The Azores: A Drop in the Ocean
by Tom Lappin

A sleepy Portuguese archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic, the Azores harbour more surprises than a few volcanoes, writes Tom Lappin

Mention that you've been to the Azores and most people in Britain will nod knowingly, then, after an acceptable pause, inquire tentatively: Where are they exactly? Without getting into longitudes and latitudes, the volcanic archipelago lurks out in the middle of the Atlantic, a little more exposed than the better-known winter sun resorts of the Canaries or Madeira.

When you hear that they are volcanic, you expect the dusty, grey, sun-blasted aspects we associate with the Canaries, but instead the Azores feel like little chunks of rural Portugal chipped off and hauled into the middle of the ocean.

Substantial rainfall and powerful winds keep them lush and verdant, while the main industry < dairy < means the green fields are invariably dotted with cattle chewing the grass.

Unlike the other Atlantic island groups, tourism has yet to make a substantial impact on the islanders¹ way of life, and for now most visitors to the Azores seem to like it that way, falling mostly into the retired category, here to enjoy the countryside rather than live it large in happening nightclubs (not that there are any).

Most international flights arrive at Ponta Delgada on the island of São Miguel. It¹s a misleading first impression, being (almost) a city, with a little urban scruffiness and a swathe of new housing going up on the road to the airport.

However, in the centre it is an elegant Portuguese town, all 17th- and 18th-century baroque frontages, airy squares, and evidence of the importance of Ponta Delgada as a stop-off place for the ships bringing back the riches of Brazil to the homeland a couple of centuries ago.

If Ponta Delgada provides a diverting day wandering from church to square, on São Miguel the main attractions lie east and west, easily attainable on the slow but regular buses from the capital.

The most photographed vista in the Azores is the view from Sete Cidades, in the northwest of the island. Here, two lakes merge, but by some geological marvel one appears blue, the other green. It¹s a stiff 7-mile walk around the ancient volcano caldera that holds the lakes, and Atlantic breezes invariably blow in clouds to obscure the view.

From Sete Cidades, a path over the ridge of the crater eventually leads down to the coast and Mosteiros. The fishing village has a relaxed atmosphere, some cheap and attractive cafes, and an air of having been unchanged for a century or so.

The sea walk gives you as bracing a taste of the Atlantic breeze as a stroll in Troon and justifies a slap-up lunch in the Restaurante Barbosa. Locally caught fish is the attraction, washed down by a jug of the island¹s vinho do cheiro, a robust red with a piquant floral flavour.

To the east lies Furnas, famous with 19th-century travellers as a spa town, and still dramatically punctuated by churning volcanic springs. Above the town by the Furnas lake, local restaurateurs take advantage of the hot volcanic soil to slow-cook the region¹s signature dish, cozido nas caldeiras, a hearty meat and vegetable stew.

São Miguel is the largest of the eastern islands. The central group have a subtly different feel. São Jorge, a long thin sliver of an island, with a high crest separating north and south coasts, is ideal for walking.

Its main settlement, Velas, is a sleepy, some might say soporific, village, architecturally similar to the ³white towns² of the Andalucian mountains, although the climate is more reminiscent of Brittany.

It has a comically short main street, Rua Dr Teixeira, where the Suspira Cafe attracts the island¹s bohemian set (both of them) and Cafe Açor brings in the young crowd (half a dozen of them). The Cervejaria Sao Jorge remains faithful to the Portuguese mainland restaurant tradition of serving rice and chips with every meal, and seems unlikely to succumb to the vagaries of culinary fashion any time soon.

Sit by the bandstand in the outstandingly pretty Jardim da Republica and soak up the somnolence of an island afloat in Atlantic doldrums. If the tranquility gets too enervating, a multitude of small boats in the harbour offer the latest tourist attraction catnip: whale-watching tours. In summer there are enough whales in the vicinity to pretty much guarantee a sighting. Free whale-watching and dolphin-spotting is thrown in with a ferry ticket over to Sao Jorge¹s nearest neighbours, Pico and Faial. On my choppy crossing to Horta, on Faial, the boat was escorted for some of the trip by a school of dolphins.

Horta is one of the jewels of the Azores, a breezy, pretty town battered by high Atlantic waves, and a traditional base for transatlantic yachting expeditions. Custom demands that every craft departing the harbour leaves a painting or insignia on the harbour wall, so the area is now decorated with myriad memorabilia of assorted crossings.

The other sailors¹ craft conspicuous in Horta is that of scrimshaw, the arcane pursuit of engraving whales¹ teeth. The foremost (or only) scrimshaw museum is above Cafe Sport on the quayside, with a collection dating back to the 18th century. It is both an impressive testimony to a patient craft and a reminder of just how whales became an endangered species. Look out for the sentimental rendition of a young Princess Diana.

Rather more ecologically sound are the botanic gardens at Flamengos. Neatly
laid out, they are the focus of a campaign to protect the botanical integrity of the islands. They fight a quiet battle against the Europeanising of an archipelago that belongs as much to Africa as to the younger continent.

As a reminder, there is land on Faial that is less than fifty years old. The 1957 volcanic eruption in the sea to the west of the island forced the evacuation of villages in the area, and when the lava and dust had settled, the island was left with a 590-acre extension, a lot of ruins and the loss of hundreds of people who had emigrated to America.

It¹s a memorable experience to visit this new land, look at the lighthouse still half-buried by ash, and feel the fine volcanic sand stinging your face.

Plenty of the abandoned houses are slowly rotting away, but many have been restored, some as holiday homes.

Despite the best efforts of seismologists, volcanos are still essentially capricious forces of nature. You get a sense of that destructive power at the island¹s peak, 3000ft up on the caldera of the Cabeco Gordo, looking down 1,200ft into the giant crater.

In 1957 this crater began to smoke and the islanders trembled at the thought of a potential eruption. It quietened down and Faial survived, but looking into the crater you realise that the Azores are substantially more exciting than their sleepy sunspot image might suggest