Finding a Lost World in the Azores

It started with a rumor of a lost world on the island’s north coast. “You mean one of the fajãs,” says my guide, Elizabeth. “We’ve got dozens of them.” These flat, fertile shelves, formed by erosion and volcanic activity, huddle at the base of sheer sea cliffs. “But I’d like to hike the lost world fajã,” I say. “Ah, that would be the Fajã da Caldeira de Santo Cristo,” says Elizabeth. “It’s a fairly isolated land that’s not accessible by car,” she adds.

I have had a long-term love affair with islands. On my latest tryst, I set off for a necklace of nine volcanic dots that lie in the Atlantic — at least 1,000 miles from anywhere: the Azorean isles. My destination, São Jorge, is most noted for its hallmark product: creamy, piquant, cheddar-like cheese that’s crafted traditionally and sliced from giant wheels. But I’m all about setting foot on this isolated fajã.

At 2,200 feet above sea level, Elizabeth and I amble through a bucolic landscape, the ridge of Serra do Topo, along a narrow donkey path that slices through steep pastures speckled with cedar, juniper and heather. The route, long used by villagers, is rimmed with plump blue and purple hydrangeas. We walk through a series of simple swinging gates constructed of Azorean heather branches to keep grazing cows from straying. Elizabeth points to where we’re headed: far below is the verdant ravine of Caldeira de Cima, blanketed with endemic and endangered species, far below.

Aside from the cows and botanicals, we’re utterly alone. The silence is palpable as we negotiate the undulating track and then down a series of steps cut into the rocky cliff surface. Suddenly the sound of rushing water saturates the air: a tumbling waterfall and stream farther along the path. Low-lying dark walls fashioned from massive basalt rocks twist through the pastoral setting that’s a riot of flora, including fragrant ginger lilies and delicate pink-blossomed belladonna. This is a land that tugs at the senses.

Finally, the glassy azure blue surface of the Atlantic, our destination, becomes visible. Across an old stone bridge, I find an aged watermill, and then the gushing waterfall with its tempting small swimming hole. In the distance, a neighboring Azorean island, Graciosa, comes into view.

From a precipice, I spy the fajã that’s a patchwork of green hues, punctuated by a cerulean lake, Lagoa da Caldeira de Santo Cristo. This salty lagoon’s claim to fame is that it’s the only one in the Azores that’s brimming with clams. As I contemplate this lost world, we step into a tunnel of foliage that briefly blocks out the sun.

After two hours following this picturesque path that rises and falls, we arrive at the fajã and meet the only people we’ve seen so far: eight male and female surfers toting their vibrantly painted boards. They’ve come for the large swells that make this faja Europe’s best boarding spot.

Bruce Nelson

The fajã itself, with its wee chapel, is networked by narrow lanes hemmed in by lava stone walls. Among the quaint, whitewashed, red tiled-roofed dwellings — only a handful of families live here year round — the gardens are thick with rows of tomatoes, spinach, cabbage, potatoes, yams and other produce. I sample a plate of plump, sweet clams at Borges, a small restaurant/bar that also serves limpets and linguiça, a smoked sausage. Sitting on the patio, I admire the interplay of sky and water: the twin bi-color bodies of water, separated by a strip of a pebble beach. I’m close to the ends of the earth and enjoying every minute of it.

Go: The nine islands that make up the Azores are snuggled in the Atlantic Ocean, almost midway between Europe and North America

Getting there: SATA Air Azores flies to Ponta Delgada on Sao Miguel, the largest of the islands. From there, you can access São Jorge first via a short flight to Terceira. (If you’re in Lisbon, TAP Portugal also flies to Ponta Delgada or Terceira.) Another option is if you’re staying on Pico Island, you can take a 40-minute ferry to Sao Jorge.

When to go: May to August or September are the warmest months with the least rain. But October and November can also be quite pleasant and you’re more likely to find good air/accommodation packages with SATA Air Azores.

New York City native Jeanine Barone is a travel writer who loves to explore the less traveled parts of the world.

Comments

  1. Alvarp Pereira
    Boston Ma / Melrose
    May 9, 2012, 2:34 pm

    Each island is unique. If you ask which one is the most beautiful
    you will get different answers from different people of each island. To understand the archipelago of 9 islands you must go there and mingle with local people, taste local flavors and walk a lot, drive via old roads and go to local cafes/bars/tabernas. I own a house in the island of Sao Miguel and I do go every year , I do not ever get tired or bored. The Azores is really a paradise . I have travelled lots of other islands including Hawai, most of the Caraibas and Bermuda, none like the Azores.

  2. JOE L BARCELOS
    SAN JOSE C.A
    April 17, 2012, 9:48 pm

    SAO JORGE E A MINHA ILHA
    E NASCI FOI NOS ROSAIS
    O RESTO DELA E MARAVILHA
    AS OUTRAS NAO SAO IGUAIS
    AMUA COMO A MINHA FILHA
    QUE E UMA E NAO TENHO MAIS

  3. Noémia
    Coimbra, Portugal
    August 28, 2011, 10:57 am

    As imagens dispensam comentários. Só dizer que é tão ou mais bonito do que parece. O azul é mais azul e o verde é mais verde… Autêntico lugar de sonho…

  4. pauline parkinson
    United Kingdom
    August 10, 2011, 2:58 pm

    i am visiting the azores in september looking forward to it :)

  5. Bob
    USA
    August 10, 2011, 8:24 am

    SATA has many direct flights including several to Terceira via Logan airport in Boston. I was twice stationed at Lajes Air Base and love the islands. Peaceful surroundings and friendly people.There are beaches and swimming hole to soak in the sun ,sidewalk cafes to grab a snack, quick drink, or a coffee, and restaurants offering local dishes and a variety of wines to tease your palate. Go and explore the unspoiled riches of the Azores, I know you’ll fall in love as I have.

  6. Sara
    August 10, 2011, 7:39 am

    I just got back from a trip to the Azores. I literally fell in love with these islands and my desire is to be able to move there, one day!

  7. Amy
    August 9, 2011, 10:09 am

    It’s paradise

  8. jim stark
    New York, USA
    August 7, 2011, 1:58 pm

    The place is so glamorous and lovely, I really want to visit this place to perceive people and also to notice something different in there lively hood.

  9. Maria L
    Connecticut
    August 3, 2011, 11:52 pm

    I was born in Sao Miguel. To me these are the most beautiful islands in the world! The people are so nice, there is nothing like them..Took my adult daughter to see where I was born and she loved it.. I told her, if you think Bermuda is beautiful, wait until you see the Azores!

  10. Dina G
    San JOse, CA
    July 28, 2011, 3:37 pm

    This is a great article, and such a beautiful picture. I grow up in Sao Jorge, and often went to caldeira de santo cristo, this is such a special place, specially for jorgenses. Love it.

  11. c felix
    July 28, 2011, 9:15 am

    E o porto aqui tão perto.

  12. Kelly L
    NYC
    July 27, 2011, 4:29 pm

    The Azores has always been home to me. I am Canadian, but both my parents are Portuguese immigrants (Azorian). Every summer of my childhood was spent there. It was & still is the most magical islands I’ve ever been to. Nothing better than waking up every morning & breathing in the fresh Atlantic air. Leave next Tuesday to Sâo Miguel for 25 days… :-)

  13. Kathie B
    USA
    July 27, 2011, 11:03 am

    Oh, you’re giving me such “saudades” for the Azores, especially for São Jorge!

  14. antonio saias
    July 27, 2011, 5:50 am

    merecido sucesso, que saudo efusivamente. Até que a foto é mesmo linda. quando me casar, estás convidado para a reportagem.
    abração

  15. Filipe Costa
    Portugal
    July 26, 2011, 9:02 pm

    Azores is beautiful ;) Perfect Nature