I love visiting remote islands, especially green, tropical ones. The hidden Azores Islands, located three quarters of the way from New York to Europe, are one of those magical places few people know about. Lush green with vegetation, humid yet cool, they are an invisible gem one has to zoom the map to see.
There are few direct flights from New York City to Azores, but some are available seasonally. It takes only 6 hours to reach the lagest island of São Miguel on a direct flight from JKF during summer months.
We arrived at Ponta Delgada, the main town of São Miguel island, early in the morning. It is a small airport where planes do not taxi to the terminal, rather passengers are guided on a brief walk across the airport grounds from the aircraft to the building. It was a clear, warm and beautiful day, the sky was misty blue and the air was filled with fresh manure! Indeed, there are more cows on the island then people and they surely let you know their presence.
Once we picked up our rental car we headed to the other side of the island - we had a reservation at Terra Nostra Hotel in Furnas, located adjacent to the beautiful Terra Nostra Botanical Garden, which hosts thermal springs and hot pools.
The garden is open to the public for a small fee and is free to the guests of the hotel. It is quite large and can easily afford to a whole day of walking and admiring its grounds. Vivid green is everywhere as far as the eye can can see, very few visitors add to the sense of privacy and connection with nature.
Fields of flower beds, palms, thriving bushes and neon green grass create a feeling of calm, tranquility and disconnection from the rest of the busy world. It was balmy tropical but not hot, absolutely perfect weather for spending some time outdoors and letting your mind drift away.
While the greenery is breathtaking, the garden's main attraction is hot spring pools. The main pool is quite large, surrounded by tall trees and adorned by an old and nicely kept house. A voluminous flow of fresh water naturally maintains its surprisingly warm temperature throughout the entire body. Its high iron and sulfur content is responsible for a rather unattractive mustard color - it is in fact so high that our swimsuits turned brown just after a single swim. Needless to say this did not prevent us from enjoying the pools, especially late at night when the garden is closed, dimly lit and available to hotel guests only.
The following day we ventured into the town of Furnas. Its charming narrow streets lined with cobble stones make for a relaxed and leisurely afternoon walk. Seeing a water mill in operation on a stream added a touch of Old World grace.
Beautiful natural landscapes everywhere continued to amaze. Temperate trees blend with tropical palms, gigantic ferns and flowering vines, hiding cute white houses with clay tile roofs.
At the end of the main street we were greeted with strong sulfur smell, gushing geisers and swaths of volcanic steam - this is the town's kitchen and something is cooking...
That something is a popular dish of Azorian cuisine - Cozido das Furnas: a stew of meats, sausages, potatoes and vegetables cooked in own juices with the help of volcanic heat. Local restaurants arrive here early to place large sealed pots full of ingredients into deep holes dug up in hot soil. After about six hours the stew is retrieved and served in eateries throughout the town.
Naturally we had to try the Cozido for dinner! It was quite filling and delicious with tender cuts of pork and chicken, smoky flavors of chorizo and blood sausage accompanied by well seasoned potatoes, carrots, cabbage and collard greens.
The following day we took an excursion to a nearby lake. There is so much green all over the surrounding mountains that even its waters take on a deep emerald hue.
A long, picturesque, winding path guides the visitors on a pleasant walk around the entire lake. It looks us a good few hours to circle around as the scenery changed dramatically from an old forest, to bamboo jungle to a cobble stone lined street.
At the end of the journey we were rewarded with a graceful view of a rustic old church, silently watching over the lake. Hydrangeas, a foreign species brought to the islands from Asia, are thriving in this humid climate. The locals plant them along roads, which makes for a romantic drive almost anywhere you go.
Being on an island certainly affords for some interesting and very fresh seafoods. Limpets, locally known as Lapas, are one of those unique foods to try. Cooked in butter with garlic and served sizzling hot, these delicious ocean morzels are briny, zesty and umami.
Another local specialty is tuna. Cool ocean waters around the islands are home to some of the best quality fish in the world. Majority of it is exported to Tokyo's Tsukiji Market, but some is available locally. I ordered a tuna steak with fries at Tony's Restaurant in Furnas without much expectations and was very surprised to be treated to probably the best tuna steak I have ever eaten - it was truly an excellent cut of fish, generously portioned, well seared and perfectly medium rare inside.
Azores are believed to be some of the highest mountains in the world when the depth of their base on the ocean's floor is considered. Climbing atop many peaks on São Miguel opens up spectacular vistas of the entire island from shore to shore - it is hiker's paradise where every climb is rewarded!
There are beautiful beaches on São Miguel with clean fine sand, calm waves and very few crowds. The waters are clear and deep blue yet shockingly cold. Only the bravest of beach goers venture into the sea, most prefer to sunbathe and enjoy the smell of waves rather their touch.
Lake Lagoa do Fogo, located in the middle of the island, provides another opportunity for a good hike to the top of the mountain to enjoy the natural splendor of this body of water. Those who make it to the very end are rewarded with a panoramic view of the entire lake surrounded by steep mountains covered in thick forests.
Our tranquil days on the islands of Azores were over and it was time to fly to Lisbon. A short two hour trip landed us right in the middle of the city. We stayed at the historical downtown where the buildings are as old and crooked as the trams that ride on the streets.
The city's beautiful train station is a work of art. Behind an ornamental century old building is a collection of train tracks, ready to take you anywhere within the country. Our destination was a nearby town of Sintra, home to renowned castes of Mouros and Palacio Nacional.
Sitra is an old charming town on the West coast of Portugal. It is a popular tourist destination and boasts high living standards, world class cuisine and many international events.
One of town's main attraction is Castelo dos Mouros, located high atop of a mountain overlooking the entire valley. The castle's elevation and its surrounding park provide cooler temperatures and a welcome refuge from the afternoon heat. The walk wall is well maintained but can be steep and quite narrow at places - many a tourists take cover in its shade to recover from an exhausting climb.
Sitra's most famous castle is Palácio Nacional da Pena, located a short walk from the Mouros Castle. Far more colorful and grand if not pompous, its bright peaks, exuberant architecture and oppressive crowds are reminiscent of Disneyland.
The castle's design is an odd mix of styles, shapes and ornaments, fruitlessly attempting to blend into a natural environment. Stark grey walls contrast soft lines, detailed emblems and sharp geometrical shapes, revealing historical additions and changing tastes.
A guided path takes visitors on a half hour long tour into the interior of the castle. Walking through the endless rooms previously inhabited by staff, heirs, princesses and the king himself, one could almost sense their presence and hear their voices. Each room is decorated with dramatically different materials, colors, shapes and patterns and serves as another reminder of fashions evolving with times. Photography is prohibited inside the castle but I managed to snap a quick shot of kitchen at the end of the tour - a kitchen fit for a king!
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