Follow our path to four of the nine islands that make up the Azores (Terceira, Faial, Pico and Sao Miguel). Along winding roads lined with hydrangea bushes, rugged coastlines with unforgettable views of the Atlantic, lake-filled calderas and majestic mountains, where every meal is a celebration, you’ll discover the best these stunning islands have to offer.
When settlers first came to the volcanic archipelago of nine islands isolated in the Atlantic Ocean, (4,121 km from New York and 1,525 km from mainland Portugal), they coined them Açores for the birds they thought they saw encircling the sky. Though the species of bird was in fact incorrect, the name Azores nevertheless stayed. These soaring islands are a place where residents still greet you with a warm smile as if you are family, where donkeys pull wooden carts filled with produce to sell at the local market and everywhere there is a piece of untouched, awe-inspiring nature. The Azores geographic isolation has allowed each Azorean isle to preserve their unique characteristics and customs, though deeply embossed with the leitmotif of maritime culture.
7.20 A.M. HERE TO STAY
A short five and a half hour flight from Toronto, you land in the early morning hours on São Miguel. A quick connection means that you’ll soon be on the island of Terceira, another 40 minutes by air.
8.30 A.M. FIRST IMPRESSIONS
Immediately you are greeted with surprise at the abundance of floral life: palm trees, long hedges of blue, pink, and purple hydrangeas, ferns and cheery amaryllis belladonna. There are immaculately and meticulously cared for houses painted in coral, yellow, and blue as if to echo the colours of nature and bordered by fences made from stacked black volcanic stones, some painted in white for contrast. Below your feet, neat cobblestone streets are ever present, and each street seems to have a unique pattern of white limestone against grey-black basalt forming patterns of sea creatures, flowers, coats of arms, and ships.
As you drive through small parishes it’s like stepping back in time. The landscape is lined with cows grazing in fields undisturbed; taro groves their gigantic leaves glowing in the sunshine; farmland sloping toward the sea. A stop at Miradouro Serra do Cume (a lookout point) affords a unique view of the island and of Serra da Ribeirinha and though somewhat obscured by clouds, there is a vast expanse of emerald green land, like a stained glass masterpiece, each pane separated by a perimeter of black volcanic rock. To complete this artistry, the backdrop is framed and etched by the Cinco Picos caldera which forms several cones, Pico da Matinha, Pico de Rachado, Pico de Vime, Pico do António Homem, Pico do Areciro, and Pico do Malhão.
11.30 A.M. PRAIA DA VITÓRIA
Merely fifteen minutes away sits the municipality of Praia da Vitória, centered around the town square Largo Francisco Ornelas da Câmara and the nearby town hall, Paços do Concelho. Founded in 1591, it takes inspiration from the manor houses of the time with its whitewashed façade, double-staircase and bell-tower. The streets are narrow and run parallel to each other, lined with old houses featuring the characteristic sash windows with colourful shutters. You will undoubtedly be drawn to the beautifully ornate Holy-Ghost Império next to every church. These unique, charming miniature structures, many stemming from the 19th century, were used to store reliquaries, pennants, and other religious symbols. Igreja Matriz de Santa Cruz with its yellow curved trim and symmetrical architecture is especially impressive with decorated scrolls above the windows in typically Azorean Portuguese style.
12 P.M. LUNCH IN ANGRA DO HEROÍSMO
Twenty-minutes south takes you to the city of Angra do Heroísmo. At Verde Maçã restaurant enjoy a fillet of perfectly breaded crisp and golden hake served with potatoes and vegetables and finish with a traditional slice of sweet queijada Dona Amélia, dusted with powdered sugar. Continue exploring local specialties by visiting the island’s oldest cheese factory, Queijaria Vaquinha where you can sample their delicious range.
3 P.M. CENTRAL
The centre of Terceira is dominated by Algar do Carvão, an ancient lava tube. Climb into the 3 000 year old volcano filled with a tapestry of plant life, and miniature silica stalagmites that take much longer to grow than their limestone cousins. The monument with its cool, damp atmosphere and Boca do Algar, a vertical passage that feeds the area with a stream of sunlight, feels like a natural cavernous cathedral.
8 P.M. FISH
For dinner at Tasca das Tias in Angra, order the fresh grilled cherne (grouper) on a slice of bread. The convivial tavern-like atmosphere includes modern industrial furniture and is adorned with huge photographs of historical figures of the city.
9 A.M. HERE TO STAY
In Angra, Pousada Do Heroismo the 28-room, 1 suite cliff-top hotel merges history with modern-day. Built within a fortress, dating to 1555 it is a playful maze of sentry posts, a turret, manicured lawns and cobblestone pathways. The old stone walls are the backdrop to the pentagonal pool, while many of the new rooms face the sea. At breakfast the hot and cold buffet breakfast spread can only be explained as made with love. An eye popping array of choices are neatly laid out including a variety of cakes, cheeses, baked beans and freshly squeezed orange juice with one of the most creamy, delicious vegetable quiche you’ll ever taste.
10 A.M. TOURING ANGRA DO HEROÍSMO
Angra do Heroísmo is the only city in the archipelago designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. During the age of discovery, and like much of the Azores, seafaring vessels made this their first stop before continuing on to the mainland. The port boasts extensive military fortifications while the small, ancient centre is a beautiful conglomeration of painted houses, curlicue churches, sprawling gardens, and monuments. Although its past is celebrated, Angra is also of modern significance as one of three regional capitals and the seat of the Azorean Supreme Court.
At an altitude of 87 metres, your next stop is Miradouro da Memória which provides a panoramic view of the town including Monte Brasil. Rolling hills give way to seaside settlements in all their whitewashed glory, and tiny islands float in the Atlantic. Nearby, Alto da Memória monument is a stand out. The canary-coloured obelisk was erected on the site of the first fortress of the archipelago, the Castelo de São Luís. Its multi-sided decorations have an anthropomorphic character, like eyes staring forward. Throughout the town there are various examples of typical Azorean architecture, two of the most dramatic are the towering main cathedral, Sé Catedral, and Igreja da Misericórdia, the location of the first hospital in the Azores.
12 P.M. SECRET GARDEN
The meandering Jardim Duque da Terceira fuses history with floral beauty. Roses, mirror-like fountains, fruit trees, and palms recall the days when the garden was divided into parcels each dedicated to its own branch of horticulture. The grounds are also home to the Jesuit College (the Jardim de Baixo) and the Convent of São Francisco (the Bosques and Jardim de Cima) providing a shady place of relaxation.
Casa do Jardim restaurant set amidst the gardens is a nice location for a vegetarian lunch like quiche and mixed salad.
4 P.M. FAIAL MARINA
Another short flight headed west, takes you to Faial. A short drive to the south east of the island takes you to the noteworthy Marina Da Horta, where the entirety of the pavement is covered in paintings from around the world. To memorialize their visit to the island, sailing crews have transformed the space into a living postcard. Some paintings feature flags or symbols, while others feature animals or people. Each is a capsule of a single voyage and the sights, sounds and discoveries made. Walk along until dinner to discover each distinct journey.
7 P.M. DINNER
Genuino Restaurant is an authentic celebration of seafaring not only in terms of food but also décor. A map outside of the restaurant shows the escapades of owner Genuino Madruga, who has twice circumnavigated the globe by boat. Inside, the restaurant is adorned with memorabilia he has collected over the years. Your shadow box table displays postcards from Bora Bora and a t-shirt from a restaurant in Canada. You can’t go wrong with a warm bowl of fish soup, bream fish, grilled octopus in olive oil, and unforgettable fresh ricotta cheese served with pimenta moida, a local red pepper condiment.
9 A.M. HERE TO STAY
Stay overnight at the recently renovated Azoris Faial Garden Hotel, with impressive views of the marina and steps away from the famous Café Sport. Wake up early to enjoy a buffet breakfast while watching the sun rise over the ocean.
10 A.M. HIKE AND VOLCANO
Rocha da Fajã is a hiking trail that begins at Praia do Norte village in the north west of Faial and winds its way past taro and corn fields where women tend to the crops in rubber boots with tools in hand. Cliffside views are enhanced by Cyprus trees that grow beside volcanic structures. Be sure to rest alongside Nossa Senhora da Rocha (Our Lady of the Rock), an old fountain marked by Portuguese tile. Stop near Rua do Cemitério and walk down to the Fajã playground and Praia do Norte, a black sand beach, where you watch as surfers wait to catch the perfect wave.
A mere 15 minutes away is Capelinhos Volcano, which, between September 1957 and October 1958, erupted, spewing ash, destroying homes and leading to the evacuation of thousands. Eventually enlarging the island with its lava flow, the once buried lighthouse now stands proudly in the newly created landscape of grey, barren land. Climb the 144 steps for a spectacular 360 degree view. Steps away, explore the futuristic volcanology centre that explains the geological phenomenon that precipitated the latest eruption.
12 P.M. ENJOY THE VIEW
Drive up to Cabeço Gordo (Portuguese for “fat mountain”), the highest point on the island and a stratovolcano. Or, for the more adventurous, take the three-hour hike around its perimeter for a view of this spectacular caldera resembling a verdant amphitheatre with its sloping perimeter and wide basin. Nearby, a small red gravel pathway leads to a chapel with tidy wooden signs pointing the way to Sydney, Lisbon and London. For a view that captures the imagination turn toward neighbouring islands, seemingly snow-capped. Blink though and the ‘snow’ is actually a cloud, swept away by the latest wind gust. As you look down, the volcanic heritage of this island becomes all too apparent – at the shoreline the familiar outline of volcanic cones, long since covered in green, cradles towns.
2:30 P.M LATE LUNCH
Lunch at family-run Snack-Bar Aldina is a home-style treat: fish salad studded with chunks of rock fish, potatoes and vegetables mixed with mayonnaise; creamy, glorious caramel parfait topped with crunchy almonds and drizzled with chocolate.
3:00 P.M. SWEET RIDE
Take the short 30 minute ferry ride from Horta, Faial’s main town to Madalena in the island of Pico.
3:30 P.M. HERE TO STAY
Check into Aldeia da Fonte located adjacent to the roaring Atlantic Ocean. The stone cottages are spread out amongst plentiful gardens featuring local flora. At sunrise, walk along the rocky sea trail to view flocks of birds flitting to and fro against an impossible sorbet sky.
4:30 P.M. AN EASY DRIVE
It’s easy to become mesmerized driving alongside the Criação Velha Vineyards, located on Pico’s western coast. With their unusual formation, the wineries of Pico bear little resemblance to traditional sloped vineyards seen in the most other locations around the globe. Little wonder, the area has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site for the unusual linear rows of volcanic walls that run parallel to the shoreline. Hidden in between, green grape leaves protrude against the rust coloured soil. For centuries locals have used this method of stacking the plentiful volcanic stone to protect the vines from wind and sea water, and to keep the grapes at a consistent temperature. Upon closer inspection, you can even see the relheiras, tracks left by the wheels of ox-carts that carry the grapes.
5:00 P.M. TAKE A SIP
Your next stop is the unassuming Azores Wine Company in the parish of São Mateus. Inside the small tasting room, partner Paulo Machado takes you through a flight of four wines. Sip wine made from the native grape varietal Arinto dos Açores lending a crisp freshness with delicate citrus which Machado refers to as a “kiss of the ocean,” with its mild salty whisper on the palate. It pairs perfectly with the tuna pâté served at the table. As the brilliant strawberry sky lights up the vineyards, you make your way back to the hotel for a local plate of calamari with olive oil, lemon and potatoes.
8:00 A.M. ADVENTURE CALLS
Drive to the quay in Lajes do Pico on the southern part of the island. Up until the latter part of the 20th century, whaling was a major industry in the Azores. Now the area has morphed into a mecca for nature enthusiasts primarily through whale and dolphin watching. In fact, the Azores have been listed as one of the few places in the world where you can observe one third of whale and dolphin species throughout the year. Aboard Futurismo’s fourteen-seat zodiac, expect to get a personalized, up-close with nature perspective of Pico’s sealife. Guide Rui, a marine biologist, ebulliently educates guests on the differences between each of the cetacean species. Mere minutes into the journey, as the craft eagerly propels across the cool water, pods of friendly Risso’s dolphins playfully perform acrobatics as if on cue with the cloud skirt around Mount Pico lending an elegant backdrop. Next, the meeker spotted and striped dolphins come into view. After several excited calls on the call radio from the whale spotter, you are finally rewarded with a pair of grey sperm whales wading in the deep blue ocean.
1:30 P.M. LUNCH BREAK
All of that adventure has built up an appetite. Lunch at Casa Ancora in São Roque, is easily one of the best restaurants in the Azores, with exceptional service to match the sleek modern design. No detail has been overlooked, even the ceramic tableware represents the three prominent elements on the island (fire, water and earth). Indeed the restaurant’s philosophy of ‘local ingredients with a new vision’ shines effortlessly. Begin with the shareable Azorean stone crab pâté with avocado, a combination of sweet, briny lumps of claw meat with the creaminess of avocado, followed by the tender grilled octopus served with smooth mashed sweet potato and bright tomato salsa. For dessert, the flawless dark chocolate tart encases silky ganache in rich buttery pastry.
3:30 P.M. LAID BACK LAJIDO
Drive through the parish of Santa Luzia, marked by the black seaside church surrounded by jade samphire poking through volcanic stones. In sleepy Lajido, the striking characteristic houses resemble Holstein cows with their black and white facades, topped off with signature bright green or red shutters.
7:00 P.M. OFF WE GO AGAIN
After a short 50 minute flight, arrive on São Miguel island and check into the Azor Hotel.
8:30 A.M. NATURE CALLS
Drive to the centre of the island and view the crater lake, Lagoa do Fogo. A foggy morning reveals small glimpses of São Miguel’s highest lake, plentiful with wildflowers. Make a short detour to the Northern coast at Miradouro da Santa Iria where the gentle mist in the air, the white horses feasting on lush grass, and dramatic emergent coastline creates an idyllic setting that could easily be mistaken for an impressionist painting.
9:30 A.M. GET YOUR VITAMIN INTAKE
Just ten minutes away, Caldeira Velha with its enormous ferns reminiscent of the Jurassic era, feels like a secret garden. The protected area, classified as a Natural Monument of the São Miguel Natural Park and part of the Azores UNESCO Global Geopark is comprised of two natural mineral-rich pools. Step into the first sapphire coloured water for a soak amidst a waterfall before entering the second warmer pool (at 38C).
11:00 A.M. TEA TIME
As you make your way to Plantação Chá Gorreana, the undulating terraced tea fields mimic those of Asia. It may seem out of place, but this is Europe’s oldest (five generations) and only tea plantation. Inside the production facility, the perfume of fermented and dried black, green and Oolong leaves wafts in the air. With some of the equipment dating to the late 19th century, guests are privy to the manufacturing process. Today, most of the labour is still done by hand, charmingly evidenced by the small gaggle of Azorean ladies happily filling packets of tea at the end of the tour.
12:30 P.M. A TRADITIONAL MEAL
The odour of sulphuric gas builds as you make your way to the entrance of Furnas lake. Spot geysers and fumaroles scattered through the volcanic complex with billowing hot steam rising from the earth. Thermal energy is used globally for cooking and the Azorean take on this traditional method is called Cozido das Furnas. A large stock pot filled with potatoes, meat or fish, and vegetables is lowered into a small pit in the earth where it will remain for several hours as the contents cook with the underground heat before being retrieved and then served. At Restaurante Bar Caldeiras e Vulcões enjoy cozido for lunch. The tender meat and vegetables have a mild smokiness and delicate flavour. Brothers and co-owners Victor and Paulo Mendonça Costa learned from their grandfather how to make this typical dish of São Miguel.
3:00 P.M. WALK IN NATURE
After your hearty meal, walk amongst the adjacent 31 acre, two hundred year-old Terra Nostra Botanical Park, with thousands of plants, ferns, trees and flowers from around the world. The focal point is the iron rich swimming pool, where guests bask in the warm water.
9:30 A.M. MEET THE TWINS
Drive to one of the seven natural wonders of the Azores, Lagoa de Sete Cidades located at the base of an ancient stratovolcano. Comprised of two ecologically different lakes linked by a narrow strait, the lagoons shimmer in the early sunlight peeking through the clouds.
12:00 P.M. A FINAL BOW
With the final few hours of your journey coming to a close, there is no better way to say adieu to the Azores than to be immersed in nature. Walk along the craggy volcanic mounds at the Natural Monument Pico das Camarinhas, located on the western tip of the island. At Ponta da Ferraria, the dramatic turquoise sea crashes against black stone, and though the cool wind that carries ocean spray to your face beckons you to bathe in the protected pools, the damp weather dictates otherwise.
Instead, soak inside the healing waters at Termas da Ferraria followed by a delicious traditional feast that includes a starter of the ubiquitous limpets in a garlic olive oil sauce, and fresh sword fish with sesame seeds and vegetables. End with a mouth-watering tea-infused custard flan. A parting kiss from the ocean seems the perfect way to say goodbye to these magical islands.
This original article first appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of City Style and Living Magazine