The Magic Islands: The Azores

The Magic Islands of the Azores

© Marshall Carter-Tripp

Far out in the Atlantic, nearly halfway across, is a group of nine volcanic islands, straddling the tectonic plates that pull the Atlantic coasts apart: the Azores.  They were discovered and settled by Europeans in the mid-15th century, and played a major role in trans-Atlantic travel, whaling and fishing, and communication in the subsequent centuries.  But the development of intercontinental air travel and satellite communication in this century has reduced their economic importance, and the somewhat uncertain weather has kept them off the tourist highroad.

I had not thought much about them, if at all, before my work took me that way.  I expected something out of the way, peacefully rooted in the past, with lots of boats, of course.  I was completely unprepared for their incredible beauty, which I saw even before my flight touched down at the airport on Sao Miguel (Saint Michael), the largest of the islands.  From above the island is a patchwork of hundreds and hundreds of small fields, divided by neat black stone fences, and displaying more shades of green than you could ever have imagined.  It was only here that I really comprehended the meaning of the word “verdant.”  Later on Faial Island I found these fences replaced by hedges of hydrangeas, or hortensias, whose blooms give it the name “the Blue Island.” 

All is not fields and fences.  There are old volcanic craters, or caldeiras, mellowed by centuries of decay and covered with lush vegetation, sheltering blue and green lagoons with small towns on their shores.  There are gorgeous cliffs falling into turquoise seas - an island version of the Big Sur.   There are somber white and black buildings, a combination of whitewash and volcanic stone; gaily painted shrines that look like Mexico; and tucked inside small museums (often converted convents) there are fine collections of art and artifacts (for example, the carved ivory in the Ponta Delgada museum is among the finest works I have seen), which remind the visitor that the islands had strong links to France and Belgium in past centuries.  There are wonderful fish dishes, breads, cheeses, wines from the volcanic soil (grown in small fenced plots clinging to the steep slopes) and comida, a dish something like the Spanish cocido, a fine stew cooked in pots buried in clay-lined wells dug into the boiling ground in Furnas.  You can visit the site, and the scene is infernal, but the taste is heavenly...The best place to try this (and to stay for a long weekend and enjoy the spa) is the Terra Nostra Hotel in Furnas, set in a park of the same name, created over a century ago by an Englishman, whose house is now part of the hotel - although the main building is an art deco jewel, with a restaurant whose wrap-around windows overlook the park.  Ten-foot ferns that look as if they hailed from the Pennsylvanian era and might shelter small dinosaurs, huge azaleas, lagoons with swans, a huge thermal pool - and an overall feeling that you have entered a Henri Rousseau painting and the moon will rise shortly over the sleeping lion.  In Ponta Delgada we stayed in a lovely inn just on the outskirts of the town, the Senhora da Rosa.  We were fortunate enough to have the suite with a small sitting room, but the individual rooms are also fine, and the restaurant and bar are excellent.  If you have not rented a car you can use the inn’s mini-bus service to get to town.  The staff could not be nicer.  If you prefer to be in town, the Sao Pedro on the waterfront is a four-star with a restaurant.  The Hotel Talisman in the center has a good restaurant as well, and we dined nicely at Café Mimo nearby.

Each island (we visited four) shares much with its fellows, as all are volcanic; but each has something special.  Terceira (the “third island” discovered) has a capital city declared a World Heritage by the UN - Angra do Heroismo encapsulates the entwined medieval and the planned Renaissance city.  Its harbor has layers of historic sunken ships, including a Confederate blockade-runner.  On Terceira they have a special dish, a stew made in a curved red roof-tile with the ends blocked with bread dough; when the stew is done, the tile is set on the table in a wrought-iron rack so that diners may serve themselves.  It is quite startling to walk into a restaurant the first time and see all the tiles perched on the tables.  Faial has Horta, a wonderful sailing port with a fine scrimshaw museum, and a splendid view of Pico, the neighboring island whose peak rises out of the clouds and in winter is snow-covered, the only part of the islands to have snow.  (A fine view is from the hotel Estalagem da Santa Cruz, within the confines of an ancient fort overlooking the harbor.)  Here you can take whale-watching excursions.  Dine on excellent seafood in a number of restaurants along the waterfront.  And visit a fine museum next to the church, with an amazing collection of carvings made from the pith of the figtrees; you’ll have to see this to appreciate the delicacy, matched only by the astonishing scrimshaw, or whale and walrus tusk carving, in the museum atop Peter’s Cafe Sport right on the waterfront.

Sailing holidays, with crew and meals provided, are available on several islands.  Go scuba diving in crystal waters.  Tour the slowly-settling volcanic addition to Faial from the huge eruption in 1957.  Go fishing - some of the biggest sportfish in the world are caught here.  Walk - not much traffic in most places.  Do nothing!  

Spring, early summer, and early autumn are said to be the best times to hope for good weather (no storms, less humidity) coupled with explosions of flowers, and fewer visitors.  Midsummer brings a host of festivals, many focused on boats, and the hotels fill up.  Information about the islands is not easy to come by - many guides to Portugal studiously ignore them, although the new Eyewitness guide has a good section on the islands, with lodging and restaurant recommendations; but you can write to the Azores tourist offices* and get a load of leaflets and guides.  Azoreans themselves are generally helpful and friendly and will go far out of their way to ensure that confused visitors get where they are going.  And they are delighted to know that you consider their home to be enchanting.  I had no trouble saying that; like Iceland, it’s one of the places I want to visit again, and even if I don’t I will be planning trips in my mind for quite a long time.

Practicalities:  Check resources on <www.portugal.org>, and <www.drtacores.pt>. Tourist Offices - Buenos Aires: ICEP, 4315-2442; Azores Regional Tourist Authority, Casa do Relógio, Colónia Alemã, 9900 Horta - Faial, Portugal, tel 351-92-293 801.  US: 212-354-4610, or 202-331-8222.  Tours and whale watching can also be arranged through “Archipelago Azores Ltd., 6B South Street, Banbury, Oxfordshire, OX16 7LF, UK, <www.azores.freeserve.co.uk>  These folks will put together a nice itinerary, make reservations, etc.  Their brochures are excellent.

If you want to make your own reservations - country code 351: Senhora da Rosa: 96 628 150.  Terra Nostra: 96-584-506.  São Pedro: 96-282 223; The Talisman: 96 62 95 02; Café Mimo, 96 282 761.  Peter’s Cafe Sport: 92-292 327.  Estalagem de Santa Cruz: 92-293 021.  Diver Norberto for whale watching: 92-293 891.  Tired muscles?  Try Pedro Bradford at the excellent physical therapy center in Ponta Delgada, 96-381 746.  On Pico, whale watching at the Espaco Talassa in Lajes do Pico, 92 672 617, or <espaco.talassa@mail.telepac.pt>

(Disclaimer: during my visit there were no storms, earthquakes, or volcanic eruptions, all of which are possible in these islands!)

© Copyright 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, Richard W. Tripp, Jr.