Meet the magical Azores. For those having trouble deciding where to go next, I recently returned from a trip to the Azores — a group of nine volcanic islands located 950 miles west of Lisbon, Portugal’s capital — and loved it. To be honest, I’d never heard of the destination before going and was shocked to learn I could take a direct flight from Boston in about five hours on SATA Airlines.
If that’s not convincing enough, here are 10 reasons the Azores should be your next trip:
São Miguel Island from Santa Isria
1. To Immerse Yourself In Green
While part of Portugal, the Azores are essentially in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and are still largely untouched by mass tourism. This means pristine landscapes and natural experiences at almost every turn: 60+ hiking trails, volcano climbing, countryside cycling, dolphin and whale watching (20+ whale species), bird watching (64+ species), sailing, challenging surfing, water sports.
Interestingly, the islands are extremely self-sufficient in terms of production, making their own alcohol, tobacco, and dairy; growing their own produce to sell and turn into jams, curries and mustards; and keeping livestock for high quality meat production. São Miguel in particular is heaven for nature lovers, nicknamed “The Green Island” due to the intense emerald green vegetation covering almost every inch of the landscape, although Pico Island’s volcano hiking and historic vineyard touring is also worth a trip.
View from Pico da Barrosa lookout. The scene looks like a painting, but it’s real. It wasn’t even shot in HDR!
2. The Views
The Azores were full of amazing vistas — I especially loved the views on São Miguel. Grab a map from the local tourism board and you’ll see numerous suggested lookout points on each of the islands. One of my favorites was the vista from Pico da Barrosa lookout, which made the Earth look more like a painting than real life. On São Jorge, the view from the fishing harbor near Ilhéu do Topo was spectacular. Rent a car and try to photograph them all!
The pineapple plantation
While I’d eaten pineapple before the Azores, I’d never eaten Azorean pineapple. Trust me, it’s different. Pineapple culture on the islands began in the late 19th century, when the fruits were brought over from Brazil, although their nature transformed with the unique terroir into a more acidic, less sweet fruit — one that I quickly became addicted to. I even swapped my typical chocolate desserts for local pineapple cakes and mousses. Tip: try the pineapple cake — a thick slab of fresh local pineapple pressed against a moist gelatin-like cake topped with powdered sugar and a cherry — from Alcides Restaurant in Ponta Delgada (Rua Hintze Ribeiro, 61/77). Decadent!
I also visited the free-to-tour organic A. Arruda Pineapple Plantation on São Miguel (Rue Drº Augusto Arruda – Fajã Baixo – 351-296 384 438). Compared to six months for Latin American pineapples, Azorean pineapples take two years to cultivate, and you’ll be able to see the fruits at their various stages of development. In the onsite shop, pineapple novelties and a variety of housewares and accessories are sold alongside free samples of family-recipe pineapple liqueurs, chutneys (love the spicy one!), jam, mustard and curry.
Gorreana Tea workers sorting black tea by hand.
4. Europe’s Only Tea Plantations
São Miguel is the only place in all of Europe where you’ll find tea plantations. There are actually two on the island, both within a 10-minute drive of each other. I visited Gorreana Tea (Maia, Sao Miguel 9625; +351 296 442 349) a family-operated business since 1883 that takes pride in growing organic, chemical-free tea leafs. Here, visitors can wander the plantation and factory free of charge, learning how the machines work, sampling tea (the green has a floral, non-bitter flavor), and perusing a gift shop showcasing local products like homemade jams and fruit liqueurs. They make both green and black teas, which I learn are from the same plant — Camellia sinensis; however, while black tea goes through a fermentation process, green tea instead is steamed. At the moment, they’re constructing a museum to house old machines and artifacts.
Food being taken up from the underground oven.
5. Underground Cooking
Everyday at 12:30pm, you can go to Lagoa das Furnas on São Miguel to watch locals and chefs pull pots filled with meats and veggies out of the ground. These people aren’t foraging — although almost all of the meat and produce used in the Azores is grown locally — they’re using naturally occurring steam from the geothermal hot springs to cook the ingredients for “Cozido das Furnas,” a typical dish in the São Miguel parish of Furnas.
Cozito de Furnas. Yum!
After watching how the ingredients are prepared, head to Furnas Village to the Terra Nostra Garden Hotel (Rua Padre José Jacinto Botelho, 5) to savor the dish for yourself — a hearty plate of beef shoulder, black pudding, pork shanks, chorizo, pork belly, pork foot, chicken, kale, cabbage, carrot, yam and potato all gowned in its own juices — before wandering the onsite 12-acre botanical gardens (€6/about $6.80 USD per person).
7. The Cheese
São Jorge isn’t just home to any cheese, but the famous São Jorge Cheese — renowned all over the Azores. This part of local culture can be explored at Uniqueijo cooperative (Uniqueijo, Beira 9800-501 Velas São Jorge; +351 295 438 274/5; firstname.lastname@example.org), where they produce protected designation of origin (PDO)-classified raw milk cheese and offer tours.
After dressing up in a plastic gown, hat and booties, I’m taken on a guided tour of the plant, viewing how the cheese begins as raw milk and moves through the different phases to become a perfectly wheel-shaped cheese, an important aspect of attaining the PDO São Jorge Cheese label. There will also be a colored stamp to tell you the cheese’s age: black/7 months, red/4 months or green/3 months.
The stinky experience continues into a bar and shop, where I peruse local dairy products and homemade pastries, and also savor a comparative tasting of a young 3-month aged cheese, which has a yellower color and more soft and salty flavor, and a 7-month aged cheese, which is slightly firmer, sharper and even a bit spicy. My guide informs me that many guests inquire if they add pepper to their older cheeses, when in fact the taste occurs naturally, especially in the São Jorge Cheese.
Enjoying a glass of Pico Island Wine on the water
6. The Wine
Once you have your artisan cheese on São Jorge, head to Pico Island for some local wine. Not only does the island make great vinho, but many of its vineyards hold heritage importance. Within the UNESCO World Heritage wine area of Criação Velha, home to the most extensive network of vineyards on Pico Island, you can take a walk through the basalt wall-lined vineyards and do a tour, workshop or tasting at the local Cooperativa Vitivinícola da Ilha do Pico (Pico Island Wine Cooperative). The area focuses on historical grapes like verdelho, , arinto, and terrantez as vitners work to preserve a heritage that has been around since the first settlers arrived in the 15th century.
To immerse yourself in this old world, drive about 15 more minutes Lajido, where houses done in a 15th century style — simple constructions made from stone without use of concrete with small glass windows and red and green doors to signify if you were poor or wealthy, respectively — abound. Here you’ll also find a distillery-slash-museum worth checking out to see how they make liquors and fire water using old stone machines. Cooperative of Pico Island (CVIP), Avenida Padre Nunes de Rosa #29, 9950 Madalena; +351 292 622 262, email@example.com
Standing over a dam on the Salto do Cabrito trail on Sao Miguel
7. Scenic Hiking
Each Azorean island has its own network of hiking trails, with brochures and maps provided by the local island tourism boards (click here for their addresses). I did a few during my trip. One was Fajã dos Cubres to Fajã da Caldeira de Santo Cristo, the place where they catch São Jorge‘s famous clams. The landscape immerses you in woodland lush with native vegetation, along the mountain edge for Atlantic views, through the small stone house fajã villages on the water, and near lush jungle for a mix of experiences in about two hours round trip.
If you have the energy to continue, it’s possible to continue Serra do Topo in the mountains, which makes the trail 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) each way.
Another I enjoyed was Salto do Cabrito on São Miguel, a unique waterfall trail that introduced me to nature as well as geothermal and hydro electricity, as I hiked atop the Fajã do Redondo Dam for beautiful water views, through steamy sections of trail from geothermal activity, over metal catwalks taking me over streams and alongside giant pipes, and to a beautiful waterfall where you can swim in the warmer months.
A delicious meal at Restaurante Fornos de Lava on Sao Jorge
9. Easy Access to Other Islands
What’s really special about the Azores is how easy and close it is to get from island to island. Actually, all of my inter-island flights were about 30-40 minutes long. Moreover, each island has its own personality.
While São Miguel is known for its crater lakes, colorful flowers, green landscape and vibrant Ponta Delgada capital city, Santa Maria offers whimsical vine-covered buildings and is home to Anjos Chapel of Baia de Sao Lourenco, the very place Christopher Columbus prayed on his return voyage to America. Then there’s Terceira, steeped in history as it’s home to the Atlantic’s first European city (Angra do Heroísmo) and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On Pico Island, I was stunned by the gorgeous lava-covered landscape mixed with green slopes and basalt-lined vineyards. These are just a few of the nine islands and what to expect on each.
Adegas de Pico
10. Rural Accommodation
The Azores offers rural accommodation usually in the typical old stone style. It’s a great way to go back in time and get a taste of what the islands used to be like. Adegas de Pico on Pico Island was by far my favorite of the four accommodations I used on the trip. Basically you get your own traditional stone cottage — mine used to belong to a fisherman — featuring local handicrafts and items throughout, right on the water. It was super cozy, had its own self-catering kitchen with breakfast items included and allowed me to fall asleep to the sounds of the ocean.
Jessica Festa is the editor of the travel sites Jessie on a Journey (http://jessieonajourney.com) and Epicure & Culture (http://epicureandculture.com). Along with blogging at We Blog The World, her byline has appeared in publications like Huffington Post, Gadling, Fodor’s, Travel + Escape, Matador, Viator, The Culture-Ist and many others. After getting her BA/MA in Communication from the State University of New York at Albany, she realized she wasn’t really to stop backpacking and made travel her full time job. Some of her most memorable experiences include studying abroad in Sydney, teaching English in Thailand, doing orphanage work in Ghana, hiking her way through South America and traveling solo through Europe. She has a passion for backpacking, adventure, hiking, wine and getting off the beaten path.