A Picturesque garden in the Azores

Terra Nostra Park brims with warm waters and leafy groves.

Photos By Bill Regan
Lush lagoon: The 200-year-old Terra Nostra Park thrives on Portugal’s temperate island of São Miguel

Old gardens possess a grace impossible to bestow through artistry alone. The velvety patina of moss in the cracks of concrete and stone; the calm inhabiting the space beneath old trees; high-flying branches shaped by decades of wind – these cannot be produced by anything but time.

Terra Nostra Park, a 31-acre public garden in Furnas, an old resort village on the largest island in the Azores, can claim all of these hallmarks of aged beauty.

The gardens also contain water in all its Picturesque-style forms: a lagoon, canals, streams, and ponds. Terra Nostra (“Our Land,” in Portuguese) is as deliberately drenched in romance and mystery as it is in sensory pleasures – color, fragrance, and the various sounds of water.

The Picturesque, a garden type that evolved on the estates of English nobility in the late 18th century and spread to continental Europe and America, emphasized a sequence of carefully composed scenes.

As visitors strolled on foot (or rode in a carriage) along a winding path, each turn revealed a delightful new picture.

Like most things in the Azores, a string of volcanic islands more than 900 miles from mainland Europe, this garden type was imported. The first to settle on this property was Thomas Hickling, a merchant from Boston and the US consul on São Miguel.

In 1780, Hickling built a modest wooden house on about five acres of land, where he planted trees from North America. (The island has a moist, temperate climate, with year-round temperatures ranging only between the high 50s and the high 70s (F.).) Today, the only tree old enough to have been planted by Hickling is an English oak.

In the mid-19th century, the estate’s next owner, the Viscount of Praia, replaced the house with a larger mansion. The viscount also added more land and created formal gardens featuring water, groves of trees, and patterned flower beds.

But it was his son, the second Viscount of Praia, who, with the help of British and Portuguese garden designers, developed the Picturesque features, including the lagoons. Many of the trees they planted, imported from all over the world, still survive. The oldest of them are approaching 140 years old.

The hotelier Vasco Bensaude acquired the garden after he built the art deco Terra Nostra Hotel in the 1930s, and he and his head gardener, John McEnroy, continued expanding and restoring the plant collections.

In 1990, Mr. Bensaude’s son, Filipe, oversaw yet another expansion and refurbishment. Although they opened the garden to the public, the Bensaude family still maintains it and still owns the Hotel Terra Nostra.

The current Terra Nostra Park brochure announces, “You are about to discover a 200-year-old garden.” Discovery applies to the garden’s botanical collections as well as its design.

Nourished by the ocean mist and, perhaps, by the warmth of the underground volcanic springs – hotel guests can soak in a pool of hot, ochre-colored water near the garden – diverse temperate plant species thrive, creating startling juxtapositions: camellias and tree ferns (cycads), gingkos and palms, red oaks and Norfolk Island pines.

Around each bend lies a new view and another choice: Should you take the left fork to the lower level, or the right fork ascending the bank? Are glimmers of water enticing your eye, or the dark, cool foliage of the grove?

Entering the garden near the sulfurous pool, visitors tend to climb the pyramid-shaped mound to the white stucco mansion, a vantage point that reveals a placid pond where swans and exotic ducks float. Also from here, the viewer can glimpse a canal flowing into the pond.

Descending again, the path rounds the corner of the steeply sloping mound, leading the visitor through a grove of tree ferns. The pond’s surface glitters below, screened by the enormous lacy fronds.

As David Sayers, a British-born gardener and horticulturist who has worked on these gardens, writes in the sole Azores guidebook (Bradt Travel Guides), cycads “would have been browsed by dinosaurs.”

Planted thematically throughout the park, they create a primeval air. Their fronds unfurl from fiddleheads as big as salad plates.

More steps descend from this middle terrace to the water, and the pond narrows into a lagoon. The moss-edged path leads to a vine-draped opening at the base of the bridge, and behind the curtain of green, the sound of trickling water beckons. Inside lies a perfect grotto hollowed out of rough volcanic rock.

A tiny waterfall spills down the rear wall, cloaked by maidenhair ferns.

Among other delights are the allées, which form some of the garden’s few straight lines and comprise its chief architecture. In counterpoint to the whimsical, curving paths, they feel restfully sedate.

Off of these, hidden garden rooms contain collections – camellias, cycads, rhododendrons (among them a rare Malaysian species), ferns, azaleas, and hydrangeas.

These are among the newer additions, and although they no doubt add botanical interest, their design lacks the charm of the garden’s older core. But this is a small quibble, given the extraordinary variety of botanical and spatial experiences here.

The overall effect is of a marvelous garden salad, tossed by the Atlantic breeze.

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