Pico is the second largest island of the Azores, with 444.9 sq. km and with an elongated shape thanks to its 42 km of length and 15.2 km at its maximum width. It is dominated by the Volcano of Pico on its western half, it is 6 km away from the neighboring island of Faial and is populated by 14.850 inhabitants (census 2008). It is the most southerly island of the Central Group of the Azores Archipelago and part of the “triangle islands.” The highest point of the island, at 2350 m altitude, is also the highest point of Portugal, located at 28°23’58’’ longitude west and 38°28’07’’ latitude north.
The discovery of this island by the Portuguese navigators took place sometime between 1449 and 1451, after the island of Terceira had already been spotted. In the beginning, it was known as King Dinis Island, and the current name comes up because the biggest Portuguese mountain lies there. It is believed that the island of Pico was the last island of the Central group to be populated, in an effort that basically mainly took place from the1480s onwards.
The settlers that arrived from the North of Portugal, after stopping over at the islands of Terceira and Graciosa, chose to settle at Lajes. During the first hundred years, and because of the influence of the nearby island of Faial, the economy was based on the production of wheat and dye plants. The dry, hot climate of some parts of the island and the mineral resources of the lava soils led to the introduction of vineyards, mainly of verdelho grapes. As time went by, the quality of the local wine and spirits became known inside and outside the island, thus contributing to an increase in the development of vineyards. The wine was exported to Europe and America, with verdelho wine attained international fame. So much so that it was even served at the tables of the Russian tsars.
The link to Faial is almost umbilical. On the one hand, the port for the export of products from Pico is in Horta. On the other hand, until the wine crisis of the nineteenth century a large number of Pico’s landowners came from the neighbouring island. During the 18th century, there were severe volcanic eruptions, which predicted the end of the golden era of verdelho wine production. By mid 19th century, most of the vines were viciously attacked by diseases such as grape-mildew and phylloxera. Faced with their losses, with tradition and prestige disappearing in a cloud of smoke, the locals were left with the choice of emigrating to Brazil or to North America. Those who decided to stay had to live off the sea.
As far back as the 18th century, the island was also involved in whaling. English and North-American fleets looked for sperm whales in the waters surrounding Pico. The ships used the quays of the island to rest the crews, acquire fresh supplies, repair the boats and recruit new sailors to help them fight the giants of the oceans. During the second half of the 19th century, the community gave its first steps towards whaling. The activity of hunting sperm whales expanded and spread to the other islands until the 20th century, when it started to decline. This activity came to an end in 1986 with the ban on whale hunting, when Portugal signed the Bern Convention.
Recovering and reinventing very old traditions, Pico is still very much linked to sperm whales. The tourism industry is based on whale watching, with cetaceans now being protected species. Wine production has also acquired a new importance with its contribution to the local economy that is dominated by farming, cattle breeding and fishing. The uniqueness of Pico vine culture is internationally recognized, with the classification of the Landscape of the Pico Island Vineyard Culture as World Heritage Site, by UNESCO, in 2004