Lying in the middle of the North Atlantic are nine volcanic islands that make up the Azores archipelago, an autonomous region of Portugal.
Get there in May and the lush land lights up with the pinks and blues of the long stretches of hydrangeas in Sau Miguel. At any time you can see the basalt lined vineyards growing out of the dark land of Pico Island and watch the steamy plumes escape from the calderas Lagoa des Furnas.
1 Ponta Delgada, Sao Miguel
It may be the Azores’ most populated and developed city, but with delightful cobbled streets, 16th century churches and a charming seafront promenade, visitors to Ponta Delgada will feel like they’ve stepped back in time.
Gaze through the iconic city gate, Portas da Cidade, at the imposing church, Igreja Matriz de São Sebastião, and marvel at how islanders have ingeniously incorporated their volcanic surroundings into everyday life. For these two structures, the city’s benches and even the pavements are largely made out of volcanic basalt, adding a classy monochrome filter to the city.
The dazzling facade of the Palacio de Sant’Ana strikingly detours from this palette and is well worth the short stroll inland, while the serenity of the António Borges Garden is a pleasant stop-off point along the way.
2 Sete Cidades, Sao Miguel
While the Azores are blessed with endless displays of natural beauty, nothing comes close to the simply staggering Sete Cidades. This enormous volcanic caldeira and its mystical green and blue lakes are legendary – literally – said to be formed by the tears of a shepherd and princess who shared a forbidden love.
Start in the quiet town, located on the water’s edge in the centre of the crater, and marvel at the fairytale-esque Sao Nicolau church – an enchanting basalt structure at the end of a tree-lined walkway. From there, stroll down to the lakeside and be dwarfed by the imposing caldeira walls that encompass the area.
Then take the meandering, blue hydrangea-lined road up to the abandoned Monte Palace Hotel and from its enviable location at the top of the crater rim, look down on the spectacle that is Sete Cidades. From here, you can appreciate the collosal geological forces required to carve out a caldeira of such scale, for the captivating scene extends as far as the eye can see.
On the roof of the Monte Palace Hotel, there’s a colourful piece of graffiti which reads “welcome to the best view”, and with the glory of Sete Cidades sprawled out in front of you, it would be hard to disagree.
3 Ponta da Ferraria, Sao Miguel
There are many places on earth that are home to sites where people can bathe in waters warmed naturally by geothermal activity. Those at Sao Miguel, however, differ in that it is possible to experience such heated water while swimming in the sea.
Ponta da Ferraria lies about 16 miles northwest of Ponta Delgada and is accessed by a rather precariously steep road, which twists and turns down to a luxury spa – Termas da Ferraria. Continue along a coastal path to where the real attraction waits – a gorgeous, naturally-formed basalt pool where cool ocean water blends with thermal currents to produce a relaxing haven.
4 Terra Nostra, Furnas, Sao Miguel
The warm waters of Terra Nostra in Furnas are also great for a dip. Do not be put off by the pool’s muddy brown appearance, for this is created by the volume of minerals in the water which are said to do wonders for the skin.
The bath lies in the serene landscaped grounds of Terra Nostra Park, which was built in 1780 by the American consul Thomas Hickling. Hickling’s magnificent mansion overlooks the water and is surrounded by a garden which beautifully showcases over 2,000 species of tree.
Tip: While Caldeira Velha is a popular thermal site, skip its expensive and often over-crowded pools in favour of the more peaceful Terra Nostra.
5 Caldeira, Faial
Faial is just a short one hour flight away from Sao Miguel and like its larger neighbour, the landscape is littered with evidence of a volcanic past. Nowhere is this more obvious than the picture-perfect, island-dominating crater that is Caldeira do Faial.
The gigantic cone is Faial’s highest point, standing over 1,000m high, and its car park is reached via a winding, scenic drive up from the main town of Horta. From here, stroll through the dramatic rock tunnel before coming face-to-face with the vast crater. It’s a breathtaking sight over Faial and Pico on the horizon and can be appreciated from all angles by hiking the complete 8km rim.