between man, land, sky and sea are in evidence everywhere on Pico, from the volcanic stone houses and the organic design of modern buildings, to the clouds enveloping the mountaintops, the abundance of fantastic seafood, and the play of light on the water at sunset.
Angra do Heroísmo on Terceira is the historical capital of the archipelago, the Azores' oldest city and a UNESCO Heritage Site. In the village of Biscoitos, the lush green hills roll gently down to an other-worldly beach where you can bath in pools of aquamarine water surrounded by strange rock formations of black lava. In the center of Terceira, you can 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. Nearby, you can take a short hike around the circumference of Furnas do Enxofre, a "fumarole," which is a hole in the earth's surface that expels gases and steam. While the name might be intimidating, this trail offers a peaceful walk through diverse vegetation, with magnificent views of the mountains beyond. Terceira is home to the tradition of "touradas à corda" (bullfights-by-rope), held by local Terceiran villagers from April/May to late September, and colorful "impérios" or chapels that bear witness to the popular devotion to the Holy Spirit.
The archipelago of Madeira includes the islands of Madeira, Porto Santo and Desertas. These subtropical volcanic isles are closer to Morocco than to Portugal. While located in the North Atlantic, Madeira's climate is classified as Mediterranean, its diverse topography, which spans from sea level to 6,100 feet at the summit of Pico Ruivo, has created numerous micro-climates. This environment, combined with the botanical legacy of various sailors and settlers over the centuries, means that Madeira is a paradise for anyone who has an interest in plant life. Known as the "Floating Flower Pot," Madeira offers an array of formal gardens, as well as the rugged and lush terrain of its Laurisilva forests, one of the few existing relics of a type of growth that covered most of southern Europe 15-40 million years ago. As one of the largest surviving forests of this type, the Parque Natural da Madeira was designated a UNESCO for its unique bio-diversity in 1999. One way to enjoy Madeira's breadth of botany is to take a hike along one of its levadas, a series of canals that ring the island and bring water to inhabitants. These aquaducts date to the 16th century, and many were initially built by slaves and convicts. With 1,350 miles of levadas, there are routes to explore for hikers looking for a leisurely stroll, or an adrenaline-fueled adventure!