2022 – Azores: Nine island gems with a volcanic past and a magical present

(CNN) – The journey to heaven on earth does not necessarily require a long, arduous or dangerous journey.

Indeed, pristine countryside reminiscent of a fairy tale is barely five hours from Boston and about four hours from the United Kingdom. It is a country where waterfalls cascade down dazzling green cliffs; where the streets are lined with hydrangea hedges; Where the rugged beaches are covered with black sand beaches.

Time is lost, whether it’s a hamlet of stone houses connected by cobblestone walks, or the locals clinging to the old ways of growing crops in the fertile plains at the foot of sheer cliffs, or heading there by horse-drawn wagon to deliver milk to the cheese factory.

Welcome to the Azores, a chain of nine charming islands located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean but part of Portugal. The archipelago is an autonomous region located approximately 1,000 miles from mainland Portugal. Thermal pools of the islands, lush calderas, volcanic lagoons and steam geysers are all testament to the violent volcanic forces that created them, yet each island has its own distinct character, with nature reigning in its fiercest rulers.

Azores Airlines operates non-stop flights from Boston to Ponta Delgada on São Miguel Island and year-round to Lajes on Terceira with a layover in Ponta Delgada. Both United (from Newark) and Azores Airlines (from JFK, on ​​select days) have non-stop flights to Ponta Delgada during the summer. British Airways has non-stop summer flights on Saturdays.

After jumping straight into an archipelago that feels like a world away, here’s what awaits you on each island:

Western Islands

Flores

The island of Flores is located in the westernmost part of the Azores. Although its name means ‘flowers’, it is the abundant waters that define this stunning emerald island, often shrouded in mist.

There are seven crater lakes dotted within the hills, including the forest-green Lagoa Negra, which sits next to the cobalt blue Lagoa Comprida, with the miradouro (viewpoint) ideally located in between.

Together, Lagoa Negra (left) and Lagoa Comprida make up a great spectacle in Flores.

Javarman / Adobe Stock

Among the island’s verdant cliffs from which waterfalls tumble, the mighty Poco do Bacalhau plunges 300 feet into a small swimmable pool.

Visitors staying at Aldeia da Cuada, a centuries-old hamlet converted into an atmospheric dwelling of stone cottages furnished with local antiques and patchwork carpets, will enjoy views of the tumbling waterfalls at their back door. This retreat embraces life’s simple pleasures, including stargazing from a private garden.

Corfu

With less than 500 residents and a lone town on the only piece of land at sea level, Corfu is the smallest (and most remote) island in the Azores, only four miles long and not three miles wide.

Bird watching is a popular activity on small Corfu.

Jacob / Adobe Stock

However, this small island (the remnant of an ancient volcano about 10 miles north of Flores) is a well-known paradise for bird watchers, who flock here, particularly in the fall, hoping to spot Coryds, Cory’s shearwaters, and many other species.

middle islands

fail

For hundreds of years, sailing ships have made the capital’s port of Horta – known for its colorful seawall – a stopover, including for those sailing between the New and Old Worlds in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Many of today’s captains and crews still dock their yachts near Peter Café Sport, a more than 100-year-old home where nautical memorabilia stick to the cozy interior. Their Scrimshaw Museum, dedicated to the carving and engraving of scrimshaw teeth and bones, contains items from the late 1800s.
Live hydrangea border roads all the way to the western end of Viale.

Live hydrangea border roads all the way to the western end of Viale.

Schlerner / Adobe Stock

Football-sized fields in sky-blue hydrangeas line the streets and half-timbered houses all the way to the island’s western tip. This desolate area is monochromatic in stark contrast to the vibrant and colorful Horta.

An entire small village was buried under black ash from coal and other volcanic material that was thrown underwater by a long volcanic eruption decades ago. The Capelinhos Volcano Interpretation Center has exhibits that tell the stories of this and other volcanoes.

pico

At nearly 8000 feet, Mount Pico, the highest peak in Portugal, dominates the landscape on this island.

Mount Pico, with a height of 2,351 meters, is the highest peak in Portugal.

Mount Pico, with a height of 2,351 meters, is the highest peak in Portugal.

rvdschoot / Adobe Stock

Almost everything here appears to be built of black basalt lava rock, including the mosaics of barns that surround the local vineyards, which they have warmed and protected from the island’s salty breeze for centuries.

It is the fertile volcanic soil rich in minerals that has put Pico on every true wine lover’s list. Cooperativa Vitivinicola, a 70-plus-year-old wine cooperative in Maddalena, the island’s capital, offers casual tastings including Verdelho, a crisp white wine made from the island’s native grapes.
In keeping with Biko’s realist sensibility, the village-like lava houses the resort relied on locally sourced stone and timber to build its 14 contemporary window-filled villas.

São Jorge

Through a landscape of wild heather and Japanese cedar, scenic hiking trails make their way to Fagas, lush plains with cliffs carved by landslides and ancient lava flows.

One of the most attractive is Fajã de Santo Cristo, accessed via a six-mile walkable donkey trail that ends at the top of the cloud-covered Serra de Topo. The route passes through old water mills and gates made of interlocking branches to the remote waterfront village of Faja de Santo Cristo. Here residents plant terraced gardens where yam, cabbage, spinach and tomatoes grow.

Faja da Caldera de Santo Cristo is a fertile plain at the foot of a steep cliff.

Faja da Caldera de Santo Cristo is a fertile plain at the foot of a steep cliff.

DanitaDelimont.com/Adobe Stock

This coast attracts surfers who come for point break waves. However, the island is famous for its delicacy: delicious cow’s milk cheese.

The Queijo São Jorge factory is still made using centuries-old methods. This delicious cheese – it can be sprinkled with honey – is served not only in restaurants in São Jorge (such as Fornos de lava), but also in other Azores islands and mainland Portugal.

Graciosa

Many of Graciosa’s signature attractions offer insight into the island’s volcanic origins.

Approximately 200 steps make their way to Furna do Enxofre, a lava tube of an active volcano. It is disturbing to know that before this staircase was built, locals lowered themselves using ropes to reach drinking water for their livestock.
Furna Do Enxofre on Graciosa Island is an amazing lava cave.

Furna Do Enxofre on Graciosa Island is an amazing lava cave.

Stefano / Adobe Stock

The scene below is surreal. Unlike the lake at the base, which is filled with cool rainwater, the cave’s air is saturated with the smell of sulfur, and the slime boils at 180 degrees Fahrenheit (82 degrees Celsius). Sunlight streams through the eyes in the ceiling, revealing yellow crystals that glow on the rock-strewn cliffs.

The spa town of Carapacho uses geothermal energy to heat its swimming pools at Termas do Carapacho, which offers a range of treatments including hot stone massages based on the island’s volcanic rocks.

Tercera

While Pico’s black basalt gives this island the appearance of black and white brushstrokes, Terceira uses Crayola painting in several ways.

Colorful facades line the streets of the capital, Angra do Heroismo, and stunningly painted – even lilac – emperor (chapels) dot the green landscape.
Angra do Heroismo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, features brightly colored historic buildings.

Angra do Heroismo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, features brightly colored historic buildings.

Jose A Bernat Pacetti / Moment RF / Getty Images

On the north coast, the village of Biskos shows its volcanic origins with natural pools of all sizes and depths penetrating the hardened black lava that stretches across the harbor. Next to it, beach towels, umbrellas and deck chairs can be equipped for sunbathing and snorkeling.

This city is also home to the family-owned Wine Museum, where artifacts from the 100-year-old wine-making process are displayed within the gardens and in the gardens.
Terceiras Caparica Azores Ecolodge offers six modern cottages in the Laurel Forest. Art by local women brings out the minimalist interior design.

eastern islands

Sao Miguel

São Miguel is the largest island in the Azores and where Ponta Delgada, the capital of the Azores Autonomous Region, is located. The island is about 65 kilometers long and 15 kilometers wide.
Ponta Delgada is the capital of the Autonomous Region of the Azores.

Ponta Delgada is the capital of the Autonomous Region of the Azores.

Dalio / Adobe Stock

It is home to what is said to be the oldest commercial pineapple greenhouse in the world and the oldest operating tea plantation in Europe.

One of the island’s most iconic landscapes is the Firnas Valley, a dormant crater covered in foliage and dotted with reminders of its volcanic past, including inviting hot springs.

Within this valley, the centuries-old Terra Nostra Garden is particularly charming. Shaded paths sway alongside the Serpentine Canal, caves, and endemic and exotic plants, some of which are more than a century old.

Perched 1,700 feet above sea level, the 18-hole Furnas Golf Club is also breathtakingly stunning, with tree ferns and bunkers filled with volcanic sand.

In Ponta Delgada, guests staying at the boutique Senhora da Rosa feel away from the hustle and bustle of this capital city, especially when bathing in a small pool in a pineapple greenhouse.

Santa Maria

Santa Maria is the southernmost island in the Azores, boasting sunshine and golden sandy beaches.

Santa Maria is the southernmost island in the Azores, boasting sunshine and golden sandy beaches.

Clara Bacalarova / Adobe Stock

Santa Maria, located in the southernmost part of the Azores, is not only the brightest island, but also the only one with golden sandy beaches.

The green and blue of the sea, sky, and valleys mingle at Miradouro da Pedra Rija, one of the many viewpoints that becomes a beautiful picnic spot. The winding streets are covered by forests of Japanese cedar, sometimes alongside paths lined with blue azurian berries and small orchids.

The small village of São Lourenco is especially popular in summer for its picturesque sandy beach surrounded by a tapestry of old vineyards backed by black lava stone walls.

The lovable seaside village of Anjos has a peaceful, natural pool and local watering hole, Bar dos Anjos, and offers great sunset views to enjoy while eating grilled scraps (sea slugs).

Janine Baron is a New York City-based travel writer who specializes in Portugal and has visited the Azores several times.