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Where will you find the highest mountain in Portugal? Hint: It's not on the mainland of Europe. The cone-shaped peak is on Pico, Azores, one of nine islands in a mid-Atlantic archipelago. Measuring 2,351 meters high, the dormant volcano is also named Pico.

Pico, viewed from the marina at Horta, Faial.
Pico, viewed from the marina at Horta, Faial.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

A 30-minute ferry ride brought us from Horta, the capital of Faial Island, to Pico. A bronze monument of a harpooner in a small boat heralds The Whaling Industry Museum, at Cais do Pico, on the north coast. Inside, whales were processed in massive boilers and vats into vitamins, oil, fertilizer and animal feed, from 1942 until 1984, when whaling stopped.

Whale-watching tours

"In 1000 years, Azorean whalers, with their rudimentary equipment, didn't kill what Japanese whalers killed in one season," said Eva Goulart, our guide.

We saw the narrow, six-person canoes at the Whalers Museum in Lajes do Pico, on the south coast of the 42- by 20-kilometer island. It wasn't surprising that many overturned.

In the museum, the jaw of a 22-meter-long sperm whale was three times our height. Its teeth were as long as our hands.

Nowadays, Azoreans bring tourists out to whale-watch between May and October.

Pico wines

At Fonte Cuisine Restaurant, in the bucolic Hotel Aldeia da Fonte, we dined on grilled fish and prawns and smoked Azorean sausage, marinated in white wine, garlic and spices. Two great but inexpensive wines, Terras de Lava and Curral Atlantis, depict Pico Volcano on their labels. The latter's name recalled a legend claiming the Azores are remnants of Atlantis.

The former wine's name became apparent when we visited Pico's vineyards. To cultivate vines in land, covered with numerous volcanic eruptions, grape-growers cut the lava into chunks. They stacked them into walls, each enclosing three or four vines. From above, the vineyards resemble the foundation walls of an ancient city, as well as a massive fishing net of black rocks, which stretches out for kilometers.

"The walls block the wind and salt spray, but allow the sun to enter," explained Eva. "If dismantled and laid end-to-end, they would go around the world more than once. The Landscape of the Pico Island Vineyard Culture was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list in 2004." The amount of work to construct them, over hundreds of years, boggled our minds.

Visitors and guide explore Gruta das Torres lava tube.
Visitors and guide explore Gruta das Torres lava tube.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Lava tube

Lava also predominates in buildings constructed from basalt. Along the coastline, wheel ruts, cut into lava, mark routes taken by ancient ox-carts tranporting grapes to wine presses.

Under the west end of Pico is Gruta das Torres, a 5,150-meter lava tube, that is partially open for tours. Wearing bright red helmets, we followed the beam of light from our guide's flashlight.

The guide explained that this lava tube is the longest of 17 in Pico and 30 major volcanic caves in the Azores. We crunched over broken lava, observing green ferns below holes in the cave roof that allowed light to enter. Farther inside, we discovered 15-meter-high domes, smooth-as-asphalt lava, rough biscuit-shaped lava and tiny stalagmites.

It felt like a journey to the center of the earth.



Azores Airlines

More things to see & do in Portugal:

Lisbon - One Day Pre- or Post-Cruise Tour

Sao Miguel, Azores - Tea Plantations, Pineapples, Gardens and Volcano-Cooked Stew

Terceira, Azores - UNESCO World Heritage City, Holy Spirit Houses, Wine and Cheese