The Azores are located 1000 miles off the coast of Portugal in the Atlantic Ocean. Created by the eruptions of 1766 volcanoes, each of the nine islands are named after a color and couldn’t be more unique. I stumbled upon the area while researching our next adventure. I’m drawn to land surrounded by water. I’m especially driven by places that are a little hard to get to and not on everyone’s radar. When I mentioned this particular island trip, most people confused the Azores with Arkansas (Ozarks?). This was my first sign I was headed in the right direction.
We started our journey with a direct over night flight from Boston. Waiting to board the plane, the energy was high at the gate. Voices were loud and animated. Eavesdropping I learned they were mostly return visitors and natives conversing with an excitement usually reserved for post-vacation chatter. Everyone had a story, a relative, or a town in common.
We settled in for the overnight flight. Azores Airways (originally known as SATA) were topnotch. Their priority was our comfort and supplied complimentary blankets, pillows, and served us delicious food. Our flight arrived the following morning about 10 minutes before the 6:00am official opening of the airport at Ponta Delgada on Såo Miguel. We circled over the emerald green island until the pilot was given the ok to land. My breath fogged the window as I tried to take in every detail. Clusters of little towns sprinkled around blue and green lakes, green mountains jutting out of the sea and rolling fields dotted with cows gave me my first glimpse of this magical place.
The main island, Såo Miguel (The Green Island) has over half the population of the Azores living on it. Ponta Delgada the main city is the largest in the archipelago. We pulled out of the car rental lot to narrow streets lined with ancient cobblestones. Heading northwest, we passed by bakeries, cafes and tiny grocery stores nestled between beautiful churches. Farmers in their tall rubber boots congregated outside little shops sipping coffee. The narrow winding roads at first intimidating, proved to be navigable since rarely could one gain speed before another sharp curve slowed you down.
Casas do Monte was our first stop for a quick shower before heading out to begin exploring. The converted 16th century dairy farm in Santo Antonio, about 40 minutes north of the airport turned out to be a perfect base. We stayed in a small stone cottage hidden beneath blooming vines of bougainvillea. Little french doors opened onto a stone path lined with purple flowering Agapanthus and lead to a pool and terrace overlooking the ocean. The innkeeper had left us a plate of fresh bread and pastries, local jams and honey, and we ate by the pool planning our first trek.
The islands of the Azores are a hikers paradise, each island having designated trail systems documented on reliable trail maps. The trails are actually the footpaths that the islanders have used for centuries to get from one end of the island to another. Såo Miguel alone has over 25 official trails, from the famous Sete Cidades to cliff trails along the ocean and inner island ravines .
On our first full day we set off on a rather ambitious hike. Before the sunset that evening we had logged 14 miles across the country side. We travelled through cow pastures, old aqueducts, across old bridges and slippery underground tunnels. We navigated our way around Sete Cidades, the green and blue lake formed in the crater of a dormant volcano. According to legend forbidden love and the tears of a shepherd (blue eyes) and a princess (green eyes) created the lakes of green and blue.
We spent three days traveling mostly by foot around Såo Miguel. We would wander into small towns and eat in little outside cafes while sipping on local Portuguese beer. Each island creates its’ own variety of delicious soft cheese, and they raise their own beef on the lush fields overlooking the ocean. We devoured everything put in front of us, even the blood stained sausages. Many of the islanders didn’t speak english, we still didn’t have any trouble communicating because they were so patient with our broken/non-existent Portuguese mumble. We followed their lead and let them guide us on an amazing culinary adventure.
The traditional stew Cozido das Furnas, cooked underground by the heat of the volcanos is a national dish. Each hotel and restaurant has its own plot of ground at Furnas, a small town located in a valley clothed in steam. Large pots are filled with pig ears, feet and belly along with chicken, beef, sausage, sweet potatoes and cabbage. The pots are wrapped in a towel and lowered into the ground for about seven hours of steamy, volcanic cooking. Signs sticking out of the mounds of dirt signify each restaurants container.
We explored Såo Miguel from one end of the island to the other. Small seaside cafes served fresh fish along side of local blood sausage. We ordered sizzling platters of broiled limpets in garlic butter, an aquatic snail commonly eaten on the island. Beef cows graze on lush grass fields and in turn their stress free lives develop delicious lean meats. We stumbled upon two restaurants in Ponte Delgado that left a lasting impression. Louvre Michaelense is a lovely little cafe once a place to buy hats and provisions, now a unique small restaurant serving breakfast and lunch. We sat outside at little tables and ate warm nut breads topped with local jams made from figs and berries. We drank fresh juice and savored toast piled high with avocado, soft cooked egg and hollandaise. After breakfast we picked up little colorful tins of fishes gifts for our family, as well as locally made colorful ceramic fish and portuguese chocolates.
We spent our day wandering around the city of Ponta Delgada. We went down to the water to watch locals kite sailing on the white capped ocean. We wandered into little museums, gardens, and small cafes where we sipped little frothy cups of espresso sprinkled with cinnamon and nibbled on tinned fish and fresh baked bread. The city was ours to explore for a day and we didn’t waste a moment.
The second restaurant that made a lasting impression was Calcada do Cais. We had heard that the food was amazing but reservations were scarce. We set off to try and find the place and hope we might snag a table. The thunderstorm earlier in the evening had cleared the streets and a group of young waiters dressed in black, huddled in the doorway of the restaurant. One of the men waved us over and explained in broken english that someone had just cancelled and an outdoor table was ours. We settled in for a memorable Portuguese feast.
We drank cocktails and nibbled on charred octopus and local olives. The waiter took control and brought us his favorites which quickly became ours. We relished each mouthful. The meal couldn’t have been more perfectly orchestrated. We were satiated yet found room for their lemon tart and one last glass of local wine. We followed the moon reflected off the wet cobblestones to our little room and dreamed about the next days adventures.
This would be the last night on Såo Miguel for a few days. In the morning we would board a small plane for Santa Maria, the most southern island in the Azores.