The nine islands of the Azores Archipelago are volcanic in origin and are located in the North Atlantic, 890 miles from Portugal. They are also wild and largely unknown to most people. When I mentioned where we were going, I typically received a blank stare and a mumble about where they might be…so to save people the embarrassment I would say “we are going to the Azores, islands in the North Atlantic that are part of Portugal. It’s a non-stop flight from Boston.” Oh. Non-stop? Hmmm. And the conversation usually ended there.After visiting the island of Sao Miguel, I think people should start taking notice! We just spent a week there with our sons and their partners and thoroughly enjoyed the stunning vistas, hikes, fresh fish, good inexpensive wine and the unpretentious charm of the island. You knew you were in Europe, with a bit of Hawaii and Ireland thrown in!We made use of the Azores Tourism Board website and the Bradt Azores guidebook to determine which hikes we wanted to do and then google maps to help us find the trail heads. Some of them were not easy to find! Once we found the start of a trail, there was always a large sign with directions and landmarks to look for. We had a rough idea of which hikes we wanted to do but had to be flexible since the weather changes rapidly. Apparently the locals say you can experience four seasons in one day and we definitely experienced that and had to be ready to change our plans accordingly. We relied heavily on SpotAzores, a series of webcams around the island to get an idea of the weather.
On the drive to our first hike, we figured out that the road signs with binoculars meant it was worth stopping! The view below was at Miradouro de Santa Iria on our way to the Faial de Terra where we did the Salto do Prego hike to a waterfall. The big decision after a hike was where to have lunch! We stumbled upon Jardim in Povoacao on Sunday, found Cafe Com Sopas in Ribiera Grande on Monday after hiking at the Gorreana Tea Plantation, ate lakeside at Green Love Restaurant after hiking Sete Cidades on Wednesday and discovered the local cakes at O Jaime in Vila Franca do Campo after hiking Lagoa do Fogo on Friday.
But back to the hikes!
On our way to the trail head for Sete Cidades we stopped at the viewpoint Vista do Rei. The sun was out, the clouds were puffy and the view was incredible!We drove a little farther to find the trail head and off we went for more amazing views of the lake and island.The weather cooperated about 60% of the time! We had a rainy day on Tuesday so we visited the Augusto Arruda pineapple plantation where pineapples are grown in glass-washed greenhouses. They were introduced as a replacement crop for oranges around 1850 and became so successful that they started exporting them to northern Europe. The Azores are not warm enough for outdoor cultivation so they are grown in greenhouses using the warm beds method to speed up the process.
On the walk back we came upon a random outdoor art installation on a stone wall. The colour was a welcome contrast to the grey day!From the pineapple plantation, we visited Ceramica Viera pottery, a family business in its fifth generation, for some distinctive, Azorean tiles and bowls.
After our rainy Tuesday, the weather cooperated for the rest of the week.
Tea is grown on the island so we visited the Gorreana Tea Plantation, walked around the factory, sampled some tea and then enjoyed a very windy hike through the rows of tea. Apparently this is the only place that tea is grown in Europe and it’s all handpicked, pesticide free and free from the industrial pollution of mainland Europe. Our guide book detailed a walking tour of the main city, Ponta Delgada, so we followed some of the walk one morning before our whale watch. Our walk began in the square, Praca Goncalo Velho Cabral with the three distinctive arches of the original gates to the city.Next stop was the tiled murals of the Cafe Mascote that depicted an earlier version of the city…Then to this eye-catching blue building facing the garden Jardim Padre Senas Freitas…And to this green former Franciscan monastery.We completed our walking tour in time for our afternoon whale watch with Futurismo. We were out on the boat for several hours and saw several Rissos dolphins, great views of the island Sao Miguel, but no whales.
Our fourth and final hike was to Lagoa do Fogo. We navigated to the viewpoint Miradouro da Barrosa before hiking. We started out in sunshine and as the road wound up it felt like we were in the clouds. There was a little snow on the ground and the wind was fierce!The actual hike followed a water channel for several kilometers and then opened into a seagull nesting area. The trail map advised that the seagulls could be aggressive so we were very polite to them as they swooped over us! The actual view of the lake up close was slightly disappointing but it was cold and overcast and we had been spoiled by the views of Sete Cidades.
All the hiking gave us hearty appetites and we had some really great dinners. Our first night, we ate at Cais 20. Our airbnb host recommended the restaurant, made the reservation for us and informed us that the restaurant would pick us up, free of charge!
One evening we ate at Restaurante da Associaco Agricola, famous for their steak. The dining room was a large, open room that was packed with diners. The portions were generous and came smothered in sauce…and with french fries! Every meal we ate either had boiled potatoes or french fries served with it.
On our way to dinner at Bar Caloura in Villa de Agua de Pau, we noticed the binocular sign on the highway and pulled over for another beautiful vista.The restaurant itself was at the end of the road in a little harbour and a rainbow appeared as we arrived! The meal was great, the restaurant was really busy and the the rain ended just as we were leaving!We had two great dinners in Ponta Delgada, one at BIG 21 and the other at A Tasca. Both of these restaurants felt a little more sophisticated than some of the other places we ate. Big 21 served a creative risotto and delicious sea bream. A Tasca had a terrific selection of small plates and hearty soup. People warned us that we needed a reservation but we didn’t seem to have any trouble walking in with our group of 6 and getting seated. Our waiters were friendly and happy to explain the menu and smiled when we attempted to speak a word or two of Portuguese.
Before we knew it, the week was over. There were still plenty of things we wanted to see and do…we didn’t get to Termas da Ferraria, thermally heated natural pools and we only drove through Furnas but didn’t get to experience the hot springs or Terra Nostra garden. We didn’t see any whales and the far northeast town of Nordeste sounded like a beautiful place to visit but it would have taken us most of the day to get there and back. Between the windy roads and the need to rent two cars it felt like too much to squeeze in…next time!
At the end of every trip I take, I ask myself whether I would ever return to the place I just left. There are plenty of places in the world I haven’t been to, yet I could totally see myself returning to the Azores. It is accessible, relatively inexpensive, unspoilt and beautiful! Azores Air flies non-stop from Toronto, Montreal, Boston, Providence and Oakland. And starting very soon, Delta will offer non-stop from JFK to Ponta Delgada. Hurry up and visit before everyone discovers this little slice of paradise in the North Atlantic!Contact me to help plan your trip to the Azores…firstname.lastname@example.org