by Wendy Hammerle
Just the day before, we had watched our hiking guide break off a piece of rock and toss it in the water next to us. To our amusement, the rock bobbed happily down the stream. Floating rocks? Cooking in the ground? What is this place?!
It’s the Azores, an archipelago of nine volcanic islands off the coast of Portugal.
Because it's surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, temperatures remain moderate all year ranging from 13C (55F) in the winter to 22C (70F) in the summer. But the weather changes quickly. The locals told us repeatedly, “You will see all four seasons in one day!” They were right. We did.
While there are beautiful black sand beaches here and there, most of the coasts are rugged and rocky with natural pools, caves and waterfalls. Visitors will be rewarded with spectacular scenery, quiet, unspoiled nature, and warm, friendly residents.
Each of the nine islands has its own appeal but with only a week to visit, we decided to divide our time between Sao Miguel, the largest and most developed, and Flores, one of the more remote islands.
The Rugged Beauty of Flores
Flores, aptly named, is awash in lush vegetation. Ancient stone walls and hedges of hydrangea crisscross the cow pastures. Waterfalls, some 200 meters (656 feet) high, dot the cliffs that surround the island. With only 4,200 residents, there are more cows than people.
That's not to say there isn't much to do in Flores. You can swim in one of the natural pools along the sea, try your hand at fishing or go diving to explore one of the underwater grottoes.
Since it was cool and windy when we visited in late May, we opted to hike. The well-marked trail along the ridge on the west coast took us across streams, and up and down rocky paths before dropping down into the little village of Faja Grande.
Stone Cottages Provide Tranquil Lodging
Aside from the stunning landscape, the treasures of Flores include Carlos and Teatonia. The couple bought an abandoned village 20 years ago and started restoring it cottage by cottage.
“The bank and the government didn't believe we could succeed,” Teatonia said of their plan to turn Aldeia da Cuada into a lodging village for tourists. “People told us we were crazy”
But they've proved the naysayers wrong and now have 14 carefully restored guest houses on the property.
When we arrived, weary and jet lagged, they welcomed us warmly and walked us to our cottage along the winding stone pathways – no cars or roads in this village. We passed cows, chickens and a curious donkey.
Set on a bluff overlooking the sea, our rustic cottage had thick stone walls, a rough hewn stone kitchen sink, checked curtains and big old iron beds. There were flowers everywhere and except for the wind, a cowbell and a few singing birds, it was absolutely quiet. If you are ever have the good fortune to be a guest at Aldeia da Cuada, leave your tech gadgets at home and just soak up the tranquility.
But do take time to visit a few of the little towns along the coast – the stucco and volcanic stone architecture is unique. And make sure to have dinner at Por-do-Sol, a charming little restaurant in Fajazinha where you can watch the sun set over the water while sipping Azorean wine and eating freshly caught Albacore or local sausage with yams.
After a couple of days on Flores, we caught a puddle jumper to the largest island in the Azores, Sao Miguel. This island is much more developed than Flores, but that is all relative. Yes, there are some large, modern hotels in the city of Ponta Delgada, but Sao Miguel has managed to retain its charm and natural beauty.
Preferring smaller hotels with more character, we stayed at the Hotel do Colegio, on a narrow side street in Ponta Delgada. Once a private school and later a music academy, this beautiful old building has been lovingly restored by a former student.
The hotel also houses one of the best restaurants in the city, A Colmeia. Try the Alcatra de Chambreu - beef stew in red wine and ginger - for only 13.5 Euros, or grilled swordfish with capers and tomatoes for 14 Euros. Don't forget a glass of Atlantis wine from the Azorean island of Pico.
A walking tour of the city revealed small shops and cafes along cobblestone streets. Our guide, Eduardo, assured us that there is very little crime in the Azores, “It's very safe to walk around at night.”
But most folks visit the Azores for the adventure activities: whale watching, swimming with dolphins, surfing, trekking, biking and canyoning (scaling cliffs under waterfalls and the like.)
So with the assistance of the young, friendly staff at Picos de Aventura, an adventure tour company based in Ponta Delgada, we headed for the great outdoors.
Going for Adventure on the Big Island
Standing in the warm sunshine along the southern coast of Sao Miguel, we could see dark clouds settling over the mountain in the distance.
We decided to hike it anyway, knowing we might not be able to see the turquoise volcanic lake, Lagoa do Pogo, that sits like an undiscovered jewel at the top.
When we got out of the jeep at the base of the mountain, it was misting through filtered sunlight. As we climbed higher, the temperature dropped, the mist turned to a light rain and wind started whipping through the ragged peaks.
When we reached the pinnacle, the lake pulled a disappearing act as the clouds moved down into the crater. But the 16-kilometer (10-mile) trek up and down the mountain had offered views of the sea and little coastal villages surrounded by lush green hillsides, making it well worth the mildly unpleasant interface with nature.
With their rugged landscape, the Azores are also a Mecca for mountain biking. Since we had a more gentle terrain in mind, we biked a beautiful trail around Lagoa das Furnas. It took us briefly up into the forest but mostly hugged the lake, bringing us out near the hot steam vents (caldeiras).
After watching our stew being pulled out of the geothermal hole, we headed to the Terra Nostra Garden Hotel where the meal was served in a dining room overlooking botanical gardens.
If you go, bring your bathing suit and take a swim in the large outdoor pool warmed by hot springs. (The water has a lot of iron in it, so bring an old suit.)
Take the Time to Feel the Island
So if you go, don’t miss the volcanic ovens and the floating rocks. But more importantly, feel the mist on your face in the Eucalyptus forests, feel the cobblestone pathways under your feet and feel the warmth of conversation with a local resident over espresso. Only then will you begin to feel the Azores.
Wendy's tips for the Azores:
The roads are very steep, narrow and windy. If you plan to drive in the Azores, you better be pretty darn good with a standard transmission.
If you plan to spend time on more than one island, always visit the outlying island first. That way, if there is a weather delay on your little island hop back to Ponta Delgada you won't miss your international flight home.
Don't go to Flores if you are very pregnant. There are no hospitals there and soon-to-be moms have to be flown to the bigger islands to give birth.
Bring home some cheese. The cows here are au naturel. No hormones, no artificial anything. Just fresh, sweet grass.
Don't hesitate to drink the water on Flores. It's all from fresh springs that dot the island.
Famous Azoreans include Nelly Furtado and soccer star Pauleta.
Relax, there are no snakes in the Azores.
Azores – planning your trip
General info and links:
Hotel Colegio in Ponta Delgada on Sao Miguel Island
Picos de Aventura, the adventure tour company on Sao Miguel
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