What to see and what to skip in the Azores

Looking for a unique island experience? Consider the Azores.

ByABC News
October 28, 2017, 5:10 AM
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— -- Looking for a unique island experience?

Consider the Azores, an archipelago of nine volcanic islands in the North Atlantic, a little less than a thousand miles off Portugal’s coast.

They’re not a tropical destination but are wonderfully remote, with vistas that are sweeping, dramatic and unspoiled. And in a part of the world where tourism is relatively new, there’s plenty of travel value to be found here.

Never heard of the Azores? You’re not alone, but that’s also the point. This place is about discovery, whether you’re an adventure buff or a relaxation seeker. These are some of the things that make the Azores special.

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Head to an East Coast airport
“For East Coasters, the Azores are almost easier to fly to than Los Angeles and certainly easier than Hawaii,” says Olivia Salmonese, an associate producer in Travelzoo’s Chicago office, who recently spent a week exploring the Azores. “They are only a 4.5-hour flight from Boston.” Now that’s the thing: Currently, the only U.S. city offering nonstop flights to the Azores year-round is Boston. Check out Azores Airlines (previously known as SATA Internacional), which has codeshare partnership with Virgin America and WestJet.

Island hop
When planning your Azores getaway, remember that every one of the nine outcroppings “has its own unique culture, traditions, food and landscapes,” adds Salmonese, “so each could stand alone as a destination.” Sao Miguel is the largest island, a favorite for its lush landscapes and crater lakes. Terceira can smack of Ireland, with its crisscrossing fields of green. On Flores, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, you’ll find waterfalls and fields of blue and pink hydrangeas. Santa Maria, the oldest of the islands, is popular for its warm water beaches, while Graciosa offers beautiful rocky coastlines. On Corvo, a birder’s paradise, you can really unplug; the smallest island is home to just one village with a total population of 468. Salmonese spent a few days on the island of Pico, which made for great daytrips. “It’s part of the ‘Triangle,’ which is made up of three islands,” she says. “You can take a ferry to Faial or São Jorge in under an hour and spend a day.”

Don’t skip the rental car
While navigating on foot is a great way to explore some of the smaller Azores, driving is one of the best ways to discover the larger islands’ visual wonders. The island of Sao Miguel is vast, so renting a car is a must. “Though you can drive the whole island in a couple hours, it’s best to divide it into sections and spend a day each in the eastern, central and western parts of the island,” Salmonese suggests. Christie McConnell, Travelzoo’s New York-based marketing director, visited the island of Terceira for the first time last year and rented a car for three days. “We saw every piece of the island,” she says, including Biscoitos, home to lava pools, and Angra do Heroismo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. “Think Florence meets Spain,” she says. “It’s full of beautiful architecture, cobblestone streets and lovely restaurants.” (The Tasca das Tias restaurant has become a Travelzoo staff favorite). For a break from behind the wheel, book a Jeep tour; local guides like off-roading to find the most spectacular views.

Skip the hotel, camp
Even with the tourism industry here still unfolding, accommodation options abound. There are several upscale hotels; McConnell says Hotel do Caracol and Terceira Mar are among the best on Terceira. You’ll also find a bevy of private home vacation rentals as well as affordable hostels. To get extra close to your natural surroundings, consider a campsite, many of which put you right on the beach. Velas Camping Park on São Jorge features updated kitchen facilities where you can cook your own meals, while Furnas Campsite on Sao Miguel is located lakeside and in sprawling green parkland.

Skip the suit, dress down
“Dress in the Azores is fairly casual, particularly during the day,” says Salmonese. “Comfortable athletic wear is perfectly acceptable during the day, while smart casual dress is recommended for dinner.” Some of the attire on her packing list: bathing suits, water shoes, sneakers, sun hats, windbreaker, flip-flops (for pool or dinner only) and lightweight sacks for hikes.

Catch a view
Jessica Laver is an Ohio designer who just visited the Azores for the first time, thanks to an exclusive trip she found on Travelzoo’s Top 20. One of the islands’ must-see attractions? The views. “There are incredible, never-ending views of the island that are truly breathtaking,” she says. Look for specially designated viewing areas off the main access roads called miradouros. “Not only do they offer postcard-worthy views, many also have short walking trails among trees and moss coverings.”

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Take a hike
The Azores have quickly become known as a hiker’s paradise, and Laver, who hikes regularly with her husband, agrees. “There are over 20 different hiking trails just on São Miguel Island alone,” she says. “My favorite was the island’s iconic Lagoa das Sete Cidades. It is a pair of twin lakes — one side of the lake is blue and the other side is a brilliant green — surrounded by lush flora and the greenest of rolling hills, making it truly breathtaking in person.” She also recommends the Vista do Rei and the Mata do Canário trails, as well as the steep paths that lead to the Salto da Farinha waterfall. “We came across a tranquil, small pool lagoon, referred to as Poco Azul, with the most vibrant blue water. It seemed like our own small, magical grotto,” she says. Adventure-seekers should consider climbing Mount Pico on the island of Pico, a must. At 7,700 feet, it’s the highest point in all of Portugal. Salmonese says, “It’s a full-day activity, but the views from the top are worth the climb.”

Don’t hike the volcano, Walk into it
Among the Azores’ many natural wonders is Algar do Carvao, an ancient volcanic vent you can actually walk into. Located on Terceira, it wasn’t until about 20 years ago that it became accessible to the public. A visitor center charges a small fee to get in, and then you descend more than 300 feet via a maze of stairs and tunnels. There’s a small fee to get in, and access is available March through October.

Watch for whales
When it comes to whale watching, the Azores are quickly becoming known for their dependability. “Just mere minutes into our excursion, a fin whale was spotted,” recalls Laver. “A few minutes later, we encountered another type of whale — the mother of all whales, the blue whale! It was so incredible and humbling to be beside the largest mammal on the planet. We also managed to see a beaked whale and several adorable striped dolphins, which put on a great show for us.” Salmonese says whale watchers should head to the island of Pico: “This is one of the best places from which to embark since the waters are so deep.”

Skip the diet, eat the beef
Food on the Azores is influenced by its Mediterranean neighbors, meaning lots of seafood and “some of the best steak in the world,” according to Salmonese. “The archipelago has a large population of free-range cows that produce some spectacular beef. Food is prepared with relatively mild, approachable seasoning.” Among what she says are must-tries: Cozido das Furnas, a stew cooked underground with volcanic steam, and, for dessert, the traditional queijadas da vila, a pastry made with milk, eggs, butter, flour and sugar and originally created by nuns at an Azorean convent. Wine is a must here, especially on Pico, where red and white grape varieties grow in the lava-rock soils that define that landscape. Tasty and affordable. “You can get a bottle of wine at the store -- and it’s pretty good Portuguese wine -- for two euros,” says McConnell.

After wine, sip tea
The island of Sao Miguel is home to the only tea plantation in Europe, Chá Gorreana. “We were able to take a free tour of the tea plantation, checking out the factory process and walking among the tea fields,” says Laver, who especially enjoyed the complimentary tea tasting. “I remember in the moment thinking how quintessential it was to be in a European country, sipping European tea fresh from the source, all while at the same time taking in those magnificent green Azorean views. It was an experience that I doubt we will have again in our lives, so I am glad we made that one of our visits.”

Gabe Saglie is senior editor for Travelzoo, which features exclusive deals to The Azores at www.travelzoo.com. Got your own favorite Azores experience? Let him know on Twitter or Instagram: @gabesaglie.