THE AZORES

I selfishly don’t want to share some of this for fear of these places spoiling.  It’s not that there aren’t tourists in the Azores, there are, but mostly Europeans and nothing is overrun yet. There are direct flights from Boston (4.5 hr flight) and later this month direct flights start from New York.  Every single day in the Azores feels like a fairy tale.  The islands are so green, perfectly manicured, there’s cute cows everywhere and you’re never far from a volcano.  We spent most of our time on São Miguel and a few days on Pico. We passed through Faial, and next time I want to hit Flores as well.  Between the islands Azores Airlines is the only flight option and for closer islands there are ferries.  We flew from São Miguel to Faial and took a quick 25 minute ferry from there to Pico.

STAY: Upon arrival in Ponta Delgada, the main hub of São Miguel, it’s nice to stay in town for a few days.  It’s central to everything on the island, a good base, and nice to walk to dinner, cafes, shops, etc.  We stayed at Casa da Cidade, the most charming guest house right in town owned by a sweet couple who renovated the house that Pedro (the husband) grew up in about a year ago.  They have a dog that we fell in love with every morning and they were just the right amount of available and warm at breakfast and then everyone goes on their way.  I think there are four guest rooms, the beds and linens were great.  We stayed there for two nights and spent the first few days exploring the west side of the island.

Next we stayed at the Furnas Boutique Hotel.  The whole hotel is basically a spa, the main draw are the thermal pools and I spent the majority of days soaking.  The rooms were on the small side, the dining room kinda felt like a cafeteria and the food (other than breakfast) is just ok but none of that really matters because of how good the chill is.  We got spa treatments daily which were decent, there’s actually a gym which I enjoyed for a change and the staff is helpful.  I loved sitting in the bar which feels like a library and read and ate and drank in there most of the time.  They left us a number of surprises in our room like cheese plates, cookies, and more which was fun.  I MISS THE POOLS!

There are a couple of other hotel options on São Miguel that we considered and got a look at while there…White Azores is beautiful, just out of town from Ponta Delgada (8 min drive).  I personally feel like if you are staying in the area of town it’s better to be IN town and able to walk to everything but if you are looking for a quiet oasis, the White is yo spot.  Also on the beach in Santa Barbara (which has the best beaches) is the Santa Barbara Eco Beach Resort.  Really amazing property, it was a tad chilly for proper beach days when we were there (April/May) so didn’t make sense for us but we went for lunch, discussed below.

The last place we stayed was on Pico and was my actual dream.  Pocinhobay  is a summer property for Louisa and her husband. When Summer ends, they hit the road and travel the world. Louisa has the most impeccable taste and the place is filled with pieces from her travels.  OFF THE CHARTS.  Furniture, art, textiles and more from all over the world. The property is massive, they grow grapes and make wine and it’s a very quiet, peaceful spot.  Whenever I told locals where I was staying, they would say “that’s the most beautiful place on the whole island”.  And it really was.  There’s a pool, a breakfast deck, and a number of comfortable spaces to relax.  The property overlooks a swimming cove with a little rocky beach that is lovely.  Louisa is living my dream, and she’s crushing it.  I also should add that she hooked us up with contacts for tours and guides to climb Mt Pico, go whale watching, and more.  Her recommendations were all quite good.

EAT: Let me start with my favorite food experience of the trip.  Quinta dos Sabores farmhouse is a family owned and run farm that serves dinner five nights per week to one seating of guests.  It’s unfussy, fresh food, five courses, 35 euro (cash only) and feels really warm and special.  Make a reservation at least a day before and just knock on their door and in ya go.

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In town, my favorite restaurant was Tasquinha Viera and the tuna steak at Colegio 27 was legit.

Tasquinha Vieira
Tasquinha Vieira

Enjoy a long leisurely lunch by the water at Santa Barbara Eco Beach Resort, good sushi and cocktails!  There’s really no such thing as a “quick” lunch in the Azores. At the little grocery store in Furnas (Spar) there is a breakfast/lunch counter and they also have an outdoor patio.  The food is decent and just what you are looking for when staying in that area and don’t want a whole to-do.  We got chicken wraps and fries and felt pretty good about ourselves for finding this lil counter.

In Pico there’s really no food to knock your socks off but Cella Bar is sooo beautiful and cozy and a great spot for sunset.  I also like the bar across the street from the Pico ferry for drinks and snacks.

Cella Bar
Cella Bar

DO: The Azores are all about the DO. You don’t have to be super outdoorsy or athletic, you just have to love nature to enjoy the Azores.  Everything is really close so if something on the map looks sort of on the way or just a little out of the way, you should make the stop.

The first area we explored was Sete Cidades, which is what you see photographed most from the Azores.  It’s worth the hype, it’s incredible.  We hit Miradouro da Vista do Rei, the abandoned hotel first for a view.  It’s right on the side of the road and easy to pull off for a quick look.  It’s a creepy abandoned hotel, go up to the top for a windy yet beautiful view of the lakes.  As many times as you see Miradouro da Boca do Inferno in photographs (the long, narrow dirt path with wooden railing) it will still blow your mind in person.  It’s the coming together of all things in the setting that blow you away.  Not too much to see in the town of Sete Cidades but worth a pass through.  We drove to the most western part of the island, the tiny town of Mosteiros for a late lunch at O Americo De Barbosa.  It was ok, try to sit outside, order basic trustworthy items.  We missed Ponta da Ferraria while over there and want to go next time, there’s a hot spring pool IN the ocean.

The next day was centered around the Lagoa do Fogo hike.  Dedicate the day to this, it’s incredible, one of my favorite days.  There’s an app called “WalkMe Azores” that has all the trail maps, directions and shows elevation, it’s key for this hike.  Make sure you do the longer “Praia- Lagoa do Fogo” hike that is a loop and takes about four hours.  I’m a pretty experienced hiker who prefers a challenging climb, my friend Alex less so and though there were times when it was real work, we were both fine.  You go through so many landscapes, different types of trees blanketing you on both sides, cows up close, the star of the show is the lake sitting at the top of the mountain where you can sit and have lunch, it is truly stunning and the whole day felt like a dream.  When you’re done with the hike there’s a perfect beach bar nearby on the southern coast (think it’s called Bar Praia de Agua d’Alto) where we got beers and fries and I have never been happier.

If you are staying at the Furnas Boutique Hotel and your trip is long enough to spare a day, take a full day to relax at the hotel in the pools and at the spa.  Because there is nothing better than soaking in warm pools, step out of the hotel and hit the nearby Dona Beija hot springs.  Very different than the hotel’s thermal pools, these are natural hot springs.  It’s way better than the internet leads on to and they are open at night as well.  There’s a ton of locals there, it’s only four euro and you can just waltz in (in the states entrance would cost a hundred dollars but it wouldn’t matter because it would be reservations only and you would never get in).  Beautiful setting, unpretentious, inclusive, clean and well maintained.

Dona Beija Hot Springs
Dona Beija Hot Springs

Ok, the Pico DO.  There’s three things to do on Pico.  Climb Mount Pico, whale watch, and drink their local wine.  Pico’s landscape is completely different than São Miguel.  Black rocks fill the island, the traditional style houses are built from the lava rock and the vineyards have low rock walls built in grids to protect the vines- it’s all beautiful.  I love the design of their houses with a clean pop of bright color to juxtapose the black rock.

The road from Pocinhobay to town is actually the wine trail and an amazing walk to see all of the vineyards and these traditional houses (about a 45 minute walk).

Pico vineyard
Pico vineyard

Hiking Mount Pico.  Do it if you are an experienced hiker and love that sort of thing.  Don’t do it if you are not up for a long, hard hike.  The views are unparalleled.  The terrain unlike any other hike I have done (even other volcanos I have hiked).  I felt like queen of the world when we made it to the top and thought “oh, that was not so bad”.  The DOWN.  The DOWN, people.  I have never felt so challenged by the descent of a climb and it took us three hours to go up and four to go down.  My muscles were so tired and sore that I was shaking towards the end.  It’s also a full body workout, I used my arms as much as my legs and you have to plot every step.  Pico works you. I can’t sing enough praise for our guide Renato who spends more time on the mountain than not.  There’s a guy named João Xavier who was my initial connection to Renato, João is a gem and sometimes leads hikes, he also got us taxis on Pico when we needed them, he was basically our all around fixer.  Good to know João, he is caminhandoazores@gmail.com and +351 962 408 417.  We had beautiful weather and based on what I have read, I feel really lucky for that.  Bring layers, lots of water, a sandwich to eat at the top, snacks, and apply sunscreen to every crevice of your body multiple times and wear a hat.

While I was on the hike, Alex went whale watching.  She saw everything from blue whales to dolphins to sea turtles and loved it.  We were supposed to go again the next day but I was so sore from the hike and we wanted some time to chill at Pocinhobay so we scrapped it – next time!

KNOW:   The Azores is still very cheap.  Even when we “splurged” on a hotel it was less than most hotels in the US.  Nice accommodations, food, activities, etc do not cost a lot.  The only thing that does cost a lot are flights between islands and sometimes flights from mainland Portugal if you wait to book it (we did a week in Lisbon and Porto before the Azores).

There are not enough accommodations in the popular areas of the islands so book places to stay with plenty of lead time.

If you are like us and don’t drive a manual, automatic transmission cars are harder to come by and cost much more to rent.  For the most part, you need a rental car.  We had one in São Miguel and most people get one for Pico as well though we got by with taxis because we were out all day on tours hiking and whale watching.

The weather in the Azores changes by the minute.  In one day you go through heat, rain, clouds, wind, everything!

The people in the Azores are some of the warmest, kindest people I have ever met.  No one moves quickly on the islands, island time is in full effect.  Every meal takes a long time and you will have to flag a server down five times to get a check…which we came to love and appreciate.

 

 

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