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Untouched Azores

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.


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