We’re hiking in Mistérios Negros, or the Dark Mysteries, a trail that meanders through the largest endemic forest on Terceira, one of the nine lush volcanic islands that make up the Azores. It’s a landscape unlike anything I’ve ever seen and it’s both invigorating and disorienting.
A sense of the surreal permeates this Portuguese archipelago, which sprawls across the cobalt depths of the Atlantic Ocean right where the Eurasian, African and North American tectonic plates collide, about a third of the way between Lisbon and Boston.
The vegetation alone is fascinating. Japanese cedar trees were introduced centuries ago to be made into shipping crates for oranges sent to England. Country roads lined with long alleys of plane trees and enormous hydrangeas look like France on steroids. Fast-growing eucalyptus climbs hillsides. Laurel and yellow ginger, camellias and bougainvillea, ferns and bananas, figs and morning glory grow in profusion everywhere. Many are legacies of the Age of Discovery, when Portugal dominated the world’s trading routes 500-odd years
ago and sea captains brought back exotica to these shores.
Around every corner are astonishing vistas. Cerulean crater lakes and basalt cliffs dripping with waterfalls speak of Hawaii or New Zealand, dappled dairy cows in emerald fields fenced with stone take cues from Irish pastures, and pastel-hued seaside towns look like they’ve been plucked straight out of the Mediterranean.
Despite the Azores location in the North Atlantic, the climate is surprisingly mild due to the influence of the Gulf Stream. Watching the weather here is likened to a spectator sport. From caldera ridges, billowing cumulus clouds roll around the heavens as vast sheets of rain sweep across slate seas, up arching cliffs and over green fields, only to eventually dissipate again amid bright bolts of sunshine and rainbows.
There’s a refreshing simplicity in the rhythms of its pious farming and fishing culture, which meshes remarkably well with a quiver of eco-tourism and adrenaline-filled adventure. Between lazy afternoons wandering the towns, we are seduced by the region’s activities: whale watching, surfing, diving with manta rays, swimming with dolphins, walking inside volcanoes and bathing in hot springs.
Each of the nine islands is distinguished by its geography, geology and history. Over my journey across the two largest islands of the Azores, São Miguel and Terceira, tantalising details of the other islands ensure I vow to return.
It’s a Saturday night when we arrive in Ponta Delgada, the urban hub of São Miguel and the gateway to the Azores, and locals are spilling from tiny restaurants and bars onto the black-and-white calçada (mosaic stone-like) footpaths of the old town’s narrow streets. Given the region’s reputation for deliciously fresh seafood, we waste no time and squeeze into buzzing A Tasca, where we feast on fresh tuna and bacalau (salted cod).
São Miguel’s hinterlands are a highlight and our guide is gregarious volcanologist, musician and reiki enthusiast Jorge Valerio, the 27-year-old Renaissance man behind Holistika tour company. For him, the essence of São Miguel comes from ancient volcanic energies and our adventures tap into this spiritual dimension.
At Sete Cidades, twin blue and green lakes are framed within a massive caldera to create a gasp-inducing Azorean vista that can’t be likened to anything else in the world. Walking along the vertiginous hydrangea and ginger-lined caldera rim from Vista del Rei, a viewpoint that sits seven kilometres west of Ponta Delgada, we ogle at limpid lakes and patchworks of fields and hedgerows. The aromas of the warm brown earth mix with the salty tang of the sea, while seagulls caw over the ocean on one side and church bells ring on the other. Astoundingly, the panoramas get even better when we reach Boca do Inferno, which overlooks tree-fringed lakes, each a slightly different shade of turquoise.
To get here, we meander over voluptuous hills and down a steep basalt cliff aiming to reach the destination halfway between the high and low tides to get the perfect mix of hot spring and cold ocean water. But this isn’t an experience for the faint-hearted. To enter the pool, we clamber across slippery rocks, climb down a metal ladder and hang on to the ropes to avoid getting swept away by the ocean.
As we make our way to Lagoa das Furnas, a large geyser and hot springs-filled volcanic basin an hour’s drive east of Ponta Delgada, Jorge explains that, in São Miguel, volcanoes are really at the centre of everything. They even play a role in cooking, which we learn when we stop by Lake Furnas where chicken, blood sausage, pork, root vegetables and cabbage are stewed and steamed in underground springs to create cozido das furnas. We get a chance to taste this authentic Azorean cuisine at Restaurante Tony’s in the fumarole-fringed town of Furnas.
Volcanic geothermal springs are dotted throughout the town and while the architecturally designed Poça da Dona Beija is close by, we opt for a soak in the khaki-coloured pool in the remarkable eighteenth-century gardens of Terra Nostra Park. Today, these botanic gardens are among the largest and most diverse in Europe. We wander among the endemic Azorean plants, colourful camellias, giant Amazonian lilies, azaleas and rhododendrons, and Australian hoop pines, eucalypts and bungalow palms.
With our bodies rejuvenated from the warm waters of the springs, we toast the final sunset on the island with an aromatic white wine from Pico Island’s UNESCO-listed vineyards while we dine on char-grilled limpets and parrotfish on the terrace of Bar Caloura, listening to the sounds of the waves crashing against the volcanic rocks below.
When we arrive at Praia de Vitoria on Terceira, I’m not sure what to expect. There’s a healthy jostling between islands, each competing for the title of most beautiful. I’m told there are no caldera lakes or hot springs like the ones on São Miguel. Instead, Terceira has two colonial cities, brightly trimmed, whitewashed villages, marine adventures and a treasure trove of ornate imperios (miniature shrines to the Holy Ghost), which hint to the island’s older rhythms.
During the Age of Discovery, the city of Angra do Heroismo was a bustling port for Portuguese ships bringing gold, silver and spices from Asia, Africa and the Americas. Its bishops and merchants wasted no time in fashioning elaborate mansions and churches and, as we explore Angra’s cobblestoned streets, it’s easy to understand why this became Portugal’s first UNESCO World Heritage site.
We enjoy seafood pasta at contemporary Tasca das Tias and excellent coffee at the retro A Minha Casa, which wouldn’t look out of place in Melbourne’s Brunswick. We also climb up to a huge fort built on Monte Brasil, the remnant of a tuff volcano, and enjoy its magnificent views. There are at least 80 shipwrecks in the bay, which can be explored via an underwater wreck trail.
Keen to see some of the region’s 25 whale and dolphin species, we jump aboard a small, semi-inflatable high-speed boat for a whale-watching tour with Ocean Emotion. On-shore spotters radio the boats with the position of whales, replicating the way things were done in the past when the Azores was a busy whaling hub. It’s gratifying to see how a traditional whaling culture has been converted into one of the world’s best whale-watching centres. Marine biologist Breno Toste is our host, and we spot half a dozen sperm whales, which live year-round in the Azores. He explains that this is the world’s largest toothed predator and it has the biggest brain of any creature on earth.
We spend the afternoon with SailTours, sailing across the waves to Ilheu das Cabras, a dual islet that’s a nesting site for Cory’s shearwaters. We snorkel in the translucent waters of the islands’ marine reserve and marvel at the lime-green fields atop black basalt cliffs.
Our marine experience satisfied, we head inland with Sea Adventures on a volcano tour to Algar do Carvao, an ancient volcanic vent that was formed thousands of years ago when all the magma drained out of the volcano’s cone. From above, dense vegetation hides all traces of the lava tube but, as we wander down the 90-metre-deep chimney of black obsidian, the acoustics inside the giant cathedral-like dome are so superb we’re not surprised to learn that special concerts are sometimes held here.
It’s the rustic-charmed Ti Choa farm-to-table restaurant in Serrata that entices us through its doors that night. Here, we feast on Azorean specialties such as alcatra, beef roasted in a terracotta pot and cooked in a wood-fired oven, and molasses Dona Amelia tarts dusted with powdered sugar for a sweet ending.
Despite the breathtaking landscapes, delicious food and fascinating culture, what really captures our attention are the exquisitely painted miniature imperios dotted throughout every village we pass on Terceira. The shrines to the Holy Ghost, of which there are 73 variations representing hope, faith, egalitarianism, solidarity and charity, were introduced by Franciscan mystics and became the centre of weekly post-Easter celebrations, when children are crowned as royalty, feasts are shared, and food is given to the poor.
As our plane takes off the next day and I watch Terceira disappear into the vast inky depths of the Atlantic Ocean, I reflect that the hidden paradise of the Azores has got its philosophy for life just right. Amid its adventures, and harsh landscape, it’s the resilience and generosity of the people that makes visiting these islands even more alluring.
Hotel Camões is a charming hotel in Ponte Delgada old town. Double rooms from about US$80 a night.
Terceira Mar Hotel is a waterfront hotel on the outskirts of Angra do Heroismo with outdoor and indoor pool, spa facilities and terrific inclusive
fitness classes. From about US$90 a night.
The Azores are known for their year-round mild climate. Rain is possible at any time throughout the year, but the best time to travel is from June to September during summer when the temperature is generally warmer and days are longer.
Ocean Emotion offers a wide range of authentic adventures, including whale watching which costs about US$55 a person.
Sailtours specialises in sailing and fishing adventures. The private four-hour sailing and snorkelling trip to Ilheu das Cabras starts at about US$400 for a maximum of six people.
Sea Adventures offers lots of land and water-based adventures – everything from SUP yoga classes to island cycle tours. It also offers a four-hour tour of Terceria’s volcanoes – about US$50 a person.
Words Susan Gough Henly
Photos Sue Gough Henly and Jorge Valerio