You’ve probably seen on television queues of travel-starved Brits at airports about to jet off to the Algarve in Portugal, ever since it was announced on the government’s green list back on May 17th when holidays overseas resumed. But Portugal isn’t all sun, sea, and sardines. The nine volcanic islands of the Azores, Europe’s westernmost outpost - some 1000km into the Atlantic off the Portuguese mainland - are something quite different. And certainly, it’s fair to say, almost completely unknown.

So much so that when I arrived on the largest most populated island of São Miguel, after a two-hour flight from Lisbon (direct flights from London haven’t resumed yet), I was one of the few non-Portuguese tourists on board. Meeting me at the airport, my local guide, Jos, said not too many overseas visitors had started to arrive yet and it was his first tour in over a year.

 

Do Colegio Hotel, Sao Miguel Do Colegio Hotel, Sao Miguel

I have principally come to the Azores for whale-watching. It is one of the global hotspots for this activity, with some 24/80 species of all cetaceans seen in the deep waters surrounding these islands. But first I spent today exploring beautiful São Miguel from my base of three-nights at the Hotel do Colegio in Ponta Delgada – a once 19th-century school and music conservancy. It’s thick basalt-hewn walls, mirroring the dramatic volcanic scenery of this island.

Jos collected me earlier in the morning and we drove eastwards towards a fiery volcanic landscape known as Furnas. All the way along the southern coast, slopes of planted bananas and cow pasture fell away to aprons of black magma lava, disgorged from the geothermal fault-lines that created these islands over 60 million years ago. On top of one volcanic ridge was a divine little chapel inspired by a statue that performed a miracle of the Virgin Mary – aren’t they all, you might say.

Chapel Senõra da Paz Chapel Senõra da Paz

Personally, the greatest miracle I would witness this day is around Furnas, which is quite literally the gates to a fiery underworld as opposed to heaven above. Furnas is the site of an enormous crater lake – it fizzes with smoking fumaroles and boiling potholes. Some of these vents are used to cook an important island dish called cozina – basically a very meaty stew that is steamed in a volcanic steam for 5-6 hours, the finished meal tinged with the taste of sulphurous cooking.

Volcanic fumaroles as Lagoa das Furnas Volcanic fumaroles as Lagoa das Furnas

Cozina is hearty fare so it would probably be wise, as we did to hold back for an hour or so to aid digestion before visiting a delightful botanical garden park called Terra Nostra. The 18th-century gardens of tropical trees and plants, everything from eucalyptus to Japanese maple, are simply lovely, yet what really appeals is a large thermal lake the colour of toffee that makes for a relaxing and revitalising soak. Jos explains it is tinged with iron minerals, hence the colour. The water enters the lake at around 38ºC. It’s slightly surreal watching ducks paddle past while you are enjoying a swim.

Cooking up the covido dish in geothermal steam Cooking up the covido dish in geothermal steam
Thermal baths at Terra Nostra Thermal baths at Terra Nostra

The final rites of a volcanic day thereafter were saved for late afternoon tea. The Azores still maintain some of Europe’s last plantations of tea – or chá, as it is called in Portuguese. Driving along the even higher black cliffs of the northern coastline on our way back to Ponta Delgada, we called by the oldest estate known as Chá Gorreana, established in 1883.

Strikingly old-fashioned, as it uses some British built machinery form the late 19-century to process the plucked tea, the surrounding hills form a smooth and sinuous landscape with tea plantations that reminded of a trip, years back, to Sri Lanka.

 

Chá Gorreana – hillside plantations Chá Gorreana – hillside plantations

Jos drove me back to Ponta Delgada later in the day and I retreated to a small restaurant to enjoy one of my favourite wines from the Azorean island of Pico, a Freie Gigante, its grapes flourish one black basalt volcanic terraces. It had been a great day of exploring. Yet now my thoughts turned towards the gentle giants of the deep that I hoped, the next day, I would see in great abundance…

Mark Stratton


The Sunvil Family
The Sunvil Family
The Sunvil Family

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