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Fire Lake, in Ponta Delgada, Azores. Photo by Max Hartshorne. Click on photo to enlarge.
Fire Lake, in Ponta Delgado, Azores

Sao Miguel and Santa Maria, Azores: Volcanic Islands of the Atlantic

Up From the Ground Came a Bubbling Hot Spring

I love it when a place surprises you, and you don’t have any pre-conceived ideas about what it will be like. It’s like going to a movie and never hearing any reviews or knowing even what the film will be about.

That’s been our most excellent feeling about these nine islands located about two-thirds of the way to Europe. We had a blank slate and we loved it.

We toured the town of Ponta Delgada and learned about oranges. These were the mainstay crop back until the 1850s... and all about the countryside are fences made of volcanic rock that used to shield the trees from the wind.

Today no more oranges grow here, but instead pineapples, tea and and tobacco have taken their place. We drove up a winding road to a 3000-meter summit where down below we saw one of the famous sites here, called Fire Lake.

It was formed a mere 250,000 years ago when a volcano collapsed into itself. Today the island generates nearly 40% of its electricity by geothermal means… using the steam that pours from the earth to turn turbines.

You can see how hot that ground is by this photo of the spring, where there is also a tepid pond fed by a waterfall to plunge into. We saw hardy Azoreans swimming in the ocean down by the harbor, but no one was swimming in the spring.

Next we flew over to Santa Maria a smaller island about 90 kilometers away. The other islands in the archepelago are spread over hundreds of kilometers, so we had to save those for another visit.

The bubbling cauldron at the Caleira Velha, near Ponta Delgada, Azores. Click on photo to enlarge.
The bubbling cauldron at the Caleira Velha, near Ponta Delgado, Azores

The scenery is reminiscent of New Zealand’s north island, that same young geology and green wavy hills. We saw a lot more of this the biggest of the islands, Sao Miguel, when we flew back.

Optimistic and Upbeat, These Guides Showed Us Their Azores

Just like in New England, they have the same saying here in the Azores: "If you don’t like the weather wait a half hour, it will be different."

We joined three strapping young guides today and got a chance to hear about the island from their enthusiastic and optimistic perspective.

Tiago Botelho graduated from college a few years ago with a degree in ecotourism. After his employer, Picos de Aventura, bought the whale watching business he worked for, he’s joined his colleagues at Pico and spends his time piloting the whale watching boats or taking travelers high up into the Azorean mountains to mountain bike, hike or climb up streams with ropes. He couldn’t be happier.

The author with guides from Picos de Aventura
The author with guides from Picos de Aventura

His colleagues, Paulo and Pedro, voiced a similar love for being outside and showing off these green hills and gorgeous views that are all around a visitor to Sao Miguel the largest Azorean island. To a man they agreed that they’re doing exactly what they love, and their smiles prove it.

We learned that the guides have found their guests from different countries to have very different concerns.

The Americans often like to know numbers; asking about how many visitors and how much things cost. The British want to know about animals and history.

The Portuguese like to eat, and linger much longer over meals than the rest. The Dutch just want to get on with it, and do whatever activity is on the program.

Our first stop was to a horse farm where they also grow flowers for export. We saddled up and in minutes were following Manuel Soares up a steep mountain trail.

A Cozido, boiled dinner, about to be unearthed in Furnas, Azores
A Cozido, boiled dinner, about to be unearthed in Furnas, Azores

It’s been a while since I got on the back of a horse, and it felt great not to be scared of what the beast might do. Mine was a well-trained gentle soul who wanted very much to keep in the same formation following the older dominant male ridden by Manuel.

After our ride, we headed for one of Sao Miguel’s biggest attractions: Furnas. Pronounced ‘furn-ish’, this village of 1000 grows three times as large in the summer months and features bubbling springs filled with stinky sulfuric volcanic water.

A Cozido is a lunch cooked by the steam for six hours and buried under the ground. We visited Restaurant Tony to eat our own Cozido, which includes cabbage, sausage, pork, beef, yams and blood sausage.

Using Ancient Machinery, Teamakers Thrive Here

It’s a green island indeed!

With average humidity at 70%, everything stays incredibly green; there is no dry season here. In this climate one of the plants that grows very well is tea. We visited the Gorreana Tea company where we walked through the complex process of turning leaves into the world’s favorite drink.

Tea growing at Cha Gorreana, a tea manufacturer in the Azores. Click on photo to enlarge.
Tea growing at Cha Gorreana, a tea manufacturer in the Azores

We learned about how tea is made and that in a climate like the Azores, a lot of rain is great for growing the leaves of Orange Pekoe, Pekoe and green teas.

Some of the British tea manufacturers who were doing business in India decided in the 1940s that this young upstart had to be stopped. So many of the Azores Tea firms were bought up by British tea giants and closed down. That’s one way to keep the competition from growing!

Today ancient machinery made in England is used to make tea at this factory. In addition, tobacco, pineapples and bananas are among the crops that thrive in this climate.

Green and black tea come from the same plant, just using different processes to keep it either green or black.

On our way home we saw a highway that’s being built to replace the twisty, hazardous roads. The hills and gullies the road will pass over seem almost impossible to connect with a straight highway. They’ve got a lot of work ahead of them.

The village of Maia, on the coast of Santa Maria. Click on photo to enlarge.
The village of Maia, on the coast of Santa Maria

Santa Maria, Massachusetts? Well, Almost

We flew over to Santa Maria to continue our discovery of these nine Azores. We came upon a bronze statue of Columbus in the hamlet of Anjos, wearing his traditional funny hat, leaning into the wind in this tiny village by the sea on the north side of the small island.

Like all of the other villages we saw, this one was nearly deserted, with that sad boarded-up look of Martha’s Vineyard off-season.

Marta, our warm tour guide, showed us a cute little house on the ocean that her mother owns. It’s her summer getaway, here in the village where Colombus came on his way back from discovering the New World.

Our first stop was to another village that required a long and windy drive down to get to, called Maia. Here we learned that everybody who owns these summer houses actually lives in Massachusetts!

Our tour guide Marta and our lunch of grilled sardines
Our tour guide Marta and our lunch of grilled sardines

On the tiny roads we traveled, each farmhouse had the same blue trip and white stucco, each with a chimney pointed up like a castle turret. Men drove by in motorcycle trucks, which made loud roars, and cows stood in groups in the fields.

In village after village, we saw either farmers or boarded-up houses meant to be occupied by summer holidaymakers. This is a sleepy island compared with the much larger Sao Miguel.

We learned that times are tough here in Portugal, with an impending debt crisis looming, following the pattern of Greece, Ireland and Spain. On the TV, politicians debated what to do; outside the wind was ferocious and rain fell on and off.

The owners of the Central Pub in the center of the Villa do Porto are all from Massachusetts, a poster depicted the highlights in the history of the Boston Garden.

Chomping down on the grilled sardines at lunch was a treat, and Marta made us feel very at home showing us the place where she’s lived all her life.

 

Max Hartshorne


Max Hartshorne is the editor of GoNOMAD.com. He writes a daily blog about travel and reading called Readuponit.

 

A skilled horseman in Hungary Visit our Max Hartshorne Page with links to all his stories

 

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