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Destination: Azores

Jun 4th, 2014 Destination Guides, Europe

Portugal doesn’t end on Europe’s mainland. An archipelago made up of nine volcanic islands in the warm waters off Portugal’s Atlantic coast, the Azores are only two hours from Lisbon and four hours from the East Coast of the United States. Far less commercial and traveled than other European destinations, these islands are full of outstanding volcanic geology, hiking trails, bird and floral life, shipwrecks, ancient heritage and blue seas.

Take to the Trails

Flores Island

In addition to stellar beaches, the islands of the Azores have all types of terrain that make them a great place for walkers. Well-marked trails throughout the islands offer something to suit everyone—from gentle coastal paths and circular jaunts around sunken crater lakes to more strenuous hikes through wild vegetation and lush forests, up to volcanic peaks. Each of the islands has its own unique characteristics. The western part of Flores (known for its flowers and waterfalls) resembles the mystical landscape of the English moors. Adventurers on Pico Island can scale Mt. Pico, Portugal’s highest peak at 7,713 feet (2,351 meters), while less-ambitious hikers can stroll through the area’s lower-altitude vineyards.

On São Miguel (the largest island), you can amble from coast to peak by starting in Povoação. This quaint fishing village in the southeast was the island’s first Portuguese settlement, established in 1432. A nine-mile jaunt heads through dense, shaded forests and sunny ridgelines to Pico da Vara, the island’s highest point. En route, you may spot the rare priôlo (aka Azores Bullfinch)—a bird indigenous to São Miguel and found only in this area. On the west side of the island, you can take one of two trails around Lagoa das Sete Cidades (Lagoon of the Seven Cities, aka Lagoa Azul/Blue Lake)—a fantastic crater lake included in the Seven Natural Wonders of Portugal. This area is also distinguished by vivid shades of green such as Lagoa de Santiago (Santiago Lake) and lush pastures popular with goats and cows. After your hike, drive to Ferraria and soak in a unique geothermal pool.

The Birds of Paradise

Evora

Home to over 200 species of birds (both part-time and full-time), the Azores boasts plenty of sites and trails to survey the vegetation and skies for everything from the pigeon to lesser-seen beauties such as the long-eared owl and the white-tailed tropicbird. The most famous bird of the Azores is undoubtedly the rare priôlo (Azores Bullfinch), found only in the Serra da Tronqueira range in the eastern portion of São Miguel Island. Many bird enthusiasts come here hoping for a sighting of this small, elusive creature. From its almost extinct status in the 20th century to a population that numbers around 1,000 today, it remains on the endangered list. Conservation and preservation efforts have resulted in the protection of the bird’s native Laurel Forest habitat. In the Special Protection Zone of Pico da Vara—the only place in the world where you can see this bird—you can visit the PriôloEnvironmental Center to find out more about the priôlo, its habitat and threats. Located in an old forest guard’s house, the center organizes outings, courses and workshops as well as volunteer opportunities.

To spot other bird species, strike out on your own and keep your eyes open, or join one of the many tours available, including one that focuses on sea birds.

Subterranean Adventures

Caves

When the lava from past volcanic eruptions cooled, it formed fascinating caves in the Azores that have spawned a thriving adventure-geotourism industry. Running beneath the earth’s surface, tube-like lava caves make great outings on the islands of Graciosa, São Miguel, Pico and Terceira. Together, these islands account for 30 of the top caves found among the 271 in the entire Azores archipelago. Pico alone boasts 17 of the best, including the Gruta das Torres cave. Stretching almost 17,000 feet (5,150 meters), it is the longest known tube in the Azores. Filled with stalactites, stalagmites, lava balls, solidified volcanic flows and various types of lava, it is a place of earthy wonder. Outfitted with lamp helmets, you can go on small tours (no more than 15 people), following a guide to the cave’s interior. Afterwards, check out the innovative visitor center below the cave’s entrance, which won an E.U. design prize for contemporary architecture.

On Terceira, you can easily walk through the Algar do Carvão cave on your own. A set of stairs takes you down to a narrow passageway that leads to the lava tube. With a feel more like a volcanic Eden, it features birdsong and lush vegetation that adorns walls and ceilings near the cave’s large opening. From there, descend 328 feet (100 meters) to a lake via the stairwell.

If you visit Graciosa Island, a road through a tunnel in a crater wall will lead you to the island’s only caldera—a sunken landscape of pastures, forest and smoking fumeroles (volcanic vents emitting steam). Continue on the road to the crater’s bottom to find the domed Furna do Enxofre (Sulfur Cave) cavern, approx. 328 feet (100 meters) below the earth’s surface. A volcanic spiral staircase of 180 steps once used by farmers to collect water descends into the abyss, which includes a bubbling sulfur spring and a crater lagoon named Styx (in Greek mythology, the Styx river formed the boundary between earth and Hades). Time your visit around noon when the sun enters the gallery via two openings to see the full palette of colors and forms. Adventure companies on Flores, São Miguel and São Jorge also take visitors canyoning down subterranean chasms by way of pools and waterfalls.

Plunging into the Blue

Scuba divers can have a field day in the azure waters of the Azores. Teeming with marine life, the islands are also home to underwater mountains, volcanic rock formations, caves, grottos, shipwrecks and anchor graveyards. The remarkable number of dive spots and their treasures make the Azores the best place to dive in Europe—and it’s rarely crowded. Dive sites include everything from barracudas, mackerels, groupers, tunas, blue marlins, sardines and manta rays to eel, shrimp, sponges, octopi and coral. The Azores are also becoming known as a center of shark diving, where you’re virtually guaranteed to see blue sharks, while occasional whale sharks, hammerheads and makos also troll the area. Whales and dolphins are also frequent visitors. Blue whales and migrant species can generally be spotted from March to May, but summer (June to October) is the best season for divers, who have the opportunity to see sperm whales and large dolphin populations. Start with the Top Ten Experiences to whet your deep-sea appetite.

You’ll find dive centers on all the Azores islands except Corvo—although the tiny island does have fantastic dive sites. Choose from scuba tours by day and night, PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) dive courses and snorkel lessons or excursions. More personalized scuba outings, such as those offered by John Cockshott (São Miguel), are also available. Non-divers can snorkel off boatall the islands and frolic with dolphins or swim with the turtles. If you prefer to stay above water, board one of the many vessels operated by companies like Futurismo (São Miguel) that go whale and dolphin watching. You can also go sport fishing if you want to wrestle with nature.

Island Artistry on Santa Maria, São Miguel & Faial

Sao Miguel

The Azores are rich in artistry when it comes to architecture, pottery and seafaring heritage. Arched doorways and windows in Vila do Porto on Santa Maria attest to the early settlers that hailed from the southern Alentejo and Algarve regions of Portugal. Traditional one-story houses feature terra-cotta hipped roofs (sloping down on all four sides) and the iconic slender chimneys that resemble minarets. Houses are also accented with specific colors to offset the white masonry. Each of the island’s five parishes displays a different trim color—blue in Santa Bárbara, green in Santo Espírito, yellow in São Pedro, red ochre in Almagreira and terra-cotta in Vila do Porto. You can trace the origin of traditional Louça da Lagoa ceramics—sought after by many collectors—to the island of São Miguel. In addition to the familiar blue-and-white designs on glazed crockery and tiles, look for red-clay pottery and sculpture work (glazed or unglazed, handpainted or not) as well as industrial ceramics (roofing materials, bricks and decorative tiles). You can visit Cerâmica Vieira Lagoa, the Azores’ first ceramics factory (established in 1862), to see the full spectrum of Lagoa ceramics. Many are for sale in the shop.

For art from all over the globe, head to Horta’s marina on the island of Faial, where thousands of murals left by passing sailors grace the seawalls, pier and walkways. Serving as a type of calling card, each mural lists the name of the vessel and its crewmen, as well as the year of the visit. Sailors have called on Horta since the 18th century, when hunting brought whaling fleets to the island. The marina still serves as a key stop for yachts on transatlantic journeys, and sailors usually visit Peter’s Café Sport, a seafaring institution bursting with nautical heritage.

Terceira – Traditions of Man vs. Beast

The numerous bull farms of Terceira attest to an ancient tradition that is still revered on this island. Between May and October, you’ll find bulls running through the streets or engaged in formal arena bullfights. Unlike in Spain, however, these bulls are not killed—nor are they herded in the streets with other bulls. Whether on predetermined dates or at spontaneous events, there is a method to the madness. Touradas à corda (bullfighting by rope) serves as an informal form of joust that gives spectators a chance to contend with a bull. Held on village main streets or on the beach, these events bring out locals who avidly watch frenzied bulls charging up stairwells, down alleyways, into gardens, rivers or open spaces, and even over sand into the sea in a dangerous game of cat and mouse. To ensure safety, bulls are tied to a long rope held firmly in hand by a group of seasoned pastores (herdsmen) outfitted in white tunics and black fedoras. After a small rocket is launched to signal the start, the bull is released from a crate and local “matadors” (regular civilians)—who are brave enough (or want to impress enough)—approach the bulls and engage them by waving jackets, capes, carpet pieces, umbrellas or flailing arms. The viewing public stands or sits wherever there is room: along the streets, atop walls and windowsills, on the beach or in the sea. Everyone knows to get out of the way when the bull heads in their direction (stake out your viewing spot with a quick escape in mind; many locals watch from the safety of the surrounding trees, rooftops and verandas). Once the bull tires, the pastores guide it back into its crate and launch another rocket to signal the end of the round.

These touradas à corda usually happen in the late afternoon and are free to watch. Arena fights are more akin to formal Portuguese bullfighting and require tickets to see. In both cases, the bulls are returned to their farms after a vet examination.

São Miguel – Cooking in the Volcano

Sao Miguel

Since lava is key part of the Azores’ heritage, visitors should see one of the many volcanic lakes or peaks. On São Miguel, head to the eastern side of the island to have a meal at Lagoa das Furnas (Furnas Lake) in the Vale das Furnas (Valley of Furnaces). Volcanic eruptions in the 17th century created caverns in the ground, which still provide bubbling hot springs and steaming geysers for a unique gastronomic tradition. On Sundays, people come here to cook cozido—a stew of meat (chicken, beef, pork or sausage) and vegetables (carrots, turnips, potatoes and cabbage). After assembling the ingredients at home, locals arrive in the morning with their pots in hand and place them directly in ground holes to let them cook for 5 to 6 hours via geothermal heat. Holes are tagged so everyone knows whose food is whose. Don’t worry if you don’t come equipped—local restaurants like Tony’s and Caldeiras e Vulcões also prepare the volcanic cozida and have it ready around 1 p.m. with appropriate names like “Stromboli Eruption” and “Lava Chicken.”

You can also hop in the geothermal waters and mud baths yourself. When the town of Furnas became known for its thermal baths and hot springs in the 1930s, a hotel and casino were built. The four-star Art Deco Terra Nostra Garden Hotel still stands today, but you don’t need to stay there to take advantage of its thermal restoration. For a small fee, you can enter the attached Parque Terra Nostra, a botanical garden that boasts a thermal lake. Alternatively, you can pay 2 euros (approx. $3 U.S.) to soak in one of three pools at the open-air Poça da Dona Beija thermal springs, which includes a towel rental as well as access to the showers and changing areas. For a plunge into the sea, drive to Ponta da Ferraria on the western side of the island. A small bay surrounded by lava rocks is naturally heated to approx. 82°F (28°C) by piping-hot volcanic springs; it’s best navigated at low tide. The nearby Termas da Ferraria Spa features indoor and outdoor swimming pools of the same heated ocean water, plus a sauna, Turkish bath, spa treatments, a restaurant and a bar. When swimming in the hot springs in Furnas, wear a dark-colored swimsuit because the caramel-colored sulfur in the water and on the walls can discolor light-colored fabrics.

Santa Maria – Yellow Beaches, Charming Villages & Stopping Point for Columbus

Sao Lourenco Bay

The southernmost island of the Azores is also the oldest. Christopher Columbus put Santa Maria on the map when he stopped here on his way back from America in 1493 to attend mass at the chapel in the small village of Anjos. While its younger island siblings have black or darkened sand beaches, Santa Maria—or lha Amarela (Yellow Island)—is distinguished by yellow-sand beaches and a sunny Mediterranean climate that’s slightly warmer and drier than the other islands. Smalls bays, tiny churches, traditional farms and picturesque villages scattered about the island include Santa Bárbara, a small delight set amid lush green hills with just one café. Its charming traditional one-story houses and their distinctive slender chimneys are all painted white with blue accents.

The stunning São Lourenço Bay on the island’s eastern shore basks at the bottom of steeply terraced vineyard hills that cascade into the sea with whitewashed houses and a sandy beach. Praia Formosa (Beautiful Beach) skirts the clear green waters of the Baia da Praia (Beautiful Bay) on the island’s southern frontier. The warm water lies at the bottom of a winding road that descends from high cliffs populated with desert cactus and rocks. Its mile-long beach features tidal pools with sea life; ruins of a 16th-century fort built to ward off pirates; surfing, windsurfing and sailing opportunities; changing rooms and O Paquete, a boat-shaped beachside restaurant with great seafood and views to match. Once a year in August, the Marés d’Agosto Music Festival hits these fair sands, attracting musicians from around Portugal. Between May and October, you can reach the island by ferry from São Miguel or take a 25-minute flight.


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Travel Tips: Azores

Since the Azores are relatively unknown, they’re a great place to vacation. Given their proximity to Europe, these islands make the perfect side trip for visitors to Spain and Portugal. We’ve compiled the tips below to help you get acquainted with these nine Atlantic jewels—including what to see, where to stay, how to dress and when to visit.

Distinguished Islands

Each of the Azores has its own unique characteristics. Here’s a list to help you navigate them:

  • Corvo: The smallest and northernmost island of the group consists of 7.4 sq. miles, one town and just 400 inhabitants, who are mostly farmers and fishermen.
  • Faial: This island’s many hydrangeas paint the summer landscape blue, hence its nickname (the Blue Island). The capital of Horta and its marina are a must-see for Atlantic seafarers, along with a gin and tonic at Peter’s Bar. [link to: Santa Maria, São Miguel & Faial – Island Artistry Inside Track]
  • Flores: Rural and largely uninhabited, this is Ilha das Flores (Island of the Flowers). During the summer, thousands of hydrangeas line the roadsides and pathways. Lush trails and waterfalls make it feel like paradise.
  • Graciosa: This island is distinguished by its white houses, old windmills, fertile fields and a large rock formation that resembles a whale.
  • Pico: The highest peak in Portugal reigns over this mountainous island, which is also known for its white verdelho grapes, grown between geometric rock walls devised to protect them from ocean winds.
  • Santa Maria: The dry lha Amarela (Yellow Island) is small, quaint and dotted with traditional houses topped with minaret-like chimneys. It’s also the only island that has yellow sand on its beaches—all the others have dark-colored sand.
  • São Jorge: The mountain range that stretches across this island boasts cattle fields, wild orchids and heath, while fajãs (flat, arable seaside plains usually on a bank of lava formed by fallen cliffs, the wind and the sea) inhabited by fishermen are the main features of the coast.
  • São Miguel: Nicknamed the Green Island for its many pastures, this is the largest island. It has numerous towns, highways, thermal pools, vistas, gardens and museums, as well as opportunities to spot whales and the rare priôlo. [link to: The Birds of Paradise Inside Track]
  • Terceira: Seat of the Roman Catholic diocese of the Azores, the Ilha Lilás (Lilac Island) is the most religious. It’s known for its street-fighting bulls [link to Terceira – Traditions of Man vs. Beast Inside Track] and the annual Festivals of the Holy Ghost (April to June), which dates back to the Middle Ages.

What to Take Home

For authentic Azores souvenirs, look for enameled jewelry, handpainted scarves and corn dollies. On Santa Maria, the craft trade revolves around pottery, ceramics and wool sweaters. The Cooperativa de Artesanato is a handicrafts cooperative that features locally made tablecloths, bedspreads, woolen jerseys and embroidered linen shirts as well as straw hats, baskets and items made of corn flask, fish scales and wood. You’ll find the co-op in the town of Vila do Porto.

In São Miguel, you can get tea, pineapple or pineapple liqueur from plantations, and the famous handpainted blue-and-white porcelain tiles from the Cerâmica Vieira Lagoa [link to: Santa Maria, São Miguel & Faial – Island Artistry Inside Track] factoryin Lagoa. Other options include wine, cheese, terra-cotta décor and rosaries. If you want to bring back wine but can’t make it to Pico Island, you can buy some of the wine online.

Join the Festivities

In Portugal, virtually every town has their own patron saint and festival—and the Azores are no exception. During the summer months, you’ll find festivals that celebrate everything from music to wine to bulls. Here are some of our favorites:

  • Faial – Week of the Sea: In August, sea-related festivities bring thousands from mainland Portugal to take part in musical and cultural activities that include pageants and performances.
  • Flores – Santa Cruz Festival: On the first Sunday in August, you’ll see many floral creations along the streets during the country’s largest festival, which features the crowns of the 27 Holy Ghost shrines from around the island.
  • Santa Maria – Nossa Senhora da Assunção Festival: In mid-August, celebrate the patron saint of the island in Vila do Porto, where religious events accompany dancing and concerts, as well as crafts and gastronomic fairs.
  • Terceira – The Praia Festival: In August, the Island of the Bulls showcases its flair with bullfighting, along with exhibitions, parades, cuisine, concerts and nautical sporting events.
  • Terceira – Festas da Vinha e do Vinho: At the beginning of September, the Vineyard and Wine Festival provides festive entertainment in Biscoitos, a charming seaside village. Visitors can pick grapes and crush them with their bare feet in a tank.

Where to Stay

Alojamento em Espaço Rural (rural accommodation) is a great way to appreciate the heritage of the Azores. Although you can stay at hotels in town, the quintas (rural farms) and restored manor houses—like Solar de Lalém and Quinta das Mercês —provide a true island feel. They epitomize the slower, leisurely life, and their owners personalize the experience to make it more memorable. Small stone cottages like Aldeia da Cuada showcase the traditional lifestyle in reconstructed houses of past farmers and settlers. You can find these and more at Maisturismo. Search by all accommodation type (hotel, pousada, apartment, manor house or quinta). You can also rent houses directly from owners on vacation sites like VRBO and HomeAway.

Weather & Wear

The northern position of the Azores means the climate is not tropical, but rather moderate. Summer temperatures average between 63°F and 77°F (17°C and 25°C), although it can get much hotter. Like in the U.S., June through August is the best time for the beach.

As far as clothing goes, the Azores are very casual. Shorts, capris, T-shirts and flip-flops are ideal. In addition to sandals, it’s a good idea to bring comfortable walking shoes for the cobblestone streets, dirt paths and excellent hiking trails. Pack water shoes for cave exploration, coastal activities and the ocean hot springs at Ponta da Ferraria. Dark-colored swimsuits are best if you want to go into the volcanic thermal baths, which can turn light-colored clothing orange. Pack a cover-up for the beach and a tote for your towel, hat, sunglasses and souvenirs. If you plan to hike, bring a daypack and a water bottle. We also recommend a sweater, light fleece or jacket for evenings, whale-watching, cave jaunts, hikes and volcanic peaks.

Eat Out Instead of In

Instead of eating in the hotel restaurant, try to get to one of the Azores’ bountiful cafés, bars and family-run restaurants that serve excellent, inexpensive fare. At lunchtime, many restaurants in Ponta Delgada (São Miguel) offer a prato do dia (dish of the day) for 6 or 7 euros (approx. $8 or $9 U.S.). Dinner for two with wine ranges from 30 to 55 euros (approx. $40 or $75 U.S.), and portions are usually large. In general, the small appetizer plates served before what you order are not free, nor is the delicious bread.They will appear as a couvert (cover charge) on your bill and typically cost 1 to 2 euros (approx. $1 or $3 U.S.) apiece. Ask your waiter for the prices of the bread and appetizers, and if you’re not interested, tell him or her you don’t want them.

Island Food & Libations

To get a real taste of the islands, start with the local seafood—you won’t be disappointed in the variety and quality. You’ll find plenty of options, from grilled fish to seafood soup. Caldeirada de peixe (fish stew) is served throughout the islands, as are delicious desserts like malassadas (sweet Portuguese donuts) and massa sovada (sweet bread). When you get thirsty, try Especial, the local beer, or go with one of the other Portuguese beers: Sagres or Super Bock. Try the red and white wines grown on the islands of Graciosa, Pico, Santa Maria and Terceira. Some of the islands have their own specialties:

  • Faial: Torresmos de vinha-de-alhos (spare ribs with garlic, wine and pepper sauce) and sausage
  • Pico: Verdelho wine and fruit (apples, pears, peaches, plums, oranges and figs)
  • São Miguel: Cozido (meat and vegetable stew cooked in volcanic hot springs), fresh pineapple, tea and queijo da ilha (island cheese)
  • São Jorge: Cheese that comes in giant rounds weighing from 14 to 22 lbs.
  • Terceira: Alcatra (slow-cooked pot roast), sweet potatoes and all kinds of sweets

Floral Beauty

During spring and summer (May to August), the Azores are filled with color and profuse blooms, especially hydrangeas in all colors—from cobalt blue to magenta to white—that line roadsides and divide farm fields. You’ll also find vibrant pink azaleas, white camellias, scarlet hibiscus and purple bougainvillea that stand out against the green hills and forests. Orchids are also on display, including some that are unique to the Azores, such as the very rare Hochstetter’s butterfly orchid, which was recently discovered atop a remote volcano. The islands of São Miguel and Flores are especially great for flower viewing. Visit the Terra Nostra Botanical Garden on São Miguel or the Faial Botanical Garden outside Horta for a sampling of plant life on the islands.

Ready to Go?

Don’t forget to consult our free packing guides and destination guides before you pack your bags.