More than a guide to Lisbon, GoLisbon.com is a guide to all of Portugal, so that also includes the country’s Atlantic islands, and we’ve just updated our Azores guide after a recent trip this past week.
The Azores does not cater to mass tourism, and that’s what makes it such a special destination. There are only a few direct flights from a few European countries (Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Germany, Switzerland, and the UK), while every one else must first connect with a flight from Lisbon. The nine islands that make up the Azorean archipelago attract an alternative type of tourist, those travelers interested in eco-tourism and who wish to go off the beaten path in Europe.
In the case of the Azores, tourism brochures or photo galleries are not worth a thousand words. They’re actually worthless, incapable of capturing the sensation of standing with the clouds above volcanic craters, the exuberance of the scenery, or the beauty of the lakes, waterfalls, and landscapes. The capital city is Ponta Delgada in the biggest island of all, SÃ£o Miguel, with elegant streets lined with buildings very similar to those of Lisbon, while throughout the island the vernacular architecture is reminiscent of the Alentejo in the mainland. The main monuments are beautiful baroque churches with very unique white and black basalt faÃ§ades, while the most popular activity is whale-watching.
There are a few black sand beaches but these are no beach resort islands. Although the Atlantic is all around, the real attraction lies in the interior of each island, with natural wonders such as the Sete Cidades twin lakes, although my personal favorite is the majestic Lagoa do Fogo, a crater lake created by a volcanic eruption in the 16th century. Also of note is Europe’s only tea plantation which you may visit during a free tour of a traditional factory, where you may also sample and buy some local tea.
Another memorable experience is swimming in a hot water pool in the center of the Terra Nostra Garden which is faced by a highly-recommended hotel (Terra Nostra Garden Hotel), especially for couples. The setting is quite romantic, although it may also be a good choice for families. I didn’t find the yellowish color of the water particularly inviting at first, but once inside the pool, it was very difficult to leave.
Hot water is a common feature of the Azores, with several spots featuring natural boiling water which locals of the town of Furnas often use to cook their traditional dishes. It’s quite an impressive sight seeing the steam rise up from the ground and feeling the heat emanating from it.
When it comes to eating and drinking, by far the best restaurants are A Lota (facing the port of Lagoa; pictured below), and A Colmeia in the center of Ponta Delgada. They both offer refined cuisine, mixing local specialties with international dishes. Their interiors are very contemporary and the service is excellent.
It is a clichÃ© to say that all four seasons pass by the Azores in one single day, but that may not be far from the truth. All the greenery is explained by the abundant rain, and you’ll likely encounter a shower or a drizzle at any time of the year. That’s actually not that bad because somewhere else on the very same island or just a couple of hours later, the sun will shine, and that’s why rainbows are so commonly seen. That’s just one more enchanting feature of the Azores, a destination to be discovered but not to be shared, as its essence and pristine beauty should be kept unchanged and as perfect as it is.