Santa Maria is the oldest island of the Azores and emerged from the sea around eight to ten million years ago © Sean 2013, Shutterstock
Along with being the oldest island, discovered in the 15th century, Santa Maria is also the sunniest member of the archipelago.
Santa Maria sees itself as the sun island. Its claims that, being a little further south and east than all the other islands, it receives more sunshine and enjoys higher sea temperatures – and these are indeed borne out by statistics. Sheep graze the flatlands around the airport, an area with virtually no trees, but this scenery changes rapidly on the approach to the central peak of Pico Alto, the island’s highest point at 590m. Here once again is the typically lush Azorean green forest with cryptomeria trees and pittosporum, mixed in places with native shrubs. Then comes the eastern half and its idyllic, picturesque, tranquil, verdant landscapes of woodland and pastures. These may be sprinkled with glimmering white traditional houses that are scattered, either in little clusters or in small villages. In places there are no buildings at all, or perhaps just a time-weathered basalt shelter tucked away in a corner of a field. There are dramatic coastlines, proud headlands and sheltered bays, and a novelty for the Azores: white sand. This island supplies the potters on São Miguel with some of their clay, and from deposits at Santana and Figueral came the lime to whitewash all the archipelago’s houses.
Serious hikers can now spend a few days doing the Santa Maria circular walk. For drivers, to hire a car and meander along almost empty winding roads through such glorious countryside, stopping for views and parking the car at the end of a farm road and just exploring to the sound of birdsong, makes for a wonderful three or four days’ holiday. High sea cliffs provide precipitous views and you can drop down to the coast at Maia and São Lourenço for sea swimming in manmade pools with their own natural wave machine. Between exploring the varied environments you have the white sandy beach at Praia Formosa (though it disappears in the winter waves), and the sea pools at Anjos in which to relax. Other places of interest include the little chapel at Anjos associated with Columbus’s first landfall on his return from the Americas and the quite remarkable stone terraced vineyards at Maia, an extraordinary work of such great skill and energy you are left wondering at the effort humankind is prepared to make to produce wine! And then there’s the amazing red soils and almost desert landscape of Barreiro da Faneca, not forgetting that, in keeping with its status as the oldest Azore, this is the only island in the archipelago where you can find fossils.