Welcome to the Azores, a series of nine enigmatic, hauntingly beautiful volcanic islands scattered in the center of the Atlantic Ocean. An autonomous region of Portugal, the Azores are about halfway between Boston and mainland Europe.
Located at a geographic sweet spot where the European, African, and North American tectonic plates meet, the Azores are afforded gorgeous climate year-round. It’s always somewhere between 57 and 71 degrees, and the culture is a melange of European and Creole, with a focus on fresh food and wine, natural exploration across the volcanic landscape, whale watching, and more.
The Azores are home to Portugal's tallest mountain, Mount Pico, as well as pineapple plantations, dozens of crater lakes, and the only tea plantation in Europe.
Are you ready to explore what makes the Azores so incredible? Here are eight reasons to visit the Azores region in Portugal.
1. It Is A Short Flight From The East Coast
Perhaps one of the biggest selling points for travel to the Azores is that it is ridiculously close to the east coast of the United States. In fact, the islands are the closest part of Europe to the U.S. -- yes, closer than Iceland.
From New York, it is a six-hour flight with Delta. From Boston, you could catch a four-hour flight with Azores Airlines. This makes it a completely viable option for a weekend getaway from the East Coast, though you'll probably want to spend more time than that just because there is so much to do and see across the nine islands.
Keep in mind that it can be expensive to fly between islands and be sure to book in advance. That said, if you are on a tighter budget, you can make the most of sticking to one or two islands during your visit.
2. The Food Is Something To Write Home About
Europe does a lot of things really well, and food is certainly one of them. The Azores are no exception. If you're vacationing in the Azores, definitely bring your appetite. Thanks to year-round temperate climates and fertile soil, the islands are heralded for their unique style of cooking and the freshness of what they produce.
Let's start with one of the most iconic dishes: the cozido de furnas. This stew is indigenous to the Azores and is actually cooked inside a volcano. Yep, inside a volcano. The dish hails from the Caldeira das Furnas on the island of Sao Miguel. The stew itself is made with chicken, beef, pork, bacon, potatoes, and lots of vegetables. To prepare it, cooking pots are placed in cylinders that are buried in the ground, which acts as a natural oven.
Azorean cuisine is definitely influenced by mainland Portugal but has distinctions that make it entirely its own. Seafood features heavily given its location. Local restaurants will typically offer a catch of the day, which is always your best bet when ordering. Another Azores delicacy is chicharro, blue jack mackerel that is served deep fried with a black-eye pea salad and a side of spicy sauce. The islands of Sao Miguel, Pico, and Faial are known for their cheese, called queijo fresco, which is a favorite on the island.
3. It’s A Paradise For Outdoor Activity
The Azores are home to three biospheres, and the islands have a unique natural landscape that makes them absolute havens for outdoor activities. Hiking is one of the favorite pastimes across the islands. The Azores are veined with trails, so much so that there's even a dedicated website that will help you find the right one for you on each island.
Mount Pico is the highest point in Portugal at nearly 7,800 feet, making it a perfect playground for experienced hikers. For something milder, you can hike up, under, around, and through ancient volcanoes on the islands of Pico, Terceira, Graciosa, and Sao Miguel. Lava caves run for miles underneath these islands, creating tube-like caves, and today those caves provide opportunities for great underground hiking.
If you prefer to see the sights on two wheels, take a bike tour throughout the islands. Cyclists of all skill levels can find a route or a tour to suit their tastes. Options include backcountry roads, a mountain path, a seaside route, and even a combination of these terrains.
4. You Can Soak In Natural Hot Springs
Who doesn't love a good soak? The Azores are known for their natural hot springs, so you can get a good soak in the geothermal way. The island of Sao Miguel is home to several geothermal areas, which makes for some great hot spring opportunities -- a welcome respite after all that outdoor activity.
The island of Sao Miguel, the largest of the Azores, is known for its bubbling geothermal activity that results in hot springs and mineral water spas. The most lauded town for natural healing is Furnas (which is less ominous than it sounds; the name actually translates to caverns), which has been a destination for natural spa-ing since the 18th century. The Terra Nostra Garden is a 30-acre park in the center of the town, pocketed with mineral water pools perfect for stealing away for a nice, long soak. The park is home to a hotel, as well, which was built in 1935 and has been welcoming thermal bathers ever since.
5. It’s Known For Its Local Beverages
In the Azores, your cup will most certainly runneth over, especially if it contains tea or wine. These two indigenous-to-the-islands beverages have been perfected over the decades and are certainly worth celebrating. In addition to its hot springs, Sao Miguel is also home to one of Europe's only tea plantations, Cha Gorreana.
The plantation has been cultivating tea since 1883 and today visitors come from all over the world to enjoy a fresh cup while looking at the views out to the ocean. But that's not the only beverage the Azores is known for. It is also a spectacular wine region, with about 500 years of wine-growing history. In fact, Pico has been listed as one of the 14 UNESCO World Heritage wine regions. The volcanic soil has made Pico a unique wine-growing region for centuries, specifically for the Verdelho, Arinto, and Terrantez grape varieties. In fact, the island of Graciosa has DOP status for its white wines.
6. The Water Is Its Best Feature
As you can imagine, being nine islands surrounded by the vast Atlantic Ocean means life moves on and around the water. Beyond seafood, of which there is an abundance in the Azores, the water contributes so much to the way of life as well as to tourism. The Azores have been named one of the top 10 whale watching sites in the world. Visitors can hop aboard a small motorboat that zips through the sea in search of whales cresting the surface of the water. According to Torben Lonne, diver and editor-in-chief at DIVE.in, one of the best spots to catch sightings in the Azores is in Ponta Delgada.
"We were rewarded right toward the start of the tour when we closed in on several pods of common dolphins," he said. "They allowed us to get so close we could hear their sounds through the mic in the water." But that wasn't all. Just a few minutes later they saw a pod of sperm whales near the Azorean coast.
7. It Has History Galore
The town of Angra do Heroismo on the island of Terceira was a port of call between the 1400s and the 19th century. As such, it is strewn with phenomenal slices of history that give us a glimpse into the past, and have earned it UNESCO status. For example, the 400-year-old Sao Sebastiao and Sao Joao Baptista fortifications give visitors a look into the military history of that era. The red-tiled roofs of the city are simply breathtaking as well. Angra is also home to baroque cathedrals, churches, and convents that are musts for any architecture lover.
8. You Can Stay In Impressive Accommodations
You won't find box hotels or all-inclusive resorts in the Azores. But, frankly, that's part of its charm. What you will find are a number of creative accommodation styles, like former palaces, manor homes, and monasteries that have been converted into charming and unique places to stay. From middle-of-nowhere estates to heart-of-the-action hotels, travelers of different tastes and budgets will have their pick in the Azores.
Pico do Refugio, for example, is an estate on the northern coast of Sao Miguel. In the past it has been a military fort, an orange farm, and a tea plantation. Today, it is a selection of apartments and lofts, with cottages that double as artistic residences. Rates start at $84 per night. Or you can rent a gorgeous villa at the Casa Grande. Built in 1853, the five-bedroom house can accommodate 10 guests for about $330 per night. If a traditional resort is more your speed, the Santa Barbara Resort has a sea-facing swimming pool and 14 villas. Rates start at around $300 per night.
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