On a trip to the beautiful and varied Azores, anchored firmly in mid-Atlantic, you'll find familiar and not-so-familiar cultural references everywhere
You can’t mistake a tea plantation for anything else: all those neat rows of gleaming, bright green bushes, kept at the right height and combed every day for the ‘two leaf, tip’ cuttings that go to make the end product.
I’m pondering this timeless scene as I sit on the steps of a plantation house, sipping my cuppa and marvelling at the view. Other plantations I’ve visited are set in the highlands of the Indian sub-continent; still others are spread across the hills of China. But this one has a herd of very European-looking cows just over the hedge and the endless vistas of the Atlantic as a backdrop.
This is the Gorreana estate, one of a handful of tea plantations in the Azores islands, which sit smack in the middle of the ocean, and where the climate permits commercial tea-growing in one of the few places in the world outside south east Asia.
What I’m drinking is known hereabouts as chá, the Azores being very much a part of Portugal even if 1,500km of water separates the group of nine islands from Lisbon. Be that as it may, I’m feeling resolutely British as I top up my cup, and my sense of home is reinforced by the huge hydrangea bushes lining the country lanes here on the island of São Miguel, the largest in the archipelago.
Familiarity with a twist is a recurring theme in the Azores. Almost everywhere you look you’re reminded of somewhere else. The warm summers and mild, wet winters produce landscapes straight from the West Country. The coastal towns and villages could have been transported from Portugal, the islands’ Mother Country. And the lush formal gardens you find here and there are, frankly, transplanted corners of South Asia.
But those Devonian fields have a bad case of the mumps, which turns out to be hundreds of extinct mini-volcanoes. And those Portuguese towns – well, the houses are constructed with massive chunks of basalt to protect against the threat of volcanic activity. And the Sri Lankan gardens? Full of thermal springs and hot pools.
Given the islands’ historic dependence on whaling (and, nowadays, on whale watching), São Miguel is suitably whale-shaped. It is home to Ponta Delgada, the Azores capital, as well as a handful of elegant, tranquil coastal towns and an incredible, lush interior.
The dead volcano craters that spread across the island hold spectacular lakes and at Furnas you can even watch your dinner being cooked. Big pots of cozido a Portuguesa – every kind of meat known to man, some veg and a few potatoes – are lowered into holes among the bubbling geysers. A few hours later they’re lifted out and delivered to your lunch table at the nearby Terra Nostra Garden Hotel.
Actually it’s not bad, even if a big stew seems the wrong choice in a decorous dining room overlooking beautiful gardens and woodland. The parkland is also home to a thermal pool where you can bathe in natural warm water even when it’s cold outside.
This may be the western edge of Europe, but there’s plenty of seismic activity. One of the nine islands, Pico, is named after the 7,000ft volcanic peak that dominates the seascape for miles around. And Faial is home to the most recent – and very spectacular – eruption.
At Ponta dos Capelinhos, a couple of miles from the main town, Horta, the landscape changes dramatically from pretty flower-lined roads to stark black landscapes. Here, the old lighthouse remains buried almost to its huge flashlight in solidified lava. Next to it sits the ruined village, whose inhabitants had to run for their lives when a mountain rose out of the sea in 1958.
Faial lies in the central group of the Azores archipelago and has become the crossroads of the Atlantic. Hundreds of ocean-going yachts drop anchor in Horta every year, and they’re careful to follow tradition when they do. To stop here and not add your own painted contribution to the sea wall is to invite bad luck and, let’s face it, no-one’s ever met a sailor who flouts superstition. The result is a multi-coloured half mile-long breakwater with depictions of boats and their owners from all over the world.
Horta is everything you imagine a port should be: sheltered bay, fishing boats nuzzling the yachts in the harbour, cheery bars and cafes – even an old fort reinvented as a plush hotel and part of the state-owned Pousada chain. One of those cafes is a legend – more famous than the island itself. At Peter Cafe Sport three generations of the same family have fed and watered passing yachtsmen – and also acted as a poste restante, supplier of everything from motors to writing paper and provided a noticeboard for anyone passing through Horta.
When I stop in for a beer, the famous board is peppered with notes left for sailors heading to and from South America, the Caribbean and Europe, adverts for deckhands and cooks and even a couple of suggestive personal messages I hesitate to reveal here.
Faial and Pico are separated by a narrow channel and as you approach by boat, you begin to see how the dead volcano dominates the whole island. The locals have fought to bend the land to their will, planting vines in small walled enclosures across Pico.
These two islands were the centre of the whaling industry and Pico has a couple of museums dedicated to its former harvest. At São Roque an old factory gives you some idea of the scale of operation. Everything is outsized, from the hooks used to hoist the dead whales to the vats for melting them down. It’s like walking among ghosts, though as far as I know ghosts don’t carry a residual smell of blubber.
Sata International and TAP have regular flights from London Gatwick and Manchester to Ponta Delgada on São Miguel. Sata also operates internal flights within the Azores.
Where to eat
The Azores caters well for tourists; fish is excellent and plentiful, meat is good, vegetarian food and vegetables less so, but still available. The Azores tourist board has lists of restaurants and cafes (as well as accommodation and car hire) on each island.
What to see and do
- Go whale watching: opportunities are numerous on almost every island. Be sure you go out with a recognised company. The main season runs from May to October.
- Visit whaling museums on Pico.
- Enjoy the colonial heritage of São Miguel and Terceira.
- Enjoy the peace and quiet of Graciosa.
- Enjoy the countryside on Flora and Horta.
- Visit the local wine-makers on Pico.
- See the twin lakes and the remote far northwest on São Miguel.
- Go walking on every island.