FAIAL, Azores -- The handwritten signs taped to a wall in Café Sport tell of far-flung journeys and adventures on the high seas. ''Experienced, energetic young couple will crew for you." Clearly, this is no ordinary bar.
Café Sport attracts those who appreciate a cold beer, tasty nibbles like codfish cakes and creamy local cheeses and, perhaps most of all, a dry perch from which to set one's gaze on the verdant landscape and dramatic mountains of the Azores. On a warm late autumn afternoon, a few patrons of Café Sport are taking a break in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean before sailing on again.
I'm in Horta on the island of Faial, one of nine dots on the map that represent the westernmost outpost of Europe, 800 miles off mainland Portugal. In a relatively short history with humans, the Azores were settled in the 1420s. They have since been a port of call for pirates and priests, dreamers and schemers. The rugged terrain has also sent scores of emigrants abroad in search of a better life.
Today, the Azores are being explored by visitors in search of clean and unspoiled vistas and the thrill of being in utter isolation, whether on a cliff high above the sea, trekking through fields of wild hydrangeas, or standing on the edge of a volcanic crater. It is a place of surprises that feels like a cross between Hawaii and Ireland. And wherever I go, I am reminded of the strong bonds these islands, each one different from the next, have with New England. Almost everyone here has a relative there.
A warm, humid wind tosses the ferryboat across the 4 1/2-mile channel that separates Faial and Pico. It's a Sunday morning and a static-filled television onboard is showing a preacher in mid-sermon when a wave flows across the open back deck. Maybe it's a sign. Pico is a forbidding place where lava formed has formed a ring of dangerous sentinels that could crush a boat on impact. High above the ocean and broken by layers of cloud and mist looms the island's namesake, the towering Pico. The trek up Portugal's tallest mountain (7,713 feet) can be made in about six hours from where the road ends at 4,000 feet above sea level. This steep walk is a pilgrimage for some who spend the night in caves in a crater warmed by the volcano's inner heat. Instead, I return to the seashore to seek out the ghosts of an earlier time.
Whaling was the dangerous occupation of many men on Pico from the time when Nantucket whalers introduced them to it in the early 19th century. The waters teem with pods of sperm whales. Scouts would direct the ships by waving flags and firing rockets from their lonely mountain lookouts. At the Museum of the Whaling Industry in São Roque, the winches and cauldrons are untouched since Portugal signed an international whale-hunting ban in 1984. That is when the last leviathan was dragged onto shore, carved up, and boiled down to make, as the sign still proudly proclaims, ''Vitamins, Oil, Flour, and Fertilizer."
Another whale museum across the island in Lajes displays the spears used to slay the whales. The modern-day, eco-friendly pursuit of whale and dolphin watching now employs the sons of those who risked their lives at sea.
Pico's coastal road passes through villages where houses built from black basalt rock blend in with the dark earth. Minor eruptions in recent centuries formed beds of lava the islanders call ''mistérios," an evocative name for this otherworldly landscape. One is constantly aware of the volcanic origins of this, the youngest island in the Azores and which has yet to turn into fertile pasture like its neighbors. A hands-on lesson in vulcanology is offered at the Lava Tunnel, a three-mile-long cave that was discovered in 1990 by an entomologist looking for butterflies and opened to the pubic this year. For the guided tour, a helmet with headlamp illuminates the molten swirls that formed along this rough-hewn passage as the lava cooled.
The ruins of a Pompeii-like society dot the lower flanks of Pico, yet there was no early civilization here. Fields of low stone barricades carve the land into office-cubicle-size bits as if they might have been the buried foundations of a lost city. In fact, they are improbable vineyards: The walls, now designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, protect grapevines from salt spray. Pico's wines graced the tables of 18th-century European nobles until phylloxera, the pest that has plagued vineyards worldwide, arrived here. The vineyards are active again. In the last 10 years, a revival of viticulture is producing new wines such as the Terras de Lava that have a distinct and pleasing mineral content drawn from the volcanic soil.
Back in Horta, a man is standing on his head on the pier. Klaus Anderson Smith, 54, is a salty dog who lives on his sailboat and came to these islands from Sweden three years ago. Yoga is part of his daily routine when he's not making repairs to other people's boats. I join him and some other locals formerly from far away for a drink in Café Internacional, an Art Deco bar from the 1920s when Horta attracted a decadent crowd. Signs of the past decorate the walls: original paintings by the famous Almada Negreiros (1893-1970) of himself and his male lovers hang over the bar.
Outside, I stroll past the colorful display of ''calling cards" that sailors are invited to paint on the quayside, telling of their journeys at sea. I meet Alan Morris, his wife, and another couple, all from Brookline. Morris sailed from here to Newport, R.I., last summer; he was 20 days at sea and wanted to share his experience in the Azores with friends.
''This place feels undiscovered, off the beaten path even though the flight from Boston is only four hours," said Morris's friend, Diane Gordon. She added that many of their friends had never heard of the Azores. Morris said close to 2 million Americans could trace their ancestry to this Portuguese outpost.
My Portuguese neighbors in Toronto had told me the Azores are a sleepy, bucolic place but I was discovering they are also a cosmopolitan pit stop for the sailing and yachting crowd. In the early days of commercial airplanes, the giant flying boats of the Pan American Clipper line stopped here to refuel, adding to the cachet Horta had at the turn of the last century when it was a key communications post for transatlantic telegraph cables.
It's a 20-minute flight to Terceira, the third largest island after São Miguel and Pico, where the plane lands on a massive airstrip shared with a US military base. It was here in 2001 that a charter flight from Canada drifted to safety on a wing and a prayer when the engines failed after a fuel leak. Locals say that event brought the world's attention to the Azores and boosted tourism. Indeed, a number of four-star hotels have opened here in recent years.
Renting a car or hiring a guide is the best way to get to know these islands, as local transportation is infrequent. During a day's outing, guide José Borges shows me the monuments and colorful Baroque architecture of the capital, Angra do Heroísmo (its sister city is Taunton), takes me hiking on the windswept uplands of Pico Gaspar where wild bulls are raised for Terceira's own style of tethered bull fights, and stops for a swim in lava-lined tidal pools where the ocean waters hover around 70 degrees all year. A rich with hearty beef stews, pork platters, and unusual appetizers such as pickled purslane, caps the tour at Quinta do Martelo in a traditional manor house setting.
Borges says mass tourism is not likely to come to the Azores the way it has to the Algarve on Portugal's sunny south coast. The only cattle call here is for cattle, and at 40,000 head on Terceira, they outnumber the people. Without vast beaches the Azores will never attract sun and sand worshipers.
In summer, a car ferry connects the central islands, but off season, the only way to cross the 95 miles from Terceira to São Miguel, where about half of the 240,000 Azoreans live, is to fly. Many first-time visitors stay put on São Miguel. Ponta Delgada, the Azores' largest city, a commercial center with European shops, theater, and what comes closest to a night life scene of discos and clubs. Golf, whale watching, and scenic drives to lake-filled craters are a draw for some visitors, but many head for the thermal waters of Furnas.
From a mineral-encrusted gash in the earth, cauldrons boil and bubble and send steam rising from the fiery depths below. A cauldron called the Caldeira de Pêro Botelho throws out a throaty rumble. This land of natural ovens is used by the Terra Nostra Hotel to cook a succulent stew by placing sealed pots of meat and vegetables in the ground where they cook for six hours. The same subterranean heat steams me in an iron-rich pool set in a lush semitropical garden on the hotel grounds.
This setting was the fantasy of Thomas Hickling (1745-1834), who in 1769 left the American colonies to seek his fortune in São Miguel. He prospered in the export of oranges grown here and built an oasis with thermal baths, exotic trees and ''Yankee Hall," his final resting place. It's a fitting legacy to the rich history that connects the New World to this part of the Old, anchored somewhere in between in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
Contact Paul French, a freelance writer in Toronto, at email@example.com.