A Trip to Europe’s Most Remote Spa Resort is Easier than You Think
It was 17 degrees Fahrenheit outside when I boarded the plane in Boston, the harsh January reality of New England in plain view as my breath formed icy clouds in front of my face on the jet bridge. But I took comfort in knowing that, in a matter of hours, I could be relaxing a serene mineral hot spring — surrounded by tropical plants and sulfurous fumaroles, thousands of miles of ocean separating me from the Massachusetts winter.
Some 950 miles off the coast of Portugal, in the middle of the North Atlantic, lie the nine volcanic islands that make up the Azores. This is a volatile land, and geologically quite young; the newest island, Pico, erupted from the ocean less than 300,000 years ago.
Yet the constant rumble of volcanic activity is part of what makes these emerald isles — reminiscent, strangely, of a tropical Ireland — such a compelling destination.
The same forces that led to the most recent major volcanic event (a devastating 1957 eruption on the island of Faial that sent a wave of refugees to the U.S. and beyond) also make the Azores one of Europe’s best destinations for mineral hot springs and geothermally-heated ocean lagoons.
Few people realize just how close these islands are. Azores Airlines offers direct flights from Boston — a main stronghold of the Azorean diaspora — that hop to the largest island of São Miguel in four and a half hours. With Delta set to launch seasonal flights direct from New York City in May, wellness-oriented tourism in this surprisingly-accessible region is on the upswing.
The most celebrated spa town in the entire archipelago is Furnas (despite the happy similarity to the word "furnace," this translates more accurately to "caverns"). Cradled in the basin of São Miguel’s easternmost volcanic crater, it’s been a destination for travelers since the late 1700s. Though the last true eruption was in 1630, the ever-present volcanic activity is a part of daily life — and still the main attraction for wellness tourists like me.
Furnas Valley’s crowning jewel is the Terra Nostra Garden, a 30-acre botanical park in the center of town where steam rises between palms and eucalyptus, and mineral water pools are hidden around seemingly every corner. Originally the summer estate of an 18th-century British merchant, the vast garden is now home to thousands of species of native and non-native flora — including a fern collection with nearly 300 distinct varieties. Its centerpiece — a massive pool of iron-rich golden water purported to impart a variety of health benefits — has been welcoming bathers since 1780.
The park is also home to a grand historic hotel, built in 1935 to welcome a new wave of European spa tourists and still considered one of the best in the islands. A recent renovation has restored it to its original, refined Art Deco style (with distinctly modern amenities, of course). Guests at the garden's eponymous hotel are granted all-hours access to the park and its pools. A midnight dip in the stately thermal pool, surrounded by steam and the sounds of the forest, is a singular experience.
The park's celebrated restaurant serves a diverse Azorean menu, but the highlight is their preparation of cozido das Furnas — a regional specialty of root vegetables, leafy greens, and a dozen different cuts of meat (including offal and sausage), buried and slow-cooked in the volcanic earth of the caldera for up to eight hours. It seems that the Earth here, with its therapeutic waters and unpredictable power, can feed a weary traveler both literally and figuratively.
Just a 30-mile drive from the capital city Ponta Delgada, travelers can easily go from plane to spa in less than an hour. It’s worth spending a couple days here and taking an immersive, guided tour of the whole valley. The locally-run tour operator Azores Getaways, for example, hosted me on a Furnas excursion, where I learned firsthand from Azoreans about their close relationship with the caldeiras around them.
Where to Stay
The Terra Nostra Garden Hotel, widely considered one of the best in the Azores, is a central home base for hitting the town’s other hot spring complexes, like Poça da Dona Beija or the central caldeiras das Furnas, with various mineral water drinking fountains, geysers, and bubbling pits each with their own mythical backstory.
What to Eat
Most restaurants serve their house versions of cozido — but be sure to reserve at least 24 hours in advance, so they have time to prepare and bury the stew. Another must: the Furnas specialty bolo lêvedo, a griddled bread that is sweet, fluffy, and addictive. Locals also use the hot springs for cooking, making everything from mineral water coffee to boiled eggs and sausage.