Azores, Portugal: The New, the Old, the Hot, and the Cold

In the Azores, we found the Portugal we were looking for. An easy pace, perfect weather, and friendly people who kept their shirts on.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that we were meeting good friends for our annual dive trip, or that we were staying in one place for a week.

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We rented a beautiful beachfront home in Vila Franca do Campo on the main island of São Miguel. It was centrally located near the marina for diving, but it was well outside the bustling capital of Ponta Delgada, which gave it a pleasantly laid-back feeling.

The 200-year-old Airbnb maintained a wonderful balance of rustic charm and modern conveniences. It had plenty of space for our group of eight, along with an outdoor kitchen with a wood-fired oven, lush gardens maintained by the charming José, who brought us freshly-picked bananas each day, and a ping pong table for our nightly entertainment.

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On our first afternoon on the island, we all met for lunch at Restaurante Jaime, where we enjoyed huge platters of fresh fish, roasted chicken, and grilled squid as we caught up with one another and shared lots of laughs.

At the table next to us sat a man in a bright pink shirt working on his laptop while he dined. Midway through our conversation, he introduced himself to Mike at the end of the table. He said his name was Mario, and he couldn’t help but notice that we were Americans and wondered how we’d arrived in the Azores.

We explained our around-the-world adventure and told him we were looking for our next home. “Oh, then you must move to the Azores!” he exclaimed.

He gave us a long and detailed list of all of the places we should go and things we should do while we were in San Miguel and invited us to join him for the annual São João festival in the town square later that week.

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Dancers in the annual São João festival parade (image: Mario Miranda)

We were in the Azores to dive but were also eager to explore the beauty of the island. It was a good thing that hiking and sightseeing on land were high on our list, since we were really too early in the season for good underwater sights. Manta rays and whales don’t typically arrive in the Azores until August, and since it’s a North Atlantic location, there isn’t really any reef to explore.

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But the higher we went above sea level, the more spectacular the scenery became. We spent an afternoon exploring Faial da Terra, with its tiny “ghost village” of Sanguinho halfway up the mountain on the way to the gorgeous Salto do Prego waterfall.

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The Azores are an archipelago of seven islands that sit atop dormant volcanoes. We explored the sulphur springs and volcanic vents of Furnas, where the local specialty is a stew slow-cooked over the natural steam. The best place to try it is Tony’s Restaurant.

DSC_0897At the opposite end of the island, we hiked to two lakes suspended on a volcanic crater at Lagoa das Sete Cidades, where ever-present clouds clung to the cliffs. The lakes — Lagoa Azul (Blue Lake) and Lagoa Verde (Green Lake) — are so named because each reflects the sunlight as a different color.DSC_0944DSC_0978We also paid a visit to Lagoa das Sete Cidades’ Church of São Nicolau and crawled through a tunnel carved into the mountain in the 1930s to help regulate water flow in the town.DSC_0062DSC_0985DSC_0014At low tide, we bathed in warm waters where the cold Atlantic Ocean meets boiling underwater springs that flow across a rocky black beach at Ponta da Ferraria.

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By the time we saw Mario again, we had much to report about our wonderful week in the Azores, and we spent a lovely evening at Praia Café sharing our adventures with him.

Over broiled limpets with garlic butter, fresh local cheeses and sausages, huge plates of perfectly prepared shrimp risotto, and glasses of crisp white wine from the Maré Cheia vineyard next door, we talked about the ways that travel changes you and your outlook on the world.

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You come to realize that travel is less about where and more about who. The Azores were made special by our new friendship with Mario. By the kindness of the gardener, José. And by our longstanding friendships with our dive buddies, who make every place more special for us.

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