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A world apart PONTA DELGADA, Portugal For decades, the nine islands of the Azores, as lush and green and tranquil as almost any place on earth, were something of a traveller's secret tiny specks of forest and grass covered lava rock, stranded like castaways in the mid Atlantic Ocean.
Discovered by the Portuguese in the 1400s, these volcanic islands offered shelter and protection for spice laden ships returning from India. Fortresses were built, bloody battles fought. But the land was settled, fisheries became abundant, whale hunting a major industry. Agriculture sprouted tropical fruits, wheat and corn were plentiful. Europe's only tea plantations were established here. But the Azores remained vulnerable as well, to earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, anti whaling forces, imported diseases which wiped out a major portion of the fruit industry, and an agrarian based economy, which couldn't keep pace with the rest of the world. Portugal became a problem, too, specifically right wing dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar whose government ruled the country from 1933 to 1974. It was Salazar who stubbornly hung on to strife torn Portuguese colonies in Angola and Mozambique, forcing young kate spade year end sale male Azoreans into the army to fight wars few believed in. By the late 1950s, after one too many earthquakes, one too many sons killed in Africa, thousands of Azoreans packed up and headed for North America Toronto and Boston being favoured destinations. Today, as many as 700,000 first, second and third generation Azoreans live in North America, compared to the 250,000 who inhabit the nine islands, which until about 15 years ago, remained a European backwater. In some villages, electricity and indoor plumbing were considered luxuries well into the 1970s. And then. A combination of Azorean resourcefulness, progressive government, the evolution of the European Economic Union, not to mention billions of dollars in assistance from all those islanders living abroad, helped turn the islands' economies around. Whale watching replaced whale hunting, dairy farming replaced wheat and corn production (cheese produced on Sao Jorge Island is world renowned), eco tourism grabbed a foothold, attracting health conscious Europeans to the islands. Colourful hydrangeas and azaleas, introduced to the islands 20 30 years ago, bloom everywhere, including along the endless rows of black, lava rock fences, separating hectare upon hectare of miniature farming plots built that way to protect wheat and corn fields from the harsh, salty winds of the Atlantic. With the shift to dairy products, those same fields have been transformed into lush pastures for cattle, creating as green a patchwork quilt as one's senses can imagine. Stately sycamore trees, with their camouflage like bark and leaves resembling the Canadian maple, now form elegant archways along the kilometres of ocean side highways linking scores of freshly painted white and grey stuccoed island villages built upon aprons of lava rock. Volcanic craters, some as large as the Azores' smallest island, Corvo, support Hawaiian like lagoons where small towns like Sete Cidades (Seven Villages) are wrapped in gorgeous scenery and fascinating folklore. Meanwhile, those many ex patriots who returned to the islands periodically to visit relatives, were suddenly overwhelmed by the islands' breathtaking beauty and new found affluence. Instead of going home every five years, the visits became annual affairs. Many bought vacation homes. Others retired here. Word began to spread rapidly beyond the Azorean community, too. Finally, the Azores' secret was out. UNESCO declared Angra do Heroismo, capital of Terceira, a world heritage site. Travel companies organized European charter groups to the islands kate spade crossbody bag sale while Portuguese airline SATA introduced direct flights from Toronto, Montreal and Boston to the Azorean capital of Ponta Delgada on Sao Miguel Island. Two years ago, National Geographic/Traveller magazine jumped into the fray, declaring the Azores the No. 2 destination islands in the world, second only to Denmark's Faroe Islands. That Scilly ranked 46th on that same list, with Hawaii's Big Island in 50th spot gives you some idea of the high regard the magazine's 522 panellists hold for the Azores. We too, were smitten by their infinite beauty during a recent eight day visit to the islands of Terceira and Sao Miguel, although winter travel days can sometimes be overcast, due to the islands' temperate maritime climate. January to March temperatures average 14.5 C, making golf, hiking, biking and walkabouts year round activities. But May through September is easily the best time to explore the islands, when bountiful gardens, pastures and valleys explode with colour, temperatures average a refreshing 21 C; and many of the Azores' religious and cultural festivals are held. Located about halfway between Newfoundland and the Portuguese coast, the Azores are Europe without the traffic snarls, the smog, the kitschy tourist traps, annoying peddlers and line ups for yet another Cathedral tour. The airports are modern, uncrowded, close at hand. It's only a 5.5 hour flight from Toronto to Ponta Delgada. The list of interesting things kate spade purses to do here is endless, although with its rugged coastline, mostly black pebbled beaches and ocean temperatures sometimes on the chilly side, hanging out at the beach is not as big a draw as the Portuguese Algarve. But if you crave equal measures of peace and tranquillity, exercise and adventure, and absolutely breathtaking landscapes, see below for some worthwhile options for each of the nine islands. 130,839: If you only have time to visit one island, this is it. Largest in the Azores, sightseeing here is terrific, from volcanic lagoons to boiling sulphur springs in Furnas. Two public golf courses as well. Santa Maria, pop. 5,496: Closest to mainland Europe. White sand beaches, deep sea fishing (barracuda, sawfish, blue marlin, etc.) are major attractions. Terceira, pop. 55,252: Capital of Angra do Heroismo (Heroism Bay) is a world heritage site. Running of the bulls events are held most weekends during the summer. Dairy farming is huge. There are more cows (70,000) than people on the island, with 11 highway overpasses built just for them. Pico, pop. 14,666: An hour flight from Sao Miguel, whale watching (Sperm, Baleen and Blue), ocean swimming with dolphins, fishing, and climbing kate spade satchel outlet Azores' highest mountain are popular. Faial, pop. 15,072: Yachting capital of Azores, the world famous Pete's Sports Bar in Horta is a favourite haunt of sailing's rich and famous. Sao Jorge, pop. 9,539: The Local S. Jorge cheese is strong, salty and highly addictive. This is the only place in the world allowed to make it. Graciosa, pop. 4,748: Furna do Enxofre is a volcanic crater with a stone staircase decending into its centre vault and sulphur lagoon. Corvo, pop. 445: Remote getaway 24 km from Flores, is only 13 sq.
km in size. One road, one landing strip. Locals embrace visitors.
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