They all like it hot

From thermal baths to caldera cooking, volcanoes are part of village life in the Azores, writes Andrew Purvis.

IT IS the Portuguese equivalent of Iceland's Blue Lagoon - a hot, murky lake with steam rising from it, fed by a geothermal spring and filled with bathers taking to the waters in pursuit of health, happiness and surreptitious snogging.

There the comparison ends, since this thermal pool in Furnas, on the island of Sao Miguel in the Azores, is muddy brown because of iron in the water and dyes your toenails orange. The backdrop is not Iceland's Svartsengi power plant but the palms, ferns and conifers of a subtropical Atlantic forest.

"These trees are living fossils," Antonio, our guide, says as we walk among the millenniums-old cycads and ginkgo bilobas of Terra Nostra Botanical Garden, of which this lake is the centrepiece.

In the Endemic Garden, he points out uva de serra (mountain grape) that is unique to the Azores and subspecies of European shrubs and trees such as laurel, chestnut, heather and holly.

"It's how European forests were before the Ice Age," he says, "which left these islands untouched. The weather is always mild due to the Gulf Stream." Step from the waters of the "Brown Lagoon", quite possibly with a catkin laced around your ankle, and the air temperature is a benign 26 degrees in August, instead of the 14 degrees you can expect in Reykjavik. Oddly, it feels chilly because the iron-rich water is the temperature of a hot bath, having bubbled up through the fumarole field beneath Furnas at a piping hot 43 degrees.

Like Iceland, Sao Miguel was created by outpourings of lava from the ocean floor millions of years ago, although Pico, the youngest of the nine islands that comprise the Azores archipelago, is only 300,000 years old.

And, like Iceland, the Azores straddle the mid-Atlantic Ridge where Eurasian and North American tectonic plates collide, forming a puckered seam of submarine rock stretching 16,000 kilometres from Greenland to the south Atlantic. A third moving slab, the African Plate, rubs against the other two and, in the triangle where these titanic forces meet, the Azores were formed in an explosion of seawater, pillow lava, fire and brimstone. As with Iceland, they are a vulcanologist's dream.

Unlike Iceland, they lie on the same latitude as the south of Spain. In summer, the climate is as benign as the Mediterranean's.

It is hard to visit either destination without becoming immersed in its volcanic history - often quite literally. Furnas is awash with thermal baths, the most charming being in Rua da Agua Quente ("Hot Water Street"), where villagers gather as the evening light fades to chat in a labyrinth of terraced pools fed by a hot stream, some sitting under a weir where the healing water cascades over them. The atmosphere is spiritual.

A short walk from here is Quinta da Mo, where we stayed, which is a converted water mill surrounded by three contemporary, timber-clad chalets, like an architect's drawing sprung to life. Fixtures and fittings are more boutique hotel than self-catering and guests are woken by the crowing of cockerels and the roar of a stream that runs through woodlands bordering the estate.

At the other end of the village, inside the rim of an extinct volcano, locals cook milho cozido (boiled corn on the cob) in sacks suspended in the bubbling, steaming craters of the Caldeiras das Furnas. It is an eerie place where, at Christmas, nativity cribs filled with biblical figures are placed among the fumaroles and lit by fairy lights, taking care to avoid one hissing fissure called "the Devil's Hob", which has supernatural associations. Nearby, the curious can compare mineral water tastes - hot, cold, salty, sulphurous, sparkling, disgusting - as it gushes from pipes in the rockface.

This epicureanism is taken a stage further at the Terra Nostra Garden Hotel adjoining the botanical garden, where sous chef Luis Arruda prepares cozido das Furnas - a stew of meat, yams, potatoes, vegetables and sometimes salted codfish - slow-cooked by burying the pot underground, close to the raging heat of the calderas.

On a half-day cookery course, he begins by taking us shopping for the ingredients. Then we drive to the Caldeiras da Lagoa, steaming sulphurous ponds similar to Rotorua in New Zealand, this time next to a green, sterile lake where nothing much moves apart from pedalos.

We wash the ingredients in the kitchen of a lakeside cafe and layer them in a huge pot wrapped in muslin and tied with string, then lug the parcel over to a patch among the fumaroles where holes have been dug and sealed with wooden covers.

Using long hooks, Luis and I lower our pot into the chosen recess marked with a numbered peg to avoid confusing it with others. The lid goes on and Luis shrugs. "Once it's in the ground, the stew cooks itself," he says. "It takes six hours."

Back at the Terra Nostra Garden Hotel, we tuck into a hearty plateful that smells and tastes not of sulphur exactly but it is oddly smoky, extremely salty and the meat is quite dry, like a crumbly saucisse seche.

The next day we tour the island with a geologist to learn more about its volcanic origins, go caving down a lava tube - a natural tunnel along which molten rock once flowed - and visit the Ribeira Grande geothermal power station. On our last day in Furnas, we take a taxi to the beach at Ribeira Quente ("Hot River") via a valley that punches through the crater's rim and is filled with blue hydrangeas.

In this fairy glade, there are picnic tables and benches to encourage families to chill out, chat and eat.

The golden sand at the glorious Ribeira Quente beach is unusual. The coastline of the Azores is mostly rugged, rocky and unyielding, hence the piscinas naturales - swimming pools sculpted from a lagoon or rock pool, perhaps enhanced by a diving board, a raft, concrete steps to the water and a kiosk serving drinks and snacks.

On Pico, a one-hour flight away, virtually every coastal village has a piscina naturale. Our favourite is at Santo Amaro, a tiny fishing village within easy cycling distance of our property in Prainha - Casa da Moega, a former adega (winemaker's dwelling) built of black volcanic rock. While we order Sagres beers and pasties da bacalhau (salt fish fritters), our seven-year-old hurls himself repeatedly into the safe waters of the harbour. It begins to rain but people carry on swimming, knowing the shower will pass.

The rain, the surreal quality of the light and the sight of people chest-deep in water remind me of the Blue Lagoon again - and the parallels with Iceland go further.

Whaling runs deep in both cultures, reflected in many whale-related activities for tourists. On a whale-watching trip from Ponta Delgada, Sao Miguel's capital, we see no whales but our boat is escorted by hundreds of dolphins. Next day, we snorkel among four species - common, Atlantic bottlenose, Atlantic spotted and Risso's. As they streak below us in the water emitting clicks and whistles, it is the ultimate wild swim.

At Lajes, we spend an hour at the whaling museum with its full-size replica of a wooden harpooning boat. In Cais do Pico, we visit the whale-processing factory that was closed in 1984 and peer into the pressure-cookers where body parts were rendered to make oil from blubber, "meat pies" (ground whalebone and gristle used as animal feed) and supplements of vitamins A and D from the liver. "Only the intestines went to waste," our guide, Joao, says. "They were dragged out to sea and dumped miles from land so as not to attract sharks."

Some say Pico and neighbouring Faial are the best islands for whale-watching because of the underwater cliffs that drop away into the abyss, a feeding ground for blue whales, humpbacks and other leviathans.

An Italian couple we met saw nine sperm whales pass beneath their boat - a joyous sighting.

I try to imagine the scene, those gargantuan flukes rising from the water before slipping beneath the surface but the images in my mind don't look right. No one is wearing shorts and everyone looks cold. It must be Iceland.

Trip notes

Getting there

The Azores sit about 1500 kilometres from Lisbon in the north Atlantic Ocean and are a refuelling stop for airlines and cruise ships. Qantas flies to Lisbon via Heathrow, London, priced from $2445. 13 13 13. qantas.com.au. From Lisbon, TAP Portugal flies to Ponta Delgada on Sao Miguel Island priced from €259 ($355) return. SATA flies from Lisbon to Pico Island via Ponta Delgada, priced from €273. www.ana.pt.

Staying there

On Sao Miguel Island, Quinta da Mo has houses in Furnas from €350 a night in the high season, minimum two-night stay. + 351 91 7800 281, quintadamo.com.

On Pico, Prainha's Casa da Moega has rooms in high season priced from €100 a night. +351 933 256 277, adegasdopico.com.

See + do

Classes at Terra Nostra Garden Hotel at Furnas, Sao Miguel. terranostrahotelazores.com.

Tourismo de Portugal, the Portuguese National Tourist Office, can help arrange two-day volcano and whale-watching tours. insideportugaltravel.com.

More information

visitportugal.com, adegasdopico.com.

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