The islands of the Azores were formed by nature's fury

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Since it is one of the few land masses in the wide Atlantic between North America and Europe south of the polar world, it has been of strategic importance to travelers since it was discovered by Portuguese mariners in 1432. Explorers, whalers, fisherman and privateers used the islands as a necessary port-o-call, then in the modern era with the advent of air travel, early crossings over the Atlantic would invariably include refueling stops at islands like Iceland and, further south, the Azores.

A young Azorean named Nuno, while driving me across the main island of Sao Miguel, told me this anecdote: Almost all of the inhabitants of the small island of Santa Maria, home to a jet runway, have in their houses pictures of themselves with presidents or prime ministers, because when government planes land for refueling, these world leaders stroll about the island's quaint villages, which apparently is a call to come out and get a picture taken.

But all that was so last century. Big jets, of course, fly direct from North America to Europe. As a result, for North Americans, the Azores has fallen off the tourist map. When I told friends I was headed to the Azores, the response was head-scratching ignorance. Is that in the South Pacific? Sorry, wrong ocean.

This is very unfortunate, because the Azores is one of nature's great creations. Craggy, volcanic outcroppings are covered in lush, green foliage. The pace is island anywhere, villages ancient, cuisine southern European, wines and teas local and activities endless. In three days on Sao Miguel, I kayaked volcanic lakes, jeep-toured over high mountain roads, hiked to bubbling mud pools, and snorkeled deep ocean inlets. In two days on the smaller islands of Faial and Pico, I spent an entire morning whale watching from a small boat (saw six sperm whales), toured the ruins left from the island's most recent volcanic explosion in 1958, and the next day attempted to climb Ponta do Pico, more than 7,000 feet high (an injury prevented me from doing it, but two women I was traveling with got up and down in about four hours).

There are no snakes, nasty insects or dangerous mammals on the islands and the only predator, besides man, is the majestic eagle.

The Azores is nine islands stretching 336 nautical miles. From the big island of Sao Miguel, the only visible island is Santa Maria. Most of the others sit in a small cluster to the west. Since Sao Miguel is the largest land mass in the group, home to most of the population and even its main port and capital city, Ponta Delgada, it's here where most people land when they arrive for a visit.

Sao Miguel stretches about 41 kilometers in length and just 9 miles wide. While looking at it on the map, Sao Miguel could easily be divided in four areas, each dominated by a volcano: from west to east, Sete Cidades, Lagoa do Fogo, Lagoa das Furnas and finally Pico da Vara. However, I was told the island is actually made up of 350 volcanoes. So, the whole little paradise could just be temporary.

The Azores history is defined - usually apocryphally - by natural disasters. Its first capital city, Vila Franca do Campo, was destroyed by an earthquake and mudslide in 1522, so the capital was moved to the present location at Ponta Delgada. But the most interesting story they tell in The Azores is about the island that used to be English. When you stand along the coastal cliffs on the far west end of Sao Miguel, someone will invariably point to a spot on the ocean and tell this story: A volcanic eruption in 1811 produced a small island. A British ship nearby rushed to the spot and raised the Union Jack on the land, declaring it for England. Less than a year later, the small island blew up in a secondary volcanic explosion and the English island is now 750 feet beneath the ocean.

What the old volcanoes left behind is a thing of beauty. In the caldera of the ancient volcano that dominates the west end of the island sits two beautiful bodies of water, Blue Lake and Green Lake.

Mythology tells of a love affair between a princess and shepherd that wasn't meant to be, and the tears of each filled a lake. Nature tells a different story. Eons ago, rainfall filled the empty volcanic cone, forming the two lakes. The spread of the volcanic cone is so big, the small village of Sete Cidades was built at one end, but at the other conic walls climb steeply about 1,200 feet. A group of us kayaked across both lakes, which are connected. It wasn't as easy as it looked, because the winds in the caldera whipped across the surface of the lake at a brisk 35 miles per hour.

The kayaking trip was my first introduction to the volcanic magnificence of Sao Miguel. On my second day, I was picked up at the hotel by a Land Rover, which toured above and around Lagoa do Fogo (Fire Lake), another caldera with a deep lake sitting in its core. But here the mountain rose into the clouds about 2,400 feet, and the road tumbled about peaks before dipping into deep, inhabited valleys. Along the way we made short hikes to waterfalls, mud pools and hot springs.

We stopped for lunch at the isolated fishing village of Ribeira Quente, where the specialty of a wonderful little restaurant, Garajau, was a deep-fried, sardine-like fish, chicharre. Later, a group of us walked along the coast to the town's beach. Once again we were greeted by a tale of woe. Not a volcano, but a landslide washed past the village, about where the beach now sits, killing 30 of the town's inhabitants.

The volcanic insouciance of Sao Miguel's inhabitants can best be summed up by the town of Furnas, which actually sits in the center of a caldera. One of the great local meals, cozido das caldeiras, is a stew cooked for hours by placing a pot inside a hole in the ground. It's naturally steam-heated by the volcanic activity underground. I built up my appetite for this wonderful meal by swimming in the town's majestic pool, fed by 100-degree water pumped up from local springs.

I spent a lot of time on Sao Miguel, but a lot of other visitors spend their Azores moments on the island of Faial. Yachtsmen and sailors of all stripes eventually make their way to the famed port of Horta. In the evening, when the town is quiet, all hell breaks loose at Peter's Cafe Sport, one of the best-known watering holes on the face of the earth. If you sail, you end up in Horta, and when you arrive in Horta, you end up at Peter's Cafe.

The habitus of Peter's are about 85 percent male. When I walked in with my young, physically fit female friends (who climbed Ponta do Pico), the dense pack of tanned testosterone parted for me as if I were Moses. That was deserving of the most famous drink in the house, the gin and tonic, served in a tall beer glass, over ice and with a slice of lemon.

Ah, life in the Azores - salud!


Getting there: Much easier than you think. Azores ExpressSATA runs direct flights from Boston's Logan International Airport to Ponta Delgada, Sao Miguel.

Where to stay: There are some very good hotels on the islands. When in Sao Miguel, we stayed at the Royal Garden Hotel, in the heart of the capital city. In Faial, our residence was the Hotel do Canal, right across from the city's marina.

Where to eat: I spent almost a week in the Azores and didn't have one bad meal. In Sao Miguel, try A Colmeia and Petisos, Mariscos & Companhia; in Furnas, Restaurant Terra Nostra; and in Ribeira Quente, Garajau. In Faial, try Canto da Doca, O Marinheiro and, of course, Peter's Cafe Sport.

Activities: For kayaking in the lakes of Sete Cidades and Land Rover tours, Picos de Aventura; and in Faial, for whale watching try seawatch.

Information: Portuguese Trade and Tourism Office, New York, (646) 723-0200 or www.portugal.org.

Steve Bergsman is a freelance travel writer.

© Copley News Service

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