The Azores is an archipelago of nine extraordinary islands in the Atlantic Ocean. Volcanic in origin, their soil is extremely fertile, giving rise to lush vegetation across landscapes featuring peaks, valleys and some of the most picturesque lakes in the world. Although they may not be the first destination that would spring to one’s mind when one is planning a vacation, once visited they are not easily forgotten. My friends Carol, Lynne and I were lucky enough to have the decision made for us, as we were taking a transatlantic cruise that stopped for one day at the capital Ponta Delgada on the main island of Sao Miguel. It was a brief stay, but a memorable one. The Azores should be on everyone’s bucket list.
They were discovered in the 15th Century by explorers headed to the New World, and settlement was a slow and sporadic process, leading to an interesting mix of traditions and dialects that still exists today. The language is Portuguese, and the main industry on the island is the production of dairy products for export, such as butter, powdered milk and excellent cheese. The Azores is also known for its hot springs, most notably in the Furnas area of Sao Miguel. Boiling hot water is constantly bubbling at the earth’s surface bringing odorous sulphurous steam with it. The piping hot ground in these areas makes it ideal for cooking one of the islands’ most famous dishes – Cozido das Furnas – a mixture of meats and vegetables that are placed in a large pot, which is then lowered into the ground. After hours of slow cooking, the pot is lifted out again to reveal a meal that is revered by locals and visitors.
We arrived on a rather brisk Saturday morning after about seven days at sea, so we were eager to stretch our land legs. As I have always been a big believer in booking personal tours rather than going with the large cruise ship coaches, I did my research through TripAdvisor and other sites which led me to the highly recommended Rui Medeiros of RM Private Tours. He agreed to meet us at the pier at 10am where we would take a six-hour trip through some of Sao Miguel’s most scenic sites.
The sky was overcast and there was a light fog caressing the higher ground as we exited the port to meet our smiling guide. He led us to his black sedan, took our bags, opened our doors and once all were seated we went on our way.
Rui is a native Azorean and has been a tour guide for a number of years. His English is excellent, which had us breathing a sigh of relief, as it would have been a long day if we had relied on my nonexistent Portuguese and broken Spanish. We drove out of Ponta Delgada and officially began our sightseeing tour.
Our route first took us to a spot overlooking the oceanfront town of Caloura and a magnificent old fort, Forte de Nossa Senhora da Conceicao, with a convent by the same name, both of which are now in private hands. Out came the cameras and we huddled together in the wind so Rui could capture us in our first official shot.
From there we visited one stunning vista after the next. We drove to the Nossa Senhora da Paz chapel – a small building atop a hill, reached only by climbing sectioned steps based on the bead count of a rosary and the Stations of the Cross. The view of the town near the ocean below was breathtaking, and even as a mist of rain descended, it couldn’t dampen our spirits.
We drove along the shore of the magnificent Furnas Lake before pulling over to walk to the hot springs nearby. Sensing a bunch of saps heading in their direction, the ducks and cats in the area began to approach, fully aware that savvy businessmen were selling bags of corn and cat food to naïve tourists. Lynne headed for a hot spring immediately, grateful for the warmth. After she could feel her fingers and toes again, we watched two men pulling one of the cooking pots from the ground with long hooks. Immediately a crowd gathered with their cameras in hand – it was quite the impressive operation. There are holes reserved for restaurants, and then those that anyone can use. Apparently everyone respects each other’s space and no one steals anyone else’s pot. I guess when boiling hot springs are nearby, nobody would dare.
We went up to see further springs, where we pulled over and Rui insisted on us tasting some of the water that was pouring forth from the very ground. Carol and Lynne gave it a whirl, and by the looks on their faces, Evian wasn’t going to be shivering in its boots anytime soon.
Sao Miguel is known for its lakes – Furnas, Fire and Sete Cidades – and we were going to manage two in the one day. We had already seen Furnas and were now heading to Fire Lake, making our way along twisting roads. Before we got there Rui pulled over and explained that we were going to see the Caldeira Velha with a pool of warm water at the bottom of a waterfall. Apparently people used to be able to drive in, but the road has since been turned into a footpath. I obviously never saw the original road, but I have to say that walking along and getting a bird’s-eye view of the immense trees and plants was a wonderful experience. You almost felt as though you were walking through a giant’s forest; all the leaves and branches just seemed larger than life.
A few inclines in the path reminded us how out of shape we all were. I considered asking Rui for a piggyback ride, but then figured that would probably cost extra.
When we got to the pool and the waterfall we were just able to sit and take it all in – it was honestly like something out of a fairy tale. Some travellers bathe in the pool, but as we didn’t have a change of clothes with us and weren’t terribly inclined anyway, we were satisfied to look at it rather than take a dip. The edge of the pool was brown, stained by the high percentage of minerals in the water that ran over it every day, and the entire scene was surrounded by the well-maintained vegetation of the park. This is something that visitors will notice in the Azores – parks and historic locations are fiercely protected and maintained to ensure that they do not deteriorate.
Reinvigorated by our stop, we skipped back to the car and went on to see the majestic Fire Lake from above. By this point we were about 3,000 feet up and our ears were popping appropriately. Again, even with the cloud cover, it was a picture postcard and we could see people dotted along the shore far below.
One of our final stops was the only operational tea plantation in Europe, the Gorreana Tea Plantation, which featured antique machinery and a tour that took us through the process from freshly picked leaves to the finished product, which you could buy in the gift store. Green tea, black tea, orange pekoe…we tried it all. I was hoping someone would come and read my tea leaves and tell me I was coming back to the Azores in the near future.
The end of the day inevitably came, and our tour guide and now friend Rui finally drove us back to Ponta Delgada so we could grab some quick, free Internet before returning to the ship. He had been one of the best tour guides I have ever encountered, and we were sorry to say goodbye.
If you are considering visiting the Azores, you will definitely want to spend a good few days there to properly explore them. From May to October they are known for their whale-watching season, and as the temperatures are warmer around this time, it is considered their high season for land-based tourists as well. Sata airlines has direct flights from Boston, Toronto and Europe which operate more frequently over the summer.
For the perfect tour guide, or to ask questions about tours of the islands, see Rui Medeiros’ web site at www.rmazorestours.com.
Although they may not be the first destination that would spring to one’s mind when one is planning a vacation, once visited the Azores are not easily forgotten.