Claustrophobia aside, who wouldn’t be a bit anxious standing in a cave at the bottom of an active volcano? I looked warily at a device that was tracking carbon dioxide levels, set to alert us if they became dangerously high (and quietly hoped I’d get an excuse to scurry up the 183 spiral stairs to fresh air). Nearby, a mud fumarole bubbled and boiled at nearly 180 degrees, filling the air with a pungent sulfurous odor.
Yet, incongruously, this potentially lethal landscape shared space with an immense lake full of crystal-clear, and refreshingly cold, drinkable water. More than 160 feet overhead, two openings in the vaulted ceiling allowed light to pour into the basaltic lava cave. I was standing in Europe’s largest volcanic dome, referred to as the Sulfur Cave, or Furna do Enxofre — one of many reminders that Graciosa, like the other eight islands that compose the Azores archipelago, had a turbulent birth.
Set in the middle of the Atlantic, almost 1,000 miles from any shore, these nine islands that are an autonomous region of Portugal retain a lost-in-time quality. The archipelago is an unspoiled Eden of black-sand beaches, gushing waterfalls, hydrangea-rimmed roads, aquamarine lakes and Old World hamlets. Craters, geysers and thermal waters are just some of the many features that remind visitors of this archipelago’s dramatic volcanic origins. Yet, for the most part, despite direct four-hour flights from Boston and new EasyJet and Ryanair routes from Lisbon and London, respectively, the word hasn’t gotten out about how accessible this exotic paradise is.
I’ve been traveling to the Azores for years, returning time and again, scoping out each island’s distinct character. On grand Sao Miguel, I dug into a hearty stew that was cooked underground in the volcanic heat saturating the lakefront ground in Furnas. Pico’s signature sight is a perpetually snow-covered and climbable mountain peak, but I chose instead to prowl its vineyards, which grow in a stark landscape of lava-stone corrals that protect the grapes from salt and wind.
Most recently, I explored the two least visited islands, Graciosa and Santa Maria, both of which epitomize the quintessential Azorean features: fantastic volcanic geology and untamed natural beauty.
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Flying into Graciosa, I gazed out of the window to spy Pico Mountain rising above the swirling clouds like the cherry atop an ice cream sundae. When Graciosa appeared on the horizon, it was a dark, rocky coast jutting out into the rough seas with a black-and-white-banded lighthouse, Farol da Ponte da Barca, standing sentinel on a clifftop. Once on the ground, I relaxed easily into the pastoral setting, spying on a small flock of goats that wandered onto my hotel’s property to chomp on the landscaped foliage. This tranquility, however, belies the island’s turbulent past.
The island’s most iconic feature, the Caldeira da Graciosa, resulted from the collapse of a volcanic cone 12,000 years ago. Before embarking on a one-hour walk around this vast summit depression, Lizete and I stopped along the crater rim at a cave that is said to resemble the shape of an oven, hence the name Furna (oven) da Maria Encantada.
After exiting the tube, our view opened up to the base of the caldera, some 900 feet below us. It was completely unlike anything I had expected from a volcanic crater. This once-arid expanse is now coated with such bright-green verdancy that it reminded me of Ireland. Rising up on all sides, steep slopes burgeoned with Japanese cedar, acacia and wild pine.
As a reward for my exertions, I decided to check out the various therapies on the menu at the renovated early-20th-century spa, Termas do Carapacho, choosing a hot stone massage with — what else? — volcanic rocks. And to end the day, I settled myself atop a thick beach blanket along the seafront, where there are two natural pools — one for kids, shallow and protected from the ocean tide, and the other for adults with an opening to the rough sea.
A short flight brought me to the sleepy isle of Santa Maria, the warmest of the Azorean islands, nicknamed the Sunny Island. It’s blessed with golden, sandy beaches formed by the erosion of sedimentary rock, unlike the black seaside expanses found on the other eight islands. Approaching by air, you see topography that appears almost schizophrenic. While the east is blanketed with a dense tangle of vegetation and ridged with rolling hills and foliage-covered peaks, the west is flat and arid.
I landed after dark in the capital of Vila do Porto, a 15th-century hilltop village and the oldest in the Azores, and met Laurinda, my friend who owns the Casa do Norte, a charming rural accommodation on the east end of the island. With just enough time to grab dinner in town at Garrouchada before the kitchen closed, she suggested I order telha de marisco, a dish in which clams, mussels and shrimp are grilled on and served atop a terra-cotta tile.
Over the next few days, we drove the narrow, winding and foliage-canopied roads, past cows grazing on terraced slopes of green and tiny ribbons of tumbling water.
When we weren’t exploring the island’s myriad water features (I was particularly taken with Cascata do Aveiro, a 300-foot-high waterfall with a perfectly positioned picnic table at the base, enveloped by a misty spray), we were relishing the light-hued sands, including Sao Lourenço, a popular summer hamlet with a quaint village feel. By far, the loveliest shore is Praia Formosa, meaning “beautiful beach,” backed by soaring cliffs along a bay. There are only a handful of buildings, including a restaurant serving local fish dishes. According to Laurinda, “in the summer, it’s the best beach in all the Azores with an open bay to the ocean; fine, beige sand; clear, warm water; and surfing waves. It’s perfect in every way.”
The island is home to Europe’s smallest bird, estrelinha de Santa Maria. “It only weighs five to six grams and it moves so fast that it makes your day when you’re able to see it. I’ve seen it twice,” Laurinda said. A good place to spy one is along the Costa Norte trail, a five-mile trek that heads through landscape often nicknamed the Red Desert — a scarlet-colored, wavy-surfaced expanse, formed when lava erupted from a volcano some 5 million years ago and degraded into clay. We took the trail the next day, savoring the topography, rich with tree heath, St. John’s wort, Azorean candleberry tree and other plant life.
The path ended at Baia dos Anjos, a small seaside village. There, we took advantage of the sun, joining residents and other visitors, some seeking shade under the umbrellas beside the swimming pool or soaking in the shallow natural tidal pool waters. Then, as the sun dropped lower in the sky, we didn’t have to move far to enjoy a crisp glass of white wine at the glassed-in Bar dos Anjos, where the fading light of the day streamed in.
Though many travelers skip visiting Santa Maria, I had to agree with Laurinda, who compared it to a box full of wonderful surprises. That’s something that can also be said about Graciosa — or, for that matter, any one of the other Azorean islands.