By Mary-Justine Lanyon
The archipelago known as the Azores (Açores in Portuguese) is made up of nine volcanic islands located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, about 870 miles west of Lisbon, Portugal, 930 miles northwest of Morocco and 1,200 miles southeast of Newfoundland.
The largest city in this autonomous region of Portugal is Ponta Delgada, on the island of São Miguel, where Armand LeSage and I landed when we recently participated in a Road Scholar program called “Hiking the Azores: A Nature Lover’s Paradise.”
We were greeted at the João Paulo II airport by a huge rainbow that extended over the entire terminal.
After clearing immigration, we immediately boarded another plane and flew a short distance to the island of Terceira, where we spent the next three days, staying in a boutique hotel in Angra do Heroísmo.
The first thing we noticed from the windows of our tour bus was the lushness and the intense green of the fields. Those fields are separated by stone walls – largely made up of basalt – and are filled with cows. The dairy industry is huge in the Azores. There are reportedly more cows than people on the nine islands. All we know is that the butter and yogurt were the best we have ever eaten.
Over the course of the 10 days and two islands, we had four local guides, each of whom was knowledgeable, friendly, funny and downright exceptional. Our group leader Arianna was very attentive to all of us and any special needs we had.
On that first afternoon in Angra, our guide Diogo took us on a walking tour of the city, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The garden in the middle of the city was spectacular, as were the churches he pointed out.
The next day, Friday, we set out on our first hike after taking the bus to the village of Serreta. We walked along a gravel path in lush vegetation. At one point, we could just make out the island of São Jorge in the distance. After enjoying a picnic lunch (with some spectacular ocean scenery), we headed to the village of Biscoitos, where some folks had hoped to get into the water. The surf was so high that that was impossible but we enjoyed watching the crashing waves.
We finished out our adventure that day by descending into Algar do Carvão, a nearly 300-foot-deep volcanic chimney formed about 3,200 years ago.
On Saturday we took a short walk from the hotel to Monte Brasil, where we ascended to the top of the mountain, passing by one of Portugal’s most important military fortresses. We had a free afternoon during which some folks explored the city while others napped after the challenging hike.
Sunday morning we enjoyed a lecture on geothermal energy in the Azores, after which we explored more of the island of Terceira. Later that day we flew back to Ponta Delgada.
In addition to our hikes on São Miguel, two of the highlights were our visits to a pineapple plantation and a tea plantation. The pineapples take two years to grow to maturity and are raised in greenhouses. We found the Azorean pineapple to have a more delicate flavor than what we are used to.
The Gorreana Tea Factory is the only place in Europe that both grows and manufactures tea. We were amazed at how labor intensive and complicated the process is. There were acres of tea plants – black, green and white – surrounding the factory.
We had checked out of our hotel in Ponta Delgada and spent the final three days in Furnas, a town located inside a volcanic crater, best known for its geothermal activity. We stopped at the caldeiras and experienced with all five senses that activity. There were simmering pools of sulfurous water and geysers that spouted up on a regular basis. Furnas is the easternmost of the three active volcanoes on São Miguel.
On our hike the next day around Furnas Lake, we stopped to watch staff from the various restaurants lower containers into the fumaroles to cook the cozido – the Portuguese stew that includes various meats (beef, chicken, pork), blood sausage and vegetables like cabbage, potatoes and carrots. The stew cooks in the volcanic steam for about six hours. We enjoyed the cozido for lunch back at our hotel.
That hotel features 30 acres of garden, which we toured in the afternoon.
Because the hike on our final full day was touted as being the most challenging of the program, several of us stayed behind with our guide Bento. He took us to a public thermal pool, where we soaked our feet and legs in the 100-degree water – it felt heavenly! We then sampled a variety of mineral waters coming out of rocks throughout the village. And then Bento took us to a friend who poured samples of local Azorean liqueurs for us to taste. We all felt we had made the right choice!
On the bus as we headed back to the airport, our guide Pedro asked us to describe the Azores in one word. As one, we all yelled, “GREEN!” We had some rain nearly every day and it is quite humid so the fields and trees present themselves in various shades of green.
The people were very friendly and helpful. We happened to be there on April 25 – Freedom Day – when the Portuguese celebrate the Carnation Revolution, the day a bloodless coup took place, ending the dictatorship and establishing a democracy in Portugal.
Armand and I attended the celebration in one of the plazas in Ponta Delgada. There we heard some fado music, as well as a very popular Portuguese band, Passos Pesados, based in Ponta Delgada. When I asked a couple standing nearby to write down the band’s name for me, Isabella and João took me backstage to meet the band.
Our overall impression of the two islands we visited? We loved the view of the fields with the stone walls and the cows. The ocean vistas were incredible. The people were lovely. The food was delicious (I ate fresh tuna three times).
There are seven more islands to visit!