In an Azores State of Mind
At the heart of the Atlantic Ocean is a lush mountainous archipelago that combines the breathtaking landscapes of Hawaii with the charm and culture of old-world Europe.
The Azores - an island chain in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, about 880 miles from mainland Portugal - is one of the few places I've been where it's still possible to get lost. Sao Miguel, the biggest of the nine volcanic islands, often feels uninhabited, whether you're hiking high in the mountains or rappelling deep into a cavernous crater. My plan was to cover the whole island (about 40 miles long) in a rental car, but I often found myself turned around, stuck in a maze of narrow, walled streets.
I began in Ponta Delgada, the capital, with its buildings of black basalt and white limestone. The city is a good starting point, offering plenty of opportunities to chat up locals and taste specialties like grilled limpets or stewed octopus. In the afternoons, I walked the quiet streets trying to read the stories in the blue-and-white tiles (some created in the 1600s, others more recently) affixed to walls: scenes of sailors wielding harpoons against enormous whales. In the nearly three decades since Portugal outlawed whaling, the Azores have changed from a community of whalers to one dedicated to protecting cetaceans.
A variety of species - sperm, orcas, pilot, among others - frequents these waters. And the same men who used to hunt whales now act as spotters on land, climbing up to lookout points to watch for whale spray. I went out to sea with Picos de Aventura tour company; our semi-inflatable boat carried just a handful of passengers toward a group of spotted dolphins, many of them mothers with calves, and we followed the dolphins as they traveled off the spectacular southern coast of Sao Miguel.
Several cove beaches dot this coastline, but the natural pools of crystalline water in the village of Caloura and on the tiny islet of Vila Franca, a 15-minute boat ride from the town of Vila Franca do Campo, are the real draw. And you could plan an entire trip around hiking Sao Miguel's foot- paths or discovering its waterfalls. I saw a little of everything: a festival cavalcade of horses at Ribeira Grande, a city on the awe-inspiring northern coast; rows of bushy tea plants farther along at Gorreana (gorreana.com), Europe's only tea plantation; and turning inland, Furnas Lake, where hot earth is used to cook cozido stew and where the unforgettable Terra Nostra Botanical Gardens blossom nearby.
One morning I took a winding road into the mountains, past hillsides brimming with hydrangeas, to a stunning view of Sete Cidades, two lakes (one green, one blue) inside a collapsed volcano. On my way back, I took a wrong turn and ended up descending into the crater. I felt as though I was at the bottom of a magnificent bowl, its forested green sides rising all around me. Getting lost was never such a pleasure.
GETTING THERE AND AROUND
SATA Air Acores (sata.pt) offers four-hour direct flights from Boston (year round, with more frequent trips in the summer) to Ponta Delgada, Sao Miguel. For help planning your vacation, try SATA's Azores Express office (800-762-9995; azores-express.com) in Fall River, which offers hotel and air packages from $700 for fall and winter travel. You can get the best rates in the low season, October through March. Expect a bit of sticker shock, as the Azores use the euro, though prices are generally lower than in mainland Europe. Renting a car is recommended. Try Autatlantis (351-296-205-340; autatlantis.com), starting at around 23 euros (about $34) per day.
At A Colmeia (351-296-306-600), located in the Hotel do Colegio, a young chef experiments with local ingredients, or try the island's first vegetarian restaurant, Rotas da Ilha Verde (351-296-628-560). Keep your eyes peeled for Terras de Lava wine, made from grapes grown in volcanic soil on the nearby island of Pico.
Ponta Delgada is a good home base. Try the Hotel do Colegio (351-296-306-600; hoteldocolegio.com), a peaceful small hotel reasonably priced at 115 euros (about $170) a night. For a hot-springs retreat, try a hotel across the island in Furnas: The Terra Nostra Garden Hotel (351-296-549-090; bensaude.pt) offers a natural pool along with views of the stunning Terra Nostra Botanical Park from rooms starting at 110 euros (about $162) a night.
While the city is the best place to meet locals, you can't know the Azores without going out on the ocean. An afternoon whale-watching trip is a must. Stop by the harbor to find out which species have been spotted that morning. Picos de Aventura, Hotel Marina Atlantico, 351-296-283-288; picosdeaventura.com.