Across a blue ocean ... an oasis of green
We crosse the Atlantic and find that we can’t help but adore the islands of the Azores.
The glorious twin lakes of Sete Cidades, one green and one blue, evoke the legend of tragic love
Peeking out of the Atlantic somewhere between Lisbon and New York, Sao Miguel forms one of the nine Azorean islands which mix romance, myth and geology. Still relatively unspoilt by mass tourism, the autonomous Portuguese Azores archepelago remains quaint and slightly old fashioned.
Its mild climate means it can be a year-round holiday destination, yet many people couldn't even tell you where they are. In fact, they form Europe's most westerly outposts and the nine islands are scattered in the middle of the Atlantic 950 miles from Lisbon.
The largest island, São Miguel, is affectionately referred to as the Green Island because the rain and volcanic soil make for lush vegetation and glorious displays of floral colour - especially the hydrangeas in spring.
It is also a convenient starting point for an Azorean adventure. The narrow cobbled streets of Ponta Delgada, the capital of the Azores and the main town of São Miguel are made for exploring.
The picturesque 16th and 17th century black and white churches, pavements and squares are distinctly Portuguese in style and refreshingly unspoilt.
SATA International offers a weekly flight departing from Manchester or Gatwick to Ponta Delgada on São Miguel Island with prices from £2,65pp return. The flight takes under four hours and includes a hot in-flight meal, bar service and a generous baggage allowance. SATA International also offers inter-island connections throughout the Azores archipelago and prices start from £32pp an inter-island flight.
Archipelago Azores offers a seven day São Miguel experience, which starts at around £998pp and includes flights, seven nights' bed and breakfast accommodation, arrival transfer, transfer between hotels, three days' car hire, a whale and dolphin watching trip and a geological tour of the island.
www.azoreschoice.com 017687 75672
Our base was the modern Marina Atlántico hotel with commanding views of the Atlantic Ocean and ideally located for a whale and dolphin watching expedition.
Cetaceans spotted in these waters include blue, fin, humpback and, the sperm whale and dozens of dolphins.
Although Ponta Delgada is home to the marina, some smart hotels and restaurants, the main attractions of Sao Miguel, lie beyond the town.
These include the Gorreana Tea plantation. I had only previously seen tea grown in Sri Lanka, so was charmed to find Europe's only tea plantation down an unassuming driveway behind fabulous blooms of ginger lily, pink belladonna, morning glory and hydrangea. The fifth generation owner of Gorreana is proudly happy to demonstrate the equipment, still bearing the name, place and date of its manufacture: Marshalls, Gainsborough UK, 1848 and still churning the leaves for a perfect cuppa.
The smell of green and black tea leaves is invigorating and it is impossible to leave without sampling them.
Pineapples and tobacco also grow here, the former being an island favourite and the basis of a deliciously decadent sweet liqueur which we sip at a local café.
In fabulous sunshine we drive to the spa town of Furnas and the famous Terra Nostra Garden hotel, a peaceful art deco oasis built in 1935 and set in its own 30 acre Kew Gardens style botanical estate. En route we pass steaming waterfalls, breathtaking views and endless floral blooms.
After a warm walk around the gardens with its wealth of ferns, azaleas, palms and exotic plants it feels time to take to the waters.
Although the hotel's blue indoor pool looks inviting, we opt to test the waters in Terra Nostra's famous natural thermal swimming pool.
It is an odd brown in colour from the iron which taints the rocks a rich red. We step in gingerly and are immediately immersed in warm, comforting bath-like waters.
The island is composed of two volcanic ranges joined over the centuries and volcanic activity is still evident in the island's craters and cauldrons.
Lago de Congro, a green mystical lake is the first stop on our geo-tour and our volcano route takes in three craters - Lago de Fogo (the Fire Lake) in the centre of the island, Furnas and Sete Cidades.
Spectacular Sete Cidades has twin lakes, one green, and one blue. Legend says that here a shepherd boy fell in love with a princess. Sadly, the king objected and their love was doomed. Their resulting tears filled two lakes, one from his blue eyes, and the other from her green eyes.
The truth is less romantic. The smaller green lake reflects the proximity of the foliage and the vegetation; the large blue lake lies open to the sky and reflects its bright blue hue.
The fable may be a tall tale, but the views here are fabulous. A village sits in the centre of a huge caldera (a cauldron-like volcanic) three miles across and 1,300 ft deep. Some believe the Azores were the missing land of Atlantis, and Lord Tennyson wrote a moving poem about a battle on neighbouring Flores.
Driving to Furnas we follow our noses to the hot springs or calderas. The smell is unmistakeable. The valley is a lunar landscape of grey and brown bubbling pools and fumaroles.
Popular as a spa in the 19th century, Furnas attracted patients from as far afield as England. It is also home of the local gastronomy, as here is where people bring their pots of the dish cozido which they bury each morning to cook underground in geothermal heat for eight hours.
Keen for us to try it, the kitchen staff at Terra Nostra invite us to prepare our own. This involves placing a selection of raw meats and vegetables in a potwhich are taken to the springs in the small hours of the morning to cook.
We eat the dish for lunch in the restaurant the following day. It looks and tastes surprisingly good. We wash it down with wine from the lava vineyards of neighbouring Pico Island.
Although simple, the food in local restaurants is carefully prepared, plentiful and Portuguese in style. Local fish includes "wreck fish" and swordfish but cod is the most popular on the islands and appears in a range of different dishes as diverse as its flora.
● Just south east of São Miguel lies Santa Maria and some of the Azores' most dramatic beaches and coastline. With its deep, sandy bays and lush green interior, Santa Maria is a paradise for surfers and walkers alike.
● The most cosmopolitan of the central Azores islands and one of the most beautiful, rising gently through pastureland to the main crater, which dominates the island.
● Here, there are traditional coastal villages and wild interior moorland. Wander through the cobbled streets of the capital, Angra do Heroísmo, and soak up the quiet Azores charm of this UNESCO World Heritage town.
● Known as the 'White Island', the island has a gentle rolling landscape, dotted with windmills and traditional whitewashed houses. The island has a peaceful, rural charm.
● Dominated by the majestic volcanic cone from which the island takes its name, Pico provides ramblers with the opportunity to stand on the highest point of the Azores. It is famous for its lava vineyards and wine tasting tours are one of the highlights.
● A walker's paradise, as a long, snake of peaks peppered with lush green craters, the sides dramatically tumbling to the ocean blue below.
● Corvo is picturesque and famous for the warm hospitality of its people.
● An island noted as one of the most romantic with its cascading waterfalls and spectacular sunsets.