Some visitors consider the Azores a warm Iceland, which is only partly true. But as I hiked a rocky beach path on São Miguel Island, I briefly thought I was back in that subarctic country.
All around me lay the kind of black and green landscape I had loved in Iceland: lunar fields of volcanic rock, covered in lichens. On one side, the azure Atlantic; on the other, a mossy cliff wall soared high above. Steam rose from the chunky ground. A faint scent of sulfur wafted in the air.
Below me, people waded in a natural tidal pool. I climbed down a ladder to join them, bracing for a chill. Instead, the brackish water was soothingly warm — hot in places. Here at Ponta da Ferraria, a hot spring blends with ocean water at low tide, for a thrilling swimming experience.
I frog-stroked my way to the mouth of the lagoon, where cool waves crashed into the rocks. Then I let the surf carry me back to the heat, past others clinging to ropes for safety.
I was body surfing on ocean waves in a geothermic pool. Does Iceland have that?
During a September visit to the Azores (“uh-zores, though the Portuguese say “uhzhuzh”), an archipelago of nine lush islands in the middle of the North Atlantic, I discovered a fantastic respite with a temperate climate and an old Mediterranean feel, a recreational hotbed with friendly bilingual people and precious little commercialism — all of it closer to America than any other European turf.
Inspired by the vacation packages we’d seen online, my companion and I designed our own 10-day trip, first to the trendy baroque city of Porto on the Portuguese mainland, followed by two Azorean isles: São Miguel, the largest and most popular, and Faial. We would later reach a third island by boat, and a fourth quite by accident.
Our penny-pinching plan seemed preposterous from the start, with eight separate takeoffs and landings on four airlines, including two quick inter-island flights on turboprop planes. One of the airlines, low-cost Ryanair, was roiled by a threatened strike for the week of our trip. And days before we left for Portugal, tropical storm Helene blew right past the islands amid 2018’s wild hurricane season. I decided to purchase a robust travel insurance policy.
Relaxation on São Miguel
Officially an Autonomous Region of Portugal, the nine Azores rise along 360 miles of continental rifts, giving each island its own geothermal character. That rich, black lava stone is everywhere, showing up on villas, hotels and churches. Black cobblestones even pave the streets of Ponta Delgada, the regional capital, where we arrived one evening after our 2½-hour, strike-free flight from Porto.
We drove a rental car into the sunset around a corner of São Miguel, taking in villages, the ocean and an abundance of magenta and violet hydrangeas. The big globular flowers, introduced in the 17th century, line virtually every roadside on São Miguel, a visual symbol of the island. (Named for the unseen açor bird, the verdant archipelago has no native mammals, except for the Azores noctule, a unique daytime bat.)
In my last-minute search for lodging, I discovered we could have our run of intriguing options throughout the islands, from villas to ecolodges, rarely much more than 100 euros a night. And our São Miguel digs did not disappoint: Casa da Lomba, a collection of cottages overlooking the sea above the town of Mosteiros, on the 39-mile island’s remote western tip. At a nearby pizza parlor on the roadway, I stared into the black night from the patio and marveled at how far we were from most of humanity.
I had actually been fascinated with the Azores as a kid. Around age 10, showing an early love of geographic randomness, I assembled several messages-in-bottles and hurled them from a South Jersey beach, with my grandfather’s help, in hopes of finding a foreign pen pal. Studying a map of Atlantic currents, I had concluded that one of my bottles could well end up in the Azores. So I went to the library and translated my messages (poorly, no doubt) using an English-Portuguese dictionary. I still haven’t heard back from anyone, and the bottles were probably smashed on those volcanic beach rocks. But who knows? I forgot about the Azores for decades, until I heard that a revamped Azores Airlines was flying to Boston.
After our first morning swim in the heated wave pool, we drove upward on winding roads to São Miguel’s most famous attraction: Sete Cidades, a three-mile, lake-filled volcanic crater. From the first scenic overlook, we hiked a steep, hydrangea-lined dirt road with sweeping coastal views on one side, and a lakeside village nestled in the bucolic caldera on the other. I realized that the trail we were walking was actually the rim of the volcano, which last erupted around 500 A.D.
Three miles down the trail stands the Azores’ most photographed overlook, the Vista do Rei. The view is dominated by a pair of glistening crater lakes, Lagoa Verde (green) and Lagoa Azul (blue). Legend has it the two-tone lakes were formed from the tears shed when a princess and her lover, a shepherd, had to part. I was equally enthralled by the site’s mysteriously abandoned modernist hotel, the Monte Palace, which nature has reclaimed and graffiti artists have turned into a work of art. We enjoyed it all for just long enough before busloads of British pensioners overran the place.
We shifted gears for the evening, driving an hour across São Miguel to the hot springs of Furnas. On the edge of the compact geothermal resort town was the Poça da Dona Beija, a lush hot spring where a river of iron-red water flows through five steaming stone pools, filled with luxuriating Europeans. This was a more public, sanitized experience than wild Ponta da Ferraria — like an Azorean Blue Lagoon. But feeling the heat behind a wall of steaming water in one pool, we found pure relaxation.
Later I completed the hot-spring theme at the nature preserve of Caldeira Velha. A 95-degree waterfall slips off the side of a volcano into a lagoon, where glamorous couples took turns showering before retiring to warmer pools surrounded by tree ferns. One pool was too hot for swimming, with the water literally boiling. I lingered, then returned to Ponta Delgada for our one-hour island-hopper flight to Faial Island.
I chose Faial as our next Azores island because of its history as a seafaring haven, and because of its proximity to two other central islands: Pico, with its towering volcano, and São Jorge. I booked two nights at the Quinta da Meia Eira, an oceanside ecolodge and slice of paradise co-run by the friendly Francisco Ribeiro, who I learned was also the man behind two different sailing charter companies on Faial. I wondered if Francisco was the mayor of the island.
“Helene was not a problem,” he replied, when I e-mailed about the recent storm. “We was prepared for more.”
Faial was a good call. Its main town, Horta, was our kind of place, with a festive marina scene, lively bars and restaurants, and a network of old Dutch-style windmills. Across the water, Pico Island’s namesake volcano looms over the town. Banners celebrated the 100th anniversary of “Peter” — the name of both a famous whale and the best bar in town, featuring a signature gin and tonic and festooned with sailing flags from around the world.
Craving a great sit-down meal, we wandered into a busy waterfront spot called Genuino. An older gentleman appeared — perhaps Genuino himself. “No reservation?” he cried in mock horror. “Ah, where are you from?”
“All the way from Minneapolis?! Wait one minute.” Genuino disappeared, and in a few moments we were seated at a table for two. Through the place mats, menus and memorabilia on the walls, we learned the legend of Genuino Madruga: the first Portuguese (and 10th person overall) to sail around the world solo — and in both directions. The restaurant is a shrine to his exploits. I absorbed all this while dining on a plateful of pungent steamed prawns the size of my hands, returning the next night for a delectable grilled swordfish. Genuino-and-Peter became our routine on both nights in Horta.
When in Faial, then, I had to spring for a sailing tour. Francisco set us up with one of his captains, Zé Miguel from Lisbon, on a 37-foot cruiser. “Can you sail?” Miguel simply asked when we arrived on the dock.
“I can tack,” I offered.
“Then you can sail.” And for four hours, Miguel mostly let me take the helm as I unlocked the achievement of sailing between two Atlantic islands. An unremitting swell, from a distant western storm, made it a blast. We set course for Pico and its volcano — at 7,713 feet, the highest mountain in Portugal and third-highest in the Atlantic. As it grew ever closer, Miguel guided me into the harbor of Madelena — and then it was time to turn around. Pico’s hiking trails and UNESCO-listed vineyards would have to wait for next time.
Faial has its own natural wonders, including one that had a major impact on its people. In the morning we circled the island in our rental jalopy, in search of one of the most astonishing sights in the Azores: the Capelinhos volcano, or what remains of it. On the scarred western tip of Faial, a black-sand wasteland twists into the Dali-esque contortions of a volcano that erupted underwater in 1957-58. An 1894 lighthouse, partly buried in ash, sits beside it on the shore, gutted but iconic. Steps lead to a modern underground museum.
As we continued along the serenely depopulated north side of Faial, the story of the Azores started to come together. Because of that seminal ’50s eruption, thousands of Azoreans were forced to resettle in North America as refugees. It’s why we later met a Denver family in the tiny Horta airport; their dad left Faial as a child. It’s why Azores Airlines now re-connects the islands with cities that have big Portuguese populations, such as Boston and Toronto. And it’s why Faial and the Azores have only recently begun to bounce back, partly through tourism.
We ended up socializing with Coloradans at the airport because, after a bruising argument with the rental car company over a pre-existing dent, we learned that our island-hopper back to Ponta Delgada had been canceled. Several of us would miss our connecting flight to Boston. The good news? The airline dutifully rerouted us via yet another island — Terceira — with a complimentary hotel room and meals.
A free bonus day of vacation on an unexpected Azores island? We’ll take it.
Terceira is noted for outdoor adventure, and its main city, Angra do Heroismo, is a historic beauty dating before Columbus. Our free taxi delivered us to the Azoris Angra Garden hotel on the city square, where this “city of festivals” was having an ethnic food fete.
We rented a car to take in more sights — an 1856 stone obelisk relating to the Portuguese Civil War; and the Furnas do Exnofre, a volcanic park with smoking active geysers connected by boardwalk trails. And in the morning I took a self-guided walking tour that ended with the Fort of São João Baptista, an imposing 1567 lava-rock castle that still maintains some military presence. (I thought I glimpsed a U.S. uniform — there are still some 2,000 Americans on Terceira, a legacy of the Cold War.) This island seems to have it all.
On our final night in the Azores, we went barhopping through Angra’s narrow black cobblestone streets. Suddenly the Police’s desert-island anthem “Message in a Bottle” was blasting from a two-level cocktail bar. I remembered my childhood bottles, aimed for the Azores.
“Hundred million bottles washed up on the shore,” Sting sang ironically. “Hundred million castaways, looking for a home.”
My own message in a bottle may never have arrived, but I felt plenty at home in these islands.
Delta flies to Ponta Delgada from New York-JFK in the summer. Azores Airlines (aka SATA regionally) flies from Boston and Toronto year-round. Tip: A cheap flight from Minneapolis to Boston on JetBlue (also sold on azoresairlines.pt) may open up more options.
Inter-island flights: Up to $100 one-way on SATA. Be flexible in case of cancellations; try to book connecting flights on the same ticket. If you are flying to or from mainland Portugal, SATA will route you to or from another island within 24 hours for free (see encaminhamentos.sata.pt).
Stopovers: Azores Airlines offers a free stopover for up to seven days on the way to Lisbon, Porto and other destinations (stopover.azoresairlines.pt).
Where to stay
Casa da Lomba: Villas in Mosteiros, São Miguel. 011-351-910-934-815; booking.com.
Quinta da Meia Eira: Ecolodge in Castelo Branco, Faial. 011-351-965-435-925; meiaeira.com.
Azoris Angra Garden: Hotel in Angra do Heroismo, Terceira. 011-351-295-206-600; azorishotels.com.