It was 6 a.m. — 2 a.m. to my jaded East Coast brain — and my husband, daughter, and I were staggering through customs at Ponta Delgada Airport, on the island of São Miguel, the largest of the nine islands that make up the Azores archipelago of Portugal. .
Despite the fog in my head, my energy was high. A fellow mom who was on our Boston red eye marveled at the gorgeous weather forecast, which drew laughter from the ranger. “Gorgeous, I don’t know,” he said. “But you will experience all four seasons every day.”
He was right. During our week-long visit, we experienced constant showers and bright sunshine, put on bathing suits and layers of wool. But don’t pay attention to the weather; it was the natural theater of the four elements – earth, water, fire and air – that made São Miguel an adventure unlike any other.
About 36 million years ago, the Azores Plateau formed in the Atlantic Ocean where the North American, Eurasian and African tectonic plates meet. As these plates drifted apart on the ocean floor, molten volcanic material rose and formed new oceanic crust. The chain of islands was formed from the upper sections of the volcanoes that rose from this plateau. In other words, the Azores are volcanic islands, and their distinctive geology creates a vivid landscape and environment.
Carpets of green and bubbling fumaroles
Our adventures through the elements began with the early morning drive from the airport to our first hotel, Furnas Lake Forest Alive, in the Furnas Valley, an inactive crater that has high geothermal activity in the southeast of São Miguel. Getting used to the adrenaline rush of a stick shift in a hilly environment, we drove past vast, green, almost glowing pastures that were criss-crossed by darker green lines, where volcanic rock walls were covered in moss and plants.
As we descended into the valley, these vast carpets of green – dotted with the black and white dairy cows that are so important to the local economy – became obscured by thick plane trees and pink azaleas. The hydrangeas, for which the island is known, were still two months from blooming. The proximity of the foliage to the road created tunnels that seemed to transport us to a magical destination.
When we pulled into Furnas Lake Forest Living through a grove of Japanese cedars, the storybook enchantment was complete. Manuel Gago da Câmara, who owns the resort with his wife, Helena, and who planted those imported cedars, traces his family roots back to the late 15th century, some 50 years after the island was supposedly settled by the Portuguese explorer . Gonçalo Velho Cabral. When Mr. Gago da Camara took over the family property in 1984, the 270 acres were overgrown with weeds. He spent nearly 40 years transforming them into a sustainable forest surrounding the 14-villa resort, which opened in 2004. (Rates start at 320 euros, or about $349.)
“My dream is to make it a place where people can also learn how to farm and have quality food in an easy way,” said Mr. Gago da Camara. The couple make their own honey and have garden beds and fruit trees that supply the on-site restaurant. “Nature gives you everything if you take good care of it,” said Mr. Gago da Camara, a perspective that seemed to be shared by many on the island, where pride and protection of the land created a fundamentally ecological travel experience. .
We spent our first days in the lush, gurgling, sometimes sulfur-smelling region, admiring its alternating beauty and otherworldliness. The large lake, Lagoa das Furnas, looked like it could be in Switzerland with its watery water surrounded by a tree-lined rim. But on its northern shore there was a turbulent patch of land: the Caldeiras das Furnas.
As we watched the bubbling fumaroles and plumes of steam rising through the air, a small van rolled up. Two men jumped out and walked over to one of a few dozen mini mounds that were marked with a small sign with a restaurant name. They discovered the deep holes and pulled two kettles out of them with long metal hooks. Inside each pot was the coveted cozido: a meat-and-vegetable Portuguese stew that consists of everything from chorizo and chicken to cabbage and carrots. The stew cooked in the ground for six or seven hours before the men lifted the cauldrons, put them in the van and hurried back to their restaurant.
We headed to the lakeside cafe about 50 steps from the boiling ground to try the cozido there. The meat was tender, the vegetables tender, and its flavor was, unsurprisingly, earthy.
Just beyond the gray-and-taupe soil around the caldera, the landscape became steep and green. Grain Park, a wooded area with hiking trails, was once a private home in the 1800s. Over the years, it changed ownership and was eventually bought by the Portuguese government in 1987 as a place to host traveling officials, and then handed over to the local Azorean government in 2009. Despite all the movement, it remained largely abandoned until it was finally sold back to private owners who transformed the property into its current state.
After paying a fee and entering through a metal turnstile, we chose one of three paths and began to ascend through towering trees, past waterfalls and through fertile air. It almost felt like we were playing a life-sized board game made of trees: Paths were marked with slices of tree trunks, miniature trash cans were built from logs, and wooden ladders led us to different levels of the park. A dense canopy and moss creeping everywhere created a timeless atmosphere, even though the park only opened in 2019.
Thermal pools and lava flows
In the nearby Furnas village, Garden Terra Nostra was a completely different convergence of natural and man-made elements. The celebrated botanical garden dates from 1776, when the American orange merchant Thomas Hickling built a modest home and surrounded it with trees mostly from North America. In the 19th century, the property was enlarged by the Visconde da Praia and, later, his son, who continued to add land and plant imported trees. Today it is 30 acres of gardens and groves containing specimens from New Zealand, China, South Africa and other countries. There are palms interspersed with eucalyptus trees, which give way to redwoods, and an extensive camellia collection. It was a lovely place to get lost – despite having a map, we did – and take a soothing dip in the naturally warm, iron-rich thermal pool, which is popular with locals and tourists alike.
After a few days exploring firm, if sometimes molten, land, we were ready to ride the seas. The ocean surrounding São Miguel is home to many cetaceans and more than a few tour companies that will take you up close to them in low-riding Zodiacs and larger catamarans. Certainly not a sea family, we chose for a ride in the latter, offered by a tourist company called Futurism.
About 15 minutes after leaving Ponta Delgada, the island’s main port, we saw our first dolphins glide through the water, their smooth backs and dorsal fins eliciting gasps of delight from everyone on board. For the next three hours, the captain of our boat followed the direction of the Futurism point person, who was sitting at a lookout point on the island, relaying the visible marine activity. The result was a successful expedition: pods of bottlenose and common dolphins and several sperm whales, including a mother and calf, elegantly breaching the water before plunging back into the depths of the ocean with a wave of their tails.
The next day was also filled with dramatic ocean views, this time from the heights of the west coast. We took another winding road lined with plane trees and grassy banks to one of the most photographed spots on the island: Miradouro da Ponta do Escalvado. A stunningly sunny day, the sloping green inland contrasting with steep sea cliffs, blue skies and white billowing clouds could be ripped from a travel agency poster.
Down by the water’s edge, in the town of Mosteiros, the green grass gave way to black lava flows, frozen into steep formations. It was a foreboding but irresistible sight, and we scaled their summits, poked through clear tide pools and watched the Atlantic, here a sublime turquoise, as it lapped against the shore and sent salty spray through the air.
After our fill of scrambling, we headed to nearby Ponta da Ferraria for a dip. A bubbling hot spring beneath the lava cliffs creates a heated bay right inside the ocean. We followed the trail of sunbathers and adventure seekers past the indoor spa to the black, sometimes jagged rocks, where dozens of people lay. We paused to consider the wisdom of joining others in the narrow channel where cold ocean waves flowed through, mixing with the warm water to create the perfect hot temperature, but also crashed against the rocks before returning to the sea.
Perhaps emboldened by the epic waterfalls and literally gaping and burning parts of the island we saw, we were forced to go down into the fray. Hot and swelling, exhilarating and scary, the water bounced us between the rock edges and a rope spread across the waterway for a safe hold. For a moment, I felt at one with the history, geology and beauty of the island.
Wild winds and low clouds
On our last day, we visited one of our favorite places: Lagoa do Fogo, Fire Lake, a more than 1,200-acre protected area in the center of the island. Always going up another winding road to get there, we watched as the blue skies disappeared and we were enveloped in a whole new climate. The higher we went, the denser the fog. Or were they clouds? As the ranger promised, we experienced every season — every landscape, climate and element — during the past week across São Miguel’s 290 square miles.
We parked and walked to the trailhead, the wind whipping against us, stirring white heads on the volcanic lake thousands of feet below. We again briefly wondered if we were getting a little too adventurous, but decided we’d at least start the hike. There was a pumice beach along one of the edges of the lake that we wanted to see.
The further we descended into the cauldron, the more protection its steep edges provided. Seagulls and terns screamed their welcome. The air was cleansing.
Down by the water, the clouds still floated close enough to seem to touch. We walked through ferns and laurels, wanting to prolong the journey to this lush but fiery island, although the wind, and distance to the beach, were finally persistent enough to force us to turn around.
We didn’t make it to the pumice beach, but we had already absorbed so many sights and experiences. We left to take off, knowing that São Miguel has an incomparable place in the world, and now, in our minds.
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