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The Azores Are the Perfect Island Getaway—and They’re Closer Than You Think

By Sandra Ramani

Jun 22, 2018

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The Azores abound with Portuguese influence, such as in the architecture on Terceira island.

Courtesy of Azores Getaways

The Azores abound with Portuguese influence, such as in the architecture on Terceira island.

The remote archipelago, an autonomous region of Portugal, is less than a five-hour flight from the East Coast.

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Travelers who’ve been to the Azores face a dilemma: Sing the destination’s praises, or keep the secret to themselves? A visit to this stunning, nine-island Atlantic Ocean archipelago (an autonomous region of Portugal) feels like you’ve stumbled upon a true travel find. It’s an under-the-radar natural paradise where you can walk into a volcanic caldera, take in a traditional bull run, sip the only tea grown in Europe, indulge in fresh seafood, stay in a historic fort, and much more—all a stone’s throw from the East Coast.

Delta launched new direct flights from New York’s JFK to the Azores’s Ponta Delgada Airport in May, making it the only airline apart from Azores Airlines to offer nonstop service from the United States. In addition to accessibility, here are the key reasons why the Azores should be your next getaway, before the secret really gets out.

Delta launched nonstop flights to Ponta Delgada in May.

It’s the closest part of Europe to the United States

Made up of nine volcanic islands, spread across 400 miles in the northern Atlantic Ocean, the Azores are situated some 1,000 miles west of Lisbon. A designated protectorate of Portugal, the archipelago is the closet European land to the United States—it’s less than a four-hour flight from Boston.

Although its relative isolation has helped foster a unique culture on the islands, there’s a distinct European feel here, from the language to the traditional Portuguese architecture, churches, and town squares, to the pastéis de nata (egg custard tarts) found in the bakeries. Portuguese festivals and holy days are also celebrated, but the archipelago has its own traditions, too—including the bull runs that take place nearly every day in the summer on the island of Terceira.

It’s affordable

The Azores remains pretty wallet-friendly despite being on the euro, Portugal’s rising popularity with tourists, and the archipelago’s remoteness. That’s in part due to the fact that it attracts fewer tourists, its wealth of locally grown food and wine, and its concentration of three- and four-star hotels (there isn’t much over-the-top luxury here). Because of its remote location and the appeal of inter-island-hopping, the Azorean tourism industry has relied largely on tour operators and packaged travel, which has likewise helped keep travel affordable.

Rich colors, flavors, and culture are found throughout the Azores, as in these typical houses on Terceira island.

Island hopping, of course 

The Azores is more than one destination—it’s nine distinct ones, each with its own atmosphere and attractions, linked by short flights or ferry rides. The archipelago is divided into three island clusters: eastern (São Miguel and Santa Maria islands), central (Terceira, São Jorge, Pico, Graciosa, and Faial), and western (Flores and Corvo).

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Most international tourists land in São Miguel and visit two or three islands during their stay. São Miguel, the largest island, is home to the lively city of Ponta Delgada, which is framed by 18th-century arched gates, as well as crater lakes, volcanic peaks, and the only tea plantations in Europe. (You can visit producers like Chá Porto Formoso and Chá Gorreana in the Ribeira Grande area.) Terceira island’s main town, Angra do Heroísmo, has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site for its historic old town and notable churches; Pico island has Portugal’s highest mountain; and Faial is known for its yacht harbor, painted tile-lined churches, and its caldera-containing national park. At just seven square miles, Corvo is the smallest island and home to only 400 residents.

Volcano exploration

With its volcanic splendor and great swaths of undeveloped land, the Azores are a paradise for the outdoorsy and adventurous. On Terceira, the Algar do Carvão Natural Reserve is one of the few places on the planet where you can descend into an ancient volcanic chimney and lava chambers (via stairs and tunnels) to explore the caves, formations, and rainwater lake inside. On Faial island, the Capelinhos Volcano Interpretation Center offers an informative overview of the archipelago’s topography and details some of the region’s more notable volcanic eruptions; afterward, be sure to climb up the lighthouse—or ascend the adjacent ridge—for sweeping views of the volcanic landscape.

On many of the islands, you can hike or ride quad bikes around crater rims, then climb down into them to enjoy boating or kayaking on crystal-clear crater lakes or soak in natural hot springs or mud baths. And though not directly volcano-related, the top (and most intense) adventure activity on the islands is a climb up Pico island’s Mount Pico, which at 7,800 feet is the highest mountain in Portugal.

There’s delicious local cheese and ice cream

The Azores’ culinary traditions go beyond Portugal’s essential dishes. On some islands, there are either as many—or more—bovine residents than humans. Left free to graze through green meadows and natural springs, the happy cows produce high-quality milk that’s enjoyed as is, in ice cream, or in excellent cheeses that are shipped all over the world. Dating back to the 15th century, the Azorean dairy industry is so intrinsic to its heritage that the cows have become the islands’ unofficial mascots, adorning postcards and all manner of souvenirs.

With all this abundance, you’ll find cheese on every menu, starting with breakfast and ending with dessert. In fact, each island has its own signature cheese, so there are lots to sample. Favorites include the semi-hard, yellow-rind, spicy-and-salty variety from São Jorge (the so-called land of cheese), and the Pico island soft cheese that packs a strong bite. Don’t miss the ice cream, either: On Terceira, stop by Quinta dos Açores to savor unique flavors, like those inspired by traditional baked goods.

Stay inside a volcanic stone house at the Aldeia da Fonte eco-hotel.

You can stay in a fort (or farmhouse, or eco-resort)

The Azores are blissfully free (for now) from humdrum international chain hotels, so it’s a great place to seek out unique and quirky accommodations. On São Miguel, Ponta Delgada is where you’ll find the most style-conscious boutique hotels and buzzing resorts, such as the contemporary Azor Hotel, overlooking the water and yacht marina; in Furnas, the gorgeous Furnas Boutique Hotel, a spa-centric resort, harnesses the power of local natural thermal waters.

On Terceira, check in to Pousada Forte Angra do Heroísmo, a 16th-century fort-turned-inn perched on a cliff just above the main town, or escape from it all at Pico da Vigia, a collection of restored stone farmhouse villas with midcentury interiors (complete with fireplaces) and access to fresh produce from the on-site organic farm. Pico island is home to the serene, cliff-top Aldeia da Fonte eco-hotel, where the 40 rooms unfold in six volcanic stone houses tucked among lush tropical foliage and overlooking the Atlantic.

Did someone say local vinho?

Vinho (wine) has been produced in the Azores for at least five centuries, but the industry was only revived in the 1940s and ’50s, following a major outbreak of vine-destroying phylloxera in the late 1800s. In 1961, Pico established a co-op for growers and winemakers—an organization that’s now the hub of the local wine scene. Both the co-op and the Museu do Vinho (wine museum) provide an informative overview of the unique local topography, soil, and grape varietals; the co-op also offers tastings.

Some top Azores labels to look for on local restaurant menus (or to sample at the co-op’s tasting room) include Terras de Lava, Curral Atlantis, Azores Wine Company, and Frei Gigante. The latter turns out wines made with the “forbidden grape,” Isabella, which was banned in much of Europe long ago after U.S. varieties brought an outbreak of rot.

All the foodie flavors

Fresh seafood, rich cheeses, spicy stews, and a different signature bread on each island—all help make the Azores a foodie wonderland. Given the location, seafood is predictably plentiful and goes well beyond lobster and fish. Terceira, for example, is famous for its cracas, or barnacles, which are boiled in seawater, while residents of São Jorge prefer to enjoy their limpets raw (elsewhere, they are typically grilled and sauced with spicy red pepper and garlic).

Meanwhile, visitors to São Miguel should seek out the cozido meat stew, which is traditionally simmered in geothermal holes in the ground and accompanied by veggies and homemade bread. Terceira’s signature dish, alcatra, is made of beef rump that’s slow-cooked with red wine, allspice, and black peppercorns.

And then there are the carbs: Traditional breads include São Miguel’s bolo lêvedo (mini pita-style flatbread), sweet breads like the fluffy massa sovada (an favorite during Easter), and Pico’s round rosquilhas (a marriage between a doughnut and a bagel). Terceira’s O Forno bakery is a great place to sample away, as well as to try the islands’ specialty Dona Amélia cakes, made with raisins, molasses, corn flour, and lots of powdered sugar.

The water

Although there are definitely some lovely beaches and coves on the islands—wide, sandy Porto Pim on Faial, for example, is popular with families, while the island’s Almoxarife Beach is dramatically lined with black volcanic sand—the best way to enjoy the water is to get out on (or in) it. With the Gulf Stream air currents resulting in warm water temps from May until as late as December, there are plenty of opportunities for snorkeling to glimpse the rich underwater flora and fauna; you can also book a guided dive to explore undersea caves and shipwrecks at one of more than 50 dive sites around the archipelago. Surfing is also popular, particularly in São Miguel, where several outfitters offer lessons and equipment.

Deep-water fishing trips can also be arranged, as can daytime sailing trips for whale- and dolphin-watching—or sunset sails for the ultimate Instagram moments from this closer-than-you-think European idyll. Just get there now . . . before the crowds and costs catch up to the appeal.

Writer Sandra Ramani traveled courtesy of Azores Getaways, a tour operator that offers customizable, all-inclusive packages. Other tour options can be found here, including operators like the U.S.-based, Azores-specialized Tour Azores

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