With soaring peaks surrounded by rolling pastures and blue seas, the Azores are a hidden paradise.
After several days at sea on our way across the Atlantic Ocean, we spotted a series of beautiful peaks rising majestically through the early morning haze.
The Emerald Princess had finally reached terra firma in San Miguel, the largest of nine volcanic islands called the Azores that sit in the Atlantic Ocean some 750 nautical miles off the coast of Portugal. This remote location has resulted in the Azores being a strategic port of call over the centuries, both on the routes to and from the Americas and the East Indies. In fact, Christopher Columbus stopped here when returning from his first voyage of discovery in 1493.
While officially discovered in 1427 by Portuguese Captain Diogo de Silva, this lush archipelago was likely visited by others before him including the Carthaginians, and was possibly home to the legendary island of Atlantis. In fact, the Greek philosopher Plato wrote about a “powerful land beyond the Pillars of Hercules” (the strait of Gibraltar) that was the way to other lands, but sank during a time of earthquakes and floods.
Today, the islands sit on the peaks of volcanic mountains that are among the highest in the world (as measured from the sea bottom). Like most volcanic islands, the Azores are incredibly fertile and are blessed with a warm and humid climate. With their lush, rolling pastures and abundance of hedgerows sharing space with wild flowering hydrangeas, azaleas, and hibiscus, it’s been said that from afar the Azores look like someone took a handful of glimmering emeralds and cast them across a cloth of deep blue velvet.
While the Azores have a rich cultural history based on their predominantly Portuguese and Flemish ancestry, the islands have few significant landmarks that date back more than a few centuries. This is because most of the more elaborate Manueline-style of architecture used before the 17th century was destroyed by earthquakes, leaving only a few survivors like the 16th-century Sao Sebastiao church in Ponta Delgada.
What the Azores have in spades, however, is natural beauty, and the best way to see it is to take a hired car or bus into the interior of San Miguel. The tour we chose took us to the crater lakes, a natural phenomenon of blue and green-coloured lakes in the caldera of an extinct volcano, separated only by a narrow isthmus of lava.
Once our bus left Ponta Delgada, we climbed high into the island’s interior along narrow country roads surrounded by high hedgerows of plants and flowers on one side, and steep inclines of rolling pastures overhanging the coastline several miles below on the other. After a series of hairpin turns and blind bends, we eventually arrived at a belvedere overlooking the town of “Sete Cidades,” some 550 metres above sea level.
Legend has it that “Lagoa Azul” (Blue Lake) and “Lagoa Verde” (Green Lake) were formed by two tears of sadness dropped by a blue-eyed princess and her lover, a green-eyed shepherd, during their last meeting after the king had forbidden their romance. The truth is that the green of Lagoa Verde is the result of a buildup of algae, which has failed to take hold in Lagoa Azul.
Our next stop was the Lagoa do Fogo (Lagoon of Fire), which is one of the largest bodies of water in the Azores. This gorgeous lake rests within the central caldera of the Água de Pau Massif strato-volcano in the center of the island and is surrounded by mountains.
After a short stop, we boarded our bus for the return drive along the winding mountain road back to the port of Ponta Delgada, with her cobblestone squares and lovely Alentejo-style white buildings. We ended our tour on the patio of a wonderful tapas bar, where we had a delicious lunch of shrimp, tuna and local sausage while watching the local Azoreans scurry home for their afternoon siesta.
This was our final port of call on our trans-Atlantic crossing from Venice to Ft. Lauderdale, and it would be a week before we saw land again. However, we knew the incredible beauty of the Azores would be enough to sustain us for the rest of our voyage.