You are not Portuguese?
You don’t have family here?
Then why did you come to visit the Azores?
My wife and I heard some variation of this line of questioning more than once during our recently completed ten day trip to the Azores archipelago
. A large number of people have emigrated from the Azores to the United States, primarily Massachusetts, so that today there are approximately three times as many Azoreans in the U.S. as there are in the Azores. So, while tourists from Germany, The UK and Scandinavia are common in the Azores, American tourists who are not visiting family, or not travelling with a group, tend to be few and far between.
WHAT & WHERE ARE THE AZORES?
The Azores archipelago is the westernmost part of Europe. It is approximately two-thirds of the way from the United States to Portugal; a short 4.5 hour flight from Boston. An autonomous region of Portugal, it is a volcanic archipelago comprised of nine islands.
As a side note, most people I have told about this trip tend to confuse the Azores with the Canary Islands; a Spanish archipelago which is located further south and east, off the coast
of Northern Africa.
Not surprisingly, we found that most people we met spoke English as well as Portuguese. Those who didn't speak English were very patient with our phrase-book Portuguese and would work with us to communicate. The culture of the Azores was somewhat deceptive. At first glance, we thought we saw a slow paced island culture, yet it quickly became apparent that, in most ways, we were also in a modern European nation.
GETTING THERE SATA Airlines
flies directly from Boston to Ponta Delgada on the island of Sao Miguel; most other airlines fly you all the way to Lisbon, and then back to Ponta Delgada. The overnight flight from Boston to Ponta Delgada is a short 4.5 hours. The frequency of SATA flights varies depending on the time of year, largely driven by when people are likely to fly to or from the U.S. to visit family.
We found it easy to get around on the Azores. The roads on all the islands we visited were in excellent condition and all three islands had very good, and reasonably priced, taxi service. To move from island to island we took an inter-island
flight and a ferry. In all cases, the transportation providers were professional, timely and reliable.
On Sao Miguel we rented a car from Ilha Verde Rent A Car
(who was also the local agent for Avis, Europocar (National) and Sixt). Though the roads were good, we found that driving within the towns was a bit of a challenge at first. Due to the very narrow streets and, because of a shortage of parking in many areas, the locals had a tendency to park wherever they needed to be at that particular time. Fortunately, people on the Azores were polite drivers who signaled their intentions and waited for an opportunity to pass; once we understood this system and learned some patience, we saw that it was a system which worked smoothly.
On Sao Miguel, the largest island in the archipelago, they are currently in the process of completing some new high speed roads which go around the towns. The good news is that, once completed, you will no longer need to crawl through the small towns squeezing by parked cars; the bad news is that you miss out on the opportunity to drive through and enjoy the small towns. As we got to
know the island, we were able to figure out what mix of the two types of roads worked best for us.
When we left Sao Miguel we took a SATA Air Acores
inter-island flight to Faial Island where we stayed in Horta, the largest town on the island. There we found that their solution to the narrowness of the streets was to make most streets one-way. While this helped the traffic flow, it did turn much of the city into a large maze. We did not rent a car on Faial, and, with our propensity for getting lost, we were glad to not be driving. Instead, we took a taxi from the airport to our hotel and, when we wanted to hike the rim of The Caldeira, the Peter Base Zee tour company
provided a driver (€10 per person) to drop us off at the trail head, and then pick us up four hours later at the end of the hike. We also hired a taxi driver for a three and a half hour tour around the island. For a day trip to Madalena on Pico Island, we took a short 30 minute ferry ride
from Horta on Faial Island. In all cases, the transportation providers
were professional, timely and reliable.
MONEY, MONEY, MONEY
Being part of Portugal, the Euro is the currency in the Azores. Once we left the largest city, Ponta Delgada, many small hotels, and many restaurants, accepted only cash and/or local credit cards, so we needed to have a reasonable amount of cash available. Normally, when on foreign travel, we simply plus-up our checking account beforehand and then withdraw money from ATMs. Unfortunately, we found out that there were two problems with this system in the Azores. First, the ATMs would only allow withdrawals of €200 at a time, meaning we had to make a lot of withdrawals, which added up to a lot of bank fees (almost $8.00/transaction). Secondly, it was hit or miss as to whether or not an ATM would give us money. An ATM that happily gave us €200 one day would not necessarily do the same for us the next day. In the end, it probably would have cost us less in fees, and would have been less frustrating, to buy Euros from the bank before we flew over. Also, if you are staying someplace that does not take credit cards, ask if there are
any other payment options, such as PayPal.
FOOD & DRINK
From the large number of cows that we saw in the fields, and sometimes on the road in front of us, it immediately became obvious that meat and dairy were important parts of the cuisine of the Azores. Mix this with the abundance of seafood from the surrounding Atlantic Ocean, and we had the basic menu of restaurants in the Azores. When we sat down at a restaurant, they would always bring out bread and some small plates, usually with cheese and perhaps a seafood salad. These were not complimentary, but, they were inexpensive (€1 to €3). No one was offended when we said no to a dish, or requested another.
On Sao Miguel, we particularly enjoyed three restaurants. Cantinho do Cais in Sao Bras served a tasty fish soup followed by a wonderful seafood stew called Molho de Peixe, which was served over crusty bread. We were served by the proprietor who did not speak English, but did speak French, which, fortunately is our other language. O Gato Mio in Ribeira Grande served delicious and innovative interpretations of traditional dishes. Our go-to restaurant in our
home base of Agua de Pau
was Paraiso do Milenio where they served a well prepared traditional Azorean menu.
In Horta, on Faial Island, our favorite restaurant was Medalhas Taberna & Casa de Pasto which also serves traditional Azorean cuisine. The restaurant’s local clientele often outnumbered the tourists, which reinforced our belief that we were enjoying both good, and authentic, Azorean cuisine.
We took a day trip to from Horta to Pico Island to enjoy a Sunday lunch at O Anchoradouro in Madalena. The menu at O Anchoradouro was somewhat more upscale and innovative than in many of the other restaurants. Here we enjoyed another variation of a seafood stew while we watched the waves of the Atlantic break on the nearby rocks.
In all cases, the service was friendly, professional and personal. The food was generally very good, though the meat and fish may seem to be a bit overcooked to some American tastes, and it was never very expensive. We drank delicious local wines (many from Pico Island) for which we never paid more than €10 for a bottle.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t must mention Peter’s Café Sport
in Horta. Just about all trans-Atlantic sailors
stop in Horta, and when in Horta everyone goes to Peter’s Café Sport. We never ate there, so I can’t comment on the food, but one really goes there for the scene. Peter’s is right by the docks and is where all these trans-Atlantic sailors from all nationalities hang out. It is festooned with banners and plaques from numerous boats, as well as with notices from boats looking for crew, or sailors looking for boats. After a day of hiking, it was a good place to enjoy a half-liter beer or a gin and tonic, both for a very good price. They also had excellent WiFi.
One last word on tipping, something Americans wonder about wherever they travel. We typically left 10%!,(MISSING) and always in cash.
On Sao Miguel, we stayed at Quinto do Mar
in Agua de Pau. This intimate, four room hotel had modern, tasteful rooms in a beautiful setting. The hospitality was first class. Upon our early morning arrival the first day, one of the owners, Chris Noble proceeded to prepare a gourmet breakfast for us after we had a chance to clean up a bit. Chris, and his partner, Nick Heathcote were always available with
Salto do Prego
Near Faial da Terra - Sao Miguel Islan
helpful advice. One day as we wandered the north shore of the island we called them for help in finding a place to eat lunch. Over the phone, they recommended, and then helped us navigate to, Cantinho do Cais where we enjoyed the Molho de Peixe.
Ruth Bartenschlager’s Estrela do Atlântico
in Horta on Faial had three rooms and two suites. As the hotel sat somewhat uphill from the “downtown” area, the large balcony in our two-story suite afforded us sweeping views of the city and of Mount Pico on nearby Pico Island; a great location for sunrise and sunset photos. We had a limited amount of time to visit Faial and Ruth was a great help in the planning and in making arrangements. Depending on the weather, breakfast was served each day either looking out into the beautiful garden or on the terrace in the garden.
Links to my review, along with others, of Quinto do Mar
and Estrela do Atlântico
on TripAdvisor are available by clicking the names of the hotels.
THE WEATHER TODAY IS….
….dependent on where you are on the island. This is typical of mountainous islands where the clouds usually seem to stick to the highest peaks.
One day on Sao Miguel, we were up in the mountains, inside a cloud, where the wind seemed to be blowing at 40 or 50 miles an hour and the temperature was 7 degrees Celsius (45 degrees Fahrenheit). Meanwhile, back at the hotel, 15 miles away on the south shore, it was sunny and in the mid-60s (Farenheit) all day long. Another day, it was sunny up in the mountains while at the hotel it was cloudy and cool. We needed to be flexible with our plans, and the islands were small enough to make this possible.
AZORES ON FOOT
For us, some of our most memorable experiences came from doing day hikes. On Sao Miguel we took a short (6.0 km, 3.75 mile) walk from the sleepy village of Faial del Terra up to the beautiful, secluded waterfall Salto do Prego
, and then back down to the village, through a smaller, formerly deserted, village that is now being resettled. The hike is beautiful, peaceful, and gives you a very nice aerobic workout.
On Faial, we enjoyed the hike around the rim of The Caldeira
, or crater, of the volcano at the heart of the island. This was a
Lagoa das Furnas - Sao Miguel Island
deceptive hike. The trail-guide said “It is an easy trail and so is not sign-posted. Just follow the trail around the Caldeira until you return to the starting point.” It was 8 km (5 miles). Being good Americans, we turned right at the trail head and did the hike counter-clockwise (most others went clockwise). For the first half or so we took our time as the walking was easy and we had four hours until our ride arrived to pick us up. The walk provided breathtaking views down onto Faial and out to the other nearby islands of Pico, Sao Jorge and Graciosa. After we took a break for lunch, the walk became a bit more treacherous, and the walking slower. Towards the end, the trail was not only treacherous, but also indistinct; we were never sure if we were walking on the right trail, or even if there was a right trail. Regardless, it was a great hike, as well as a great workout.
Walking along the docks of Horta, you will see that the pavement and the walls are covered with numerous messages painted by the crews of the boats that have passed through.
walked along the shore road on Pico we viewed vineyards where they grew the grapes for many of the wines we had enjoyed. The vineyards are close to the sea, so they are broken into small segments enclosed with stone walls which protect the grapes from the wind and the salt spray.
WHAT NOT TO MISS
The town of Furnas and the hot springs on Sao Miguel were highlights of the trip. Outside of Furnas was the beautiful lake, Lagoa das Furnas, with several small steaming caldeiras containing boiling mud. Around the caldeiras people would bury pots and use the natural heat to cook meals similar to New England boiled dinners. We saw several families enjoying naturally cooked Sunday lunches at nearby picnic tables. In Furnas itself, we twice enjoyed the iron-water bath behind the Terra Nostra Hotel
. This appeared to be a large swimming pool filled with muddy water, but was actually filled with pleasantly warm water that got its color from iron oxide; it was relaxing and therapeutic, especially after a hike.
Possibly the most famous site on Sao Miguel are the dual Lagoas des Sete Cidades, where one lake is green and the adjoining lake is
Terra Nostra Hotel - Furnas - Sao Miguel Island
blue. According to legend, a shepherd and a princess wanted to marry. The king said no, so they sat on the edge of the craters and wept to create the lakes; green from the green-eyed shepherd, blue from the blue-eyed princess. The less romantic guidebook explains the color difference by saying that they are "...ecologically-different small-lakes connected by a narrow passage..."
The Capelinhos volcano on Faial erupted from September 1957 to October 1958, burying many homes in the village with volcanic dust and creating a new spit of land that put the old lighthouse well inland. As we walked around this area, still covered in volcanic dust, we felt like we were walking on the moon.
FINALLY, PONTA DELGADA AND HEADING HOME
On our way home we had a multi-hour layover at the airport on Sao Miguel. We took the ten minute taxi ride into the largest city, Ponta Delgada, to explore and have lunch. It was a bit of a culture shock. Though it still showed much of the old world beauty of the rest of the archipelago, you had no doubt that you were in a modern city.
And finally, why did we visit
Sao Miguel Island
the Azores? We enjoy island vacations, especially on volcanic archipelagoes, and the Azores sounded like a beautiful and interesting place.
So, if you want to visit a nearby (to the U.S.) bit of Europe or just want to visit someplace beautiful, check out The Azores. We are already planning to return; perhaps we’ll see you there when we do.
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