|Photo by Freeimages.com/Pasqualantonio Pingue|
by Chris Leadbeater, The Daily Telegraph, January 29, 2016
Adventure, history and wildlife await on the shores of the volcanic Azores – the untamed Hawaii of the Atlantic.
Europe is the forgotten continent of intrepid travel. South America, Africa, Asia – each is seen as being wrapped in a cloak of adventure that our home continent cannot match. And yet the idea of Europe being a known concept falls away when you journey to its western edge. No, not Ireland but those Atlantic mysteries, the Azores.
Last summer Ryanair launched flights between London Stansted and the largest of the Portuguese island group, Sao Miguel. Yet if the long overdue arrival of this far-flung horizon on the budget-airline radar was good news in terms of making the archipelago a little more accessible, it also did nothing to harm its considerable mystique.
From 900 to 1,200 miles (1,400-2,000km) west of the Iberian Peninsula, the Azores have long been “hidden”. Though rather closer to home than the gold slivers of the Caribbean, they were overlooked until the 14th century and uninhabited until the 15th century, claimed by Portuguese settlers in 1432, only 60 years before Columbus stumbled on the New World.
In some ways, the islands have developed little since. Even now they lack the mass-tourism hot spots of the Canary Islands. But they share something crucial with their Atlantic siblings. They are visibly volcanic, born of tectonic frustration at the point where three continental plates – the Eurasian, the African and the North American – meet.
They are, effectively, the Hawaii of the Atlantic, lost in deep seas; steep-sided, beautiful, wild. This is not to say the weather matches the glow of Pacific America – cloud and rain dog the Azores as much as sunshine. But such climactic inconstancy only adds to the aesthetic. Every day is different.
"The Azores are, effectively, the Hawaii of the Atlantic, lost in deep seas; steep-sided, beautiful, wild"
There are nine main outcrops in total, divided into three separate clusters – the easterly duo of Sao Miguel (with the capital Ponta Delgada on its south coast) and Santa Maria; the tiny westerly shards of Flores and Corvo; the “Central Group” of Terceira, Graciosa, Sao Jorge, Pico and Faial. This latter quintet can be a stage for a few days of easy island-hopping on ferries and internal flights – although it is no difficult task to jump around the whole archipelago. And it is worth doing so, as each of the nine has a distinct character and charm – making for escapades which take in Portuguese colonial heritage, high-rise vistas, lava-fried ruins, intriguing cuisine, quiet beaches and the graceful sight of marine mammals breaking the Atlantic’s surface. The Azores are the antidote to the idea of a Europe shorn of surprises – strangers in the ocean’s zealous grip.
Pico: an Atlantic giant
Midway up the road that stretches east out of Madalena, my progress is interrupted in abrupt fashion. Five Azorian cows have hopped over one of the stone walls which split field from highway and are idling on the tarmac . One, a calf of a few months, seizes the moment and runs at full pelt, uphill, hooves clattering on the hard camber. He will maintain his speed for half a mile before he is distracted by a clump of grass and I ease the car around him.
I can forgive his giddiness. I am excited myself, my mind drifting back to another summer – a transatlantic flight; a window seat; a dramatic glimpse of Pico below, framed by sun-sparkling sea; an immediate resolution to return and clamber up to its jagged roof.
Three years on, I have kept my vow, even if the vista I saw that day has vanished. Cloud has descended with such force that the biggest mountain in Portugal – all 7,713ft of it – is invisible. When I reach the Casa da Montanha – the visitor centre, halfway up the west flank – Noel Lesbiosotis is shaking his head. “It is bad,” he says, his native French accent blurred by the mid-Atlantic. “Do you still want to try?”
I do. The ascent to Pico’s pinnacle is Europe’s westernmost uphill hike, its final challenge.
And it is a challenge. This silent sentry may be smaller than Tenerife ’s 12,198ft Mount Teide, but it is formidable none the less – almost twice the size of Italy’s Mount Vesuvius (4,203ft), if less angry – the last eruption here was in 1718).
"This silent sentry may be smaller than Tenerife’s 12,198ft Mount Teide, but it is formidable none the less – almost twice the size of Italy’s Mount Vesuvius"
This is a comforting thought as, my guide and I set off – though a little fire and fury would at least mean that we could see the trail. It is three miles from “base” station to summit, all slanted. Not that my guide seems to notice. A man in his 60s with the agility of a teenager, Lesbiosotis leaps up a path that is little more than a mess of clotted basalt as if it is a mall escalator. “I think the weather will improve,” he says with the assurance of someone who has beaten the peak hundreds of times.
The trail is loosely delineated by a series of numbered posts. I will not know it for three hours, but the highest marker bears the digit “45”.
By the time I see it, I will have inched slowly up rippled folds of solidified lava, congealed like candle wax, melted then cooled. It is a tough process, sapping my legs, although the problem is the energy required, not the difficulty of the climb. Accessible to those fit enough to attempt it, Pico is no Everest.
When we reach the top, the mist teasingly parts – to show that we are not at the top at all. The caldera, at 7,484ft is a false promise. The true endgame – Pico Pequeno, the volcano’s crown – emerges from the haze, demanding another 230ft of effort. So we continue, scrambling up bare rock, the wind howling, scree tumbling below my every footstep. Finally, we reach our destination – to be met by a fog of impenetrable thickness.
It is as I am eating my packed lunch that the miracle occurs. The wind changes direction and a world appears. Suddenly there is sunshine and half the Azorian archipelago dozing in it – Faial to the west, lushly green; Sao Jorge low-slung to the north; Terceira skulking on the other side. “It is worth it, I think,” Lesbiosotis says. It is indeed.
Do it: Guided climbs from €55 (£42), via A Abegoaria (00351 292 642884; aventura.a-abegoaria.com ).
Sleep: Aldeia da Fonte in Silveira (00351 292 679500; aldeiadafonte.com ); double rooms from €55.
Terceira: a cosmopolitan comeback
Doze Ribeiras is a novelty. Even as I hit its outskirts, driving south around the west flank of the island, I can see that it is different. Where Raminho, its near-neighbour, wears the whitewash and orange tiles of Portuguese postcards, Doze Ribeiras has a fresher hue. The homes are brighter, more colourful, recently painted, as if the village has been born anew.
But, then, it has. If ever a reminder were needed of the Azores’ seismic location, it surely did not need to be as brutal a statement as that made by the New Year’s Day earthquake of 1980. Terceira (the “third” island to be discovered) suffered on that January day – 61 people killed by a tremor that measured 7.2 on the Richter Scale. Doze Ribeiras, the closest settlement to the epicentre, bore the brunt, its streets cracked, its houses tumbled down.
But just as the village was re-created as a sharper version of its old self, so Terceira has bloomed in the subsequent 36 years. Do not let its name mislead you. This sizeable slice of the Central Group does not feel like a “third” best anything. Though smaller than Sao Miguel, it revels in a confidence and a chicness that play out most noticeably in its south-coast capital Angra do Heroismo. Here, landscaped gardens – in particular the manicured Jardim Duque de Terceira, all lawns, fountains and ornate bandstand – spread their arms. Intriguing shops dot the cobbled avenues Rua Direita and Rua da Se, and the little Teatro Angrense, with its pastel-pink facade, strikes a cultural pose on narrow Rua de Esperanca.
Saturday morning is a merry flurry of motion. I stroll uphill to the Mercado Duque de Braganca, where fresh fish is being disembowelled on marble slabs, and citrus fruits are gathered in baskets. I amble past sunbathers snoozing on the town beach of Prainha. And I halt for lunch at Cais d’Angra, a sophisticated restaurant on the harbour, where the menu offers parrotfish, and chilled bottles of white Magma wine sourced from Terceira’s vines.
It is only as I stride back up Rua da Se that I find a sign of the cataclysm. The first stones of Angra’s Catedral de Sao Salvador were laid in 1570. They stood firm until 1980, when the quake toppled the left tower. This scar, though, is faded, rebuilt, another shard of self-assurance on an isle that has learnt not to fret, whatever mischief the ground may make.
Stay: Angra Marina Hotel (00351 295 204700; angramarinahotel.com ). Double rooms from €213.
Faial: Pompeii of the Azores
Such is the location of the Capelinhos lighthouse that no matter where on Faial you start your journey in search of it, you approach from the east. It sits fixed to the westernmost point of the island – and as I flit towards it along the south coast, the yachts in the pretty capital Horta receding in my mirrors, I am driving into the afternoon. By the time I reach this solitary soldier, the sun has slipped into position behind it, redefining its tower as a silhouette. It gives the scene an extra tint of drama – and I did not think that was possible.
The Farol dos Capelinhos is to the Azores what Pompeii is to Italy. It may not have been an ancient landmark, but its manner of destruction was the same – a volcanic eruption choking it in a shroud of ash. The firestorm raged from September 1957 to October 1958, so ferocious that it made a new nugget of land on Faial’s farthest flank. But 58 years look like five months as I near its victim. Dust still surrounds the lighthouse – the murder weapon left at the crime scene.
However, while it no longer serves its original purpose, the structure has been rescued. Pulled from the dirt grave which had buried its two-storey base, it reopened in 2008 as a museum to its own demise. Within, exhibits chart those 13 mad months – a seismology reading from May 1958, all scratchy heart-monitor lines, the pulse lurching; pictures of Portuguese tourists watching the blaze at worryingly close quarters; photos of lighthouse keeper Tomaz Pacheco de Rosa, who held his position until the flames almost engulfed him; a copy of the “Azorian Refugee Act” rubber-stamped by the US Congress on September 2 1958 – a life-raft that cost Faial half its population. Those who stayed live on an island which has retreated to calm – whose blind guardian still monitors the ocean.
Do it: Farol dos Capelinhos (00351 292 200470; parquesnaturais.azores.gov.pt ); €10.
Stay: Pousada Forte da Horta (00351 210 407670; pestana.com ); double rooms from €145.
Sao Miguel: marine marvel
There is nothing in the water. The morning is sullen, the horizon a smudge, the Atlantic listless. Standing on the dock in Ponta Delgada, I am not sure the day will bring much of note. If the sea is uninspired, what chance its inhabitants will want to wake up and play?
But we pile on board, we band of modern whalers – all rustle of waterproof clothing and rain-splattered sunglasses. And off we go, the boat banging on rigid ripples, as if the ocean has become a plain of concrete. So we stop, turn, wait. Still a blank canvas, albeit in an elegant frame. Half a mile away, Sao Miguel’s colonial heritage is unmistakable – the Porta de Cidade, a three-arch gateway, built in 1783, flanking the mosaic square of the Praca de Goncalo Velho; the Forte de Sao Bras, the isle’s squat 16th-century watchdog.
As I am gazing at the past – and pondering the Azores’ reputation as a haven for sightings of creatures of the deep – the present asserts itself. A cry goes up at the front. Dolphins. One, two, six. In a flash, the Atlantic is alive with them, common dolphins, soaring and dipping on each side of our boat. The engine kicks, we ebb forward, and a blur of fins and flippers fights a duel with the bow, wet torsos almost clipping the paintwork as they arch.
Now there are bottlenose dolphins, too, swimming with their siblings, darker of body. Another shout, louder this time. There, ahead, is the inimitable tail of a sperm whale – midway through its dive.
This is no surprise – these behemoths are year-round residents of these waves. The apparition is gone in a moment. But the boat retreats into harbour with a happy set of passengers, this momentary Moby-Dick enough to slake our curiosity.
Do it: Whale-watching trips are €55 via Futurismo (00351 296 559385; futurismo.pt ).
Stay: Hotel do Colegio (00351 296 306600; hoteldocolegio.arteh-hotels.com ); double rooms from €92.
The not-so-famous four revealed
If Terceira and Pico are the stars of the Central Group, Sao Jorge is a quiet counterpoint. An oceanic blade, 33 miles (55km) long from east to west, but never more than four miles (six kilometres) wide from north to south, it keeps any hint of urban life clipped to its south coast – picturesque Calheta in the east; Velas, and the 17th-century church of Sao Jorge, in the west. Neither could be mistaken for a city, though they are London and New York combined compared with tiny Graciosa, 30 miles (50km) to the north – a rural outsider where the Grand Caldeira bears stark witness to the island’s volcanic genesis.
Corvo, the archipelago’s smallest member, is home to just 430 isolated souls. You can find a faint babble of modernity, though, in Vila do Corvo – where you can grab dinner and cocktails at BBC Bar (00351 292 596030; facebook.com/bbccorvo ). And if this feels too busy, Flores, the westernmost island, brings Europe to a full stop – its west coast between Faja Grande and Fajazinha is not just a majestic Hawaii-esque slab of cliffs and 20 waterfalls, but the wave-struck line where a continent concludes its business.
Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com ) flies direct to Sao Miguel from Stansted. The flight takes around four hours – return fares from £84. Azorian airline SATA (00351 296 209720; sata.pt ) offers a summer connection from Gatwick to Sao Miguel, direct flights from Lisbon to Terceira, Pico, Faial and Sao Miguel, and a service to Santa Maria from Ponta Delgada. TAP Portugal (0345 601 0932; flytap.com ) serves Terceira and Sao Miguel – as well as Gatwick and Heathrow – direct from Lisbon.
Transmacor (00351 292 200 380; transmacor.pt ) is the main inter-island ferry operator.
Azorian specialist Sunvil (020 8568 4499; sunvil.co.uk ) sells holidays that cover all nine islands. Explore (01252 884296; explore.co.uk) has a 14-day Azores Island Hopping group tour from £1,375 per person, including flights.
This article was written by Chris Leadbeater from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.