THE FIRST thing you need to know about Sao Miguel is — where it is. The volcanic island is part of the Azores, the archipelago that sits in the middle of the Atlantic about 1,000 miles west of mainland Portugal.
Visitors often describe the lush landscape as Europe’s answer to Hawaii. The good news is that it’s considerably easier to reach. Hop on a direct flight from Stansted and four hours later you can step off in the capital, Ponta Delgada.
Tourists come to see the dormant volcanoes, take in the verdant scenery or mess about on the beaches. Many take to the seas, hoping to watch whales.
The roads are said to be some of the best in the world. It’s partly why the European Rally Championship hosts a round on Sao Miguel; professional rally drivers raised on a diet of hairpin bends and blind crests like nothing more than a daunting drive that puts their skills, and their car, to the test.
On Sao Miguel, our little Mazda2 was as well suited to the small, winding roads that criss-cross the island as it would be in the UK to the school run or nipping into a tight parking space at the supermarket.
As well as navigating the twists and turns of a landscape formed from volcanic eruptions, it had to dodge other obstacles. These included mules pulling carts and the deep drainage ditches dug to manage the sudden, savage storms that interrupt the otherwise mild-mannered climate.
There are also piles of plant cuttings. Hydrangeas line the island’s roads wherever you go. They look resplendent in the summer, but their vigorous growth needs to be kept in check, so thousands of gardeners are employed to cut them back. Impromptu roadworks lie around blind turns, with cuttings piled high at the side of the road, waiting to be loaded into three-wheeled Piaggio Ape pick-ups.
The first stop on our tour of the island is a ghost hotel, the Monte Palace. The former five-star venue opened in 1989 but closed its doors after a year.
Legend has it that foreign developers had speculated that more visitors to Sao Miguel would be prepared to pay top dollar if a luxury hotel was perched overlooking the most impressive landscape on offer — the twin lakes of Lagoa Azul and Lagoa Verde, pooled in volcanic basins, at Sete Cidades.
What the foreigners hadn’t reckoned on was the mist and rain that periodically envelop the hotel’s lofty vantage point.
Unlike Britain, where a decaying structure such as this would be behind ugly, impregnable fencing, it has been left exposed to the elements — and the tourists. The curious can ignore the risks and walk around its ruins, peek inside the bedrooms and even climb up to the roof.
Back into the Mazda2 and back into second and third gear. Between the hairpins, the spirited 1.5-litre petrol engine enables the car to zip past the occasional coach filled with sightseers. The highlight, however, is the way the car hugs the road.
It is awe-inspiring to drive up the side of a volcano and be able to peer into its crater as you go. When you feel like taking photos, you can pull into rest stops such as the Ponta do Sossego, near the town of Nordeste. Perched high on the eastern tip of the island, it’s somewhat more enticing than Britain’s motorway service stations. There are manicured gardens built around terraces that fall towards the shore line. You can stretch your legs and then use one of the communal barbecues, fashioned from stone, to cook a spot of lunch. Grilled lobster cavaco, anyone?
At Lake Furnas, hot sulphuric water bubbles to the surface through thermal vents. Seemingly oblivious to the apparent risk of scalding, locals place steel pots inside the vents, packed with pork, beef, chicken, chorizo and vegetables. These stew for hours and are then served as cozido das Furnas at restaurants.
Pausing also provides an opportunity to ponder the fact that the volcanic activity bubbling away beneath the surface occasionally boils over. Significant volcanic movement triggered landslides as recently as 2005.
Pulling off the beaten track, there’s time for one more diversion — a visit to one of the many thermal pools dotted around the island. Termas da Ferraria is a natural pool carved into the black basalt rock and fed by hot springs below.
Perhaps living on the brink of eruption helps explain the relaxed pace of life. In villages, old men stand in groups nattering away, presumably not too worried about house prices when everything could disappear under a cloud of volcanic ash. While it lasts, it’s a little slice of paradise, especially for drivers.