Roger St. Pierre reports on a mid-Atlantic Portuguese island paradise that’s eager for corporate group business‘Spread over close on a thousand miles, way off the North African coast, the archipelago might be remote and does in many ways evoke a touch of time warp, but it’s got thoroughly modern amenities and infrastructure of the standard demanded by business group organisers.’
These were the words of Noel Josephides. He is Chairman of the Association of Independent Tour Operators and a highly respected travel industry veteran. An autonomous region of Portugal, the Açores, as the locals call them, enjoy the full benefits as well as the problems of EU membership. ‘But’, Noel continues, ‘for group organisers, staying within the European political and commercial orbit can make things easier without losing that magically exotic away-from-it-all ambience.’
Noel has just stood down from his long term hands-on role as head of Azorean specialist operator Sunvil Discovery. He is a man who has made a life mission out of interesting both corporate and individual clients in off-the-beaten-track destinations. His team has previously worked assiduously to bring such once-neglected names as Armenia, The Lebanon and Costa Rica leaping off the map.
My recent investigative Azorian idyll was based on the big island of São Miguel – big, of course, being a relative term in this context.
A member of a group, I stayed for the first four nights at the well-chosen Terra Nostra Garden Hotel, an elegant art-deco inspired gem. It was built in 1935 but was re-opened this year after being closed for a massive refurbishment. It has 86 guestrooms and boasts four full-facility meeting rooms. Three can be joined together to form a single space to seat a total of 350 theatre style.
The hotel is set in the delightful little spa town of Furnas, whose beautiful azalea-fringed lake and profusion of steam-emitting hot springs make it one of the world’s largest thermal water resources.
Our big culinary treat was a unique caldera stew of meats and veg slow-cooked in a pot buried in a volcanic hot spot.
It wasn’t the only superb culinary offering on a trip that led me to dramatically upgrade my view of Portuguese cuisine. We discovered, for example, some amazing Azorean cheeses, we sampled highly drinkable local wines and visited the first Azorean tea plantation and one of the few remaining places where pineapples are raised under glass – once one of São Miguel’s major horticultural activities.
It was a programme that would be custom-built for team bonding. Our pleasure-packed tour took in areas of natural forest and the Centro Ambiental do Priolo, set deep in the Parque Forestal da Carcela do Cinzeiro, near the town of Nordeste. Here a dedicated team is fighting for the future of a once abundant local bird, the tiny priolo – a unique treasure of the dense laurel forests of the Tronqueira Mountains. This little creature resembles a European bullfinch and is one of the few birds that feeds on ferns. Gravely endangered, this is the only spot on earth where it can still be found.
Portugal’s Azores islands are stunningly beautiful. Set almost mid-way across the Atlantic, they are renowned not only for their profusion of wild flowers but for some of the world’s finest formal gardens.
The group that I accompanied were garden enthusiasts and we were fortunate enough to be guided by the distinguished botanist David Sayers, a man who – excuse the pun – really knows his onions (and his trees too) and who also happens to be a guide book author and authority on the Azores.
He is a man with an infectious passion for his subjects and one did not need to be an expert or even a gardening enthusiast to enjoy his enlightening comments, handy planting tips and engaging little stories. His formidable reputation provided a magic key that gave us privileged access to several glorious private house gardens that are not usually open to the public. We even got the chance to wander through the Provincial President’s own formidable spread, with its colossal hundred-plus-year-old trees and colourful formal flowerbeds.
Our eclectic, audience participatory seven-night itinerary was originally inspired by the highly successful ‘Azorean Garden’ exhibit at last year’s Royal Horticultural Society Flower Show at Hampton Court.
This flower, tree and shrub filled wonderland was originally created in 1780 around the residence of Boston trader Thomas Hickling, the then American consul, and now covers 12.5 glorious hectares (over 30 acres).
As the world becomes ever more closely connected, many believe the traditional way of life of these fascinating islands might also be threatened. It was heartening to learn, therefore, that serious efforts are now being made at both private and governmental levels to maintain the unique charms of the Azores.
Yes, they want to welcome more visitors, but it’s a resounding ‘no’ to the woes of mass tourism, which explains why they are increasingly keen to promote corporate group business. Besides garden tours, Sunvil Discovery’s expansive Azores’ programme offers a wide range of ecologically friendly holidays, with group or individual travel choices and the option of either staying in one location or island hopping.
Travel to the islands can be easier than you might think. Did you know, for example, that there is an Azorian airline, SATA, owned by the Provincial Government? It has two operating divisions, one for the international and the other for its inter-island services.
SATA operates direct flights from London Gatwick to Punta Delgado on São Miguel, with connections to Flores, 50 km away. It connects regularly with two cities in the US and two in Canada.