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The Azores

Azores, Portugal

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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 coffee!

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 course.

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.

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