Why the islands of Portugal, the Azores and Madeira, should be on your list
Sao Miguel, Azores
On approach, it looked like we were landing on water. The island was on one side of us, on the other, nothing but blue sea. As our Azores Airlines jet touched down, a collective sigh from those on the seaside of the plane. What a way to make an entrance. It was, however, difficult to argue that the view on either side wasn’t stunning; verdant stretches of lush green, surrounding a sleepy city just waking from its slumber, while the Atlantic Ocean lapped at it, the runway breaking its waves before dissipating.
In the distance, there were what look like faint plumes of smoke rising; turns out Sao Miguel, the largest island of the archipelago that makes up the Azores, about 1,500 kilometres off the coast of Portugal, is volcanic. But these plumes are not harmful, rather healthful. They indicate underwater hot springs, a boon for wellness seekers.
“I live on the most beautiful island in the world,” our guide Jaime, tells us. He’s quite dapper; his figure and his grey hair and beard a neat trim; mainlander European style yet with an islander’s swagger. His shoes, certainly not for hiking through fields or marching us around hot springs, are mint, and sent from his mother-in-law, who lives on the mainland, in Lisbon.
Go for a slice of affordable, authentic, crowd-free Europe
A four-star, ocean-view room in Sao Miguel, the largest island of the archipelago that makes up the Azores, about a 5 hour flight from Toronto, can run between 50-60 Euros per night (that’s about $75 to $90), while flights, on such carriers as Azores Airlines, can be found for as low as $500 CDN. History buffs will appreciate the island’s art galleries, science and observatory museums, particularly if you’re interested volcanoes, geology and the earth, and churches – festivals of many saints are celebrated offering a good opportunity to gather with the locals to eat, drink and take in live traditional music.
In Sao Miguel, the feast of Santo Christo in May is an annual pilgrimage for people from all over Portugal. Sidewalks paved with the classic Portuguese black and white mosaics recall mainland Europe, and the café culture is a buzz of all ages. And, the people are welcoming and happy to receive guests, something that rarely happens any more in many places in over-travelled parts of Europe (Venice, anyone?).
The island covers only about 750 square kilometres, so it’s easily navigable by car. Outside town, you could be driving along country roads of France or Spain, but more well-manicured roads (and on the same side of the road as Canada). The volcanoes also provide landscapes that will get your inner adventurer going or just allow you to try something new, for less: guided hiking, for example. There are two golf courses on the island, with Furnas Golf Course ranked 13th in the top 15 courses to play in Portugal by top100golf courses.com. On the ocean, kayaking, canoeing, whale- and dolphin-watching are a fraction of the cost than the mainland. There must be something to it as visits were up 33 per cent in the first half of 2018 – that’s about 21,000 Canadians making the trip. Not surprising, as we do have historical connections. Post Second World War, and into the 1950s, there was a large influx of immigration to Canada from Portugal and particularly from the Azores.
Go to take the waters
We bust the jetlag with an overnight stay in the hot-spring rich town of Furnas, where hotels are built to take advantage of the therapeutic waters. I’m floating in the hot springs pool at the Furnas hotel; it’s one of the wonderful things about this mineral rich water – you’re buoyant. It’s a calm, soothing effect that allows the mind to wander without the worry of going under. It’s early May, and it’s warm enough to spend a few hours outside by the pool; the sun not quite at her full summer power, but bright enough to just feel good. “It’s like this all the time,” Jaime says, when I remark about the glorious weather. Did I mention that I could spend the winter here? Average temperatures over the year hover around 20C or 68F, with January the coldest month, with a mild 10C, or 50F, average (daytime in January, February and March see about 14 degrees C, with no more than about 12 days of rain during the month), and August being the hottest month, at about 24 degrees C.
The Terra Nostra park and its botanical offering has been a destination since the late 1700s, and is accessed through the lobby of a modern hotel of the same name. Admission is down the hill – it’s a valley, part of a crater that is dormant, and it’s also a public thermal baths facility. There are bathers dotting the surface of the khaki-green pool, who come here weekly to soak up the health of it all – its iron-rich waters, a balmy 27 degrees C all year round, have been credited with the treatment of everything from rheumatism to obesity.
Go for the non-GMO of it
The islands, recently named the most sustainable destination in Europe by Green Destinations, are also home to a sophisticated dairy and beef industry, where the cattle are grass fed, antibiotic and hormone-free; the cheeses made here are award-winning and coveted by Michelin starred chefs. The climate also allows for tea plantations – the only ones in Europe – with green tea in abundance, grown pesticide free, and the locals take this tea everyday, understanding its antioxidant and health-boosting properties.
Go for the gardens – and stay for the healing spas
Science tells us that being in nature is a longevity booster for the mind, body and soul, and here, the body-mind connection is evident. The gardens beyond the thermal pool have been planted and neglected and expanded over the generations, since 1775, to the current hotel owners, who employed a Kew-trained gardener to come from the famed English Royal garden to restore it in the 1930s. Nearly 85 years and 12.5 hectares later, it’s a sprawling collection of spectacular blooming shrubs and towering trees from all over the world – English Oak stands with Canary Island Palms and Gingko Biloba, among 3,000 other species – a Camellia-lovers dream garden bursts with colour and fragrance, while wild garlic snapes and their petite white blossoms carpet the ground beneath – and infusing the air with a scent all their own. I could smell them before I could see them.
Tip: The hideaway cycas valley is a tiny delight. A mix of what look like miniature palms and ferns, the garden is hedged in, and a riot of every green you could envision. Knobby, gnarly trunks give way to fronds and quill feather-like branches; walking around and over these plants rather than under them, is sort of how I imagine Gulliver felt.