When my girlfriend asked me if I’d prefer a gift or an experience, this Christmas, I didn’t even really feel I had to give her an answer. When she told me, six weeks before Christmas that she simply had to tell me what the surprise was, ahead of time, I relented. And so, she revealed we were going to the Azores. Now the Azores has been one of those places that I remembered hearing about as a young boy, and thinking of as something exotic – almost otherworldly – and certainly somewhere I’d never have the chance to visit. They are a volcanic archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, the largest of which, and the one we were to visit, is São Miguel.
The possibility of visiting the place has really opened up over the past couple of years, beginning with TAP starting to offer low cost flights both to São Miguel and to Terceira island. Following on from that, Azores Airlines, part of SATA, and Ryanair both jumped on the Lisbon-to-the-Azores-for-not-much-money bandwagon and tourism to the islands has skyrocketed, particularly during the summer months. But we were travelling in December. Would it be a wash out? We would find out!
We arrived on December 28th, after the obligatory Christmas festivities had reached an end. We arrived at about 11:00am on the Ryanair flight from Lisbon, which ran remarkably smoothly and suffered from surprisingly little turbulence for a winter flight that was almost exclusively over the ocean. Having left Lisbon in bright winter sunshine, we arrived to thick fog. But we weren’t to be deterred by that. And so we went to the Ilha Verde desk and claimed out silver Renault Clio, which was to be our wheels for the weekend. I strongly recommend booking this in advance, online. We got a slightly cheaper price and a much cheaper deal on reducing our insurance excess to zero. It’s worth shopping around online before you arrive.
From the airport, both complete strangers to the islands, Ana asked me to switch on the GPS to find directions for our hotel. I did so and then, within about three minutes, we were pulling in to the covered car park of the Azoris Royal Garden. We checked in within about five minutes and were in our fourth floor room in less than ten. From leaving home to dropping our bags, we had taken around five hours. Highly impressive. We dropped our stuff, took rain proof gear from our bags (as the sky looked a little angry) and headed out to explore the town of Ponta Delgada on foot.
Looking out to sea from the sea front, you can really begin to appreciate that you’re in the middle of the ocean. All you can see is the expanse of water, rolling away from you seemingly endlessly. The sea front also had a seating area, a small sort of shopping and restaurant area which hugged the edges of the water and the old gate, which is little more than a ruin, but still retains pride of place in a square in the city centre. The wind was also formidably strong, creating waves that relentlessly battered the sea walls and nearly took my head off at the top of the seating area.
After being blown around like that for around half an hour, we decided to grab some lunch and made a beeline for a restaurant we’d had recommended to us by one of Ana’s friends. So we strolled over to Tasca. Tasca, as anyone who’s been to a Portuguese or Spanish speaking country will know, means simply a small, informal, local restaurant. They’re everywhere in Portugal, and so the name is fairly uninspired. But the moment you walk in, you know this is not going to be just any old Tasca. Famous for its petiscos – Portuguese tapas – we were too hungry to go for that, so we decided to order a starter and a main course each. Which might have been an error. I had the selection of local sausages to start, which involved chourico, alheira, morcella (black pudding) and a dollop of migas (dissolved bread with herbs) and a slice of cassava. To follow, I’d already ordered a steak, with a side of fries. As you can see from the pictures, neither was in any way small.
Both dishes were beautifully cooked and the quality of the meat, in particular was really striking. They were washed down with a glass of terra de lava wine from one of the other Azorean islands, which lacked the delicacy of continental Portuguese wine, but was still a lovely drop. Ana ate plumas for her main dish, a fatty and delicious cut of pork. She faltered before finishing, while I just about managed to demolish both plates. But after a coffee, we decided we were in very definite need of a stroll back to the hotel.
As we went back, we passed the fortaleza of Sao Bras, which is also now the island’s military museum. We didn’t go inside, but it has impressive views from outside. We also tried to find a whale watching company who would be interested in taking us out, but learned that there would be no days with good enough sea conditions until the Saturday – the day we were to leave. This is certainly something to consider for those hoping to visit the Azores and something we will think about when we return. Finally, we returned to the hotel for a night of relaxation ahead of the many miles we would cover in the coming days.
We woke up at about half past eight the next day and ventured down into our hotel’s ground floor to find breakfast. We were not disappointed at the range of plentiful hot and cold food offerings, including a large amount of local produce in the form of cheeses, cakes and more. A look out to the outdoor pool – which we were definitely in the wrong season to be using – told us that the weather had improved, but not by much. Nonetheless, we ate up and went back to the room to prepare for our first road trip, to Furnas.
We started up the car, then the GPS and we were off towards Furnas. What immediately impressed us was how easy the road network on Sao Miguel seemed to be. I don’t know if it;s the same on other islands of the Azores, but there is a very efficient circular road, with highway standard surfaces and multiple lanes, with arterial routes criss-crossing the island to connect the main settlements and places of natural beauty. It means that even if someone is not an overtly confident driver, they ought not be deterred from hiring a car to explore the island (especially as local transport appears infrequent). The hotel we stayed at, too, was under a kilometre from the entrance to the highway, so in spite of the 40km between us and Furnas, we were there remarkably quickly, spotting some beautiful countryside along the way and also encountering at least six separate weather systems en route.
Once in the general area of Furnas, we passed a number of ‘Caldeiras,’ places where volcanic gas is emitted from below the ground, often accompanied by plumes of smoke and a strong smell of sulphur, as we would find out at close quarters sometime later. But first we headed for Parque Terra Nostra, where we were planning to take a dip in a pool whose water was rich in iron – and so was coloured a shocking orange brown – and also to walk around the extensive and beautiful gardens. First we came to the pool. We paid our 6 euro entrance fee, and an additional five each for towel hire (though we were reimbursed two euros each on returning our towels) and changed our clothes before descending into the water. It was gloriously warm, especially at the points where it poured into the pool from the underground piping system. It was extremely peaceful sitting in the warm, brown water, watching the steam rise into what was a rather chilly day by comparison, at 15 degrees centigrade. The water is as hot as 39 degrees when it enters the pool and so feels very warm against the skin. The iron is said to have therapeutic properties, but who knows if that’s correct or not. It was a fun experience.
After the pools, we dried off, changed and explored some of the gardens. We would have needed a huge amount of time to see all of them, but we felt we got our money’s worth as we tramped around for an hour or so. Some of it looks positively other worldly.
From here, we drove around to the nearest Caldeira, where we saw volcanic vents with names of saints, demons and more besides. We met a friendly stray cat and we became nauseated by the overbearing fragrance of sulphur. But it was fascinating to see. Some of the signs warned us of water temperatures of up to 100 degrees C. Definitely not for bathing, then.
After this, the plan had been to go a restaurant nearby and to try the famous cozido a portuguesa, which is cooked using geothermal heat, in one of the thermal vents. But, having breathed far too much horrid smelling sulphur in already, we decided instead to follow up another restaurant recommendation that we’d both been very excited about before coming to the island, The Associacao Agricola. It was something of a drive from where we were and we were both starving, but we hoped it would be worth it. And we were right. The restaurant’s plan is to provide locally raised, grass fed beef, with high welfare and an altogether humane approach to farming. The results are supposed to speak for themselves. And so it was. I had the house steak with three pepper cream sauce and my missus went for the same steak with mustard sauce. We took a half bottle of fruity Dao wine to accompany it. The steak was honestly the smoothest, most tender steak I’ve ever eaten in my life. It was like silk. If you are a lover of steak and you haven’t eaten here, I’d dare say your life is as yet incomplete.
Desserts were also simple and deliciously made. We considered coming back to the restaurant again, even though we had only one more night on the island. We ultimately didn’t, but I would have had no regrets if we had done. It was genuinely stunning how good the steak was and, a month on, I still find myself thinking about it on a nearly daily basis.
After the steak, it was time to drive back to the hotel, in the company of a rather lovely sunset. Once we got back, we took a bath and then went to the hotel’s bar for what were really rather excellent cocktails, for a good price, from an excellent barman. After that, it was time for bed, for the next day promised trips to the fire lagoon, the seven cities lagoon and some seaside towns, too.
If you’re planning your own trip to the Azores, take a look at the Brandt travel guide, here: