The Azores are Europe's best kept secret: closer to Portugal
than Madeira, and with a wonderful laid back ambience. You might have heard of
the 'slow food' movement; Azoreans believe in 'slow living' - taking the time
to enjoy life. Flashing neon lights are a rarity, skyscrapers unheard of.
Streets are narrow, the clatter of hooves on cobbles is still a familiar sound
as a horses or pony hauls milk churns into town.
Sao Miguel is the largest and most diverse of the island and
also known as the Green Island - the central area is very fertile. The capital
Ponta Delgada is charming: the esplanade around the harbor and the streets,
with their shops and cafés, make it a fun place to explore. Wander along the
waterfront when you disembark to take in the triple-arched city gates and the
Forte de Sao Bras. Originally built to defend the island against pirates, it’s
now an army headquarters. There's also golf course a few miles away at Fenais
da Luz. An excursion to Vila Franca do Campo, once the capital of the island,
offers good swimming, a picturesque harbor and a couple of interesting
churches. When you get hungry find a fish restaurant or treat yourself to the
local cakes Queijadas da Vila in a café.
The mythical lakes of Sete Cidades are probably the most famous
landmark in the Azores. According to legend, once long ago there was a king who
had a very pretty daughter. She loved to roam the countryside and in her
wanderings, met a shepherd boy. She saw the boy and his sheep more and more
often and slowly the princess and shepherd grew to love each other deeply. The
king was furious as he planned for his daughter to marry a rich prince. He
forbade his daughter to see her shepherd boy again, she begged for one last
meeting. At their parting the two young lovers wept so much that two lakes were
formed: green from the shepherd's tears; blue from those of the princess. And
although they then parted forever, their tears remain united. For the best view
in the Azores walk from nearby Carvao up to the rim of the Caldeira de Sete
Cidades. It's a steep ascent, but the stupendous view when you reach the rim
and can look down on the twin lakes is absolutely breath-taking, much more
dramatic than the usual viewing place at Vista do Rei.
The Azores might be the only place where people are off-beat
enough to try to grow good pineapples in greenhouses, but the Gorreana tea
estate is a different matter. The first plants were grown from seeds imported
directly from China in 1874 and started a tea-drinking craze so many more
varieties were introduced from India. Tea plants thrive on Sao Miguel produced
a highly prized aromatic brew. The tea is harvested by machine now, but is
still sorted and packed by hand. You can walk around the estate and tour the
factory where the leaves are processed and packed. The distinctive packages
make a great gift. Set yourself up as a connoisseur: Azorean tea is the new
After the twin lakes, the place to go on Sao Miguel is the
village of Furnas, nestling in a giant caldeira. Furnas first found fame as a
spa town: the bubbling, burping mud of the hot springs attracted 'patients'
from all over Europe anxious for 'a cure'. The bathhouse has been restored and
if you feel in need of a pick-me-up you could take a treatment here. Bathing in
the hot springs has to be more fun than drinking most of the twenty-two
varieties mineral water on offer. Gouty gentleman seemed to believe that the
nastier a spa mineral water tasted the more good it would do them. Pay a visit
to the gardens of the Terra Nostra hotel too. The original hotel was the centre
for the fashionable who came to Furnas for the spa and casino, but after
the war the hotel and gardens fell into neglect and disrepair. In the 1990s a
mammoth restoration began: armies of tree surgeons and engineers have restored
the two and a half thousand trees and canals of the garden to their full glory.
New collections have been added: rare and colorful tropical rhododendrons, a
fern garden, formal flower garden and a dinosaur's garden dedicated to cycads -
plants that flourished two hundred million years ago and provided lunch for the
brontosauruses. Furnas also boasts a very atmospheric eighteen-hole golf
Whatever you do during your stopover on Sao Miguel, don't rush.
Let the island's charms work on you and feel the cares of the world fall away
from your shoulders, whether you're surfing and swimming, just pottering round
the villages, strolling in one of the spectacular gardens, or admiring the
glorious views. That's the whole point of Sao Miguel: time to enjoy the good
things in life.