By Jeanine Barone
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.
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.