Far out into the North Atlantic Ocean, an archipelago of nine islands offers a secluded getaway for relaxation and natural activities.
When Plato in 360 B.C. wrote of the ‘Sea of Atlantis’, a group of scientists believe he referred to the Atlantic Ocean. Citing various theories and recovered material, they insist the Azores is at the exact location of Atlantis, the fabled island Plato said was swallowed by the sea 11,000 years ago. The current settlement, they argue, is based on the mountain tops of the lost civilisation.
Whatever is true, the nature of the Azores does possess a mythical element. Its nine islands, spread across an area of 2,300 square kilometres, are the tops of giant volcanic mountains – some of the tallest in the world, measured from their roots down at the ocean floor. Some areas look as if dragged out of Jurassic Park. Certainly, casting an eye over the cliffs, waterfalls and green forests, envisaging dinosaurs roaming in the hills is no difficult task.
Geographically, the Azores is in the middle of nowhere. The islands are located 1,500 kilometres west of Portugal. They are separated into three clusters: east, central and west. The eastern group consists of São Miguel and Santa Maria; the central one of Terceira, Faial, Pico, São Jorge and Graciosa. To the west are Flores and Corvo.
Barring the fable of Atlantis, it is uncertain when and by whom the Azores was discovered. However, what is known is that the first settlement arrived in 1439, spurred by the Portuguese explorer Prince Infante D. Henrique – also known as Henry the Navigator. These were mainly people from Algarve and Alentejo, the two southernmost provinces in Portugal. The islands were inhabited at different times and by different people, which has led to a variety of cultures. Among the settlers were Jews, Moors, Genovese, Englishmen, Frenchmen and African slaves.
Times have been tough on the people of the Azores. Their history is filled with battles against earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and diseases; political wars and pirate attacks. Engraved on the official shield are the words ‘Antes morrer livres que em paz sujeitos’. In English, it says: ‘Rather die free than in peace subjugated.’
Life at the islands is more peaceful now. Some 250,000 people live there, with around half of them based on São Miguel. The Azores was granted status of an autonomous region in 1976, and is now governed by a regional government. (The only other such region in Portugal is Madeira, an archipelago south-west of Portugal, closer to Morocco.) The economy is based on agriculture, fishing and tourism. Many visitors come for luxury and nature, a cause supported by average temperatures varying from 16˚C in the winter to around 26˚C in the summer.
Beyond traditional beach resorts, the Azores is a geological masterpiece. Its volcanic nature has given birth to a raw and varied terrain of vast valleys, sharply rising hills and green mountains. The fauna is exotic and features large colonies of bird species, many which use the islands as a pit-stop on intercontinental journeys. Activity-wise, only a fool would turn down a good old hike, or a bike ride. For those eager to enjoy nature with a four-legged friend, horseback riding is another option.
With extreme nature also come extreme sports. Paragliding is an adrenaline-rushing prospect, even if it may not be everyone’s idea of a relaxing holiday. The mild temperatures make it possible to do at any time of the year. For those who prefer to explore the volcanic landscape from beneath rather than from a bird’s view, there are caves, ravines, craters and thermal water springs to discover at geological trips.
Along the coastline, many travellers jump aboard sailboats or motorboats to explore the coastline. There is a solid biodiversity and an ample number of whales and dolphins; the Azores holds one of the world’s largest whale sanctuaries. Unsurprisingly, whale watching is a popular option on the aquatic activity menu. Down below, scuba diving hands you the keys to a rich marine life.
Around the table, seafood is a cornerstone of the Azorean cuisine. Tuna, blue jack mackerel and swordfish are local favourites. So too are lobsters, crabs and barnacles, while clams are offered exclusively on the island of São Jorge. Another thing to eat is a specialist cheese called ‘Queijo de São Jorge’. Cheese is also served for desert, often complemented by bananas or husk tomato jam. The fruit also holds high quality, and the Azorean climate is particularly favourable to exotic fruit such as the strawberry guava and the cherimoya. Atlantis may as well rest in peace.
Photos: Capture Light, Dennis van de Water, Miroslav Hladik [all via Shutterstock.com].