AT THE CREST OF THE ROAD we see what we are getting ourselves into: an active volcanic caldera.
We only understand what we are seeing because, earlier, we’d tilted the map in Google Earth and saw the steep sides plunging down in a rough circle. Now, in true scale, despite the lush blanketing of greenery, we can interpret the contours. There below us, huddled in the heart of the caldera, lies the town of Furnas and our hotel.
What we are getting into is rest and relaxation. Unimaginable violence created this landscape, and in the geological future it will erupt again. But for now, Furnas remains one of the most idyllic and peaceful towns on Earth.
Precisely where are we on Earth? Zooming out in Google Earth gives context. We are on the island of São Miguel in the Azores, in the Atlantic Ocean, approximately a third of the way between mainland Portugal and the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. These Portuguese islands straddle the divide between the European and North American plates. The fissure between the two plates is one of the drivers of the volcanic activity that created the islands.
That volcanic activity was the making of Furnas. Here, volcanically heated water wells up from underground, forming streams and pools. Mud springs and geysers bubble and spurt. The rottenegg whiff of sulfur infuses the air, but it’s a healthy smell. It’s the smell of natural spas and, for us, a weekend of pampering.
We are staying at the Terra Nostra Garden Hotel, a venerable property set within 31 acres of botanical gardens originally planted in 1775 by Thomas Hickling, U.S. Consul to the island. After a succession of make-overs, the hotel is now an Art Deco palace resembling a Golden Age trans-Atlantic liner.
Our first treatments are formal, in the Wellness Place, the hotel’s elegant spa. It offers an extensive menu of options, but the staff will also tailor the program to the needs of each guest. Mindful of our location, we opt for the volcanic hot stone massage. The scent of therapeutic oils in the treatment room masks Furnas’s pervading aroma of rotten eggs, but the hot roughness of rock on skin reconnects us with the underlying geology. Such moments will be repeated throughout our time here.
Beyond the hotel and its gardens there is much to explore. We spend our days hiking the marked trails. We keep our swimwear with us at all times; we never know when we’ll need it. Turn a corner, and there’s a hot spring. Poça da Dona Beija soon becomes our favorite: a complex of five pools of differing temperatures. Connected by bridges and paths, the pools offer changing facilities at the entrance. One lesson we soon learn: Don’t wear white. The white stripes on the sides of my trunks and the patterns of my wife’s bikini soon take on a permanent orange tinge from the minerals in the water.
Periodically on our hikes we see men lowering pots into steaming volcanic vents. Hours later they return to lift them out. The pots contain cozido, a meat and vegetable casserole. Most famously served at Restaurante Tony’s in town, if you want to try cozido, be sure to place your order a day in advance.
The excursions are fun, but Terra Nostra remains our center of gravity. Our beautiful room, with its porthole mirror and its canopy-level view of the gardens, is the epitome of luxury. The restaurant serves some of the best food we’ve had anywhere. In the refined spa, our only regret is we don’t have specific requests to break the therapists from their routine.
A large, shallow, natural thermal pool sits in the sumptuous gardens, open to the public during the day but not first thing in the morning. On our final day we take advantage of one of the hotel’s special services: breakfast for two beside the thermal pool.
It is the perfect morning for it: cool and drizzly. We pad down from our room in our bathrobes and out along the path to the pool, where our table has been laid under a canopy under the trees. A chef and waiter stand in attendance.
The waiter shepherds us poolside under an umbrella and takes our robes. In our swimwear, we each dip into the placid, steamy water. We have it entirely to ourselves. With rain pattering gently on our heads, we wade through the pool’s swirling currents: sometimes warm, sometimes hot.
When we finally step out, the waiter shelters us back to the table. Within a couple of hours, the pool will erupt with visitors. But for now, over a cooked breakfast, we savor peace and tranquility.
Terra Nostra Garden Hotel
Rua Padre José Jacinto
Botelho, 5 9675-061 Furnas
São Miguel, Azores
tel 351 296 549 090
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