The Azores has long been Portugal’s best kept secret, but this is about to change. Sarah Maxwell visits an untouched archipelago.

Until now, the islands of the Azores have been a stepping stone to somewhere else. Planes stopped here to refuel, and yachts called in for respite from the Atlantic.
Their position halfway between Europe and America made them a base for the Allies during World War II and, more recently, a diplomatic haven for Tony Blair and George Bush to plan the Iraq war. They have even been mistaken for the fingertips of the mythical continent of Atlantis. But from next April, weekly direct flights from the
UK may finally bring the Azores closer.

The nine islands lie 1,000 miles west of Portugal and should, by rights, be raw and windswept. Instead, thanks to the passing Gulf Stream, visitors are greeted by clear skies, an endless flat-line horizon and a balmy, tropical climate. Temperatures are remarkably consistent, ranging from 14-24 degrees year-round and the sea reaches a respectable 23 degrees in late summer.

The new flights from Gatwick will arrive at Ponta Delgada, capital of the biggest island, Sao Miguel, where each sleepy cobbled street seems inevitably to lead to a small square with a striking baroque church. Traffic in town is surprisingly heavy, but you can quickly climb the hydrangea-lined mountain roads towards panoramic views that span both coastlines. Sao Miguel grew wealthy from the orange-growing industry in the 19th century. It was destroyed by blight in the 1880s, but left its legacy in the form of huge whitewashed mansion houses, each ornately embellished with volcanic basalt.

Positioned where the three continental plates of Europe, Africa and America meet, the Azores were formed by collisions between continents, creating a dramatic, mountainous landscape and providing an ample supply of volcanic rock, which the Portuguese settlers used to decorate their houses and churches. This has given the architecture its distinctive style ? Portuguese with a hint of Flemish influence, but a unique Azorean finish.

A volcanic institute, based in Ponta Delgada, studies the seismic activity of the islands, and adventurous souls with deep pockets can pay $25,000 for an unforgettable trip in a mini-submarine to view the rugged underwater mountains and vents. There are cheaper ways to appreciate the islands’ origins, though. The hot springs of Furnas, in the west of Sao Miguel, furiously cough out sulphurous steam day and night and yield 22 different types of mineral water ? some with unusual properties (one is said to turn tea purple).

The sizzling earth on the banks of Lake Furnas provides a natural oven for cooking a Sao Miguel specialty: the cozido das Furnas, a meaty stew with chicken, pork, chorizo, beef, cabbage and sweet potato, which slowly absorb each other’s flavours over a six-hour cooking time ? not exactly fast food but well worth the wait. Locals call ahead to book themselves a caldera, or hole in the ground, and then arrive to bury their bulging sacks of ingredients in the hot soil. Almost a day’s work later, the owners return to dig up their dinner and drag it away. This must be one for the Slow Food movement to embrace. For a classic Azorean meal, this can be topped and tailed by sopa de couves (a Portuguese-style kale soup) and an eggy Azorean dessert like green tea pudding ? finishing off with a generous
shot of locally made pineapple liqueur.

The best place to work up an appetite during the lengthy wait for dinner is in the naturally heated geothermic swimming pool in Parque Terra Nostra in Furnas. While not exactly refreshing on a hot day (the water is about 30 degrees), a dip is a soothing, if peculiar experience. Thanks to the high concentration of iron ore in the water, it’s like floating in a giant cup of tea, and on exiting the water, bathers find they have acquired an alarming yellow tint.

On a more practical level, Azoreans harness their geothermic energy to supply 30% of Sao Miguel’s needs, and the island hopes to increase this to 40% by 2008. The topography of the islands also means there is a rich diversity of marine life in the deep waters close to shore, which supported a fishing industry for generations of Azoreans. Whaling also used to be an important source of income, but there is now a thriving whale-watching industry, which has drawn nature lovers from across the world.

With more than their fair share of natural assets ? including giant crater lakes with enough nature trails to keep bird-watchers and keen walkers busy for days ? the islands of the Azores are a perfect antidote for anyone who has overdosed on business trips or city breaks. And yet it’s mostly Portuguese and Scandinavian tourists who come here (last year saw just 6,500 British visitors). But the existing 8,000 tourist beds are set to double in the next three years as new hotels and resorts spring up. In Sao Miguel three will be opening shortly, including a spa hotel in Furnas, a 200-room seafront hotel in Ponta Delgada and a casino hotel. Tourism is growing, with overnight stays up 30% in the first four months of 2004 compared with last year.

For British visitors in particular, the rocky coastlines, lakes and untidy stone walls rambling through green fields feel surprisingly familiar. Only the tropical warmth and palm trees are a reminder that these islands are far away from the UK’s doorstep ? yet soon they’ll be within easy reach.

For more information contact the Portuguese National Tourist Office at or 020 7201 6666.

Fact box

Where to stay

Hotel Do Colegio, in the heart of Ponta Delgada, has double rooms fromE117 (351 296 306 600). In Furnas Valley, rooms at the Terra Nostra Garden Hotel cost from E78 (351 296 549 090). For something a bit different, Casa Do Mar opens in November in the wine-growing district of Caloura, 15 minutes west of Ponta Delgada. The owner is a British man who worked for many years as an executive producer for the BBC, and aimed to provide a more private retreat in an unspoilt part of the island. There are just four purpose-built bedrooms with Philippe Starck bathrooms, TV with English channels, broadband internet access, an outdoor pool and even an original wine-press. Owner Nick Heathcote plans to take guests out in his boat to view the resident dolphins and whales, and a scuba-diving centre is located nearby for those who want to get even closer. Rooms on a B&B basis are available from E100 and the minimum age for guests is 14 (351 296 913 048).

Getting there

From April 5 to October 25, 2005, Sata International will fly a three-and-a-half-hour weekly direct flight every Tuesday from London Gatwick to Ponta Delgada, with return fares from £217.