The Azores: Small dots of bright green on the map

Keen to get in the mood for the Chelsea Flower Show centenary next week, Mark Rowe travelled to the mid-Atlantic for one of the Royal Horticultural Society's first garden holidays

"Oh my word, just look at this: a native laurel! This is just absolutely magical!" A quivering peak of botanical ecstasy had been noisily attained by one of our party. As so often with such experiences, though, anticlimax soon followed. My companion lost his footing and took an inelegant tumble on the sloping path. No harm was done but had the damage been worse I imagined composing the letter to his wife: "He died with a smile on his face. He'd just seen an indigenous Azorean tree, it's how he would have wanted to go."

We are on the island of Sao Miguel in the Azores, 50 metres along a rough track that cuts steeply along the inside of the rim of the dormant Agua de Pau volcano, and my head is spinning with the spectacular beauty unfolding around me. I can see why my plant-loving companions are behaving like five-year-olds on Christmas morning. We are overlooking Lagoa do Fogo, 1,000m above sea level, and far below the rain-water has transformed the bottom of the caldera into a serene lake, edged with sheltered coves and intriguingly half-submerged caves.

The caldera's flanks are cloaked in trees of so many different species and greens that they resemble paint drying at different speeds. A mist seems to have drifted in from a Scottish glen and, as the exultation of my party suggests, the flora is pretty special with native heather, holly and mosses grown so big that they look like bonsai Christmas trees.

Plants, shrubs and flowers are featuring prominently with good reason. My tour of the Azores has been organised by the Royal Horticultural Society, which has recently branched out into overseas holidays. It reasons that British plant-lovers are curious types who enjoy growing exotics in their own gardens and so will appreciate the chance to nose around foreign flora hotspots in the company of like-minded souls and expert guides.

If you find the idea of a hard-core plant-focused tour a little daunting, not to mention the spectre of an oncoming herd of azalea-clutching horticulturalists from deepest middle England, fear not: my tour was more nuanced than that and catered both for the traveller with a passing interest of flora as well as those who might choose camelias for their specialist subject, should they appear on Mastermind.

The Azores is an archipelago of nine islands positioned in the mid-Atlantic, 1,500km from Portugal and 3,400km from the United States. They are composed of the exposed peaks of dormant or extinct volcanoes and positioned on the mid-Atlantic ridge, the oceanic backbone that curls from Iceland down to Ascension, St Helena and Tristan da Cunha.

The archipelago is primarily known as one of the world's best destinations for whale-watching, but this volcanic history also underpins the richness of the Azores' vegetation, as the rich piebald-coloured basalt soil makes a fertile compost base for plants and animals.

The "Azores High", which we associate with good weather, means something a little different here and the mix of warm air, temperate weather – usually between 8C and 25C – and high rainfall, means conditions are primed for nature to put on a show.

Sao Miguel, the focus for our tour, is the largest island in the Azores and stretches 65km from east to west and 16km north to south, cramming in an extraordinary variety of landscapes. I clamber over giant roots of fig and rubber trees and dip under knotted vines straight out of Angkor Wat, while those volcanoes suggested something from out of the South Pacific. Squat palm trees have been shaped and pruned so that they resemble giant pineapples or amorphous chess pieces and there were manicured gardens seemingly parcelled up and posted from the Home Counties.

More often than not, I just find myself gazing at all the greenery, usually against a hauntingly beautiful backdrop of coast, mountain ridges and sweeping valleys. Rolling, lumpy folds of land tumble to the sea and call Devon to mind. All over the island you will find quintas, enclosed areas that are somewhere between an allotment and a private garden, where people grow taro and other food crops. It's all extremely easy on the eye.

Lagoa do Fogo is just one of several volcanic lakes. In fact it's a mere toddler compared to the vast double-lake caldera of Sete Cidades far to the west of the island. These two lakes contrast in colour, the deeper one blue, the shallower one green, and are framed by an enormous volcanic crater four kilometres in diameter and 12km in circumference. We track down the small road to the shore edge where children fish for carp and common terns hang jerkily in the air.

The sea lies just over the lip of the Sete Cidades volcano, and for the bold there is a narrow, kilometre-long path through the mountainside alongside a canalised river that links the two. An elegiac collection of houses situated by the water's edge makes up the sleepy hamlet of Mosteiros.

We look down at the village from the mirador at Ponta do Escalvado. Mosteiros is the home village of one of our guides, Manny Paolo. "It hasn't changed a bit since I grew up there," he says. "They've had plumbing, but that's pretty much it. It's a slow pace of life, very different to what visitors come from. It feels like old Europe."

The Azores also have that distinctive light that comes to small islands miles from continental influence, a 360-degree reflection of sea that seems to throw up all kinds of colours. This may be an RHS trip but it is no blinkered plants-only tour: it is also about their setting.

By the end of my visit, I have settled on two favourite locations. There is Terra Nostra Park, positioned deep on the valley floor inside yet another vast caldera and something of a show-stopper.

The setting is jaw-dropping and wherever you look you see a razor-edge of a volcanic lip encircling the gardens. It's a miniature version of Yosemite, where smouldering fumaroles break and burp through the surface; you can even order lunch cooked in one of the scalding hot wells. And it's time to break another stereotype: in the UK, gardening can often be portrayed as a rather formal practice of creating neat lines, but for Azoreans the term "English garden" has a more raffish connotation. Terra Nostra is gorgeously eccentric and eclectic – oaks, monkey puzzles, and enormous 40-metre-high Norfolk pines stand cheek by jowl – the result, according to our guide, Carina, of English influence. "It's free, wild and asymmetrical," Carina says with a smile. An avenue of harmonised ginkgo trees overhangs a moss- covered path that shines and glitters like green tinsel. There's a geothermal lake for swimming, giant lilac water lilies from South America, serpentine ornamental lakes. It's like Giverny, on steroids.

The other treat is the public garden at Ponta do Sossego on the distant, wilder north-east of the island. We visit towards the end of the tour and by now I've come to realise that breathtaking gardens and views are two-a-penny on the Azores; the locals have so much choice they can afford to turn some of them into barbecue venues. But the brick cooking bases are discretely trucked away behind the agapanthus, leaving me to concentrate on the stirring coastal views that rise above pink watsonias. Ponta do Sossego is positioned high on a promontory, its flanks tumbling away to the sea.

Our trip ends in Ribeira Grande, the most charming of Sao Miguel's small towns. More than anywhere else, Ribeira Grande reminds me of a dozy South Seas settlement. It's the only place where decent waves crash on to a beach, while a river has sawn a gorge dramatically through the heart of the town, leaving its central park all but fronting a high cliff.

Men play chess in this park while families sit on steps or in the shade of the New Zealand Christmas trees, whose huge aerial roots have coalesced and droop down, like the ears on a beagle puppy. Yellow wagtails peck among the crumbs and dust and are more intensely coloured than back home, as though they've been daubed with a highlighter pen.

I could happily have strung up a hammock between two of these trees, sipped the local blackcurrant liqueur and idly batted those leafy ears back and forwards, and still be there now.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Mark Rowe travelled to the Azores as a guest of RHS Garden Holidays (0800 804 8710; rhsgardenholidays.com), Visit Azores (visitazores.com) and SATA, the airline (sata.pt).

A nine-day holiday created in partnership with the Royal Horticultural Society and Collette Worldwide Holidays (0800 023 8617; colletteworldwide.com) costs from £1,999 per person, with flights, four nights' B&B in Lisbon, four in Sao Miguel, three lunches and four dinners. This price also includes transfers to and from the airport in the UK up to a distance of 100 miles.

 

More information

Bradt Guide to the Azores by David Sayers (bradtguides.com).

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
News
i100
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
arts + entsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Junior Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    IT Systems Analyst / Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Day In a Page

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker