Amazing Azores – an atlantic adventure

By | Category: Travel destinations

the southern coast of São Miguel

The archipelago of the Azores, a Portuguese territory, sits slap-bang in the middle of the Atlantic, over 900 miles west of the mainland – quite a trek, but well worth it, as I discovered on a week-long trip taking in two of the main islands. There are direct flights from London to capital Ponta Delgada, on the island of São Miguel, from April to October, the best time to visit to enjoy pleasant weather, and the flight is surprisingly swift taking only three and a half hours.

My first impression of São Miguel, the largest and most populous of the nine islands, was one of excessive lushness. Admittedly it was kind of hard to tell in the pitch black of the late hour, but the bus whisking me away from the airport at Ponta Delgada seemed surrounded by dark greenery, as it followed the winding southern coastal road towards the town of Furnas. It turns out I wasn’t wrong – São Miguel is locally referred to as “The Green Island” and lives up to its name in spectacular abundance, if my first morning’s walk was anything to go by.

every shade of green

An amble around my hotel’s ample gardens also gave me the distinct impression that Furnas in all likelihood must mean “furnace” – the foliage was every so often interrupted by thermal hot springs and bubbling pools of steaming mud. The Azores are a volcanic hotspot full of fascinating geophysical features, but luckily major eruptions are rare.

I was here to explore some of the Azores’ excellent hiking options and my quiet stroll around the gardens was just a gentle warm-up to prepare me for the steeper hills to come. Suitably warmed up, (not that staying cool in a “furnace” is an actual option) I set off with a group of avid hikers, leaving Furnas behind and climbing steadily higher towards Lagoa das Furnas, a crater lake west of town. We found a lovely viewpoint overlooking said lagoon, before we realised we must have taken a wrong turning somewhere – the aim had been to reach the lagoon itself, not to view it from lofty heights. That said, with such splendid vistas, getting lost didn’t feel like too much of a hardship. Sadly though, the downhill climb felt as steep as the uphill and rather slippery. Soon I was busy rescuing “mansels in distress”, as some of the less macho men slipping down the slope, got nicknamed.

At long last we reached the shores of the crater lake, all in one piece, just in time to see the local restaurateurs come and pick up the ready-cooked Sunday lunches. Having buried the cooking pots in the ground and covered them with earth hours earlier, the hot springs had kindly done the job and cooked the food for them. The unearthing of the pots was quite an interesting spectacle to watch, but no less exciting than the hot springs themselves. Had it not been for the sulphurous smell, I could happily have stayed there all day, listening to the soothing sound of boiling mud and hissing thermals. Instead it was time to make our way around Lagoa das Furnas itself, luckily on the flat after so much up- and downhill, before returning to Furnas and a well-deserved, if slightly evil, local brew – the aguardente, literally “fire water”.

The following morning we jumped on a local bus heading east. Getting off at Redondo, we had a good hour and a half’s walk down to the coast, through ever-varying landscapes in every shade of green. The walk took us through lush forests, along calderas, through river ravines and along babbling brooks, where fluffy-looking hydrangeas in blues, purples and whites lined our path. The sun was turning up the heat and I could easily have settled in, in Ribeira do Quente, the coastal village where we stopped for a cold drink in the (only?) bar, but it turned out we had another 3 hours hiking to do along the coast to Povoaçao. Having gone downhill for so long, of course we now needed to head upwards again and there were so many steep climbs on the coastal path that I felt, and probably looked, like a wet rag by the end of the afternoon. The rewarding sea views and majestic landscape made up for the strenuous hikes, but I was still grateful when we reached Povoaçao in the southeast and the bus back to Furnas.

Pontardos Rosais

As mentioned, the Azores has all of nine islands, spanning almost 400 miles from northwest to southeast, and it seemed a shame to make it all the way out into the Atlantic and only visit the one. Consequently, after a few days hiking around São Miguel it was time to move on and visit island number two, São Jorge. The flight is just a short hop – less than forty minutes – so before I knew it, I had landed in Velas, the island’s main hub. Velas, a quietly picturesque town, set on a natural harbour, offers beautiful views across to the island of Pico, named after, and dominated by, a huge and perfectly cone-shaped volcano, the highest peak in the Azores at 2,341 metres. Roaming the cobbled streets in search of bars sounded like excellent exercise to me, but that’s not the kind of “hiking” I was here to do after all. Instead I joined those enthusiastic hikers again for next day’s constitutional, starting at Sete Fontes, or Seven Fountains, west of town. Much to my joy and cheer, this turned out to be a leisurely walk, right through to the island’s most westerly point, Ponta dos Rosais. It happened to have one of the least attractive lighthouses I’ve ever seen and lots of abandoned buildings, but the views were some of the most spectacular of the journey – dangerous-looking sheer drops and a wild emerald-coloured sea far below.

Looking down on Velas

Leaving the lighthouse we followed the south coast back towards Velas and stumbled upon a tiny one-horse village with a single bar, run by a tremendously elderly couple. The man appeared to be half blind and the woman didn’t have too many teeth, but she looked very cute in her rustic scarf, tied demurely behind her ears. I tried their chilled red wine and it was absolutely delicious (that could have been the heat, the hike and the lack of liquid). They didn’t speak a word of English, but the wine improved my Portuguese no end and I was chatting away quite happily before heading back to Velas for the evening.

The islands have many more strenuous strolls I could have engaged in, but instead I decided that was quite enough exercise for one week and my last two days were spent exploring first Velas and then Ponta Delgada on São Miguel. The Azores had proved more varied, more beautiful and more calorie-busting than I could possibly have envisaged. And there are seven more islands still to explore.

Factbox

Airlines:
There are direct flights from London to Ponta Delgada, São Miguel, from April to October with SATA. TAP also flies via Lisbon year-round.

For more about the Azores, click here.
For more about Portugal, click here.
for more information about the hiking trails on the Azores, click here

Images © Anna Maria Espsäter
First UK Rights

0saves
If you enjoyed this post, please consider subscribing to the RSS feed to have future articles delivered to your feed reader.
Tags: , , , , , , , ,