Whale of a time - The Azores
Islands have always appealed to me. The smaller and more remote the better. My favourite books were full of them – from Robinson Crusoe to The Search for Atlantis – and so it is with a strange sense of deja vu that I now land with my daughter Anouchka in Sao Miguel, the largest island of the Azores, a group of nine volcanic islands strung out across six hundred kilometres like some fabulous necklace, half the Atlantic Ocean away.
The islands are clustered into three groups; the Eastern group of Sao Miguel and Santa Maria; the Central group of Terceira, Graciosa, Sao Jorge, Pico and Faial; theWestern group of Flores and Corvo. From the air, they look exactly as I imagined them; skirted with sea-foam at the edges, excitingly pockmarked with volcanoes of all sizes (some still smoking), and showing vast expanses of brilliant green.
Arrival at the airport finds it reassuringly quiet. For although a description of the Azores reads like Anouchka's list of the 10 Coolest Things to Find In One Place (brilliant sunshine, active volcanoes, killer whales, bubbling mud lakes, swimming with dolphins, pineapple plantations, a sea bluer than the movies and the thrilling possibility of seeing a Portuguese man-o'-war, the biggest, deadliest jellyfish in the ocean), tourism seems as yet to have made little impact on the islands.
Life here exists at a slower pace; strangers are welcomed with genuine delight; there is little nightlife and hardly any crime; and the small scale and informal nature of island trips comes as a glorious change from the cattle-truck tours of the concrete Costas.
Our stay is due to last a week, and to take in three of the islands; Sao Miguel, Faial and Pico. Sao Miguel is the largest island, and its capital, Ponta Delgada, receives most of the visitors. It is a charming place, looking as Madeira did 50 years ago, with its marina, its castle, its cobbled, palm-lined streets, its market and shops and friendly little cafés.
The Azores are part of Portugal, and there is a strong Catholic identity to the place, with incense and icons of the saints on sale in every little corner shop. But Azorean saints are a cheery lot; there are festivals almost every day, and on our first night in Ponta Delgada, Anouchka and I are gaily dragged by locals into one of their many street galas, with dancers, musicians and acrobats.
Any excuse for a party, they say, when I ask them whose festival this is. Here, you know, there’s so little to do…
The next day, we set off to find out how little there really is. Our friends of last night were being modest; the island is glorious in every way. Incredibly green, it is a paradise for gardeners; agapanthus, ginger lily, thyme and hydrangeas grow wild, and any abandoned building or fallen tree is quickly devoured by the purple morning glories that swarm over everything with near tropical speed.
Over the next few days, we visit pineapple and tea plantations; we sip strawberry juice by a volcano crater; we see the famous twin lakes – one green, one blue – at Sete Cicades and hear the sad, romantic tale of how they were formed (the Azoreans are great tellers of tales, the sadder and the more romantic the better).
We visit the sulphurous Furnas, with its boiling pools of mud and water, reminding us that although the volcanoes of the Azores may be dormant, they are far from extinct.
At Tony’s restaurant in Furnas, we eat locally-grown pineapple, and blood-sausage baked with yam under the hot earth in the traditional way; and we bathe in the thermal pool of the old and genteel Terra Nostra Hotel, where the spring water is so charged with minerals that my swimsuit actually goes rusty.
On the third day we fly to Horta on Faial, in the Central group of the Azores. It takes about an hour to fly from Sao Miguel, and if anything, this smaller island seems even closer to perfection.
Living here is like being in love, says our guide; and I can definitely see what he means. Known as the Blue Island for its hedgerows of hydrangeas, Faial offers a spectacular range of scenery over a very small area, with green valleys on one side, and the apocalyptic results of recent volcanic activity on the other. There is a lighthouse half-buried in volcanic ash; a stretch of desert like a Martian moon; and all around the island there are fabulous places to swim; for although there are few beaches here, the tumbling lava has formed wonderful natural swimming places, sheltered from the open sea, where Anouchka can spend hours diving, climbing on rocks and inspecting the sea life trapped in the many pools.
In the evening, the famous marina is the place to be. Nightlife is sociable rather than sophisticated, and there is a variety of restaurants and bars. Food in the Azores is best when it is simple. Hotel and restaurant food here can often have a kind of school-dinnerish quality, but cafes and bars often serve excellent inexpensive food, and the Cafe Sport bar in Horta, on the seafront, is the locals' favourite, serving seafood kebabs, excellent steaks, grilled wreckfish and salads, with good bread, local cheeses and Portuguese wines.
Pico is only a heartbeat away, and Horta’s skyline is dominated by its perfect cone. You can walk to the summit of the volcano, although it takes time (two to five hours for the ascent, depending on the weather, and half as much again for the descent), and requires a registered guide.
An island tour by taxi gives a short, but tantalising taste of the island, including extraordinary views from the peak itself, lakes, smaller caldera and the famous whaling museum – though Anouchka and I both agree that there are much more enjoyable ways to see whales on Pico.
Whale-watching is a unique experience, and we are told that Faial is the best place to try it. Our motorised boat seats only eight people, and the organisers are very careful to ensure that the whales are not stressed by the presence of observers. More than one boat is not allowed; we keep a respectful distance at all times. I’m impressed at the care and sensitivity shown here by our guides, and I am very conscious of what a rare privilege it is to see these giant mammals in their natural habitat.
The marine life of the Azores is spectacularly varied; some 25 different species of whale visit the islands, and on our first trip we see sperm whales, beaked whales, pilot whales and dolphins.
Swimming with dolphins
Our next trip is, if anything, more exciting – for returning to Sao Miguel, we are booked to actually swim with these creatures. The boat takes up to six people; and although no more than two swimmers are allowed in the water at once, we all have several chances to swim. But first we have to find the dolphins, and we pray that they will be in playful mood. Any sign of anxiety, and we must leave them alone – our guides make it clear that it is they, and not we, who are in charge.
It takes us an hour to find our first school. Anouchka and I take the first swim, lowering ourselves carefully into water that is a luminous blue and almost tropically warm. The depth here is between 1,000 and 2,000 metres, and clear right down to the bottom. I can see the dolphins some distance below. And they are singing - a long, resonant note that cuts through the water. Anouchka gives me a big thumbs-up; she can hear them too, and we follow them for five or more minutes until the school moves on and we return to the boat.
We repeat the experience six times that day, and another five the next.We encounter bottlenose dolphins and spotted dolphins, and swim with both. Some of them come very close to us. But nothing beats that first contact with another species in its own element. It’s an eerie, intimate, almost religious feeling, which I know will stay with me for a very long time.
But how long can this idyll last? I find that on leaving this magical place I’m almost reluctant to write about it, as if by keeping them secret I could help these islands preserve the Brigadoon-like quality that gives them their charm.
You see, it’s the scale of things here that makes the Azores so different and special.With only a few dozen tourists at a time, it’s perfectly acceptable for a restaurant to serve food cooked in an underground pot halfway up a mountain; or for a sightseeing company to expend six hours, a boat and two members of staff so that four or five people can swim with dolphins. But try any of this on a larger scale, and soon it will no longer be possible.
So I can’t help feeling that in some way I’ve witnessed the last days of Atlantis – blissfully free (but how long for?) from the excesses of the 21st century. And it is with a heartfelt prayer to the god of small things that Anouchka and I board the plane home – to please keep these islands just as they are. Perfect. Forever.
When to go
The Azores islands lie almost 1,000 miles west of Lisbon in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and enjoy a temperate climate thanks to the warming influence of the Gulf Stream.Average temperatures range from highs of 17ºC in
January to about 25ºC in August. Showers are more frequent between October and April.
Azores airline SATA (www.sata.pt) flies direct from London Gatwick to Ponta Delgada on the island of Sao Miguel.
SATA operates regular flights between the islands of Faial, Pico, Santa Maria, Sao Miguel and Terceira. You can rent cars, bikes and mopeds on all the main islands, and there are also taxis.
The islands have a range of accommodation, including hotels, guesthouses and farmhouses.
Operators include Sunvil Discovery (020 8758 4722;www.sunvil.co.uk). It offers a seven-nightThree IslandTour to Sao Miguel, Faial and Pico from £1,187 per person, including direct flights from Gatwick, seven nights' b&b accommodation, internal flights and transfers, entrance tickets to botanical gardens and museums, and guided excursions. Archipelago Azores (017687 75672;www.azoreschoice.com) offer tailor-made holidays to the Azores.
All prices and details were correct when published, please check before you visit the Azores.