Take an empty pot. Toss in Scandinavia’s western shores and fishing villages. Add in lush, volcanic Hawaii and a touch of the pines and fog of the Pacific Northwest. Mix in the dairy pastures and rolling hills of rural Wisconsin. Stir it up, and out come the Azores.
Volcanic craters, rocky coastlines, dramatic cliffs, rain forests, waterfalls, tall pines, wet moss and dairy farms: in the Azores you can see them all on the same day. In the same hour, actually. This chain of islands (nine in total) lies 900 miles west of Lisbon out in the Atlantic Ocean; it played a pivotal role for the US in World War II when two of its islands, first Santa Maria and then Terceira, served as air bases for the American forces.
Today, it is an Autonomous Region of Portugal, with its own government separate from that of Continental Portugal (a.k.a. mainland Portugal). This sense and realization of its independence, coupled with the fact that it’s an isolated island chain, has the Azorean culture aging on island time in the most charming of ways.
All of the nine islands are bunched reasonably close, making them easily accessible from one another via short flights or ferries. That said, unless you are traveling between islands that are extremely close, such as Sao Jorge, Pico, and Faial, flying is recommended, the reason being that conditions in the North Atlantic can be rough, causing many of the longer inter-island journeys to be canceled. Shorter ferries between the aforementioned islands are much more reliable due to the islands’ proximity to one another. Inter-island flights are operated by SATA.
During an extended stopover between Boston and Porto, we took a few days to explore Sao Miguel and Sao Jorge, arguably the two most dynamic islands as far as outdoor and cultural experiences to be had. Sao Miguel houses the capital and the majority of the population, while Sao Jorge satisfies the call of adventure with its sparsely visited, aircraft carrier-shaped landscape.
|Where to Stay
Sao Miguel: Ponta Delgada is the capital and the largest city in the Azores. It is here that you will find the highest concentration of lodging options on the island, as well as where you’ll want to set up shop if you wish to walk to restaurants, shops, and nightlife. Set back a few blocks from the water, the top floors of the Sao Miguel Park Hotel offer the most impressive, sweeping views of the city, ocean, and surrounding mountains. There are a number of small inns along the waterfront, the nicest being the Hotel Marina Atlantico, widely considered the nicest hotel in town. If you want to get out of the city and experience the wilderness, try the modern-yet-remote Furnas Lake Villas that sits in a valley near the volcanic town of Furnas.
Sao Jorge: The Hotel Sao Jorge is located on the oceanfront in Velas Village, offering great views of the nearby island of Pico on clear days. It is the most traditional hotel accommodation on the island and puts you within walking distance of Velas’ restaurants. While the Hotel Sao Jorge is great for families because of its comprehensive offerings, there are sexier properties around: The Quinta do Canavial is a hillside manor house that overlooks Velas, providing a more B&B-type setting with bird’s eye views of the Bay of Entre-Moros. Surfers will want to consider a stay at the remote Caldeira Surf Camp, located in the fishing village of Caldeira de Santo Cristo and accessible only by foot or or four-wheeler.
|Where to Eat
As a whole, dining opportunities are quite impressive when compared to typical island fare. Although the Azores is slowly beginning to develop modern tastes and import its day-to-day necessities from the mainland, you can still feel the old-world sustainability in practice throughout the islands. The people may not be dependent upon their own production anymore, but they’re certainly committed to the customary lifestyles of the island’s original inhabitants. Sao Miguel and Sao Jorge both produce their own brands of cheese and dairy products, and most islands raise at least a small amount of beef cattle. Between the fresh fish, the locally raised beef, and the homemade cheese, milk, and yogurt, you’ve already filled your day entirely with island-produced food. That said, each island does have its own specialties that should not be missed.
Sao Miguel: The most infamous meal on Sao Miguel, the Cozido, is also the most traditional, cooked underground using volcanic steam. Produced and served only in the hot spring-riddled town of Furnas on Sao Miguel, the dish is put in the ground each morning and slow cooked, or baked, for about six hours. Similar in fashion to a low-country boil (but a lot heartier), the Cozido is comprised of sausage, pork, chicken, beef, cabbage, carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, taro and yams. It is served for lunch, and typically taken with a glass of red wine by locals at Furnas restaurants O Miroma, Tony’s, and Banhos Férreos. As a complement to seafood, beef, and cheese, be sure to try the spicy local pepper sauce, Pimenta da Terra. Visit the tea plantations of Porto Formoso to learn the history of the island’s tea production and sample its various black teas.
Sao Jorge: All the islands “do” seafood, but Sao Jorge might be the lead horse. The Caldeira de Santo Cristo might be globally famous for its surf break, but locally, the Scandinavia-meets-Hawaii fishing village is regarded for a clam harvested only in its lagoon. Known as Clams of the Lagoon of the Fajã do Santo Cristo, you can find them in the small restaurants that dot the coastal villages, such as Restaurante Amilcar in the Faja do Ouvidor. For a do-it-yourself picnic lunch, stop by the Santa Catarina Tuna Factory, which prepares high-end canned tuna marinated in local oils and spices. For sweets, try out the local treat, Espécies de Sao Jorge, a gingerbread-like hard cookie named after the spices used in its confection.
|What to Do
Sao Miguel: Sete Cidades is by far the most popular attraction on Sao Miguel, and it won’t take long to understand why once you visit. The three-mile-long volcanic crater features back-to-back lakes, the Blue Lake and the Green Lake, each named for the color of its water. You’ll want to drive the rim road to take it in from above, and then make your way down into the crater to visit the small village. To get a feel for how large the crater really is, rent a bike or kayak to explore. Visit the town of Furnas, known for its volcanic activity and abundant geysers. The biggest surprise is that the village is essentially constructed on top of the hot spots, which provide residents with hot, cold, and even sparkling water. When you’re ready to relax, take a dip in the hot springs of Caldeira Velha.
Sao Jorge: Sao Jorge’s aforementioned aircraft carrier shape makes it a wonderful place to hike because of the dramatic coastal views available from almost any place on the island. The steep stature also creates small, isolated villages, many of which are inaccessible by car. The hike to Caldeira de Santo Cristo allows you to descend down the cliffs, pass below waterfalls, and walk through small fishing communities. In the upcountry of the east near Santo Antao you’ll find some of the the island’s most novel canyoneering experiences thanks to the collision of rural and tropical environments. There, you can cascade down a series of waterfalls on a river that runs through acres and acres of upcountry farm land. For guiding services, we recommend Jorge and Dina of Discover Experience for their bright personalities, outdoor attitudes and excellent English.
The Montanha do Pico trail on Pico takes you to the highest point in the Azores, a 3,600-foot ascent that tops out at 7,713 feet above sea level. Find the warmest water and best beaches of the bunch on Santa Maria, particularly in the bay of São Lourenço where terraced vineyards make up the backdrop. For cultural immersion, head to Corvo, home to only one village of 430 people and considered to be one of the smallest communities in Europe.