Peeking out of the Atlantic, Sao Miguel forms one of the nine Azorean islands which mixes romance , myth and geology. Craters, bubbling bath and boiling waterfalls form the backdrop on Sao Miguel where you can eat food cooked underground by geothermal heat and find lakes filled with the tears of star crossed lovers.
At the marina on Ponte Delgado, with a light rain falling on our faces and a sea mist forming in the distance, we are told by the Whale watching team that the weather is too bad for the boat to go out today. To us Brits, raised on bracing holidays in the Lake District and blustery breaks in The Orkneys, this seems hard to take. It is surely just a ‘bit dull’. But this, we are told is ‘Azorean weather’ which means things will get worse before they get better. No whales will be watched today.
The impact of Azorean weather hits us literally a few hours later when suddenly the wind slaps our faces and paper napkins, maps and guide books are scattered all over the pretty square where we are comforting ourselves with coffee. Hands on our hats, we explore the narrow cobbled streets of Ponta Delgada, the capital of the Azores and the main town of Sao Miguel, the largest in the archipelago. Its picturesque 16th and 17th century black and white churches, pavements and squares are distinctly Portuguese in style despite the fact that we are miles from Lisbon in the middle of the Atlantic. The Azores are Europe’s most westerly outpost and tourists from all over the world come here to walk, cycle or tour the spectacular landscape and coastline, spotting whales if they are lucky.
The main attractions of Sao Miguel, known as the Green Island because the rain and volcanic soil make for lush vegetation and glorious displays of floral colour, lie beyond the town and today’s first surprise (not counting the weather) is the Gorreana Tea plantation.
Pineapples and tobacco are other distinctly non-European crops that grow here, but Europe’s only tea plantation is found down an unassuming drive way behind fabulous blooms of ginger lily, pink belladonna, morning glory and hydrangea. Gorreana is also unique in that it produces a self propagating tea plant - the only one if it’s kind in the world. We meet the fifth generation owner who proudly tells the story while his original Heath Robinson-esque machinery - still bearing the signs that it was manufactured in the UK in 1838 - clanks away in the background still churning out the ingredients for a perfect cuppa.
The following day is bathed in fabulous sunshine. ‘Azorean weather’ shrugs the taxi driver. As we adjust to the fact that the unpredictability of the elements is a part of an island experience here, his cab takes us to the spa town of Furnas and the famous Terra Nostra Garden hotel, a peaceful art deco oasis built in 1935 and set in its own 30 acre Kew Gardens style botanical estate. We will be based here to see the astonishing volcanic geology of this part of Sao Miguel.
After a warm walk around the gardens with its wealth of ferns, azaleas, palms and exotic plants it feels time for a dip. Although the hotels blue indoor pool looks inviting, we opt to test the waters in Terra Nostra’s famous natural thermal swimming pool. It is an odd brown in colour, from the iron which taints the rocks a rich red. We step in gingerly and are immediately immersed in warm, comforting bath-lie waters. Terra Nostra has thoughtfully provided towels which match the pool perfectly, so we wrap ourselves in soft teddy bear golden brown and slip into the hotel’s elegant 1930s interior, perfect for those taking the waters as well as those sipping cocktails at the bar.
The island is composed of two volcanic ranges joined over the centuries and volcanic activity is still evident in the island’s craters and cauldrons. But to fully understand and appreciate the Azorean scenery, we need an expert. Pedro, who came here from Porto in Portugal 18 years ago to study geology, is our man. He doesn’t dwell too much on Azorean weather but says’ there’s no such thing a bad weather - just badly dressed people’. I adjust my cagoule in the jeep mirror and trek down the misty, rocky path fringed with ferns to Lago de Congro, a green mystical lake which looks like an eerie scene from a Harry Potter movie.
Our volcano route takes in three craters – Lago de Fogo (the Fire lake ) in the centre of the island, Furnas and Sete Cidades, where love is in the air. Sete Cidades has twin lakes, one green, one blue. Legend says that here a shepherd boy fell in love with a princess, the King objected and their love was doomed. Their resulting tears filled two lakes, one from his blue eyes, and the other from her green eyes. Pedro has a more prosaic version of events. The smaller green lake reflects the proximity of the foliage and the vegetation; the large blue lake lies open to the sky and reflects its bright blue hue.
The fable may be a tall tale, but the view is still fabulous.
Sao Miguel puts the romance back into geography. Some believe the Azores were the missing land of Atlantis, and Lord Byron wrote a moving poem about a battle on neighbouring Flores.
Driving to Furnas we follow our noses to the hot springs The sulphuric bad egg smell is unmistakeable, but the sight that greets us proves well worth the whiff, the valley is a lunar landscape of grey and brown bubbling pool and fumaroles emitting gas. It is also the unlikely home of local gastronomy, as here is where people bring their pots of the dish cozido which they bury each morning to cook underground in geothermal heat for 8 hours.
The kitchen staff at Terra Nostra invite us to prepare our own pot of cozido, which involves placing a selection of raw meats and vegetables in a pot. The next day some poor soul is up at 4 a.m. to take our pot down to the lake.
We eat the dish for lunch in the restaurant the following day. It looks surprisingly good for something that has been buried all night, and tastes delicious. We wash it down with some excellent wine from the lava vineyards of neighbouring Pico Island.
Back at Ponte Delgado, the day dawns bright for the postponed whale watching expedition. Cetaceans spotted in these waters include blue, fin, humpback and, the prince of whales, the sperm whale - as well as dozens of dolphins. A perfect rainbow arches the sky but there are no whales to be seen. To compensate, a frisky family of bottlenose dolphins dance alongside out boat, eyes swivelled to look curiously at our party who are . Perfect Azorean weather for people watching, they seem to say.