By Wendy Wood-Prince
Although geologically similar to Hawaii and equally remote, the Azores are as unspoiled as the Hawaiian Islands are touristy. Located 850 miles due west of Lisbon in the Atlantic, this chain of 9 volcanic islands were colonized by the Portuguese in the mid-15th century. The landscape is covered with giant ferns, fat aloe and cacti, their spiky leaves plump with moisture, black sand beaches and mineral baths with their warmth bubbling to the surface. Azorean weather is unpredictable and what can start out as a bright, sunny day can quickly turn gloomy and rainy but that very weather combined with its volcanic origins is what has created the lushly prehistoric landscape.
Lush forests on the island of Sao Miguel.
Direct flights from the US to Ponta Delgada on the island of Sao Miguel have become more frequent in the last few years, but most visit the Azores via Portugal. Portugal has long been a favorite destination for Europeans and is becoming more and more popular with American travelers, with record numbers visiting every year. Portugal’s strong maritime roots were established in the 1500s and it is one of the oldest European countries, with borders that have not changed since the 11th century.
Cobblestone streets and intricate tile facades are a signature in Portugal.
The capital of Lisbon remains secure in its roots with quaint streets, ancient wooden trams and baroque architecture. Easily walkable, the charming streets of cobblestones, called ‘Calcada’ play off the tiled facades of buildings everywhere and the result is visually stunning. Just to the northeast of Lisbon, the town of Sintra is not to be missed. Sintra is a place full of ancient castles, fantastical palaces and pine forests and an easy day trip from Lisbon.
Rossio Square, the nickname for the Pedro IV Square in downtown Lisbon.
Continuing farther north along the coast is the town of Porto. Home to the national drink, Port is served in every bar and restaurant in town. Porto is also home to the Livraria Lello bookstore which inspired JK Rowling to model the Hogwarts library after. With its spiraling staircase, stained glass ceiling and towering walls of books, this whimsical store begs hours of exploration.
Harborside on Sao Miguel.
But let’s get back to the Azores. After a mere two hour flight from Lisbon the touristy crowds fade into the distance and Mother Nature takes over. The islands are very much about the natural world.
The prehistoric landscape in Furnas.
Even the foods have a natural twist; ‘Cozida das Furnas’ is a stew cooked in a pot underground using volcanic steam, the local pineapples are small with intense flavor and grown in greenhouses throughout the island of Sao Miguel, and some local restaurants even serve cracas, a native barnacle…….native barnacles notwithstanding, these islands are a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and truly unspoiled.
The Furnas Boutique Hotel.
It is very easy driving and renting a car is the best way to get around. The village of Furnas is a must see. Located on the island of Sao Miguel and just an hour’s drive from the airport in Ponta Delgada, Furnas is located on ‘Lagoa das Furnas’ one of the three major lakes on Sao Miguel island. There are walking paths all around the lake and geothermal pools everywhere which can be enjoyed for just a few Euros entry fee. The waters range from warm and bubbly to boiling hot and stinky! Locals and tourists alike enjoy the pools year round. Another stunning place to visit is the Terra Nostra gardens, also in Furnas. Set on 31 acres, this park has walking trails, and a stunning thermal pool.
Dramatic waterfalls flow into thermal pools in the Azores.
The Azores are truly a nature lover’s paradise but keep in mind that the weather is unpredictable so nature lovers must love all forms as rain and gloom can move in at any time. If you are hearty enough to brave the elements then whale watching, hiking, kayaking await the adventurous! The combination of weather, rich volcanic soil and thermal pools have created this other worldly land that is just beginning to be explored.
All photos have been provided through the kindness of Ted Wood-Prince and Dara Shalette.
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