Ponta Delgada, The Azores - 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 odour.
Yet, incongruously, this potentially lethal landscape shared space with an immense lake full of crystal-clear, and refreshingly cold, drinkable water. (In fact, before the stone stairwell tower was built, in the early 20th century, the locals would use ropes to lower themselves down to access this water for their cattle.) 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 travelling 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. Cheesemaking is renowned on Sao Jorge, where I meandered down lush trails that plunge into secluded, fertile seaside plains backed by soaring cliffs.
Deeply rooted in a seafaring tradition, Faial is home to a buried town, where I saw roofs peek out above their ash-and-lava encasement, frozen in time thanks to a year-long underwater volcanic eruption in the 1950s. And on Terceira, I sunbathed in the town of Biscoitos, whose seaside resembles a moonscape with great expanse of natural pools carved out of black lava stone. Most recently, I explored the two least visited islands, Graciosa and Santa Maria, both of which epitomise the quintessential Azorean features: fantastic volcanic geology and untamed natural beauty.
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 tranquillity, however, belies the island's turbulent past.
Nearly everywhere on Graciosa, there are abundant reminders that the island emerged from the Earth's fiery core. One day, my guide, Lizete, and I spotted three fishermen standing on the shore of Porto Afonso, throwing their lines into the tumbling surf, hoping to snag kingfish, abrotea (hake), black veja (parrotfish), chicharro (horse mackerel) or sargo (porkfish). But I was more interested in the stunningly beautiful cliffs that rose behind them, curiously striped with many-hued bands. Seeing my fascination, Lizete explained, “The variety of colours - yellow, red and black - each represent different sorts of volcanic eruptions over the centuries: basalt, red and black scorias, ashes and volcanic sands.”
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. The way one version of the story goes, Maria, a married woman who lived here, regularly baked bread, handing it out to the underprivileged. One day, her elderly husband urged her to flee the area with him because he'd dreamt of an imminent volcanic eruption. But Maria opted to stay behind to meet her young paramour - and the volcano erupted, killing them both.
After contemplating this melancholy story, we walked up a steep path through a landscape lush with bay leaf, heather and other foliage to prowl through a lava tube - a cylindrical tunnel created when flowing lava cooled on the outside, and the molten lava within drained out.
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. (Even more incongruous was our later stop: the Sulfur Cave, with its steamy fumaroles, which lies directly beneath these fields of green.)
The Caldeira walk attracts botanical and ornithological enthusiasts, like myself. “Above Graciosa and the ocean, this walk has a stillness and beauty, a sense of relaxation just interrupted by the songs of the birds,” Lizete gushed. The air was alive with the twittering and chirping of starlings, quail, sparrows and other species. And, because it was summer, the route was adorned with clusters of blue and pink hydrangea blossoms, as well as fragrant white ginger and the purple blooms of African lilies. From this height, the island's quaint beauty came into panoramic relief, from the village of St. Matthew - with its pearly white chapel, Our Lady of Health, perched on a lone hill - to Carapacho, a town of whitewashed buildings roofed with terra-cotta tiles that's famous for its thermal pools.
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. We found ourselves sitting at a table adjacent to the mayor, who was dining with a dozen colleagues and friends. This intimate island is the epitome of six degrees of separation, and after Laurinda greeted him, he generously offered some of his grilled cherne (Atlantic wreckfish) to tide us over until our meal arrived.
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. As we passed through the island's five towns, Laurinda told me that, traditionally, each town has a predominant colour painted around its doors and windows. For example, in Sao Pedro, a once wealthy district, the colour is yellow, representing gold; Almagreira has windows of red trim to signify the fertility of the land; and cobalt blue was chosen for Santa Barbara's windows because it was an inexpensive colour for such a poor, rural parish.
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.” On several of the days, the weather showed its temperamental side - despite its sunny reputation - displaying occasional cloud-filled skies or soaking rains. But I welcomed this moodiness, relishing the beaches cloaked in mist and the wispy curtains of fog that lent an eeriness to woodlands.
Because Santa Maria is noted for its biodiversity, one morning we visited the Environmental Centre in Vila do Porto to see the private collection of Dalberto Pombo, a self-educated local who pioneered the study of the island's geology, ecology, marine biology and entomology. “He discovered dozens of new insect species, five with the scientific name 'pomboi' in his honour,” Laurinda said. Once covered by the sea, Santa Maria is the only Azorean island with fossils, and many are displayed here, including sea urchins, sea snails and tiny crustaceans.
The island is also 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-coloured, wavy-surfaced expanse, formed when lava erupted from a volcano some 5 million years ago and degraded into clay that became red because of oxidation and undulating thanks to wind and water exposure. We took the trail the next day, savouring 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. The mayor, coincidentally, had the same idea: He was holding a meeting at this casual waterfront cafe.
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.
* Barone, based in New York, is a travel and food writer.
If you go
Where to stay
Porto da Barra, Santa Cruz da Graciosa, Graciosa
A minimalist pastiche of glass and steel with close views of the sea. Rooms from $90 (about R1 000).
A rural tourism website listing rental accommodations throughout the Azores in a wide range of prices and styles, including Casa do Norte on Santa Maria.
Where to eat
Rua d. Luis Bettencourt 25, Vila de Porto, Santa Maria
An informal restaurant noted for its fish and seafood served on a terra-cotta tile. Recommended appetiser: the local sausage sampler, $6; entree: seafood on a terra-cotta tile for one person, $13.
Quinta das Grotas
Caminho das Grotas, 28
Ribeirinha, Santa Cruz, Graciosa
This petite restaurant housed in a converted traditional Graciosa house is well loved by locals. Try the local cheese with honey, $3; and the grilled neru fish, $16.
What to do
Sulfur Cave (Furna do Enxofre)
Centre de Visitantes da Furna do Enxofre
Caldeira da Graciosa, 9880-205 Santa Cruz da Graciosa
Winter hours: Tuesday-Saturday 2 p.m.-5:30 p.m. Summer hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.- 6 p.m. Adult admission: $4.
Termas do Carapacho (thermal spa)
Rua Dr. Manuel de Menezes, Carapacho, Graciosa
Open Tuesday-Sunday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission: $1.
Dalberto Pombo Environmental Interpretation Centre
Rua Teofilo, Braga #10/12/14
Vila do Porto, Santa Maria
Winter hours: Tuesday-Saturday 2 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Summer hours: Daily 10-1 p.m., 2-6 p.m. Adult admission: $3.
Jeanine Barone, The Washington Post