The Azores – walks, whales & wine tips

“Standing unassaultable in the midst of the waves,” wrote Hermann Melville of Pico mountain – the volcano which dominates the island of that name.

Last year ended on a high for Portugal, which was just crowned the World’s Leading Destination 2017 at The World Travel Awards.  With this year in mind, what better time to share my tips on the Azores? 

I holidayed there last June, having fallen hard for it on three wine trips. Being a Londoner, I really enjoy getting away from it all and embracing nature on holidays.  The Azores is just the ticket but, whatever you do, I wish you a happy and healthy New Year with exciting new adventures in wine.

Lagoa das Sete Cidades (lagoon of the seven cities), located in the crater of a volcano on Sao Miguel island, Azores.

So what did we love about it?  Tranquility and raw beauty sums it up.  São Miguel and Pico have it in spades and, staying a week in each, we appreciated their diverse landscape and flora and fauna.  São Miguel, the archipelago’s biggest island, is lush and green, whilst Pico island’s contrasting north west coast is wilder, characterised by black, barren lava fields – strikingly minimalist!

Very zen – a lava field “garden” on Pico

Of course, being islands, water, water everywhere is a given. But for the Atlantic’s mesmerisingly tumultuous waves, it would be perfect for sea kayakers like us.

The Atlantic – a tad different from the rather calmer waters off Canada’s Vancouver island, where we kayaked in whale country last year

Instead, we took our exercise discovering the island at a leisurely pace by foot, using Trails Azores (a free official resource) and the Sunflower Azores Car Tours & Walks Guide.  Most walks are easy to moderate.

Vinhas da Criação Velha

Walking trails are really well marked and varied.  Quiet too. We encountered no more than a handful of people.  In June, the weather was perfect.  Especially by the coast, where I learned why the locals say the best wines come from where you can hear the crabs singing.  The higher ground was frequently shrouded in mist or cloud (know where your fog lights are!), whilst the coast is bathed in sunshine.

Since both properties we rented were on the coast, we enjoyed refreshing dips in the ocean afterwards.  The coastline of Pico is dotted with basalt-hewn ‘natural’ ocean swimming pools.  On São Miguel, “Sailing on the rocks,” our basic but thoroughly charming slither of an apartment, overlooked Prainha de Água de Alto, one of the island’s rare (black) sandy beaches.

Lagoa de Fogo (Lake of Fires) which, at 570m, is São Miguel’s highest lake

We also enjoyed a couple of dips in Lagoa de Fogo (Lake of Fires) which, at 570m, is São Miguel’s highest lake.  On day one, it was a fabulous reward after our favourite São Miguel walk (Sunflower São Miguel Walk  4, Água d’Alto, Lagoa do Fogo, Ribeira da Praia, Hotel Bahia Palace).  Not just for the zig zag climb through different flora and fauna, with terrific vistas just when you need to catch your breath. But also for braving the seagulls.  Anxious to protect their young, they dive-bomb you in Gaivatos as you approach the lake.  We resorted to swinging our walking poles around our heads for protection!

Another favourite São Miguel circular walk (Faial da Terra – Salto do Prego PRC9SMI) followed a stream through woodland to this impressive waterfall.  You return via a steep, narrow, cobbled path from a pretty restored hamlet, where I believe you can stay.

Parque Terra Nostra, Furnas

São Miguel is known for its thermal waters and spas.  We enjoyed the slightly surreal interplay of hot thermal springs and cold sea water at Ponta da Ferraria.  A unique experience! Should you follow up this tip, don’t be put off by the postage stamp-sized murky yellow concrete pool which is what you see on the steep descent to Ponta da Ferraria’s dramatic coastline.  We thought we’d misunderstood what Ponta da Ferraria was about, but the natural ocean pool is located along a walkway across the basalt rocks to the left of this tamer spa pool.

The original entrance hall at Terra Nostra Garden Hotel, Furnas

If natural thermal springs and spas are your scene, then Furnas, also on São Miguel, is for you.  I stayed at the Terra Nostra Garden Hotel in Furnas last year.  It’s a splendidly restored Art Deco hotel with really beautiful mature gardens (Parque Terra Nostra).  A great wine list too – I recommended it in this Azores travel feature for Decanter, where you can find other tips (including Anfiteatro and O Rei Dos Queijos – The King of Cheeses – in Ponta Delgada, São Miguel, which I re-visited this trip).

This year’s visit was about walking through the picturesque pastures and woodland surrounding the lake – very tranquil compared with the town and lake itself, which are popular tourist destinations. (Sunflower Guide São Miguel Walk 5, Furnas, Lagoa das Furnas, Parque Terra Nostra, Cadelras das Furnas, Furnas).

Chá Gorreana tea plantation

For a short but informative walk on São Miguel, you can circumnavigate Chá Gorreana’s tea plantation and factory (PRC 28SMI), then take tea or enjoy delicious local ice cream at the factory cafe/shop.

Currais – Pico

Turning to wine, Pico is the place to be (though São Miguel, Terceira and Graciosa also produce it).  Pico’s walking trails provide an absolutely fascinating insight into the island’s once thriving wine industry.  In the mid-nineteenth century, wine production dwarfed that of Madeira.

Currais protect the vines from the atomised salt clouds formed by waves pounding the rocks

Close to the coast, the island’s old currais (basalt-walled vineyard parcels) are being restored.  As you make the gentle ascent into the foothills of Pico’s most dramatic natural asset – at 2531m, the country’s highest mountain (a volcano) – the ghostly remains of thousands of currais litter ground now covered by a dense thicket of scrub and woodland.

Walking up this path (above) towards the mountain – crater clearly visible – you see mossed over, dilapidated currais in the scrub to either side

I was blown away by the complexity and scale of the old infrastructure.  Collectively, the currais resemble huge chequer boards, studded with little stone huts or adegas, some now restored.

Ox cart ruts in the basalt lava field

Back down by the coast, wider, cart-rutted tracks fashioned from great slabs of lava connect these chequer boards to the production hubs (bigger adegas) and small harbours from which barrels would have been shipped to neighbouring Faial.  With, according to Charles Augustus Murray (Travels in North America,1839),  “the only good port in all the Azores,” Faial was the focal point of the archipelago’s trans-atlantic trade.

An old adega in Lajidos

The best walk to check out the historic wine culture is Caminhos de Sta. Luzia (PR 1 PIC), which takes you to Lajidos, where you can visit the Landscape of Pico Island Vineyard Culture Interpretation Centre.  It explains the impact of the geology, landscape, buildings and wine history very well.  And you can taste local wines.

On Pico, we stayed in Madalena, whose atmospheric old harbour and square with its grand church attest to the successful trade in wine.  It is a stone’s throw from Pico’s oldest surviving vines, which are at the heart of this lovely walk – Vinhas da Criação Velha (PR 5 PIC). It takes in this striking restored windmill, which has featured on these pages before.

Rise & fall – currais following the lava flow

Today, a rather more modern structure attests to the renaissance of wine on the island.  Cella Bar is home to a very good wine shop representing the island’s best wines and a good selection from the mainland.  We had a simple lunch of local cheeses and gourmet fish, preceded by a G&T made with the local, eponymous gin.

Cella Bar – room with a view

New holiday accommodation is springing up too.   The owner of Ancoradouro – one of my favourite restaurants in Portugal –  was in the process of renovating more holiday homes on the island (more details here) and see here for details of Insula Atlantis – Azores Wine Company co-founder Paulo Machado’s newly built holiday accommodation.

Well served by shops and cafes, including two sizeable supermarkets and a great fresh fish shop (fresh tuna like butter), Madalena is a good place to stay if you are self-catering.  That said, we partly rented Casa do Pico – the first storey of a very comfortable house in Areia Larga, Madalena – because it was just three minutes walk from Ancoradouro!

On our first and last nights on Pico, we enjoyed delicious, authentic, local dishes on the terrace over-looking the harbour (with views of Faial). I was gifted this mature 2013 bottle by the owner – it is Pedro Saraiva’s own Cancela do Porco Verdelho.  We enjoyed it very much with sweet, garlicky gambas à la plancha, followed by grilled squid.  No doubt about it, Pico’s new wave white wines age well.  Check out my report of a vertical tasting with Azores Wine Company here.

The pudding, a moist orange cake, was the perfect match for a glass of Czar Licoroso.

We had bigger fish (not) to fry too and lucked out seeing a Blue Whale (they have usually passed through by June) with Espaço Talassa, who specialise in ethical whale watching and island tours.

Mural in Madalena – sperm whale versus giant squid

We spotted three species of dolphin and this loggerhead turtle, who had a clean and his vital statistics measured by team Espaço Talassa for marine research.

Short back & sides for this loggerhead turtle

Dolphins surf the bow wave

The company is located in the scenic harbour town of Lajes do Pico and, though we didn’t stay there, Whale’come ao Pico hotel (same French ownership) next to their office on the harbour looked nice.

The harbour at Calheta do Nesquim

On another day, we enjoyed a lovely walk to the east of Lajes do Pico, starting in Calheta do Nesquim (PRC 11 PIC), one of Pico’s many pretty harbour towns.  Plainly the soils are richer here, because there was much more of a polyculture.

Banana, fig, citrus trees and vines in the more verdant west of Pico

On the return leg, an old whale spotting tower (from whale hunting days) attested to the spectacular ocean views.  In the days before radio, the spotter would send up a flare when they spotted a whale. We watched a video at the Museu dos Baleeiros in Lajes do Pico showing the spotter lighting the taper with his cigarette!  No health and safety back then, especially for the whalers themselves, who harpooned by hand from small thin boats, like matchsticks up to the whales.    Espaço Talassa uses one such tower to spot these majestic animals – for watching only these days thank goodness.

The view from high ground near Lagoa do Capitão on Pico’s north coast to São Jorge island

Though we toyed with the idea of climbing the summit of Pico mountain on a guided Espaço Talassa hike, we knew we were not fit enough.  We did, however, enjoy some impressive views from the Lagoa do Capitão walk (PR 13PIC) to São Jorge island, just north of Pico.  The descent, the lower part of which is through dense thicket, is steep and slippery in parts and the path faded in and out a bit, so we turned around for fear of losing our way back.  We did, however, see a Santa Maria Goldcrest whirring around in the branches.  It is Europe’s smallest bird.

On our last day, we headed north again and discovered the most inviting (calm!) natural swimming pool on a walk to Prainha do Norte, complete with diving podium.  The only snag was we had forgotten our swimming togs!  The good thing is it makes for the perfect excuse to return to Pico.  As if I needed one!

We flew directly from London Stansted to Ponta Delgada, São Miguel, with Ryanair (4 hour flight), booking hire cars on both islands with a local company, Ilha Verde, via Ryanair’s website. Courteous service, desks at the airport and new cars won a thumbs up from us.  Flights between São Miguel and Ponta Delgada are with local airline S.A.T.A and took about an hour each way.

Our only hitch during the holiday was arriving back in Ponta Delgada from Pico during the evening – our last – only to discover on check in that our hotel did not have a room for us, though we had booked some months previously and our booking was ‘guaranteed.’   Room availability does seem to be a problem in the capital (we could not get into my preferred choice, Hotel Azor), so I would recommend booking well in advance.  We ended up in a cheaper, pretty functional (but clean) place nearby, which Hotel do Colegio had already arranged. Apparently (as we learned later, after I complained), there was a problem with some of Colegio’s rooms following a three month renovation.  And apparently (according to reception), the hotel had called and emailed us before our arrival to notify us of the problem, though neither our phone logs nor inboxes showed any trace of any contact.

For more about wine from the Azores and a few more restaurant/accommodation tips, check out these earlier The Wine Detective reports and links to my features in Decanter and The World of Fine Wine (and watch out for my upcoming Decanter Expert’s Choice on Portuguese whites):

Amazing Azores: a feast for eyes and belly

Pico, the Azores: the Santorini of Portugal?

Pet Nat from the Azores, really

Azores Wine Company: first releases

The Azores: most definitely holiday material

Azores Wine Company: vertical tasting, vertical growth

Pico, the Azores: a rare vertical of Czar Licoroso

Evocative & provacative: John Szabo MS – “Volcanic Wines”

Pico, The Azores: Volcanic Wines in the Midst of Waves

Portugal, but not as we know it

Azores Travel Guide: where to go

Decanter 75 most exciting wines of 2017

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