The Azores: A Well-Kept Travel Secret

The Azores: A Well-Kept Travel Secret

If there’s one tip I’ve learned while traveling, it’s that the advice of others can sometimes offer the best path forward. My wife and I spent months fretting about travel plans for our honeymoon, going over different options and places neither of us had been (anywhere in Europe). Ultimately, our decision (for the first stop, anyway) was made by our landlords and neighbors upstairs: here we come, Azores!

My landlord, a talented mason, grew up on the Azorean island of Sao Miguel. Sitting around one summer afternoon, drinking beer and watching soccer, we got to talking wedding (as engaged couples often do) and both Nuno and his son-in-law Marco insisted that we go to their home island. They handed us another beer and played YouTube videos taken on the verdant slopes of their mountainous home.

It didn’t take much convincing. It looked like a pastoral Hawaii, homelier, friendlier, and less crowded. We agreed that this little gem was a must see and booked our rooms at a hotel Nuno helped build – the Hotel Marina – in his sleepy hometown of Vila Franca do Campo. Turns out, upon arrival, that not only did the island’s natural beauty live up to the standard set by YouTube, but everyone was just as nice as our neighbors and it was cheap to boot.

Before moving into our apartment, we’d never heard of this magical archipelago. The islands are birthed from Volcanoes that rise from a “Triple-Junction” in the Atlantic Ocean: just east of the Mid-Atlantic Trench that separates the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, just north of the Terceia Ridge, which is separates Eurasian and African plates. This precarious spot on the merger of three major continental plates was responsible for the islands’ magnificent development, but has been mostly uneventful during its inhabitation.

We spent all of our time on the Azores’ largest island, Sao Miguel, which was formed from two massive calderas slowly coming together and forming one big island. The capital of the Azores is Ponta Delgada, where the major airport is, and where we flew into. Ponta Delgada is a beautiful old European city, with crowded streets built on top of each other, set along a beautiful port. It’s a busy place compared with the rest of the island.

Where we stayed, Vila Franca do Campo, was the complete opposite: a sleepy, picturesque coastal town with cramped but quiet streets, a few cafes frequented mostly by locals, and scattered shops here and there. There were some beautiful gardens and squares, and the architecture and especially the stonework was truly impressive (it is no wonder Nuno is a mason). The food was delicious and cheap – there isn’t a plentiful choice of fancy restaurants but if you like fresh caught fish or Portuguese standards, there is plenty of good grub. Our hotel sat right on the beach with an ocean and marina view. Not bad:

Sunset from the hotel Marina in Vila Franca do Campo, Sao Miguel, Azores

Sunrise from the Hotel Marina.

Just off the coast, a small caldera islet is reachable by boat. Red Bull does its famous cliff jumping competition here, but for tourists the upper parts of the island are closed off. The Lagoon, however, is a fantastic spot for snorkeling with a multitude of species – some endemic to the area. The area surrounding Vila Franca is also home to world-famous SCUBA diving, but I find the idea of it to be terrifying so I can’t confirm through personal experience.

The most famous sight on the island is undoubtedly the Sete Cidades, a pair of picturesque lakes nestled in one of Sao Miguel’s main calderas. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see the lakes, which supposedly formed of the tears of two star crossed lovers, a princess and a shepherd, but here is a stock photo from Google. It’s awesome:

Sete Cidades, the twin lakes.

Sete Cidades, the twin lakes.

Our favorite day of the trip took us to the other major caldera which rose around the lake and town of Furnas. Furnas is famous for its caldieras meals, where pots of meat and vegetables are slow cooked for seven hours in the volcanic springs before being served. It was an easy but exciting bus ride; it’s a direct trip from Vila Franca but it winds up precarious, too-thin mountain roads without guardrails. More than once, an oncoming car came around a corner too sharp and almost plowed head on into the bus driver. The caldera itself, however, is a gorgeous mix of volcanic lake and pastoral mountain town:

furnas-caldera

The Furnas caldera

The other (actual) major attraction is the Terra Nostra Gardens. Built upon an old estate, the immaculately kept gardens are an explosion of green even by Azorean standards. Housing flora from all six continents, it was an unbelievable tour through cramped avenues of pines, towering rows of palm trees and tree ferns, through open flower gardens and quaint old stone bridges. The property also contains a large pool and several hot tubs that are warmed naturally by the volcanic activity beneath visitors’ feet (just be prepared: they are yellow from sulfur and will stain white clothes and jewelry).

A shot from the Terra Nostra Gardens, Furnas, Sao Miguel, Azores

A shot from inside the Terra Nostra gardens

Just outside of the Terra Nostra Gardens is the Terra Nostra Hotel & Resort. It’s the most expensive resort on the island, with good reason. They have their own natural hot spring and an adorable family of stray cats (with kittens!) that was a major attraction to me (I’ve included a picture of the kittens below so you can marvel at their adorable-ness).

Of course, we made friends with the adorable family of cats at the Terra Nostra hotel (after stuffing our faces)

Of course, we made friends with the adorable family of cats at the Terra Nostra hotel (after stuffing our faces)

While we didn’t stay at the resort, we did eat lunch there – it was the best meal of the trip. Prices were very reasonable by American standards and they offered the caldieras – the meat slow cooked in the volcanic heat – which was one of the greatest things my tongue has ever tasted. With our meal we got vegetables, two cuts of pork, beef and chicken. We did not manage to finish, but we did ask that they feed our leftovers to the cats.

Our short time in the Azores ended as it began: sitting at the bar patio right by the marina in Vila Franca, sipping a tall Portuguese beer and watching the sunset. With so much left to do, we know we will be back – and the short, 4-hour direct flight from Logan and the affordable on-island prices make it a place we know we can re-visit.

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