Following the success of the election of the 7 New Wonders of the World, in celebration of the International Year of Biodiversity in 2010, Portugal invited its citizens to elect the 7 Natural Wonders of Portugal. Boasting two of those seven, is the remote archipelago of the Azores.
The very definition of off-the-beaten-track, this group of nine islands lies isolated in the Atlantic Ocean hundreds of miles from the nearest landmass. They possess a natural beauty that inspires legends and halts visitors in their tracks.
On the eastern island of São Miguel, looking down from the Vista do Rei viewpoint gives the best view of one of the 7 Natural Wonders - the twin lakes of Lagoa Azul and Lagoa Verde, the most iconic image of the Azores. When nature provides a sight as beautiful as this, humans turn to legend to explain its existence and in this case, the lakes are said to have been formed by the tears of star-crossed lovers: a shepherd and a princess whose love was forbidden by the King. The green lake was said to have been formed from the green eyes of the princess and the blue from the shepherd’s blue eyes. A dream location for those who enjoy lacing up the boots and striding out into untamed, unspoiled landscapes, a cinder track traces the rim of a crater with panoramic views over the lakes before descending to the village of Sete Cidades.
Dominating the horizon of the central islands and shaped exactly as a child would draw a volcano, the eponymous peak of the island of Pico is not only one of the 7 Natural Wonders of Portugal, it’s also considered one of the most beautiful volcanoes on Earth. Cloaked in snow in winter, it’s encircled by densely wooded lava flows and a mosaic of black, volcanic stone walls surrounding vine and fig plots to protect the young shoots from the salty wind. The superheroes among us are welcome to undertake the full-day hike to the volcano’s summit at 2350m above sea level for a satellite view of the archipelago. The rest of us mere mortals should head instead to the island’s 70-year-old Wine Cooperative
to sample the excellent wine which is produced by the same artisan methods that have been employed for centuries.
Wonders of the water
There are few experiences to equal the heart-thumping euphoria invoked by the sight of a whale tail rising from the waves as you sail the ocean, or a posse of bottlenose dolphins swimming in formation off the bow. It’s one of those experiences that stay with you for the rest of your life.
The first archipelago to be awarded the prestigious Earth Check silver accreditation for sustainable destinations, the Azores, which lie some 800 miles west of Portugal, are one of the best places on the planet to observe whales and dolphins in their natural habitat. More than 20 different types of cetaceans are among the resident and migratory populations that inhabit the Atlantic waters, including blue, sperm, sei and bearded whales, and sustainable whale- and dolphin-watching trips operate in the waters surrounding the central islands.
But visiting the Azores is not just about observing the beauty and power of nature – immersing yourself in the landscape, the waters and the very earth itself is at the core of this sustainable, symbiotic relationship.
On the island of São Miguel, the spa town of Furnas sits within a vast volcanic basin within which there are over 30 hot springs and geysers and a geothermal pool in which to soak up the warm waters. Nearby, smoke spirals from the volcanic vents of multiple fumeroles which continue to provide fuel for cooking, as they have done for generations. Here, the island’s trademark Cozido das Furnas stew is buried in the ground for six hours to cook in this remarkable, natural oven.
When the Portuguese arrived on their voyages of discovery in 1497, they found vast swathes of virgin forest, dense vegetation, and beauty beyond anything they had seen before. Walking the myriad paths and tracks that criss-cross these islands, it’s still possible to imagine the wonder those early settlers must have felt at arriving on this paradise in the ocean. It’s the same sense of wonder which is still experienced today by those who come to conduct their own exploration of these deliciously unspoiled islands.