By Christine Potter
Delightful to discover and away from much-trod tourist trails, this nine-island archipelago – an autonomous region of Portugal – sits in the mid-Atlantic almost 1,600 kilometres west of Lisbon.
“Unspoiled” is the word that describes the Azores for me. The islands offer a unique culture, abundant plant life, and varied terrain that’s a plus for anyone’s getaway list, including adventurers, photographers, nature lovers, and artists.
Tall cliffs, deep craters (caldeiras), and a patchwork quilt of farmlands are the islands’ signatures. They’re a testament to human ingenuity and perseverance. Since their discovery in the 15th century (until then they were uninhabited) a strong agricultural industry has survived earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and economic and political crises in Europe.
The five-hour flight from Toronto to Ponta Delgada on the main island of Sao Miguel (I flew with SATA, the Azores’ own airline) transports travellers to a different world.
Sao Miguel is the introduction for most visitors. It’s the archipelago’s “capital” with the city of Ponta Delgada, an international airport, and more than half of the Azorean population (132,000 of the 250,000 total). It’s also the largest island (65 kilometres long and 15.5 wide) and the greenest, with abundant hydrangea-hemmed pasture and forested peaks.
In Ponta Delgada, I stayed at the four-star Hotel Marina Atlantico, overlooking the busy harbour and colourful promenade patterned, Portuguese-style, with mosaics of small stone tiles.
The setting is dramatic. Yachts and fishing boats bob on a blue Atlantic against a backdrop of volcanic cones rising in the distance. Strolling along the harbour-front Avenida Infante Dom Henrique is to discover an easy pace of life. I watched workmen painstakingly repair the boulevard, setting the chunky tiles – one at a time – in intricate patterns. I watched locals leisurely sip their drinks in cafes, and shop in the many arcades. Nobody rushes.
The city shows off the Azores’ Portuguese heritage inChristine Potter the fine Baroque churches, the Palacio da Conceicao (seat of government), finely wrought iron balconies and abundant use of traditional tile work. It’s rather like a Little Lisbon, but on a more walker-friendly scale.
Christine PotterSao Miguel is the island for active holidaymakers, offering a range of adventures from deep-sea fishing to paragliding, golf and hiking. There’s plenty for the non-sportif, too. The whole family will enjoy a visit to Vale das Furnas, a lush garden in the bottom of a crater, where hot springs steam from the ground. A “volcanic meal” here is a must – huge pots of stew are lowered into openings in the earth, where they cook for several hours. The result is surprisingly delicious.
I Choose Three
Most people will want to visit two or three islands, and I chose Terceira, Faial, and Pico to round out my Azorean experience. But before leaving San Miguel I visited the twin lakes in Caldeira das Sete Cidades (Cauldron of the Seven Cities). It’s one of the most popular sites in the islands, with a huge volcanic crater spanning some five kilometres. Hikers love this area.
Different again is the island of Faial, a short flight from Ponta Delgada. Renowned for its marlin fishing, it’s also a haven for deep sea divers who explore underwater caves teeming with colourful fish.
Horta, the island’s port town, is marked with whitewashed houses overlooking the ocean. This is the gateway to nearby Pico.
The Canadian connection is strong. Many Azoreans once lived in Canada and returned to the Azores. One of them is Evelina, a Pico tour guide who returned from Vancouver to raise her children in traditional Azorean style. Others keep a foot in both countries with an Azorean summer home. They left to work in our mills and mines.
“Life can sometimes be hard here,” said Evelina. “But the community is wonderful.”
Pico, second largest island of the Azores, is a visual reminder of just how hard life used to be. It’s totally volcanic (with Mount Pico, Portugal’s highest peak, at 2,351 metres) and the last eruption was in 1718.
“When she smokes a bit, that’s good,” says Evelina of the volcano. “It’s like releasing pain.”
Christine PotterTiny gardens are hemmed by hand-hewn volcanic rock walls, and this is the home of a renowned wine-making co-op, producing “verdelho” wines prized by peasants and princes alike. (The Russian czars, in particular, enjoyed it.) Today the vineyard is a UNESCO Heritage Site.
Cheese is another well-known Pico product, handmade in what seems to be little more than a shed. But the flavour is incredible and it must be the best picnic ever when we take a cheese, a bottle of Pico wine, and local bread to the bluffs, and watch dolphins dance in the water.
And so to Terceira, to round out our vacation.
Angra do Heroismo, the main town, is a World Heritage site. It was the Azores’ first European urban centre, dating to the 16th century. Palaces, churches, museums, and a fortress that once defended the city from pirates make Angra (as it’s known locally) a pleasing stop for history buffs.
But rent a car and explore the island – one day takes you comfortably around its perimeter with plenty of time to stop in picturesque villages and along dramatic coastal viewpoints.
Terceira is perhaps the most religious of the islands, and numerous festivals between May and September are good reasons to serve up an assortment of traditional dishes from octopus to Biscoitos wine.
Christine PotterInland, you’ll find a chessboard of walled green fields with dairy cows, little white cottages (some with windmills), and wayside chapels and churches. And peaks, of course. Pico de Vara is the highest at 1,103 metres.
The Azores is not a destination for sun-worshippers or resort lovers. (Although the ocean is pleasantly warm thanks to the Gulf Stream.) The few sandy beaches are mainly of the black volcanic variety, and chain resorts are non-existent. Instead there are charming, locally owned hostelries. You will find delightful people, unspoilt nature, tranquility, and unique scenery. And something for almost everyone – from adventure travellers to golfers to romantic getaway seekers and spa enthusiasts.
For more information visit www.destinazores.com/en, or register at www.visitazores.org