Pico Island, Azores: Going Down and Around
Pico Offers Dramatic vistas, Volcanic Vineyards and the Atlantic All Around
By Max Hartshorne
Far out in the Atlantic, with an eponymous volcano looming in its center, Pico Island is a place for exploring, both underground and above. It’s really like no other place on Earth, with its volcanic rock wall-enclosed vineyards and miles of jagged, pristine coastline.
Pico is one of the nine Azores Islands, which are independent territories of Portugal, and is known as the Black Island because of the volcanic eruptions that created the island’s black soil and craggy coastline.
With only 14,000 residents, and 43 km long, there is plenty of room to enjoy its beauty and like Portugal, this small island’s reasonable costs for travelers.
Plane from Ponta Delgada
On a recent visit in September, we arrived by on a SATA Azores Airlines Q400 turboprop plane from the Azores’ capital city, Ponta Delgada, and set out on a 45-minute journey around the island to the main resort, the Aldeia da Fonte Nature hotel on the west coast.
Our guide on the island was Jose Sousa da Silva, who runs an outfit called Naturfactor, offering all manner of tours and guided expeditions on Pico. We asked him what it was like to live on such a small island with just 14,000 other residents.
He said it took some getting used to, but now he’s happy to be married with a child and building a successful tour business along with working for the government on sports programs.
A Young Island
In geological time, Pico is one of the world’s youngest places, only 300,000 years old, formed by multiple eruptions and lava flow from the more than 200 volcanoes that dot the countryside. In some places it’s a mere 200,000 years old!
Gruta das Torres is a cave tunnel you can explore where lava cut a 4000-meter underground path thousands of years ago. Today helmet-wearing visitors can tour these subterranean channels and suspend all of their senses when the lights are all turned off.
Standing in the most absolute and sheer silence you can imagine 100 feet below the ground is something everyone should experience.
We were told that Swedish yoga practitioners have begun holding sessions down here, taking advantage of the lack of distraction that the inky blackness can bring, unlike any other place above ground.
Gruta das Torres is one of the 17 caves (out of 28 found here) in Pico Island on the list of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites on the Azores.
Verdelho, the Pico Grape
Pico’s long been a place to grow the favorite white wine local grape, Verdelho, and the way they do it has earned the island’s vineyards another spot on the UNESCO World Heritage sites list.
The vines grow in small ‘corrals’ created hundreds of years ago by building fences using the volcanic rock, and they grow the vines very low to the ground to avoid contamination by salt and blowing winds.
From the air, you can see it’s a series of crudely yet cleverly built square enclosures, each not much bigger than about 8 feet by 8 feet, and where the vineyards change ownership, the fences are just a bit higher. Small openings in adjacent corrals allow workers to walk from one to the other during the harvest and production.
We took a bike ride on the red dirt pathways through these unusual vineyards and met up with two gentlemen who were very friendly and eager to show us their rudimentary winemaking process.
No fancy lawns and gigantic tasting rooms here, instead, we entered a small building that looked like someone’s backyard tool shed and Jose Tavares slipped a siphon into his mouth and sucked out some of the latest wine for us to try.
This was another Verdelho white, but he was most keen for us to try his homemade grappa. Despite the hour, 10 am, we agreed, and it was strong and tasty.
Later his friend, Augusto Silva, invited us to see his hooch shed and we obliged, sipping the strong aguardiente liquor and admiring the huge plants he grows for nurseries, along with bananas and a multitude of vegetables. Pico is a fertile place indeed.
You can’t drive anywhere in Pico without seeing the cloudy peak of the eponymous volcano, Mount Pico, which is an excellent choice for a half-day climb. It’s a Pico tradition, and the highest mountain in all of Portugal, at 7713 feet high. Don’t worry, the last time this big volcano erupted was back in 1718, and it did rumble to life a bit in 2009, so far there has been no lava flows, just gas and steam.
Hiking trails are available and the ascent to the summit can be made in around two to four hours from the trailhead for persons in good shape, depending on weather which can be quite treacherous especially in winter months.
For generations, Pico was known as a whaling island, hundreds of local men and women worked in whale processing and hunting. The last whale was harpooned in 1981 with one of the small boats that still sits in the harbor at Lajes do Pico, which today boasts whale watching tours instead of killing machines.
The view of Mount Pico is especially beautiful here. Sperm whales are the prize that the whale watching boats go to see today, their numbers have increased dramatically since the last kill.
Today with just thousands of sperm whales living in the world’s oceans, the species is vulnerable, but not endangered. It’s fun to see the whaler’s museum here and learn about their lives, despite most people’s abhorrence to killing these majestic ocean mammals. Things were different back then I guess.
Pico’s history has been tough–today less than half of the peak population lives here, and Jose said that most of the people who live here have two homes–a simple house or cabin on the ocean and another house for the rest of the year. The island is supplied by a weekly container ship visit, which brings supplies and doesn’t make everything crazy expensive.
We enjoyed a great lunch at the Snack Bar Simpatia in Madalena, the main town, with delicious regional dishes that cost between 6.50 and 9.50 euros and it was around 32 euros for three. Espressos were just .60 euros.
Our accommodations at the Aldeia da Fonte Nature Hotel were first rate. We just wished we could have spent a little time around their pool overlooking the Atlantic ocean and hiked the grounds, as a nature hotel they offer a lot of ways to enjoy the local scenery.
The hotel’s tours include whale watches, climbing Mount Pico, nature hikes and tours around the island’s perimeter.
Savoring the Seafood
Aldeia’s restaurant offered us our first chance to savor the seafood for which Pico and the Azores have become famous.
Swordfish grilled simply with lemon and olive oil and paired with a Verdelho white was the perfect repast, along with a hearty wild rabbit stew as we sat outside in candlelight in their grotto.
We got to know some of the other hotel guests, well-traveled Lisbonites who had come to Pico for the weekend, and shared some of their favorite Lisbon attractions with us and drank more wine until we all might have wished we had stopped earlier.
But that’s part of what makes travel special, isn’t it?
Find out more about visiting Pico at www.visitazores.com/en
Accommodations on Pico: Aldeia da Fonte Nature Hotel, 351-292-679-500
Hire Jose Sousa da Silva for a tour of Pico at www.naturfactor.com 351-914-234-941
This trip was partly sponsored by Azores Tourism, but the opinions are the author’s own.
Max Hartshorne has been the editor and publisher of GoNOMAD Travel in South Deerfield Mass since 2002. He worked for newspapers and other sales positions for 23 years until he finally got what he wanted, and became the editor at GoNOMAD. He travels regularly, enjoys publishing new writers, and watching his grandchildren grow up.