Graciosa may be the second smallest island in the Azores – and the northernmost – but is unlike any of the other eight. Set just north of the central group of Azorean islands, Graciosa was discovered around 1450. Soon after, the Portuguese began settling there as well as some from Flanders. When Flemish settlers came to this incredibly sunny and hilly island, they used these key features, as well as some of their personal influence to cultivate the land for wheat. They added their own unique windmills to the landscape — dozen of which still exist. These windmills served the once large-scale wheat industry.
Today the local Graciosa Museum is great place to lean about the many agricultural lifestyles that have sustained the island, including its wine production. The museum also highlights the many philharmonic orchestras that still are very popular on this island of less than 5,000 inhabitants.
Santa Cruz da Graciosa is the main town, sitting on a sunny bay with several historic and elegant churches that date back to the 16th and 18th centuries. The houses are bright and whitewashed, and set around a big main square. Here two ponds are the centerpieces – both dating back to the original settlement. The ponds are not decorative, as Graciosa is the only island in the Azores to have no surface water or springs these were essential. For centuries, the local population captured rain in cisterns, and these ponds were built to hold water for agriculture and watering animals. High above the town is the hill of Monte de Nossa Senhora da Ajuda, which is not only a venerated chapel, but also the town bullring, set into a volcanic crater.
The thermal mineral springs at Termas do Carapacho spa is set on an underground hot spring next to the ocean. Recently refurbished, the spa has a thermal swimming pool that is natural heated, and is a great spot soak in the thermal waters that are said to cure bone and skin ailments.
Graciosa is also classified by UNESCO as a Biosphere Reserve. The World Network of Biosphere Reserves fosters the harmonious integration of people and nature for sustainable development through participatory dialogue, knowledge sharing, human well-being improvements, as well as a respect for cultural values and society’s ability to cope with change. The island of Graciosa has served, for more than a decade, as an experimental laboratory for biodiversity conservation and, due to the islands unique natural characteristics, is frequently visited by national and international scientific expeditions. Past and ongoing experiments in resource management, eradication of introduced species and natural habitat restoration, as well as the existing infrastructures, make this a unique and resourceful environment to study.
One of the island’s most famous natural features is the sulfur cavern at Furna do Enxofre. A short hike leads from an ancient crater into a huge underground cave with a small lake. A century old staircase from the modern visitor’s center goes down into the crater’s depths – not unlike hiking into a volcano - where a grey mud still bubbles beneath the rocks. The pond is set in a clamshell of a cave and feels like a journey to the center of the earth.
Graciosa’s physical traits are rivaled only by it’s cultural. This island is also known for its white wines and brandy, both made from the Isabella grapes that are grown on sunny, dry hillsides. Farmers work hard to keep the land in balance, rotating grapes with other crops. Oxen and donkeys are often still used to work the fields and it’s not uncommon to see grazing cows throughout the island.
The Queijada pastries are real star here – star-shaped pastries that are sweet and tasty – and made and exported based on an old island recipe. The local factory has a small shop, and sells direct to the public.
In addition to farming, fishing is also a way of life on Graciosa. The local fisherman use traditional wooden boats to catch a variety of fish, plus a variety of seaweed that is exported. The low coast of the island gives way to many coves – and small forts still defend several of them.
Recently, Graciosa built its first hotel. Modern and well appointed, but made of local volcanic rock, the Graciosa Resort makes for a great base to explore the island.
Red sand beach? Oh yes! At Barro Vermelho a red sand sheltered beach is the only one of its kind in the Azores. Nearby, at The Ponta da Barca Light is a black and white striped lighthouse located along the 79-foot high sea cliffs. Next to the lighthouse, is the locally famed baleia de pedra (whale rock), an amazing geological basaltic rock that erode in the shape of a whale.
Graciosa embodies so much of what makes the Azores special: conservation and a balanced environment, local traditions and culture, locally sourced foods, and volcanic landscapes. But it is also unique, in its musical culture, cool volcanic craters, open and rolling landscapes, and its relaxed, friendly nature that make it the prefect place to unplug and get back to being human.