Who knew that the Azores — nine little islands stuck out in the middle of the Atlantic — would be so lovely? So quaint? So historic? So accessible? So much fun?
I’d like to say, “Well, I did, of course,” since I made the arrangements for my son and I to go there, but I confess that I had few clues that Angra do Heroismo on Terceira was such an amazingly perfect little gem of a city on an amazingly perfect isle. Or that the countryside of Sao Miguel was so brilliantly crisscrossed with lava rock walls, be-speckled with glorious lakes, soft hills. Or that the dolphins were chummy enough to allow us to swim with them, while the bulls were a lot less amused to have us run with them, but run with them crazy people will do. Or that the hot springs were, well, so hot. Hot enough to cook lunch.
As convenient to reach as Florida or California, this fascinating Portuguese outpost is a wonderful secret destination largely untroubled by tourists. Or industry. Or other such worthy but clumsy distractions. The very nice people of the Azores would surely welcome more of us, simply to live better, but would hope that we wouldn’t do too much harm to what is so wonderful and sheltered now.
You can fly there in less than five hours from Boston on SATA Airlines, which also connects many of the islands in short little hops. There is enough English to go around, which is a good thing as Portuguese is an odd tongue to borrow — reading like Spanish but spoken like Polish or whatever Byelorussian must sound like. Hotels are inexpensive by any standard but are clean, convenient, professional and well located.
Ponta Delgada on Sao Miguel is the usual first stop, a big town or small city rich with the maritime culture that defines the Azores. Hilly with snow white churches with black margins and lively plazas at every point of the compass, Ponta Delgada has shops and fine restaurants and clock-towered history galore. An inch beyond the downtown, the countryside begins — richly green, forested, farmed and immaculately tended. The streets and lanes are as narrow as the space left when you take a book from the shelf, but driving is pleasant enough and things are never too far away.
On Sao Miguel, we strolled along the waterfront — more water than “front” as beaches are not at all the sandy expanses of the Caribbean or other such places. The islands all rise up, volcanically, out of the sea with cliffs and rocks damp at the edges. But Ponta Delgada has the archipelago’s biggest harbor and is the center of the economy and government, too. We toured the countryside, visiting the lakes and springs and Europe’s only tea plantations. We bathed in sulfurous hot water and, mostly, marveled at the beauty of the farmers’ walls and forests and fields. We swam with dolphins out in the ocean and that was so wonderful to do. We bicycled around the beautiful lakes at Setes Cidades, an easy, pretty ride.
Taking the 25-minute flight to Terceira we landed in the middle of one of the many festivals which enliven the life there. That sounds pleasant enough and it was, except that while it took us 25 minutes to drive across the wee island from airport to Angra do Heroismo, it took us two full hours to get to our hotel as the streets were blocked and detoured with a city up to better things than making it easy for American visitors.
But it was so much more than worth the effort. Angra is an astonishingly beautiful city. White buildings, with windows and doors lined in pinks and powdery blue. Pastel churches, creamy commercial buildings. Excellent food at small town prices. There, the bulls ran — with my dope son with them (while his wise father remained safely perched atop a huge cargo container) — down the street. They don’t harm the bulls in the Azores but the bull is very inclined to harm the people so running with the bulls is an ancient and honored tradition, but a fool’s mission to these eyes.
Everything about Angra do Herosimo is lovely. The streets were ablaze for the festival but the architecture sparkled on its own. The seaside was inviting and the churches, historical centers and business center were alive with the life and culture that help make this a UNESCO treasure. Beyond, the countryside is h just so lovely. The waves crash in at every front. Volcanic caves open up for your exploration.
What tourism they get is largely from mainland Portugal itself. Other Europeans sample its gifts, as well. There’s a strong bond between the United States and Canada as so many have emigrated westward looking for a better life, but returning as often as circumstances allow. The season runs best from late May to late October, we are told. They have no snow nor terrible winters but it gets damp and cold.
I’d guess that it’s a nice cold and a pleasant dampness at that. This is really a great place.
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