The Azores has been on my list of places to see for a long time. I no longer remember how I first heard of them, but my imagination was immediately captivated. When my partner’s work sent him to São Miguel for a week, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to do some exploration of my own before joining him.
The Azores is made up of nine islands, stretching over a rather large patch of very open Atlantic Ocean. If you search for the islands on Google maps and then zoom out in order to see where they lie relative to, well, anywhere, by the time you find a continent you recognise the islands will have disappeared on your map. These are definitely remote islands.
The remoteness is what stoked my curiosity. The Azores are all about nature; volcanoes, the sea, ferns and forests. Because there are nine islands, it was not obvious which to choose, and even with what I considered to be rather extensive reading, I was neither sure what to expect nor where to find said unexpected. As a result, I opted for what was most practical. TAP airlines fly from Lisbon to Ponta Delgada on São Miguel, and to Larjes on Terceira. I knew São Miguel was going to be my final stop so I opted for the latter.
As I struggled to do my check-in at Lisbon airport, and had perhaps four TAP staff do double-takes when they saw my destination, I started to get a creeping understanding of how remote ‘remote’ was going to be. The flight from Lisbon is roughly 2h 30m long and the airport you arrive at is small. Within twenty minutes of the plane’s wheels touching the tarmac, I was being greeted by a friendly young man holding a sign with my name on it (something that has never happened to me before!). In an effort to save money, I had tried to avoid renting a car, so had organised a pick up through the hostel.
We drove to Angra do Heroismo, a town twenty minutes from the airport on the south of the island. My hostel, My Angra Boutique Hostel, was absolutely perfect, clean with friendly staff and gorgeous common areas. There is both a terrace and a terraced garden which in the summer must be delicious to sit and soak the sunshine in. Checked in and somewhat settled, I headed off for some afternoon exploring of the town I found myself in.
Angra is a really beautiful town. It is the oldest town on the Azores, with an interesting history (it was Portuguese capital at some point), and sheltered on one side by the rather large and imposing Monte Brasil, an impressive forest covered peninsular. The houses are all built low, and painted in white with brightly coloured highlights around the doors and windows. The Portuguese cobbles pave the streets, leaving you in no doubt what country you are in, and yet somehow it feels radically different to the mainland. There is a slowness to the pace, I see almost no rushing (which I suppose on an island that measure only 29km in length and 18km in width makes sense) and people are extremely friendly. People’s English is impeccable. I later learn there is a US military base on the island that until recently was the largest employer, and one man I talk to scoffs at mainland Portuguese people’s English (which personally, I have always found rather good).
Angra is most certainly not a hipster destination. The cafés are all traditional, serving everything from croissants and bread to hard liqueur and all that falls in between. Old men sit in corners of them, watching everything and saying nothing, dressed in their woolens and caps. I am reminded of rural Ireland. There is a United Colors of Benetton on the main street that I find rather jarring, a bit out of keeping with the traditional feel of the rest of the place. There are churches dotted all over the town, impeccably maintained. I wander around, enjoying the winding nature of the narrow streets, visiting the gardens that immediately transport me somewhere almost tropical and banish all thoughts of Ireland. Despite the town being quite lovely, my eye is nonetheless being constantly drawn to the Monte Brasil. Eventually I give up on civilisation and head for the hill.
Monte Brasil is unmissable. You will see it the moment you arrive in Angra, a looming mountain covered in forest that looks like it belongs on the Costa Verde in Brazil (perhaps how it got its name?). Despite its imposing appearance, it is extremely easy to walk to, and even pretty easy to walk around (there is just one part that when wet was rather slippy and steep but the rest was a doddle). The views are fantastic, of the ocean and of Angra. I kept my eyes peeled for any potential dolphin or whale sightings, sadly to no avail. Instead I got to watch from up high as the army performed drill exercises and encountered utterly unfazed deers just wandering around the trails, munching away.
It became clear to me rather quickly that I was going to need a car for the rest of my stay. The tours of the island on offer by the various companies were all hideously expensive and I wanted to be able to take my exploring at my own pace. As I was so completely out of season, I was able to rent myself a car easily with Ilha Verde Rent a Car and the next day I set out for my own mini-adventure.
Terceira is a small island with a very hilly centre ( you can chalk that up to the volcanoes – seriously, this place must be a geologist’s dream!). As a result, there is one rather large road that goes all the way around the outside of the island, and then a few smaller roads that go through the island. I chose to set off clockwise around the island to see what I could see. The villages I drove through became increasingly traditional, with fishermen fixing their nets and old men sitting on walls watching the world go by. I was reminded once again of rural Ireland, a feeling enhanced by the low dry stone walls running up and down the rolling hills. The grass is vibrantly green, contrasting sharply with the black cliffs and lava rock (that bit did not remind me of Ireland).
I spent the morning driving completely as my whims took me. I drove off the main road regularly to see what was at the end of the tiny lanes, watching the ocean from different angles and enjoying how the island changed as I drove around it. By the time I arrived in Praia da Vitória it was lunchtime. Praia has a different feel to Angra. It has slightly more obvious cafés, bars and restaurants, apparently due to its proximity with the previously mentioned US base.
Some googling over lunch revealed that I was extremely close to one of the ‘do not miss’ points of Terceira. I was not, to be honest, hugely excited in the Serra do Cume, a high point that you can apparently see a patchwork of fields from. But, seeing as I was so close, I decided to make the trip. This is, perhaps, the highlight of my whole stay on Terceira. I am so happy that I made this choice! Serra do Cume is unbelievably beautiful. A huge crater that is covered in the brightest green fields all parceled off with low dry walls. Photos do not do this place justice, it is simply magnificent to see the land laid out like that below you. If you only do one thing while on this island, it needs to be this.
After Serra do Cume I drove over to Algar do Carvão, which has slightly odd opening hours in the low season. This is an extinct volcano that for geological reasons I am unable to grasp, still has its chimney intact, and you can walk down through. Again, this was something really special to see. The walls of the volcano look like they have been burnished, they are bright reds and browns that almost shine. You do not necessarily need long at this place, but it was well worth going to see.
I decided that I would stop at the Furnas do Enxofre, something that was sign posted so I thought I would give it a go. This, it turns out, is a little walk around naturally occurring sulpher ‘blow holes’. The sulpher comes out looking like smoke and there is a faint smell of it. It is actually quite remarkable to watch the smoke emanating from the earth without any hint of fire.
For my final day on the island, I decided I wanted to go hiking. I set off rather early for the Rocha do Chambre, a trail recommended to me by my hostel host. I am not sure if I could have been much more unlucky with the weather I got (I suppose it could have hailed… or snowed?). The trail is officially marked as being 9.3km with some extremely steep climbs at certain points. I can see how this trail should be when the weather cooperates (or you don’t decide to do the trail whatever the weather). At the highest point of the trail there is a viewpoint that I imagine looks incredible on a good day. I could see the potential of the place, but I was being rained on so hard and there was absolutely zero shelter at the top so I did not dally. The parts of the trail that I saw, especially at the beginning where really lovely, taking me through completely different types of terrain and giving me a chance to view the variety of flora on offer.
When I finished the trail I was absolutely dripping wet. I had planned on doing a second hike but my feet were floating in their shoes and I was frozen. Instead I whacked on the heating in the car and drove to get lunch. I had been recommended Quinta das Açores as a good place to eat, a farm that has a café with local products. The place was perhaps the busiest place I had seen since arriving on the island, with extremely reasonably priced food that tasted delicious.
Feeling warmer but not yet warm, I drove off for some more rather random driving in the south east of the island, the only part as yet unseen. I drove to São Sebastião where I watch people restore frescoes in the oldest church on the island, and then drove along the coast stopping anywhere that looked interesting or beautiful. I am not sure if it is because the weather improved or just because I was back at sea level, but the sun was making an appearance and as I drove through Port Judeu I veered off to stick my feet in the water at one of the natural bathing pools they have. This is a common feature all over the island and I love it. They have basically eased access to naturally occurring pools. I imagine that in summer these are amazing. The water was surprisingly warm as I splashed around in it.
This island is the oddest mix of traditional and contemporary. It feels remote and I did feel like the island was rather small, but at the same time I did not feel like I was unnervingly dropped into wilderness. People here are proud of their island and want to make sure you have the best experience possible on it. Some parts of it reminded me so much of my summers spent in the West of Ireland during the 90’s (including it should be said, the capricious weather) and yet this place is modernised; 4G is available all over the island, the hostel had IKEA furniture and the roads are exceptionally well kept (something that is not necessarily true of roads today in the West of Ireland, let alone 20 years ago).
This is a small island, despite being the second most populated of the archipelago. In the summer, when both the weather and the water warm up, I imagine that it would be easy and extremely pleasant to while away your days in the natural pools that dot the island and basking in sunshine. It is not however, what you necessarily think of when you think of what is quintessentially ‘Azorean’. The island still feels quite cultivated, albeit extremely rural. Farmers work the land, cows graze the endless green fields and small villages line the coast. This is not the rugged wilderness or the semi-tropical paradise that you are perhaps expecting to find. You still feel very connected to the world on this small island.
I spent three full days on Terceira, and it felt like the right amount of time to be able to explore extensively at a leisurely pace. If you go whale watching, (something I was a month too early for) the trips usually take up a half day. There are several hikes that I would have done if the weather had been a little more compliant, but I would say that I stayed the right amount of time, and when I left, I was extremely excited about my next destination: São Jorge.
Terceira Take Aways
- Bring a rain jacket
- If you want to go at your own pace, you will need a car
- The island is insanely inexpensive! Apparently something to do with military base?
- Depending on what you want to do, choose your season wisely. You may never be guaranteed certain weather, but if for example you want to laze in warm sea, best go in the summer
- Driving around the island is easy, the roads are good and the distances are short
- Go out into the nature! This is what the Azores should be all about