The Island of Graciosa

Dotted with flowers, waterfalls and restored scarlet-topped windmills, the enchanting pear-shaped island of Graciosa is a major attraction for nature lovers visiting the Azores.

Just 12.5 km (8 miles) long and 8.5 km (5 miles) wide, this ‘gracious’ island (often referred to as the Ilha Branca – White Island) is the second-smallest island in the Azores archipelago after Corvo in the western group.

It takes its name from the lovely vegetation that carpets the landscape, punctuated by small lakes and fertile pastures. 

Subsisting mainly on traditional farming and viticulture, large amounts of Graciosa’s fertile terrain is marked with terraced vineyards which cling perilously to sea cliffs on an island that was classified by UNESCO as a biodiversity hotspot in 2007 due to the rarity of the birds nesting there, such as Audubon’s Shearwater and Monteiro’s Storm-petrel.

With its rounded hilltops and gently sloping ridges, it also one of the flattest (and driest) of the nine islands in the Azores, and visitors curious about Portugal’s maritime history will be interested to know that one of its first settlers was Pedro da Cunha, brother-in-law of Christopher Columbus.

Founded in 1485, the island’s delightful capital – Santa Cruz da Graciosa – is a huddle of pretty whitewashed, red-roofed houses interspersed with a generous scattering of handsome black-stone churches. Idyllically nestling on Graciosa’s rugged north-east coast, it exudes a relaxing, rustic ambience as the inhabitants go about their daily lives peacefully and unhurriedly.

Housed in an old warehouse in Santa Cruz da Graciosa, the top key tourist attraction – the Museu da Graciosa – illustrates the local history and culture with a fine collection of exhibits and displays, chief amongst them a wine cellar (with pressing rooms), various agricultural implements and several items related to the island’s traditional arts and crafts.

Where to go in the Azores

Besides the capital, Graciosa is dotted with a number of charming picture-postcard villages, such as Vitória in the north-west (notable for its 17th-century church featuring some delightful Portuguese primitive paintings) and Praia, whose narrow streets are lined with magnificent 16th- and 17th-century houses.

Rising majestically to 199 metres (652 feet) in the south-eastern corner of the island, Graciosa’s spectacular volcanic crater (caldeira) encompasses one of the most fascinating natural attractions in the whole of the Azores, namely the Furna do Enxofre (Sulphur Cavern).

This imposing lava cave (the largest volcanic dome in Europe) features a convex ceiling with stalactites and mineral deposits and a deep lake at the bottom. On the 1st of April 1879, it was visited by Prince Albert of Monaco (a keen oceanographer) who was amongst the first adventurers to descend into the main chamber using a rope ladder, later exclaiming: ‘It is a marvel, unique in the world’.

Besides being famous for its underground lake, the volcano is still dormant with several active fumaroles of boiling mud and visitors climbing up to its rim are afforded head-spinning views (on clear days) of the four other islands in the central group of the Azores, namely Terceira, São Jorge, Faial and Pico, the latter of which boasts the highest mountain in the whole of Portugal.

To get a real taste of Graciosa Island’s rich cultural tradition, visitors are urged to coincide their visit with the annual Festival da Ilha Branca (the White Island Festival) which takes place with much music and merry-making in and around the streets of Santa Cruz da Graciosa (indicated on the Google map below) in the first half of August.

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