Azores travel

(Photo caption)
The modern harbor area of Ponta Delgada hosts not only cruise ships and commercial vessels, but is also the home port of the Portuguese navy?s tall ship. The three flags flying are, from left, those of the European Union, Portugal and the Azores. (K.D. NORRIS)

By K.D. Norris Special to the Times Union
Published 01:00 a.m., Sunday, June 20, 2010

To say San Miguel is the garden island of the Azores would be to undervalue the scenic beauty of the other eight islands, but the largest and most populated island of the archipelago, located nearly in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, is undoubtedly a gardener’s delight.

Everywhere you travel, everywhere you look, in the Azores you find gardens: Some are lush, large and well-known to locals and tourists alike. Others are barely 10 meters by 10 meters, little more than small front yards, but beautifully designed, immaculately kept and often accessible via secretive glances over the low walls that surround many of the island’s houses.

Taming the barren landscape of San Miguel, of all the Azores, and turning it into gardens, has been a historic struggle for the inhabitants. But visiting the islands is as easy as any European destination — it is, in fact, the westernmost point of land of the European Union, and only a four-hour flight from the United States.

Ponta Delgada is the largest city on the island and, because of its international airport, is the jumping-off point for any vacation to San Miguel and the Azores. The city offers a great sampling of gardens — or jardins, in Portuguese — with a walk down the tree-lined Avenida Gaspar Frutuoso. Start from the large, famous Jardin Jose do Canto at the Palacio Jose do Canto (Presidential Palace) and end at the neighborhood jardin, located beside the labyrinth-like public library building and the not-to-be-missed Museum Carlos Machado Center for Sacred Art.

As you stroll, nearly every yard shows the pride of an avid gardener. The island and its gardens are in full bloom in the spring but, given the year-around temperate climate, something is always blooming in the Azores. A multitude of unique plants abound, including manicured juniper trees, huge ferns, vibrant cactuses and unusual succulents. But the highlights are azalea and hydrangea variants often grown as massive blooming hedges.

Avenida Gaspar Frutuoso was, historically, the neighborhood of the rich, but gardening is not the exclusive affinity of the affluent, nor is Ponta Delgada the only town boasting fine gardens. On a narrow street of Vila Franca do Campo, a wrought iron gate in a high wall allows a view of a simple volcanic stone walkway surrounding massive cactuses, some as tall as the sun-bleached two story house. In Ribeira Grande, at the Maracuja liqueur distillery, succulents similar to “hen and chicks” have grown to the size of small European cars.

Out of Ponta Delgada
Even if you are looking for manicured gardens, an admirer of horticulture must get out of the city and journey into nature at the rugged rim, if not to the accessible center, of Caldeira das Sete Cidades in the northwest corner of the island. Sete Cidades (Seven Cities) is named for the seven dormant volcanic craters visible within the 1,000-foot-high, 7-mile-around main volcanic caldera. Any time of the year, but especially in the tourist off-season of October to March, the ever-changing weather may discourage casual sightseeing. But the gods of the mountain usually reward adventurous hikers along the dirt-road rim trail with beautiful natural beauty and often-clear moments of stunning views from the cliffs.

Also worth a visit is Logoa do Fogo (Lake of Fire), a long-slumbering volcano that is the island’s highest point, as well as the Cha Porta Formosa tea plantation on the rugged north shore, and, of course, the famous Terra Nostra Garden at Logoa Das Furnas (Lake of Caves).
Terra Nostra may be the most famous garden in the Azores, best described as an experimental garden on a grand scale. The garden dates to 1780, when affluent Boston businessman Thomas Hicking, later U.S. Consul to the Azores, placed his summer residence at the site. Attached to and maintained by the grand old Terra Nostra Garden Hotel, there is a small entrance fee if you are not staying at the hotel.

Other than gardens
Back in Ponta Delgada, in the port area, a stroll along Avenida Infante Dom Henrique shopping and dining area, from the old castle Fort da Sao Bras to the Pesqreiro salt-water swimming area, is always a good walk. For those into balmy water and sunny beachfronts, the Azores is a summer hot spot, but all year round, the weather and the water are temperate.

There is varied shopping with a distinctive Euro flair available in small port-area malls and along the narrow downtown side streets. High-end boutiques mix with local markets — check out the small grocery stores for a look at the local tastes.

An appetizing choice of lunch and dinner options abounds, of course; my favorite place for fresh local seafood was the Mercado do Peixe. A stop at an outdoor cafe for an afternoon coffee and sweets is both a tradition for locals and a must for visitors. English is on almost every menu and is spoken almost everywhere.

Evening meals at the restaurants on or near the waterfront are usually between 15 and 30 euros per person, before drinks. So a good habit is to occasionally have a meal in the afternoon at one of the luncheon cafeterias frequented by locals. A favorite was A Commercial Restaurante, on Rua Dr. Bruno Tavares Carreiro, where 5 euros will buy a complete meal, but you may need to politely point at what you want served.

Later in the evening, eat light; many of the appetizers or soups will make a complete meal. Also in the evening, many of the outdoor cafes also offer more adult drinks; try the excellent porto blanco (white port).

There is nothing quite like the experience of sipping a smooth porto, smelling the blooming azaleas waft through with the sea breeze, and planning your next Azorean adventure.