Pico Island was the third and final island visited during my recent trip to the Azores.
We went for a half day trip by ferry from Horta to Madalena, the main town of Pico. The ferry journey took about 30 minutes each way. It was quite a windy day with heavy seas and the ferry captain needed all his skill and experience to negotiate the narrow entrance to Madalena harbour with rolling waves crashing on either side of the breakwaters. You can get an idea from this video.
Pico is the second largest island in the Azores with an area of 446 sq. km. There must be a lot to see but in the limited time available we were only able to look around the town.
The main attraction on Pico Island is Mt. Pico which is a dormant volcano and Portugal’s highest mountain (2,351 m). It last erupted in 1718 producing lava flows which reached the sea. The summit is often shrouded in cloud but on this November day it revealed itself with upper slopes covered in snow.I resisted the temptation to try and climb it.
Madalena is a quiet, sleepy town where about 6,000 of the island’s 15,000 people live. At its centre stands the Church of Santa Maria Magdalena with its ornate gilded altar.
Pico is a wine producing island and grapes somehow thrive in the soilless but fertile volcanic landscape. The vines have to be protected from prevailing winds and sea spray and to do this a unique method has developed over 500 years whereby long stone walls divide up vineyards into small protected plots. These walls were built by collecting up the volcanic boulders in the fields and stacking them up. This distinctive viniculture landscape has been recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage site.
The Museu do Vinho at Madalena has examples of these stone walls although the actual UNESCO site is some way out of town. At the museum there are some fine dragon trees (dracaena draco, linnaeus) which are typical of the Macaronesian archipelago (the term Macaronesia refers to Azores, Madeira, Canary Islands and Cape Verde). These trees were used to produce a red dye known as dragons’ blood.
At the sea front is a public sea water pool which must be pleasant in summer with great views looking back towards Faial Island.
I’d like to see more of Pico Island if I’m back that way in the future.
The second island visited on our Azores trip was Faial which is a 50 minute flight westwards from São Miguel. It’s a small island with an area of around 170 sq km and a population of just 15,000. We stayed there for six days and hired a car and by the end of it we felt we’d seen pretty much everything there is to see. I’ve marked the main attractions on the island on this map:
Here are a few of the highlights.
Faial is a lovely, picturesque island with rolling green pastures, lots of cows, and hedgerows filled with hydrangeas and other colourful blooms. It is reminiscent of the English county of Devon in parts except that the hills and coastal cliffs are higher. Oh, and there are volcanoes!
The charming main town of Horta is as pretty as a postcard with a surprising number of significant buildings and churches considering that it only has 10,000 inhabitants.
We stayed in the historic Pousada Forte da Horta hotel which is housed in the 16th century Fort of Santa Cruz on the harbour front with spectacular views of neighbouring Pico Island.
Café Sport, also known as Peter Café, is famed among the transatlantic yachting community as the best place in mid-Atlantic to eat, drink and be merry. Actually in November it is one of only half a dozen places open in Horta which pretty much shuts down for the winter. Above the bar is the Scrimshaw Museum, scrimshaw being the art of engraving pictures on ivory or bone, formerly popular among sailors. In the Azores, scrimshaw is traditionally carved on whales’ teeth which used to be common in the days when Faial was a commercial whaling centre. Since whaling was banned in 1986, whales’ teeth have become as rare as hens’ teeth.
Visitors to Horta don’t have to go far to see a volcanic caldera as there is the remnant of one jutting out into the ocean just on the edge of town. There is a nice trail skirting the caldera, known as Monte da Guia, providing great views of the town. There is an aquarium here where rare fish are bred for supply to major aquaria around the world. There is also a former whaling station (closed during my visit) and a small museum called Casa dos Dabney which was the beach house of a prominent American family who lived in the Azores during the 16th and 17th centuries.
In the town there is the Horta Museum and a number of grand churches and civic buildings to admire and a handful of restaurants and cafes. Shopping is limited with only one medium sized supermarket and a number of small family owned shops. There are none of the international high street brands and almost no tourist tat which, in my view, adds to the charm of the place.
In the centre of Faial is the island’s highest point, Cabeço Gordo, at just over 1,000 m. Here too is a massive caldera, two km wide and 400 metres deep. You can drive right up to the rim from where there is a hiking trail all the way round the rim of the crater. Descent into the caldera is not permitted. For the super keen hiker there is a coast to coast east/west hike of 36 km which cuts right across the centre of the island and includes the caldera rim hike. According to the information board this hike should take 12 hours. Next time perhaps!
A shorter and easier hike covers some of the volcanic cones of the Capelo area on the west of the island. It starts at Cabeço Verde from where there is a spectacular view over the entire western half of the island.
At the westernmost point of Faial is the Ponta Dos Capelinhos Lighthouse which used to stand on the shoreline until 1957 when a volcano suddenly rose from the ocean, spewing rocks and ash over the area and effectively added a couple of square kilometres of new land to the island. The lighthouse still stands surrounded by volcanic ash. An underground museum known as the Interpretation Centre of the Capelinhos Volcano has been built here with EU money.
At the eastern extreme of Faial are the remains of another lighthouse, Ponta da Ribeirinha, which was ruined by an earthquake in 1998. As you can gather, Faial is a hotspot of seismic and volcanic activity which is worth bearing in mind if you are planning to buy a retirement home here.
There are a couple of good beaches on the island, the best of which is probably Praia do Almoxarife (black sand) but there are also a number of rocky inlets where pools, naturally replenished and washed by crashing waves, provide sheltered bathing during the summer months.
Back in town, Horta Marina is a pleasant place for an amble. The breakwater is covered in graffiti –nautical murals painted mainly by long distance yachtsmen. It has become tradition for cross-atlantic mariners to leave their mark here as a commemoration and for good luck in the remainder of their voyage.
Hope this gives you a flavour of Faial Island. In my next Azores blog I’ll post something about Pico Island.
The Azores are a group of nine islands in the Atlantic Ocean. They are administered as an autonomous region of Portugal and the regional capital is Ponta Delgada on the island of São Miguel which is about 1500km west of Lisbon. On my recent trip I visited three of the nine islands, namely São Miguel, Faial and Pico. This post is about the first of these.
São Miguel island is the largest in the archipelago but is still only 63km long and 16km wide at its broadest point. Around 150,000 people live on the island, more than all the other islands put together.
A 15th century mariner, explorer and monk called Gonçalo Velho Cabral is credited with having discovered the uninhabited São Miguel in 1432 and settlement of the island began a decade or so later. On his first visit he brought a herd of cows to release on the island. Their descendants are still there!
Being in mid-Atlantic, the Azores are affected by the gulf stream, producing a mild but changeable climate with temperatures seldom exceeding 25°C in summer or dipping below 11°C in winter (record high 28, record low 3). It rains all year round with more in winter.
The islands are of volcanic origin and the landscape is peppered with craters or calderas evidencing the explosive eruptions which formed the islands.
Sete Cidades, in the western part of São Miguel, is the name given to a parish and village located inside a massive caldera containing two adjoining lakes known as the Blue Lake and the Green Lake. There is a hiking trail around the rim of the crater and footpaths through forest and fields at the water’s edge.
Another spectacular caldera is at Furnas towards the east of the island where a major dormant volcano slumbers inside a massive 8 x 6 km crater. It has erupted twice since São Miguel was settled; in 1444 and in 1630. On the edge of the small town of Furnas, bubbling mud pools, boiling hot springs and fumaroles emit steam and sulphurous, rotten egg gasses.
In the town’s beautiful Terra Nostra park there is a thermal pool where you can take a relaxing warm soak in the rather muddy mineral waters said to bring health benefits.
With a write-up like that how could I resist a soak in the pool? What the park’s management don’t say is that the water will stain your swimming trunks a rusty iron colour!
The Azores are reckoned to be one of the best places in the world to go whale and dolphin watching, though with unpredictable weather and frequently rough seas, the whale watching tour boats may not always be able to sail, especially outside the summer months.
The town of Ponta Delgada is by far the biggest settlement in the Azores although small by world standards with a population of around 50,000. The historic town centre contains many fine old buildings and churches, mostly in a uniform white and grey colour scheme.
Tourism to the Azores is picking up. There is an international airport at Ponta Delgada with flights to UK, Germany, USA and the Portuguese mainland among other places. Azores is also a convenient stopover for transatlantic cruise liners.
With no white sandy beaches (only black volcanic sand beaches) and a somewhat rainy climate, this place does not appeal to the sun-worshipping younger crowd. Nightlife is tame to non-existent. But for those more interested in cultural pursuits, hiking, parks, nature, volcanos, whales, superb scenery and some of the most unpolluted air in the world, Azores is hard to beat.