Bucket List Travels: Discovering the Azores

Morristown resident Paul Partridge has been building a travel bucket list for years. Now he’s diving in – near and far – and shares his adventures in this column.

 

The Azores is a nine-island archipelago located 900 miles west of mainland Portugal. Columbus stopped here in 1492 on his famous voyage. 

 

Text and photos by Paul Partridge

 

If Hawaii and Ireland had a love child, the Azores is what the baby might look like.

 

Imagine tropical forests… dramatic cliffs…  green, green rolling hills… volcanic mountains… natural hot springs… and the bluest ocean you’ve ever seen – not only in the same vacation – but within a single day’s hike. And it’s only a short 4½-hour flight from Newark.

 

From tropical forests to rolling meadows, the Azores is a hiker’s paradise.

The Gulf Stream keeps the Azores temperature remarkably consistent – never too hot or cold. As a result, nature has a chance to shine. And she does.

 

One example is hydrangeas. Blue, white, purple . . . the distinctive hydrangea panicles are everywhere – decorating roads and miradouras (scenic viewpoints) along the highway. Driving feels like floating through an enchanted garden. 

 

Over four days, my three travel companions and I visited the largest island, São Miguel. (I’ll write about other Azores adventures in future articles.) 

 

Day 1 – Brigadoon’s Swimming Hole

 

Twenty minutes up the coast from our Airbnb in Candelaria is Ponta da Ferraria. A sign welcomes us to the beach. None of us speak Portuguese but we decide later it says, “Warning: Please be sure to pick your jaw off the ground before entering. It’s dangerous to swim in the ocean with your mouth open.”

 

Picture a black rock beach leading to a natural ocean pool. A rugged cliff flanks one side, glowing in the late afternoon sun. The far end is open to the ocean, and waves cascade in. Giddy bathers hold onto ropes tied across the water every 20 yards or so. 

 

The waters are heated by thermal springs. Enter the pool near the shoreline and the water is quite warm. Swim towards the sea and the water temperature drops. 

 

People of all ages swim, float, bob, and tread water. Everyone is giggling. It’s almost impossible not to. If we didn’t have photographs to prove it was real, we might think it was a mirage.

 

Day 2 – Furnas Hot Springs

 

The waters of Ponta da Ferraria are heated by thermal springs.

São Miguel is a hiker’s paradise. Today’s trail beside Furnas Hot Springs begins with a 90-minute trek up a mountain. Our reward is picture-postcard views of Furnas Crater Lake. From here, the path transitions into rolling meadows and the final leg winds through a tropical forest – three different worlds in one hike.

 

The trail ends at the Caldeiras das Furnas – steaming, boiling geothermal springs. The sights, sounds, and smells of boiling mud and gurgling geysers feel like going back in time to when the earth was young. If a dinosaur had strolled out of the forest it wouldn’t have seemed out of place. 

 

Next to the caldeiras sit a series of holes in the ground. Early each morning, pots of Portuguese stew containing pork, chicken, sausage, beef, kale, potatoes, and other assorted vegetables are lowered into the holes and covered. Seven hours later the pots are removed and the feast is served in local restaurants. For $30, four of us eat the equivalent of Thanksgiving dinner, with enough left over for two subsequent meals.

 

After lunch we waddle over to the Poca Da Dona Beija spa – a series of pools whose waters are warmed by hot springs and are said to have healing qualities. Some bathers spread iron-tinged mud paste on their face and body and soak for hours. This is a place to earn a black belt in relaxation.

 

Day 3 – Seta Ciades and Afternoon Fishing

 

Catching a barracuda with Captain Pedro Rodrigues.

The next morning we’re reminded how ever-changing island weather can be. While enjoying breakfast outside – in beautiful sunshine – it’s raining right next door. 

 

Today’s trek is around Seta Ciades, São Miguel’s most popular vista. We’re here for the spectacular views of Lagoa Azul and Lagoa Verde (Blue Lake and Green Lake). 

 

Awaiting us at the first viewpoint is a San Francisco-grade fog obscuring the sights. Ah, but this is the Azores. In less than the time it takes to visit the restroom, the fog lifts and reveals Lagoa Azul. Bravo! 

 

Over the next five hours we hike, climb, and race to the next lookout. Around each bend is another more amazing view, made even more picturesque by dramatic skies. A misty lagoon leads to a windswept meadow that reveals a dazzling lookout – with cows grazing at such a preposterous angle it looks like they’ve been stapled in place.

 

Next we drive to the harbor in Ponta Delgado. Pedro Rodrigues, a fishing boat captain with Trilhos da Natureza, is expecting us. 

 

The Azores is a fisherman’s dream. Big game fish include marlin, swordfish, and tuna. But since only one member of our party is an avid fisherman, we stay close to the coast and troll for bluefish and barracuda.

 

Our afternoon haul is not impressive – four barracuda, one of which we keep – but we don’t feel gipped. Pedro entertains with stories of the sea, as well as island and family history. The sky and the sea are so brilliantly blue – and the air so clean – it feels like I’m wearing Polaroid sunglasses even though I’m not. And seeing the island from the water reveals beauty unnoticed on land. As we turn for port, dusk has snuck up on us. The rocky cliffs and small towns are aglow in golden, late-day light. 

 

Day 4 – Traditions and Tea

 

Exploring the trellised grounds of Cha Gorreana Tea Plantation.

Cha Gorreana Tea Plantation has been producing teas since 1883 and is the last working tea plantation in Europe. Even if you don’t like tea, the ocean views and trellised landscapes make this a memorable stop. We do a quick factory tour followed by a tea tasting. Then it’s off on a hiking tour of the property. Another feast for the senses.

 

On the drive home, two miradouras demand attention. By now I’ve changed the name miradoura to meudeus, as in “My God!” because that’s our first reaction to the extreme beauty on display. Almost every viewpoint is a religious experience. I’m beginning to understand why the Azores is one of Europe’s fastest growing travel destinations.

 

To learn more about visiting the Azores or exploring your own travel bucket list, email partridge.p@gmail.com 

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