Azores Travel Guide

Azores Travel Guide

Kerry Murray

Sitting by themselves in the middle of the north Atlantic Ocean, the Azores Islands have been compared to Iceland (but warmer), to Hawaii (but less developed), and even to Ireland (because of the weather). But if we can get over this incessant need for comparisons for a few moments, it´s easy to see that this wild and mysterious archipelago is unlike anywhere else on our planet. A series of nine volcanic islands created at different times throughout history, each one is individual and unique. From the sky, they are a string of shining green jewels set in the deep blue Atlantic, their highest peaks often crowned in clouds. A land of fire and steam, black sand beaches and lush temperate forests. We visited four of the nine islands and left with the sense that there is much, much more to be discovered. This Azores travel guide is just the tip of the iceberg.

Things to do in São Miguel

São Miguel is the biggest and most populous of the nine islands. Discovered in the early 1400´s by Portuguese sailors, it is known as the “Green Island” because of its dense semi-tropical forests and humid climate, perfect for agriculture all year round. It is also only one of 2 islands with geothermal activity, and one of the top things to do in São Miguel is visit the thermal springs at Furnas. Here you can bathe in volcanically heated waters and marvel at geysers and fumaroles bubbling up from underground. Stay locally at the Furnas Boutique Hotel and Spa to make the most of the geothermally heated waters in the most luxurious of surroundings. The wellness centre boasts a wide selection of treatments, and for those seeking a bit more adventure, the hotel offers a range of activities. The island is also famous for its crater lakes, a series of extinct or dormant volcano’s that have since filled with rain water. There are several throughout the island, but the most impressive would have to be the Lagoa das Sete Cidades, on the eastern part of the island.

The capital of the island, and also of the entire archipelago, is Ponta Delgada, a small port city with a distinctly colonial style with its narrow cobblestone streets and Portuguese architecture. As far as capital cities go, this one is tiny, and Ponta Delgada´s tourist attractions can easily be explored in a couple of hours. Make sure to visit Louvre Michaelense, a 18th-century hat shop that was recently rescued from abandonment and lovingly restored to its former glory. Currently a teashop and old-world grocery store, they specialise in locally produced traditional products and Azorean delicacies from throughout the nine islands. Stop in for gourmet souvenirs and a cup of Goreanna tea, produced on São Miguel and the only tea grown in Europe. For dinner, don´t miss Singular Bistro, newly opened in the heart of the old town and featuring contemporary cooking with regional influences and fresh, local produce.

Ponta Delgada | Photo: Kerry Murray

Ponta Delgada | Photo: Kerry Murray

What to see in Faial

On no other island are the volcanic origins of the Azores more apparent than on Faial, where the most recent eruption is still within living memory, and the island literally grew by a few hundred square meters as a result. The eruption at Capelinhos lasted several months, and in the process, half buried a lighthouse on the coast, which has since been converted into a museum and interpretive centre. The earth here is stark and barren as vegetation has yet to take hold, making for a dramatic lunar landscape.

Faial is one of the smaller islands, easily explored in a day or two, and the capital, Horta, is a well-known port-of-call for transatlantic sailing crews. The constant coming and going of seafarers lends a certain international vibe to the town, there´s a tangible sense of adventure in the air and accents from all over the world as you wander the streets. Peters Bar is a must-do for the boating crowd, and a veritable pilgrimage for those who have sailed from faraway lands, to leave a souvenir from home tacked to the wall or hanging from the ceiling. Another great spot for pre (or post) dinner drinks is the Oceanic Cafe, just down the road from Peters, and recently opened, serving a wide range of drinks and tapas-style snacks. For the best fish in town, always fresh and perfectly grilled, head to Genuino, a local favourite with outdoor seating overlooking a tranquil bay to the south of town. Named after owner and veteran sailor Genuino Madruga, the restaurant is decorated with memories and collectables from his two solo round-the-world sailing trips.

Accommodation in the Azores tends towards the more rustic end of the spectrum, which suits the vibe of these rugged islands. Self-catering is usually the most popular option but if you´re looking for something a bit more convenient, stay at the Pousada de Horta. This colonial era fort has been recently renovated and transformed into a hotel, conveniently positioned in the heart of the town and walking distance from just the harbour, restaurants and bars.

Photo: Kerry Murray

Photo: Kerry Murray

What to do in Pico

Pico Island´s biggest calling card is, without a doubt, her mountain. At just over 2300 meters, it´s the tallest mountain in Portugal and looms majestically over the island and her neighbours Faial and São Jorge, visible from almost everywhere. All of the islands are well known for their hiking trails, but the summit hike is by far the most challenging and one of the most popular Pico points of interest. The weather on the mountain changes rapidly and is quite unpredictable, so it´s not recommended attempting the hike without a guide. The best way to make the most of the climb and surrounding scenery is to do the overnight hike, camping at the summit and then hiking down again the next morning.

If climbing a mountain is just really not your idea of a fun holiday, then fear not, because Pico is also famous for her wines. Internationally acclaimed, the wines from this volcanic land in the middle of the Atlantic are, unsurprisingly, unlike any others in the world. Pico is one of the youngest of the Azores archipelago, and as a result, her terrain has yet to be eroded enough to support most types of agriculture; there is simply no soil here, yet. Vines were planted by the first settlers because they were the only crop that could survive the rocky lava and then, as now, everything was done by hand. The rock had to be broken enough to plant a baby vine in the crack, often with the help of a small amount of soil brought across from Faial. The vines then needed to be sheltered from the harsh winds and salty sea spray, so a network of waist-high walls, called currals, were built around the vineyards. These currals are particularly prolific around the small town of Lajido but cover most of the western coastline, and the majority of them grow their grapes for the local co-operative cellar, Pico Wines. We visited the cellar and took a tour of the currals with one of the associates of the co-op, who explained the entire process. Harvesting the grapes is still done by hand, and it is time-consuming and painstakingly hard work. In the face of modern technology, it is humbling to walk amongst the vineyards and imagine the harsh reality faced by the first people here, who literally made (and still make) wine from lava. Curral Atlantis is another local producer, and we stopped off for a wine and food pairing at their tasting house, a tiny little lava-rock cabin right on the coast in front of their vineyards.

For pre-dinner drinks or a light snack in the afternoon, head to Cella Bar, just outside of the capital, Madalena. Its innovative architecture is as much of an attraction as its comprehensive wine list, and they specialise in combining the best of Azorean delicacies from throughout the archipelago, proudly showcasing the local gastronomy in a fresh and modern style. Seafood is the obvious choice when eating out, and grilled limpets are a local delicacy in Pico. We tried them at Ancoradouro and were pleasantly surprised. This is one of Pico´s most highly rated restaurants, and they didn´t disappoint; the setting is beautiful, and their grilled fish was excellent. On the other side of the island in São Roque do Pico, Casa Âncora is a modern seafood restaurant specializing in seasonal produce sourced from local farmers and fishermen. Their Chef Timur Abuziarov is a rising star in the industry and with his skills honed in several Michelin star kitchens, his innovative expertise combines perfectly with top quality local produce to create an outstanding menu. The grilled octopus was quite simply the best I´ve ever eaten. A sublime culinary experience that I can´t wait to repeat, this restaurant is a must-do in Pico.

Stay at Julia´s Little House on the south coast for an authentic village life experience without compromising on comfort. A typical Azorean house on the slopes of the mountain, it was built in the 19th-century and has been in the same family for several generations. Recently renovated, the interiors are modern and simple without changing the traditional facade and historical atmosphere of the lava-rock construction.

Casa Âncora, Pico | Photo: Kerry Murray

Casa Âncora, Pico | Photo: Kerry Murray

What to do in São Jorge

Of the islands we visited, São Jorge was by far the most rural and remote. It´s only a short boat ride away from Pico, but in terms of climate and infrastructure, it could have been a thousand miles away. São Jorge is known for its cheese, and there is no shortage of very content looking cows grazing the higher slopes of the island. Queijo da Ilha (Island Cheese) is internationally recognised for its quality, and there are many small dairies on the island producing this delicacy, all of which are open for tours and tastings.

The island rises dramatically from the ocean with most of the coastline made up of steep cliffs and the occasional fajã, a sea-level strip of land caused by ancient landslides, creating a rare patch of flat, arable land on the coast. Many of these fajãs are largely inaccessible by road, and undoubtedly the best way to explore this wild green paradise is by strapping on your hiking boots and walking the many trails that crisscross the island. One of the most well-known hikes traverses the Caldeira de Santo Cristo, a remote and tranquil fajã on the north coast, accessible only on foot or via quad bike. A small community has been living and farming this lush, semi-tropical terrain for centuries, and it feels as though you´ve stepped back in time when you arrive after the long hike in. Adventure tourism is slowly growing here, and the Caldeira Surf Camp has been established for visitors keen to get out on the water. But apart from that and the occasional yoga retreat, there isn´t much happening here, which in itself, is the main attraction.

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