Published: May 2009
By David Hochman
The earth still moves here—the population's staying put. <i>David Hochman</i> visits Portugal's Azores, one of the last places in Europe untouched by modernity.
Our airplane is descending in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and I can't get Barry Manilow out of my head. "It's a miracle!" he keeps singing. "A true-blue spectacle! A miracle come true!" We are 932 miles from Lisbon, 2,200 from New York City, and an annoying seventies dance song is all I can muster to match the eye-popping splendor outside my window. There's the slate-blue sea that stretches to the horizon in every direction, the pale turquoise of the cloudless morning sky, and now, as the plane banks hard on its final descent, I gaze down at the truest, bluest spectacle of all: twin lakes—one azure, one aquamarine—locked inside the shimmering blue-green hills of São Miguel.
There's no rational explanation why such lush, tranquil islands exist amid such bracing, turbulent seas. The surrounding Atlantic plunges to depths of 10,000 feet, yet farmers pass the days in velvety pastures rimmed not by fences but by neat rows of azaleas and hydrangeas. Mighty sperm whales breach offshore as beachcombers tiptoe through serene tidal pools made of hardened black lava. And the subtropical breezes are as calm and fragrant as when Christopher Columbus stopped by after his maiden voyage to America. While our plane floats over São Miguel's handsome villages and volcanic crags, I begin to understand why Nelly Furtado, whose parents are from here, dedicates song after song to this mid-Atlantic wonderland. I'm even starting to buy the local legend that these nine lonely islands, spread across 374 miles, are Atlantis's last vestiges.
It is a short list of lasts that has brought me to the Azores. This is to be the last exotic trip my pregnant wife, Ruth, and I will take before the birth of our first child. And we chose it because the Azores are some of the last places we know of in Europe (the islands are an autonomous region of Portugal) where the quaintness isn't manufactured and where golden arches are still just something you pass through on the way into church. Lastly, although it has appeared on nautical charts since the 15th century, the Azores have been essentially off the map for most non-European travelers until very recently. But with an increase in direct flights from the United States on Azores Express Airlines and a mini hotel boom, which includes chic, affordable country outposts, I suspect now might be the last chance to visit before the world discovers what a miracle these islands really are.
Her name tells the whole story. Maria do Rosário de Calheiros e Menezes Abade do Neivais. "What would you like to know about São Miguel?" she asks. "I've lived here five hundred years."
The salty breezes have obviously been good to Maria, who doesn't look a day over 39. But what our host for the next few nights means is that she's an original Azorean. Or at least her family is, having arrived a few generations after São Miguel was settled in the 1400's. As Maria explains on the way to Casa do Monte, a manor house that has been in her family a mere three centuries, all those do's and de's in her name pay tribute to ancestors who have endured earthquakes, pirate attacks, and changing fortunes, not to mention a pitiful selection of radio stations.
At 296 square miles, São Miguel is the Azores' largest island and, along with Terceira, where we'll fly for the second half of our visit, easily the most cosmopolitan place you'll find between Montauk and Gibraltar. Not that this is apparent at first. On the road from the airport, we pass ancient lava-stone chapels, a rickety oxcart on a morning milk run, and fishermen whose faces appear as old as the seas. At the Casa, a stately pink mansion on a hill overlooking the surf, a young woman in a crisp white traje micaelense, the traditional island frock, ushers us into a baroque sanctum of open hearths, gilt wood, and polished silver.
Small country hotels like Casa do Monte and the recently opened Hotel do Colégio, a 19th-century music academy reinvented as a stylish inn and restaurant, safeguard island tradition without neglecting guest comforts. At Moinho da Bibi, for instance, couples sleep in luxury where once there was a working windmill. And the fabulously refurbished Convento de São Francisco, a 400-year-old former nunnery, has volcanic rock bathrooms and rich fabrics. In addition to preserving traditions, developers have also been modernizing with high-rises like the Hotel Marina Atlântico, which opened last fall on the lively waterfront promenade in Ponta Delgada, São Miguel's tourist hub. The next big splash will be when the five-star Prince Albert of Monaco Hotel & Casino opens sometime in the future.
Most people, however, don't come to the Azores to stay in their rooms, and at Maria's suggestion, Ruth and I take the two-hour drive along the rugged southern shore to Nordeste, a town so isolated by mountains it was accessed primarily by boat until the 20th century. It's still a thrill ride as the road accordions along cliffs towering above the Atlantic. The reward is a nearly empty coastline so craggy and green—especially from the lookout points at Ponta da Madrugada—that I can imagine how the Polynesians felt upon first glimpsing Hawaii's Napali Coast.
We return via the mountain spa-town of Furnas, where for generations travelers have come for the cozido das furnas, steaming pots of sausages and potatoes cooked for hours on end in burbling holes in the earth. Rather than wait, we join the locals at Café Snackbar Atlântida, an unpretentious grill near the town's botanical gardens, for the plates of the day—frango assado, roasted chicken, and tosta de porco, pressed pork sandwiches on sweet Portuguese bread—capped by almond cakes wrapped in hand-stamped paper from the local parish church.
Back at Casa do Monte, Maria is convinced Ruth is having a boy and says this calls for a celebration. We are seated for dinner at opposite ends of a long table set with silver candelabra and fine china. Maria discreetly drops the needle on Dean Martin's Greatest Hits as her staff lavishes us with island breads and cheeses, Spanish olives, Portuguese stews, and shrimp sizzling in olive oil. (Each night, Maria would find some new reason for us to celebrate, and out would come the candles, the silver platter, and those scratchy Dino records.)
On our last day, we visit Europe's only green tea plantation, Gorreana Tea Estate, where they still fill the tiny bags by hand, and later, the surfside Palm Terrace Café, run by a Canadian expat who decided the middle of the Atlantic was as good a place as any for a burger joint. Afterward, with the sun edging toward the sea, we race up a narrow straightaway west of Ponta Delgada to Sete Cidades, those magical twin crater lakes I'd spotted from the plane. Islanders will tell you the story of the star-crossed princess and shepherd whose teary farewell left two lakes of differing azure shades, one to match each of her lover's eyes. I'm still going with the Manilow explanation.
Seismic rattlings, hydrothermal upsurges, and the occasional magma hiccup continue to shape and reshape the islands, and some say this is partly why so many Azoreans put so much faith in God. Prayers for good weather are certainly answered on Terceira, which is the sunniest and perhaps friendliest of all the islands. It also has the most action. That's not to suggest it's Ibiza, but its prosperous-looking main town, Angra do Heroísmo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, still attracts an international crowd as it did when whalers, traders, and treasure hunters roamed its cobblestoned streets. These days, as Ruth and I discover shortly after the quick flight from São Miguel, it's perfectly normal to find transatlantic yachtsmen sipping espresso at one of the cafés on Praça Velha alongside Lisboan bankers, local housewives, and pilots from the island's Portuguese-NATO airbase, Lajes Field. Were it not so remote, Angra, with its waterfront location, magnificent town square, and colorful tiled residences, would be counted among the great European destinations.
With Azores Express bringing planeloads of Americans direct from Boston year-round, and from Providence and Oakland during the peak summer months—not to mention an increase in European travelers looking for a good value—there's at last an abundance of great places to stay on Terceira. The Terceira Mar Hotel is surprisingly posh and just a five-minute walk from the center of Angra. A bit more sophisticated, Quinta das Mercês is a converted 18th-century farmhouse with plump beds and an infinity pool that appears to overflow into the Atlantic. The latest addition is the Pousada at Forte de São Sebastião, a stylish update of a 16th-century fortress, set to open this summer.
It may take us till then to get around the island. Every time we drive anywhere on Terceira, it seems that something gets in our way: a herd of cattle near the Vaquinha cheese factory in Cinco Ribeiras; the soupy fog by the lighthouse at Serreta; and, just outside of Angra, a slow parade of smartly dressed locals followed by an eight-piece marching band. At the front of the road-hogging procession, leading the way into a modest hilltop church, three girls in white communion gowns carry ornate gold crowns on red pillows as an anxious, unsmiling bride shuffles a few paces behind.
Rather than crash the wedding party, we detour through the middle of the island, known as Terra Brava—the wild land—a bewildering landscape of dense green and broken hills, created by two violent lava eruptions. Approaching Pico do Juncal, one of the island's highest points, we come upon steaming fissures, massive tree ferns, and a stretch of melancholy forest straight out of Grimm's Fairy Tales.
As eerie as the area is, we know the coastline isn't far away—it never is in the Azores—and we suddenly feel its pull. We work our way to the north shore, where we end up debating which of the 10,000 vantage points offers the most stunning water views, before coming at last to Ponta do Forna, a jagged magma-carved cove with black-lava formations frozen in the pounding surf. Ruth and I gaze out at the ocean, which extends until sea is indistinguishable from sky. The Atlantic is so swollen and ever-changing, it looks alive. Everything seems at once to share those watery hues: the few solitary clouds overhead; even the dark, glinting hills we just came from. It's a true-blue spectacle if ever there was one.
DAVID HOCHMAN is a contributor to the New York Times and Men's Journal. He named his son, appropriately, Sebastian Blue.
Where to Stay
Casa do Monte
Santo António Além Capelas, São Miguel; 351-296/298-144; doubles from $99.
Convento de São Francisco
Vila Franca do Campo, São Miguel; 351-296/583-532; doubles from $155.
Hotel do Colégio
Ponta Delgada, São Miguel; 351-217/803-470; doubles from $125.
Moinho da Bibi
Candelaria, São Miguel; 351-296/381-486; doubles from $103.
Hotel Marina Atlântico
Ponta Delgada, São Miguel; 351-296/301-880; doubles from $205.
Quinta das Mercês
Angra do Heroísmo, Terceira; 351-217/803-470; www.arteh-hotels.com; doubles from $96.
Terceira Mar Hotel
Angra do Heroísmo, Terceira; 351-296/301-880; www.bensaude.pt; doubles from $140.
Where to Eat
Café Snackbar Atlântida
Botehlo, Furnas, São Miguel; 351-296/584-251; dinner for two $20.
Casa da Roda
Angra do Heroísmo, Terceira; 351-295/206-060; dinner for two $40.
Gorreana Tea Estate
Gorreana, São Miguel; 351-296/442-349; $3 for a bag of tea.
Praia da Vitória, Terceira; 351-295/513-495; dinner for two $55.
Palm Terrace Café
Ponta Delgada, São Miguel; 351-296/629-502; lunch for two $24.