Exploring The Azores

Arriving at Ponta Delgada Airport and witnessing the queue at the car rental booth, I knew our decision to explore the Azores on foot was the right one. However, it was not long before a sense of reality struck home. These luscious volcanic islands, sprinkled handsomely in the middle of the Atlantic, with New York and Lisbon as its nearest and loudest neighbors, have not only miraculously avoided mass tourism, but a well functioning public transport system as well. A taxi was called for.

Intz48, the only coffee roastery in the Azores.

Some 1500 kilometers west of Portugal, the largest island, São Miguel was our first port of call. It’s compact capital, Ponta Delgada, busy, yet quietly reserved, was our home-base for the first few days and also home to the only coffee roastery in the Azores, Intz48. This friendly coffee roastery and café is becoming a popular focal point in the historical center on the Rua Hintze Riberio, where travelers and locals mix. A stones-throw from Intz48, is the remarkable Õtaka serving Japanesse inspired dishes based on Azorean products, succulent Limpets from Flores to the wines of Pico Island.

White hydrangeas as far as the eye can see.

But it was the hiking that drew us here, especially walking around the rim of the Sete Cidades volcano on the western tip of the island, with its spectacular views of the lakes. The 5½ hour walk was constantly interrupted with each step revealing yet another stunning vista. It soon became clear that this corner of São Miguel was like some love-child between Hawaii and the Scottish Highlands. Exotic, yet profoundly familiar. Subtropical, yet white hydrangeas as far as the eye can see.

The rim of Sete Cidades, Sao Miguel

The rim of Sete Cidades

Following the air prints of a Sej Whale.

Undoubtedly, a highlight of visiting the Azores is exploring the ocean around it and the rich marine life it supports. Since banning whale-hunting in the 1980’s, São Miguel and Pico Island have developed eco-friendly whale and dolphin watching tours that discreetly and briefly follow the migratory paths of Sperm and Sej whales. For a couple of hours Carina, someone as rare as a Swiss Marine Biologist from Futurismo, engaged me with her passion for the marine life beneath our boat and expertly engaged us as we followed the air prints of a single Sej Whale with Striped and Bottle-nosed dolphins for company.

Where to stay in Ponta Delgada.

Just a short walk from the historical part of Ponta Delgada, the hotel cum hostel, Out of the Blue is literally tucked and hidden on the narrow Rua da Boavista. Spacious rooms, creatively designed, coupled with a garden and it doesn’t get much better than that. Out of the Blue, is a welcome throw-back to the days where travelers met, exchanged their stories and fell in love. The staff of Bea, a local architect student, Martha from Budapest and the cook, the calmest and coolest dude from Tele Aviv, were the real reason that this friendly and relaxed abode is attracting travelers venturing over the Atlantic.

Oh Pico! A spectacular sight, morning, noon or night.

A turbo twin-prop, oh how I miss the sound of those motors, brought us to our next destination, Pico Island, known mainly for having Portugal’s highest mountain, Mount Pico, soaring a majestic 2.351 metres above the island’s wineyards. I do swear, when the clouds allow, the summit of the mountain resembles a fin of a Sej Whale, that for a brief moment soars and then dips under an ocean of cumulus. Oh Pico! A spectacular sight, morning, noon or night.

Cella Bar, Pico

Cella Bar, Pico

Pico’s main town and ferry terminal to the nearby island of Faial, Madalena is the starting point for an easy hike into Pico’s wine country and more importantly, a World Heritage UNESCO site. The walk takes you into a striking landscape of man-made patterns of small plots built with porous volcanic rock that protects the vines from a pounding wind and seawater. The landscape is a sharp reminder of how moody the Atlantic can be. To taste Pico’s most famous product, its wines, with stunning sunsets over Faial Island, Cella Bar is the place to head for. However, after a 4 hour coastal walk, the seafood and vegan-friendly, Mercado Bio in Madalena, was a popular venue for hikers and locals to devour a tuna burger or two.

Pico Wine Country, World Heritage Site

Pico Wine Country, World Heritage Site

 

Lajes Do Pico, a place for creative souls.

The Azores has a rich music culture, that sadly seems to get lost in the flow of western comfort pop. However, there is an outpost on Pico’s coast, the small, but not insignificant fishing village of Lajes Do Pico, that is flying the banner for Azorean musicians, such as Manuel Costa and the young talent, Bruno Rosa. Lajes Do Pico, once famed for its whaling community oozes pride in its heritage, as the highly recommendable Whale Museum bears witness to. Even the recently opened harbor public toilets would grace a 5 star hotel. But to enjoy the local vibe, visit the café Pic’ Eat, who will gladly play you Bruno Rosa’s soulful music accompanied with the island’s best coffee.

Lajes do Pico, Manuel Costa

Lajes do Pico, Manuel Costa

Where to stay in Pico.

2 kilometers outside of Madalena, hidden, but not shy, in an atmospheric woodland, a musky mix of cedars and pines, with Mount Pico, as a re-assuring back-drop, is the serene Alma do Pico. Its owners and pioneers, Frederica and Fabio, an infectious Italian couple, have created a private and peaceful eco-friendly range of cabins simply and well designed. Their restaurant, Atmosfera, leans towards their own Italian heritage based on local products and Fabio’s fettuccini was worth the trip alone.

Alma do Pico

The serene Alma do Pico

Furnas Lake, liquid emerald.

Back on São Miguel and the walks centered around Furnas Lake beckons. This crater lake, with its shimmering emerald color and geothermal hotsprings, has been attracting hikers for years. The surrounding woodland is a mix of Japanesse Cedar, bamboo to pine, with strawberries dotting the paths making the walks in this unique biodiverse universe very special.

Furnas Lake, Sao Miguel

Furnas Lake

Where to stay in Furnas.

Nestling close to the lake is the exquisite and Nordic inspired Furnas Lake Villas. The spacious and wonderfully designed cabins are dispersed in a low-lying woodland with a farm as neighbor. A magnificent final location, with a breakfast that will keep you going all day long.

Furnas Lake Villas, Sao Miguel

Furnas Lake Villas, Sao Miguel

Content & Images: Phillip Mills