As my plane descended over the Atlantic Ocean, I simply couldn't get Ringo Starr out of my head. "I'd like to be under the sea/In an octopus's garden in the shade," he sang. We had flown a little over two hours from Lisbon and my heart skipped a beat as I spotted the stunning blue waters outside my window.
Every shade of blue stretched out in all possible directions. The brilliant turquoise of the clear sky reflected in the waters below and as the plane began its descent, I saw the bluest blue of all: the Lagoa das Sete Cidades, the sparkling twin lakes situated in the crater of a dormant volcano.
There were a couple of factors that brought me to the Azores Islands. The first was getting away from it all, of course. The second was that I wanted a break in the journey home from New York City. I needed a bolthole untouched by modernity and a last exotic holiday before I plunged back into life. I looked forward to quiet rural scenes, green pastures and the backdrop of a deep blue sea.
I chose the Azores because it is one of the few European places I knew of where tourists didn't flock in huge numbers, where the slow and quirky pace wasn't manufactured, and where people still stopped to greet you.
Set in the middle of the Atlantic, almost 1,500km from any shore, the nine islands of the Azores are an autonomous region of Portugal and radiate a feeling of being lost in time. The archipelago is an unspoiled eden of gushing waterfalls, purple hydrangea-rimmed roads, aquamarine lakes, waterfalls, sleepy hamlets and fishing villages. Craters, geysers and bubbling hot thermal waters remind visitors of this archipelago's dramatic volcanic origins.
The lush tranquil islands are liberally sprinkled with tea gardens, pineapple plantations and vineyards, interspersed with pastures for cows which are of economic importance to this region. Best of all, word hadn't spread yet about how accessible this exotic paradise was.
São Miguel is the Azores' largest island and along with Terceira Island is easily the most happening place in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Not that this is obvious at first.
On the road from the airport Jaime Lindo Furtado, our Azorean driver and guide, pointed out ancient churches made of lava stone and the local milkman juggling a big can of milk while sitting side-saddle on his horse, a form of transportation still in use on the islands. Apart from tea and pineapple, yellow ginger lilies from the Himalayas found their way to these islands and entire hillsides were covered in bright yellow flowers.
We dropped our bags at the Azor Hotel at Ponta Delgada and drove two hours along the rugged southern shore to Nordeste, a town so isolated it was accessed primarily by boat until a few years ago. It was a thrilling ride as the road teetered along cliffs towering above the Atlantic. The empty coastline was rugged and green with dashes of pink, purple and white flowers. It felt like our own personal road leading to the scenic lookout point at Ponta da Madrugada where the land meets the sea.
Azorean food and drinks were inexpensive and I was amazed at the variety the islanders turned out. Blood sausage was their speciality and though I cringed when I first heard about it, I changed my mind after tasting it. Azoreans have been making black or blood sausage for aeons and most locals have their own family recipes passed down through generations. Azorean blood sausage is different because it uses a special blend of seasoning, such as locally grown cinnamon.
Then there is the common pineapple. Originally considered to be an ornamental plant, it took Azoreans a while to realise that they could eat it too. The locals ate it in abundance alongside lightly fried blood sausages, making pineapple appetisers to pineapple carpaccio dusted with cinnamon and washed down with pineapple liquor.
Fried mackerel and fried cod were some other must-eats in the Azores besides their fabulous wine and local cheese. The best one was São Jorge cheese which is produced exclusively on the island of São Jorge.
I didn't have time to check out a preparation called Cozido das Furnas, a stew with layers of chicken, blood sausage, pork and beef placed in a large metal pot beneath a covering of cabbage, carrots, potatoes and other vegetables. The prepared pot is buried in the volcanic soil early in the morning to be slow cooked by the natural heat of the calderas before being unearthed later.
On the last day I finally visited Lagoa das Sete Cidades, the magical crater lakes I'd spotted from the plane. The guide narrated the legend of a princess and her shepherd who had to part ways. Their emotional farewell had plenty of tears and resulted in two lakes, one green and the other blue, corresponding to their respective eye colours.
Another stunning spot on São Miguel Island was the crater lake Lagoa do Fogo. The Lake of Fire area is covered with lush green vegetation and is perfect for hiking and exploring. When a volcanic eruption took place centuries ago, I was told that the lava flowed continously for a few days and created a path all the way down to the sea.
Here in the Azores the weather is unpredictable as the Atlantic Ocean thrashes furiously all around you. You drive out from one corner of the island in foggy weather with dark clouds threatening rain, but just 25 minutes later it's bright sunshine and clear blue skies.
After a quick flight from São Miguel, my prayers for fair weather were answered on Terceira Island. I was told it's a very friendly place which is probably because it's the sunniest. Local guide Pedro Alves drove us through the main town, Angra do Heroísmo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Along the way he pointed out natural swimming pools by the sea, the natural hot springs and a vineyard where the grapes were positioned over the lava rocks. I had tried out various Azorean wines by then and knew that they were pretty good stuff but the best wine supposedly originates from Pico Island, where I hadn't gone. Next time.
Cobblestoned streets, fabulous waterfront locations and perfect weather combined to make Terceira one of the best seaside destinations in the world.
We stopped for lunch at Ti Choa, a quaint and tiny restaurant in a small fishing village run by two sisters. We got a very warm reception and were served traditional food all cooked in-house, including the bread which was baked in their wood-fired oven. Our meal was delicious and I told them that I was from India and planned to revisit the next year. Imagine my surprise when the sisters refused to let me pay. No amount of persuasion helped. Yes, the people of Terceira are just that generous.
After eating our fill we trooped to the Algar do Carvão. It was an amazing experience to get inside a volcano that erupted some 2,500 years ago. The walk down the 250-odd steps to stand beside the underground lake felt eerie. Tiny specks of water dropped on me occasionally.
The remarkable flora covering the cone and its crater included many species of mosses and ferns. In the deeper parts of the volcano there were various types of green algae and mould, and the volcanic pit was home to species endemic to the Azores, like their indigenous version of the beetle, centipede and millipede. To complete the volcanic experience little birds flew in and out, busy with the intricacies of their lives.
Each time we ventured out anywhere on Terceira, something or the other got in our way: the culprits included a group of happy grass-fed cows, damp fog and low-hanging clouds. Just outside of Angra do Heroísmo a crowd of merrymakers, fortified with chilli potato snacks washed down with caipirinhas, were preparing for the local bull run known as 'tourada à corda'. This is a bull run, not a bull fight, and is traditional to the Azores Islands, especially Terceira.
Bulls are never killed in Portugal. The bull is led along the course of the road and taunted and teased by players but with no intention to kill the animal. The animal's horns are capped with leather to diminish the risk to the players. During the months of August and September, bull runs happen almost daily and are organised largely by farmers and traders.
Alas, all too soon I had to bid farewell to these magical isles. The sunsets poured out from the sky over the biggest waves I'd ever seen. There were unearthly hikes in the most serene of forests. I could feel the silence.
Gardens where you could hear the flap of a bird's wings, cows walking on the roads, farmers on horseback: everything slow. Everything green or blooming; the hydrangeas as big as my head. The Azores were a beautiful and peaceful experience that happened to me.
Indians need to apply for a Schengen tourism visa if they are travelling to the Azores. The application can be submitted for a travel period of less than 90 days and can be applied before 180 days from the intended date of travel.