For me the Azores represents a bite-sized piece of a national identity. The islands offer a taste of Portugal wrapped up in their own unique Atlantic geography and geology. The island archipelago has been described as like heaven and hell: defined both by a lush green environment and by the fiery belly of the earth.
It’s a heady mix that can overwhelm the senses. Birds, plants, whales and dolphins, combined with Portuguese architecture, are akin to heaven; sulphurous water bubbling up from deep underground, thick volcanic ash and pumice that blanket vast swathes of land, and black lava flows, frozen like fossils that dip into the turgid Atlantic Ocean, are all reminiscent of hell.
It is truly astonishing to think that these islands emerged from the ocean relatively recently in geological terms and that all the flora and fauna are immigrants, migrating halfway across the Atlantic, borne on the ocean current or the wind.
The Azores is a hauntingly beautiful chain of nine islands spread over more than 600km of ocean, halfway between Lisbon and New York. In some ways the Azores is to Portugal what the Outer Hebrides is to Scotland – a remote archipelago many kilometres offshore – but there the similarities end. Where the Hebrides are flat, sandy isles, the Azores islands are rugged and volcanic, dominated by their geology and influenced by the warm Gulf Stream that has created an ecosystem unlike anywhere else.
The Azores High is responsible for the unique ecology of this archipelago. This area of high pressure is semi-permanent and ensures the islands are more tropical than you might expect. It combines with the warm ocean currents of the Gulf Stream, creating a subtropical climate.
Ponta da Ferraria must rate as one of the greatest places in the world for a saltwater swim. A natural swimming pool formed by lava lies next to the ocean but is heated by a bubbling spring that pumps water into the pool at 61°C. Indeed, the water in the pool is too hot to swim in at low tide and is only cool enough when it mixes with crashing Atlantic waves that tumble in at high tide, bringing the temperature down to a comfortable 28°C. It is the perfect combination of exhilaration and relaxation.
One of the most memorable experiences for me was my first visit to Terra Nostra Garden on São Miguel, the main island. In 1770, Thomas Hickling built a summer house on a small hill overlooking a thermal-spring swimming pool. Twelve hectares of rich gardens were planted in the ensuing years, and now there are more than 2,500 trees, abundant ferns, a formal flower garden, a garden devoted to cycads and another to camellias. The garden thrives in the subtropical climate and it is simply breathtaking.
Not far away is Furnas where boiling pools and steaming vents offer a portal to Middle Earth. For decades, if not centuries, families have come here to cook the famous cozido nas caldeiras in huge pots buried in the volcanic sand; prized cooking spots are passed down from generation to generation. Holes about a metre deep have been dug into the hot earth into which a container is lowered. Filled with different meats, sausage, vegetables, kale, potato and cabbage, the pot is left to cook gently for 7 hours. The long, slow simmer ensures that meat becomes tender and flavours meld. This simple form of cooking is, in my eyes, symbolic of how the land and the geology have shaped the unique culture and heritage of these islands.
Volcanic activity has, of course, cast, moulded and created these unique islands, and Faial is an example of how the Azores has been changed by the power of the earth. The western tip of the island exemplifies this, its entire landscape formed by the great eruption in 1957–58. Walking on this moon-like terrain is like stepping on to another planet. On the face of it, it is a bleak, soulless place, but it takes on a gritty beauty that overcomes most visitors.
Perhaps one of the most iconic activities in the Azores is to climb the summit of the tallest peak, Pico mountain, at 2,351m. The 5km journey begins at Cabeço das Cabras, at 1,231m. The difficulty of the ascent varies according to the weather, but the views from the summit are well worth the 6-hour round trip. No matter how many mountains you have climbed, there is something utterly mesmerising about looking out over thousands of kilometres of ocean and cloud below.
Most people associate the Azores with whales. Indeed, the ocean around the islands offers one of the best habitats in the world for marine mammals and more than 20 species have been identified off the coast. For many years, until the 1980s, sperm whales were hunted commercially in the Azores from small boats with hand-held harpoons. Fortunately, today whale hunting has been replaced by whale watching. Short-finned pilot whales and sperm whales are the most common in the Azores and can be seen all year round.
Early one morning on my last trip I headed out to sea in a fast rigid inflatable boat. Dressed in wet-weather gear to protect me from the ocean spray, I travelled out deep into the Atlantic Ocean. The boat leapt from wave to wave, directed from the same observation huts used by the hunters of previous decades. The difference was that I was armed with a camera rather than a harpoon gun.
There can be few sights as moving as that of a breaching sperm whale. These marine mammals can measure up to 20m and are surprisingly elusive considering their size. Persevere, however, and you will be rewarded with an experience that will, quite literally, take your breath away.
Whale watching, swimming, bathing in hot springs, eating volcano-cooked food, mountain biking, kayaking, walking, birdwatching, visiting tea plantations, island hopping … the list of eco-friendly activities available on the Azores is endless. In an era when more and more people are looking for something different from their holiday, the islands of the Azores really are at the forefront of the ‘natural’ travel movement.
For more information on the Azores, check out David Sayers and Murray Stewart’s guide: