There’s still so much to discover, so this morning we take a 30-minute ferry ride to the town of Madalena on Pico, the youngest and second-largest island of the Azores. Nicknamed ‘black island’ for its ubiquitous rocky volcanic soil, Pico offers a very different but no less extraordinary experience. The scenery is unabashedly dramatic: emerald and ochre fields and colourful flowers stand out vividly against the black earth, dominated by a 7,713-foot volcano, whose perfectly shaped peak marks the highest point in Portugal.
During our drive, the view to the horizon becomes a sea of black stone walls, laid out in a hypnotic grid pattern parallel to the nearby coast. We stop for a short walk, during which you’ll notice that the plants clinging to the walls are grapevines, cleverly sheltered from the harsh winds and salty seawater of the Atlantic. This unique walled vineyard is recognised by UNESCO as an outstanding example of the ingenuity of the 15th-century settlers, who, despite the odds, triumphed over the hostile environment.
It’s difficult to explore Azorean culture without mentioning whaling, once the main livelihood for generations of islanders, who engaged in the practice purely for economic reasons until it was banned in 1984. Azoreans today are focused on promoting whale-watching and sustainable tourism, and although there is no desire to revive the practice, many hold a great respect for the old whalers. To get a better understanding of the local perspective, we visit the Whalers’ Museum in Lajes. There is free time after for lunch at your leisure. Should you prefer not to visit the museum, Lajes is an attractive fishing town with several charming churches.
This afternoon we drive through Pico Natural Park, the beautiful leafy moorland that runs along the central spine of the island, for a closer look at Mount Pico, a beast of a mountain nearly twice the size of Mount Vesuvius. The symmetrical peak is often accompanied by clouds, even on a sunny day, and an ascent offers breathtaking views. Small and shallow lakes dot the park and mirror the sky, providing locals with scenic places to hike and enjoy a picnic. It’s also a birdwatcher’s paradise, home to countless bird species, such as Atlantic canaries, green heron and tiny sandpipers.
Continuing along the rugged northern coast, we see fascinating lava rock formations and natural pools shaped by time and the unrelenting Atlantic – at Arcos do Cachorro, one of the formations looks remarkably like the head of a dog! Back in Madalena, we visit the wine museum, which is housed in a former Carmelite convent, to learn more about Pico’s unique wines and the traditional production techniques still used today. Considering the proximity of Pico’s vineyards and exposure to the Atlantic, it may not come as a surprise that these wines contain subtle notes of the salty sea! You can also see enormous dragon trees, said to be centuries old and resembling giant umbrellas with dozens of neatly packed twisting branches. After a wonderful day exploring Pico, we take the ferry back to Horta.