The terrain looks both familiar and too striking to be real — like a scene from Jurassic Park, minus the herds of velociraptors. Here, off the western coast of Portugal, are the Azores, an archipelago of nine volcanic islands. In an era when the trendiest travel destinations are marked by wild day parties (Mykonos), tequila-fueled nightlife (Tulum), and excursions planned with the perfect Instagram shot in mind (Bali), the appeal of the Azores lies in experiencing the natural landscapes. More than 850 miles away from Portugal’s industrial pollution, the islands are so rich in minerals that they not only make the Azores a premier wellness destination, but have also inspired one of today’s buzziest luxury skin care brands, Ignae.
My trip to the Azores began with a flight from New York to Lisbon, and another one to Ponte Delgada on the region’s largest island, San Miguel. A short drive led to Terra Nostra Garden Hotel, which houses all the classic amenities: spacious guest rooms, a spa, and a restaurant specializing in local cuisine. The grounds themselves, however, are the most alluring draw.
Dating back to 1776, Terra Nostra Garden is a sprawling expanse of palm trees, ferns, azaleas, and bamboo, among countless other plants. The lush acreage is best known for boasting more than 600 varieties of camellias, which bloom year round in red, pink, white and yellow. Situated in the middle of the Furnas volcano, the property features a smattering of hot springs and an iron-rich thermal pool with waters reading 104°F (40°C). According to studies, a dip can promote better sleep, increase circulation, ease symptoms of anemia, boost metabolism, and alleviate pain.
Born and raised in the Azores, Ignae founder Miguel Pombo knows the land and its natural offerings well. “I worked as a consultant in a regulatory affairs firm in Brussels, where I had the chance to learn about the ingredients used in many cosmetics,” he says. “By learning more about their properties, I started realizing that in the Azores we had many of those ingredients, which had little or no economic value.” With that knowledge, Pombo returned to the Azores to research and develop a sustainable Azorean skin care brand. In 2017, he launched Ignae with four products — the Daily Enzyme Cleanser, a Day Complex, the Enriched Regeneration Serum and the Dynamic Eye Complex.
Extracts found in the vegan, cruelty-free range include Japanese cedar, which helps stimulate skin cell renewal; green tea, known for its anti-inflammatory properties; and spirulina, to enhance elasticity and diminish fine lines and wrinkles. Fallen camellias at Terra Nostra Garden — and those that are clipped during routine pruning — are cold pressed, producing Ignae’s hydrating and skin-soothing camellia seed oil. “When developing our range, we do not think of a product that we want to do and then look for something that can be useful for that product,” Pombo says. “Instead, we are constantly researching all the plants, algae, bacteria and proteins to understand what they can be used for, and only then developing our products.” Everything is produced in small batches, leveraging biotechnology to minimize the impact on the environment.
In 2018, Ignae landed on the radar of celebrated facialist Joanna Czech, who used the eye complex to prepare Eva Chen, Kim Kardashian, and Christy Turlington for that year’s Met Gala. It was promptly added to her influential Czech List, and later became a favorite of veteran luxury executive Claire Chung, who discovered Ignae while running Yoox Net-A-Porter in China. She then flew to the Azores to meet Pombo and explore the brand in late 2019. In 2020, after working alongside Pombo on a new business plan, she was named CEO.
Most recently, Ignae has launched a reparative blue light serum and a rich body oil. Terra Nostra Garden Hotel, Four Seasons Hotel Ritz Lisbon and Shen — the popular Brooklyn beauty boutique founded by Jessica Richards — all offer Ignae-based treatments at their spas. The facials and massages, which address everything from lymphatic drainage to over-exposure to digital devices, are an escape themselves; a relaxing reflection of San Miguel’s singular appeal.
“I’ve traveled the world but this island was jaw dropping,” Chung says of her first trips to San Miguel. “All on one island I saw black sand beaches, verdant green valleys, volcanic lakes, rainforests, and jungles.”
My experience was similar. I explored the small village surrounding Terra Nostra Garden Hotel and took in sweeping botanical views at the Gorreana Tea Factory. A family-run business since 1883, Gorreana, alongside neighboring tea farm Porto Formoso, has made the Azores Europe’s reigning tea capitol. Later, a visit to Caldeira Velha allowed for plunging in three thermal pools and enjoying a natural waterfall; it was like a wellness pre-game prior to a fresh-seafood-and-local-wine lunch at the oceanside Bar Caloura.
Hours spent “volcano hopping” — ascending and descending peaks via Land Rover with a tour guide — made for an unforgettable afternoon. The islands are the first certified archipelago under EarthCheck’s Sustainable Destination program, meaning they meet high standards established to maintain the integrity of the ecosystem and prevent over tourism. So even as the Azores increases in popularity, the mass commercialization found in other European destinations is unlikely to make its way there. After visiting San Miguel, I have the other islands on deck — and a new favorite body oil stocked in my apartment.
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