There's nothing but ocean for hours. White light and heat beat down through the plane window. Then shapes appear on the horizon. Two volcano-peaked islands rise out of the water like knees in a bathtub: Santa Maria and São Miguel, the easternmost of the Azores. This archipelago is part of Portugal, but its location - in the middle of the Atlantic - is so remote that arriving here feels like entering the Bermuda Triangle.
The Azores are possibly Europe's most exotic islands. They are the secret gardens of the Atlantic - lush and green, thick with temperate forests which feel almost like rainforest, alive with birds and a rich wildlife. The scenery is beautiful and dramatic: rugged coastlines and empty beaches crashing with waves, which draw in-the-know surfers and Lisboas and few other people, though the Azores islands stay warm all year round.
The largest of the nine islands, São Miguel, is a place of secrets. Agricultural scenes belie hidden crater lakes, steaming hot springs, perfect ocean swells and heart-stopping views. Both landscape and weather are unpredictable, changing every 15 minutes. From the capital of Ponta Delgada, I drive through blazing sunshine to the hot-spring town of Furnas, located in the valley of a volcano. The temperature cools, roads become cobbled, light filters through pine and eucalyptus trees. I pass molten clay bubbling ferociously at the edge of a pale-green lake. Sulphuric steam drifts up towards the treetops. The earth here is so hot it's become a place of gastronomic pilgrimage: locals bake a stew, colzido das Furnas, in this hot earth for five hours, hoisting it from the ground at midday for lunch service in the village restaurants.
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