The Azores: Taking tee amid the volcanoes
We flew 800 miles to the Azores for a game of golf - but it was waterfalls, the sulphur pools and the fiery volcanic geology that left us breathless.
The most beautiful scene on São Miguel Island is the Vista do Rei (King’s View Lookout). This is the summit of the Sete Cidades Caldera, where the lakes are a deep emerald green
Looking out to the right from my airplane window there was a long mass of land, a long mound covered with patchwork fields. After four hours flying from London, this was my first glimpse of the Azores - and specifically, the main island, São Miguel.
Hazy October sunshine bathed the promontory, with some wispy clouds here and there hanging in the ether.
The Azores is an archipelago of nine volcanic islands, governed by Portugal and formed in a thunderous clash of three tectonic plates (the mid-Atlantic, the North American and the Eurasian), millions of years ago.
Ever since eruptions of fissure and lava from the ocean bed have created more volcanoes on these islands, giving them their unique geography which turns out to be ideal for a lazy game of golf.
Around 800 miles or so west of Lisbon and a little over 1,000 miles east of Newfoundland, you really are mid-Atlantic here.
The time to come is between May to September when you can expect clear blue skies and reasonable sunshine, though the islands are surprisingly temperate and green, thanks to being encircled by the Gulf Stream.
Maximum temperatures are in the high twenties, and never above 30°C. But if you are searching for beauty and rugged nature, from beaches to rainforest, these landscapes will stun you into silence.
Fly: SATA International has weekly flights from London Gatwick to Ponta Delgada from April to October 2014; from £328 return; www.sata.pt
Stay: Hotel Terra Nostra Garden Hotel (www.terranostrahotelazores.com) offers double rooms from €79 per room per night.
Play: Golf packages www.azoresgolfislands.com
More info: www.visitazores.com
We landed at Ponta Delgada, a small, low-rise city of only 45,000 residents, around a third of the island's population. It seemed pleasant enough, with a marina, seafront bars, restaurants long esplanades and sculpted beachwalks.
We bowled along the coastal road, following surprisingly good motorways and then into narrow lanes with hedgerows that bordered fields for crops and pasture. In fact, it reminded me a lot of summer childhood holidays on relatives' farms in Ireland. Every so often we were obliged to wait as a farmer drove sheep or cows along the lane into another field or drop speed when we were behind a farmer on his Massey Ferguson 365 tractor.
What was different, though, was the fauna and vegetation. The hedgerows were ablaze with colourful flowers - blue snowball hydrangeas, purple belladonnas (known locally as "girls go back to school" because they first appear at the start of the autumn term, in September). And the occasional forests were magnificent, with dominating giant cedars and Australian cheesewood trees that give way to stretches of open moorland where fern and bracken abound.
A little more than an hour's drive from Ponta Delgada brought us into the cauldron of a volcano, Furnas.
It last erupted in 1630 and now is all grassy, good farming land. From the rim, you wind down a road to the centre, where you'll find a beautiful lake, Lagoa da Furnas. A 20-minute journey saw us pitching up in the sleepy and very amiable town of Furnas, and our home for two nights, the Terra Nostra Garden Hotel.
This is an attractive Art Deco building that has stood here for 80 years, though a second wing was added in the 1990s, done sympathetically to the extent that it is not immediately apparent which is which. Inside, the Art Deco theme extends to furniture, fixtures and fittings, ocean-liner style, though with a contemporary twist. Light-toned wood paneling abounds, and the effect is calming and classic.
The real lure here, though, are the fantastic gardens behind the hotel, a major tourist attraction. More than 200 years old, the gardens were first planted by the US Consul to the Azores, Thomas Hickling, as the estate to his Yankee Hall, a grand neo-classical pile.
In front of the building is an enormous thermal pool - you can smell the sulphur - and a good soak here in the naturally hot (35-40°C) waters will leave you as yellow as a banana. Behind the mansion there's an enchanting 31 acres of woodland trails, grottoes, lakes, rivers and global botany.
The island has one of the best golf courses I have played, and certainly the most beautiful. Towards the top of the cauldron of the volcano, the first nine holes were constructed in 1936 by the Scottish golf architect Mackenzie Ross.
A parkland course carved out among a forest of Japanese cedars, Furnas was extended in the 1990s to 18 holes.
An English-style clubhouse completes the offer, and the green fee of €80, can be greatly reduced by taking up one of their packages.
Another excellent course is on São Miguel, Batalha, and a third on the second island of Terceira, a 40-minute flight.
A trip to the lovely Terceira (the Azores' second island) offers so much more than a golf course. It is a paradox of verdant lushness and fiery volcanic geology. Around the islands are waterfalls, tropical springs, beautiful, breath-taking drives - a marriage of iceland and Ireland but with far better weather and beaches.