The Azores: Portugal’s Volcanic islands with an ancient past
By Max Hartshorne,
A recent trip to the Azores gave us a glimpse of a very young place. Created by volcanic eruptions a mere 250,000 years ago, parts of these nine islands are among the youngest land masses on the earth.
Just 3000 meters below the earth, the cauldron bubbles, so in many areas, people can enjoy hot springs and the government generates their own renewable electricity using geothermal heat to turn turbines.
We began our Azores adventure in the biggest of the nine islands, Sao Miguel, which is about 85 kilometers long and shaped like a peanut.
More than 1200 kilometers separate the closest of the islands, Santa Maria, from Portugal. Being almost in the middle of the Atlantic, in the Gulf Stream, means these islands have historically been a favorite stopping off point, for explorers like Christopher Columbus and today’s ocean-crossing big yachts.
Despite direct flights from Boston, still, fewer than 11,000 of the 500,000 yearly visitors to the Azores come from America. The islands are known mostly by Azorean emigrants whose families left in the 1950s and ‘60s after an earthquake.
A special law passed with the help of then-Senator John F. Kennedy brought hundreds of thousands of Azoreans to Massachusetts, where many live today.
Another large pocket of tourism comes to the islands from Scandinavia, where the government subsidizes very low airfares to give their frozen citizens some ocean breezes during the long winters.
Our first excursion was to the Fire Lake, where the dramatic effects of a volcano left shimmering deep blue water surrounded by stark green hills.
On the way up the hill, we passed by one of two geothermal electricity plants operated in the Azores, that use the intense heat below the earth and harness the steam to turn generators and make electricity. As much as 40% of the Azore’s electricity needs come from these two plants, similar to what they do in Iceland.
The island of Sao Miguel has about 85,000 residents, and like the rest of the islands in the archipelago, it has been losing population over the past fifty years. The small island of Santa Maria is down to a mere 5,000 residents but grows substantially during the summer months when many US-based homeowners return to spend holidays.
The closing of a US airbase there and a move to neighboring Terceira island was a blow from which small Santa Maria never recovered. Today it’s nearly all dairy farms, and the rolling hills are dotted with black and white Holstein cows.
The city of Ponta Delgada, the main city of Sao Miguel, has about 45,000 residents and is quite a bustling metropolis, complete with a university and a busy port where cruise ships visit in the summer.
We spent the night in one of the oldest hotels in the Azores, the Hotel do Colegio, a former music academy deep in the narrow streeted heart of the city. A swimming pool is wedged in near the entrance to their four-star restaurant, A Colmeia.
Dining in the Azores
Dining in the Azores settled into a familiar pattern after our weeklong visit: small white potatoes, some rice and an emphasis on fish, which are plentiful this far out at sea, as we discovered a few days later at a fish market.
Another treat straight from the Portuguese motherland are grilled sardines. Served simply with some roasted red peppers, we found these on a menu in Santa Maria but only a few times.
One caveat to any Azores visit is about the weather. Being this far at sea means that it often rains, and then all of a sudden gets sunny again.
As New Englanders struggling through another tough winter, we had hoped to find a sunny island refuge, but instead found many rainy windy days during our March visit.
Still, without the persistent rain, we would have never seen so many green rolling hills and beautiful waterfalls, especially on Santa Maria.
But if you want to enjoy the island’s lovely sandy beaches and special hiking trails on the long thin island of Graciosa, then plan to visit between May and October.
During the summer season, the hikes won’t be so frequently interrupted by rainstorms and floods won’t present a problem as was the case during our trip in March.
Forgotten Orange Crops
Oranges once played a big part in the island’s economy, but today these orange spheres have been replaced by pineapples. On a drive out of Ponta Delgada on Sao Miguel, we passed dozens of fences made of stone, which were built by hand in the 18th century to protect orange groves from the wind.
Today the five-six feet high walls are all over the islands, a legacy of the era when oranges made fortunes and were imported to England and all over Europe.
Disease wiped out the last of the groves in the 1850s and it was decided to replant with tea, pineapple, and tobacco, which proved to be more profitable into the 21st century.
Today, all over Portugal, the Azores pineapples cost more but are snapped up by consumers who say that they’re sweeter and tastier than their Hawaii-grown siblings. More than 1500 greenhouses raise these special pineapples on Sao Miguel.
One of the Azore’s primary distinctions is its volcanic history. Part of the island of Sao Miguel was created by lava from a volcanic eruption that happened in the 1500s. Three tectonic plates meet here, so it’s been the site of both earthquakes and volcanic explosions over the years, and the history of the islands has been shaped by the result.
For example, the 1522 eruption killed 5000 people and pushed the region’s capital to Ponta Delgada.
Horseback Riding in the Azores
One of the most pleasant ways to see the countryside in Sao Miguel is on horseback. We took a ride up into the hills with a man who grows exotic flowers. These are exported to Europe and beyond and made a beautiful backdrop as we rode along.
At the Quinta Pico da Cruz, there is a full riding ring and horse competitions can be viewed by spectators as they dine in a large ringside dining room.
Another activity that has made the Azores famous is whale watching. Large pods of blue, sperm, humpback and other whale species pass by the islands during the spring and summer. A total of 24 species of dolphins and whales can be viewed from boats run by dozens of outfitters.
Most of these companies use land-based spotters to direct their boats to where the whales can be seen. Strict rules dictate how close the boats can come and even restrict them to viewing whales from behind, not directly in front.
The Azoreans relationship to whales goes back a few centuries when whaling was the main economic engine of the islands. It was only in 1986 that killing whales stopped, and today viewing, not killing, is the livelihood of hundreds of islanders.
A cottage industry of whalebone jewelry has developed, using the bones of the massive mammals stockpiled from back when the animals were hunted. Herman Melville’s Moby Dick refers to crewmen from the Azores. All over the island, you can find whalebone and whale teeth carvings.
Driving in the green open Azorean spaces brings you past thousands of milk cows and acres of hobbity, hilly green. It’s just like at the funhouse, hills that dip and curve and pop up and over.