There are very few places on earth where we can look out on a wild and dramatic landscape only a decade or two older than ourselves – but Capelinhos, at the western end of Faial, is one of them.
The Azores sit on the geologically active mid-Atlantic ridge. The Eastern and Central groups of islands – of which Faial is one – teeter on the edge of the European tectonic plate and experience some volcanic activity. The Western group clings to the edge of the American plate, and there has been no recorded volcanic activity there since their discovery in the fifteenth century. The plates are moving away from each other at a rate of about 2.5 centimetres per year, allowing for plenty of ongoing instability.
Between September 1957 and October 1958, the volcanic eruption at Capelinhos redrew Faial’s coastline, colouring it in with new sea cliffs and cinder beaches, all embracing the cone of the new volcano. These are not the spiky black lava fields of Hawaii or Iceland – this is something else entirely, and an overwhelming reason to visit this island.
As summer gave way to autumn in 1957, whale watchers – who could earn extra income by alerting local whalers to the proximity of any of these magnificent mammals to the archipelago – spotted a strange phenomenon just off the coast. The sea appeared to be boiling. The lighthouse keeper, too, noticed something unusual. This was the start of one of the first volcanic eruptions to be rigorously and scientifically documented in real time.
Soon, the bubbling sea gave way to sky-high clouds of smoke, ash and water vapour, followed by fountains of molten lava. Having decided he would be safer sleeping elsewhere, incredibly, the lighthouse keeper returned to the site each day to record what was happening. At one time he had custody of seven different cameras with which to photograph the volcano, all provided by different press outlets in Portugal and abroad.
Frequently, he was joined by a local doctor, who was also an amateur geologist. Between them, samples were taken and geological activity observed which has greatly helped further our understanding of volcanic eruptions. The spectacular sight drew the fascinated and the fearful in equal numbers. Locals made weekend trips to Capelinhos to be photographed against a backdrop of nature’s fireworks, and the tours were arranged for visitors from far and wide. Simultaneously, statues were brought out from churches, and shrines were set up, while priests interceded for divine mercy.
The eruption entered a new phase in May 1958, when in the course of a few days, the island experienced 450 earthquakes of varying magnitude and the eruption threw lava 500 metres into the air. There was mounting concern that Caldeira Grande, Faial’s huge central volcano would erupt too, as the lakes in the bottom of its crater drained away under the enormous heat and pressure. Thankfully, that did not happen.
Astonishingly, nobody was killed during the thirteen months of the Capelinhos eruption, although there was immense destruction of property and farmland. Inevitably this had an ongoing effect on society and community life on the islands. In the United States, the Azorean Refugee Act was rushed through in 1958, and led to the emigration of around 1,500 people from Faial to start a new life on the far side of the Atlantic.
By that point, the island had grown by 2.4 square kilometres, as the cinder cone and isthmus formed from ash and lava became an integral part of the island. The lighthouse keeper’s beloved beacon now stands not on the coast but inland, buried in ash up to the first floor. Visitors can climb the twenty metres to the top of the tower, for a better idea of the magnitude of what happened during those tumultuous months, and still see the submerged rooftops of so many hurriedly abandoned homes and farms. Symbolically, steps at the entrance go down into the bottom of the tower, through layers of new land, before beginning the climb to the top.
The lighthouse, constructed in 1894, now forms an integral part of the award-winning Centro de Interpretacão do Vulcão dos Capelinhos – a highly informative, interactive museum, plus educational and scientific institution. This impressive, hands-on interpretation centre vividly tells the story of volcanoes, igneous geology and plate tectonics, through the birth of the Azores and other volcanic islands around the world, to the Capelinhos eruption. Contemporary footage, photographs and newspaper cuttings bring the accounts to life. Numerous lava bombs testify to the destructive power of the eruption.
Interestingly, posters advertising events to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the eruption clearly demonstrate the way the landscape continues to change. The new promontory – which is now the westernmost point of the Eurasian tectonic plate – looks different with each passing decade, as wind and waves work their magic.
A video about the volcano produced by TAP, the Portuguese airline, declares “from a natural catastrophe, Capelinhos became a place of contemplation”. While “contemplation” frequently has a peaceful ring to it, it would be hard to visit Capelinhos and not pause to reflect on the awesome power of nature, on how the destructive and the creative work hand-in-hand and on the continuing constant motion of a world in which we live.
Capelinhos now rises starkly from the sea, a modern moonscape of rock and ash, continually shape-shifting. Gradually a seasonal green haze of vegetation is softening the contours of the land, and one day it will be indistinguishable from the rest of Faial. For now, though, it is quite unlike anywhere else. Go – walk the trails, climb the lighthouse, test your knowledge in the interpretation centre. Above all, stand still and wonder at the power of nature.
Our island hopping holiday to the Azores was absolutely amazing,
This is a long email, so you might want to go grab yourself a cuppa before you start reading.
We just wanted to send you an email to say thank you so much for everything.
Our island hopping holiday to the Azores was absolutely amazing, it was far beyond our dreams and expectations, and that is certainly because of you and all your plans in putting this together for us. We just loved every second (apart from me and canyoning, we do not get along, but the boys absolutely loved it!) we just can’t believe all the things that we have seen, and done, and learned about! What an incredible place!
We have certainly been bitten by the Azorean bug and we can’t wait to get back there to explore the other islands. They’re very special places, each of them for their own right.
We felt as though we were treated like royalty from the minute we arrived in Sao Miguel, even the weather was kind to us (largely) we seemed to miss the adverse weather, either arriving somewhere that had had storms the day before, or leaving just before they arrived. We did have one morning of heavy rain when we went to the tropical gardens at Furnas, but we did manage to see some of the gardens before we gave up and went back to Caloura, where there was glorious sunshine, so we spent the afternoon at the pool and made the most of the Especial and fresh lemonade from the snack bar.
Every single person that we met, we were struck by how hard they work, and how happy they all are. Many of them never leaving the island they were born on, because, why would they want to?!
We love the Azorean people and their love and pride for their islands. Their sustainable way of living also struck deep with us. It’s the way we try very hard to live ourselves. Dave’s business is retrofit insulation, preparing old housing stock to a better more eco friendly way of conserving energy, so the way they live and respect their land, was of great interest to us.
For us all, Flores is a very special place. We went to the restaurant maresia while we were there and met the owner and his son. Although the restaurant itself is eclectic to say the least, after chatting to Vincent, we understood his dads way of living and the food was outstanding! We can’t wait to visit again.
All of our guides were amazing! Their knowledge and passion is admirable.
We just loved every second and can’t thank you enough for making our trip so smooth and completely stress free.
I will spend today writing reviews online for all the companies and guides that helped us on our trip.
A million thanks to you all Jake.
The Cole family
Personal service and efficient!
You really listened to what type of holiday we wanted and tailored our week accordingly. You understood what we were looking for and were so helpful and knowledgeable. Very personal service and efficient!
Linda from Norfolk
Professional and personal service!
Everything you do, you seem to do it professionally. I know I’m not your only client, but you make me feel like I am.
Bryan from Stoke
Azores Choice provided a prompt, helpful service. they found us the perfect accommodation for our needs and provided superb, expert advice on how to spend our week walking on San Miguel. I would certainly use them again.
Joan from Durham
Recommended small travel company!
Great little company with friendly staff. Organisation of flights & accommodation very efficient. When problems arise they are helpful and very reasonable in their efforts to resolve them. We would definitely use them again for a return trip.
Really great! Would use again!
Very efficient, friendly, helpful. Excellent local knowledge. Everything ran very smoothly, from supplying the tickets to airport pick ups and hotel bookings. Lovely accommodation selected. No complaints!
A wonderful break in a beautiful environment!
Everything was excellent. The information and organisation, the hotel and the island itself all exceeded our expectations. Whale watching and other trips out, fantastic. We will book again!
Great honeymoon package and experience!
They provided a great package at a good price. We found them to be helpful and a quality service was provided.
Nicola and Christopher – Winchester
Top notch service. Highly recommended!
Excellent service throughout. Very informative, with lots of literature, maps and the like. Attended their offices in Ponta Delgada – very impressed with Olivia, friendly and helpful. Paul was first class.
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Great company for first time Azores visit!
Really great company, will be recommending them. We had never visited the Azores before but this company helped us decided which islands to visit.