Far out in the Atlantic, the setting sun caught the top of Mount Pico, lighting the dark slopes with gold. Wisps and curls of cloud formed patterns around the summit, changing minute by minute. I stood on the balcony of my hotel in Faial Island, part of the Azores group, looking out across the sea at the ever changing view of Pico.
As darkness fell, masts and sails in the nearby harbour were silhouetted against the darkening sky. A string of lights blinked on to illuminate a cutout whale swinging over the jetty. It was time to walk along the seafront and choose where to eat that evening.
Mount Pico is Portugal’s highest mountain, rising from the depths of the Atlantic ocean to form one of the nine islands of the Azores, which are an autonomous region of Portugal. The islands are steep and green, surrounded by blue sea and dramatic play of sun and cloud. Serene volcanic lakes in the mountains, craggy cliffs, black sand beaches, old windmills, hot springs and mysterious tropical gardens of tree ferns combine to form a landscape which demands to be explored.
My trip to the Azores was straightforward with a direct flight from Gatwick by SATA, the national airline. I visited three of the nine islands. Landing on the island of Sao Miguel, I first stayed in the capital Ponta Delgada and then travelled to the island of Faial on an internal flight, and visited nearby Pico by ferry. Each island has its own distinct character.
Sao Miguel – first port of call
Black and white stone patterns decorate the pavements of Ponta Delgada, capital of Sao Miguel. It’s an easy city to explore on foot, with narrow alleyways and open squares, friendly cafes and a harbour of colourful fishing boats. On Sunday the local families gather on the harbour jetty with rods and line, hauling in big silvery fish for the evening meal. A group of young men were painting a fishing boat, carefully lining the decorative red and blue stripes along the gunnels.
Up in the hills above the city lie fertile green slopes grazed by relaxed and contented cows. More surprisingly there are two tea plantations, and farms growing pineapples in glasshouses, crops unique in Europe and only possible because of the warm climate.
The tea factories are open to visit and sample a cup in an atmospheric old stone building. At the pineapple farm you can see all stages of growth from the early spikes of blue flowers to the large juicy fruit, and buy a fiery pineapple liqueur to take a taste of the sun home.
Higher up you enter a band of native forest trees as the island rises to several peaks which are actually the craters of dormant volcanoes. Furnas crater, about 20 miles out of Ponta Delgada, contains a whole village and a large lake. The earth is alive here. Hot springs fill the air with clouds of steam. Roadside stalls sell chestnuts and sweetcorn cooked by dropping them by the sackful into these natural cauldrons. Natural warm swimming pools are free to use – just remember to bring a swimsuit – and there is a choice of about 20 different mineral water springs each with a subtly different flavour.
A beach next to the lake is warm to touch. Local restauranteurs bury sealed casseroles of meat, vegetables and sausage in the ground overnight. By lunchtime the next day the earth’s slow cooker has worked to perfection. The casserole, served at the local Terra Nostra hotel, was delicious. After the meal, guests explored the green fantasy of the pleasure gardens. They were laid out in the eighteenth century by a successful exporter of oranges. Paths wind between lakes, streams, flower beds, tree ferns and tall mossy avenues. More hot springs gush into a large open-air swimming pool in front of the owner’s grand house. Bathing in the warm mineral water is said to be healthy and invigorating.
Faial – the sailor’s haven.
Even further out into the Atlantic lies Faial island, an hour’s flight west of Sao Miguel. The grandeur of wide cloud-swept skies and the tall view of nearby Pico island complement the green and blue of the landscape. To the west of the island a dramatic landscape of black lava underlines the volcanic origin of the island.
Over the centuries Faial has been a staging post for sailors, and more recently for transatlantic telephone cables. The harbour in the capital Horta is still a favourite stopover for long distance sailors. The harbour walls are bright with paintings left for good luck by visiting crews from all over the world.
Yacht flags decorate Peter’s cafe on the harbourfront and upstairs is a museum of scrimshaw, the beautiful, detailed etchings of scenes from the sea made by sailors in times gone by, dating back to the days of whaling.
The whales are still here, often not far from the shore, and near the cafe are boats where you can book a whale-watching trip with a very high chance of seeing these great creatures relaxing in the water or diving majestically down with a flick of the tail, to their feeding grounds in the depths of the ocean. Scuba diving is available as well.
. A short walk from the harbour leads to a sheltered black sand beach at Porto Pim. Here you can swim, relax or sunbathe and then enjoy Portuguese-style cakes and coffee or beer and snacks in the small, peaceful cafes nearby.
Pico – a study in survival
The black basalt heights of Pico are visible from Faial and the island is a short ferry trip from the harbour. In the clear air the summit of Mount Pico looks deceptively close but climbing it is an all -day expedition, best done with a guide, which you can arrange with the tourist office in Madalena, the capital, where the ferry docks. For the less energetic, local taxi firms run car trips around the island.
I took a trip up part way up the mountain. Small green roads led up to high viewpoints overlooking the sea and the neighbouring island of Sao Jorge. Mirror-like lakes shimmered between the steep slopes, reflecting the sky, creating a symphony in blue and green. Areas by the coast still showed the patterns where lava flowed from the volcano, and cliffs had strange sculptural craggy shapes. Way-marked walking trails led off from the road, inviting exploration but I was only here on a day trip and had more to see.
Early settlers needed to be resourceful here. They cleared the land by piling up the black lava rocks. These then formed boundaries to tiny fields, each big enough to shelter just two or three vine plants from the wind and then to ripen the grapes in the heat collected from the sun. This honeycombed area of vineyards is such a testament to their hard work that it is now a Unesco World Heritage site. Today life is more relaxed and people have small summer houses among the fields where they make wine and aguadiente. There’s a hospitable tradition of inviting passers by in for a sample!
Another way of making a living in those early days was whaling. Pico has two museums which complement each other to show the grim reality of that bygone way of life. At Sao Roque the old slipway, steam winches and gigantic pressure cookers stand just as they were left when the trade finished. Then at Lajes, on the seafront where the whalers used to set sail, the museum has many artefacts including the whaling boats and equipment displayed along with evocative old photographs.
Visiting the Azores
The islands are easier to reach than they were in the past, but they are not yet a mass tourism destination. There’s peace and space, unspoiled landscape and welcoming local people.
You can enjoy the Azores on foot, using the waymarked footpaths. Driving styles are well mannered so car hire is a good option too. I went in autumn, but the climate is mild year-round and if it rains one moment it will stop the next. The landscape is most spectacular in spring, with hedges of wild flowers. Towns and village have traditional, colourful processions and festivals throughout the summer.
The holiday crowd that roasts all day and parties all night is not here but if you like landscape, nature, the outdoors, activity from gentle to challenging, you will find something to delight you.
SATA International flies direct from international airports to Ponta Delgada in Sao Miguel Island. There are internal flights and ferries between the islands.
The Visit Azores website has information on all the islands of the Azores