A Midwesterner’s View of The Azores Islands
I’ve followed Bismarck, North Dakota-based writer Katey K. since we met at a conference last summer. She’s a riot on Twitter as @Katey911 and she also writes for Katey911.wordpress.com. (Although she’s insisted that I tell you all she’s an “intermittent blogger”.)
I was scrolling through Twitter one morning when I saw that she leaving on vacation. I’m always looking for ways to showcase other Midwestern writers and photographers on Prairie Style File, so I immediately asked if she wanted to write a guest post.
She said sure and it was only then that I thought to ask where she was going. “The Azores Islands,” she replied. And my globetrotting little travel brain drew a complete blank. I mean, that kind of sounds like something out of The Hobbit. And I never could make it through that book.
It turns out that the Azores are actually a chain of nine volcanic islands in the Atlantic just west of Portugal. Their official name is the “Autonomous Region of the Azores” and they’re one of two autonomous regions of Portugal. They’re lush, remote and little mysterious.
Now I was definitely intrigued. Here’s a look at The Azores though Katey’s eyes.
All words and images from this point on are provided by Katey K. All rights reserved.
The Azorean island of Terceira may not be the tropical vacation of your dreams, but its lush green landscapes and tasty, tasty cows offer a different type of enticement.
A four-hour flight from Boston takes you there, one of nine islands grouped together near the middle of the northern Atlantic. With a population around 60,000 people and seemingly as many cows, life on Terceira is not that of a fast-paced city. Nor is it one of an overrun tourist destination either, which only adds to its charm. In fact, I saw only two hotels on my exploration of the island, and one of those was my own. I’m sure I missed a few, but the unsullied atmosphere and lack of crowds only added to the island’s attraction.
There are two main cities on the island: Praia Vittoria, to the east, and Angra do Heroismo, to the central south, which is where my husband and I stayed. Angra is one of three regional capitals, and has the added benefit of being classified as a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1983.
So, what’s there to do on such a small island? In our week’s stay, we took as much advantage of island activities as possible. We went on a whale watching tour, where the whales were elusive in February, but the dolphins were plentiful. We took an all-day Jeep tour, with an extremely knowledgeable guide. The day included explorations of flora and fauna, a look at defunct vineyards being resurrected, and lunch of more local dishes than I could consume. The Jeep tour also brought us to an underground volcano cave, Algar do Carvao, which was amazing. I only wish my pictures could have captured the scale and colors that nature provided.
My husband took a private SCUBA lesson in the freezing cold Atlantic waters from the dive shop located at our hotel. Given the choppy water on that day, and the mandatory wet suit, I wasn’t too upset that my first trimester pregnancy status kept me onshore! We also spent more than a few afternoons walking around downtown, taking pictures of the churches, the boats, the unique doors and buildings. We ate a picnic of farmer’s market bounty at the top of Monte Brasil, an out-of-work military post, where wild roosters provided music for us.
We took advantage of a cheap (€40 a day) car rental for a couple days of free-form exploration, catering to our own whims. While car rentals were available at the airport, there was also a kiosk about half-a-mile’s walk from our hotel. Since they drive on the “correct” (i.e, American) side of the street, driving was a cinch. Traffic wasn’t overwhelming, and the few herds of cows we encountered in the road provided only minimal delays.
Our tiny SMART car handled all the hills and switchbacks we encountered without issue, and was appreciated more than once as we navigated narrow cobblestone streets. Being in charge of our own schedule and destinations allowed us to take advantage of the scenic views (which were basically all around us) and gave us a chance to step off the beaten path.
It was on one of our excursions that we happened upon an abandoned lighthouse, with an almost indistinct path leading through the woods – and this view.
Our hotel was about half-a-mile from the downtown area of Angra, or a mere €4 cab ride. We walked more often than not, even at night after a late dinner. Given the European customs, most restaurants didn’t open for dinner until 7pm, which meant a dark – but safe – walk home. Reassurance from a tour guide indicated that the island is so small that no one dare do anything wrong, for everyone knows everyone, and word travels quickly. We still kept on our guard, but there was a consistent band of policemen downtown, and no one seemed to give us a second glance.
The local farmer’s market was found, where everything seemed bigger, brighter, and fresher than what I’m used to seeing at home. The foods we didn’t purchase – and sadly, there were many – became feasts for our eyes. We wandered through a local grocery store, where I was chastised for taking pictures of the bacalao (dried, salted cod), but who can blame me?
As you might expect from an island, the seafood was abundant, cheap, and delicious, from the reports received. I don’t enjoy much seafood under normal circumstances, and due to my pregnancy, I abstained almost completely, but my husband more than made up for it. Barnacles. Limpets. Squid. Shrimp. Grouper. You name it, he ate it – and enjoyed it! We ate at the “best” restaurant in town, according to, well, everyone we asked, the Beira Mar. Reservations were a must, but we were early enough that my husband was able to pick his fish out of the case, and received a lesson on how to eat barnacles (tip: bent nails are involved!).
And don’t worry, this pregnant lady didn’t go hungry. I ate more than my share of those tasty cows I mentioned earlier. At Marcelinos (tip: you want the upstairs restaurant, not the downstairs bar), I ate beef stroganoff cooked table side by the owner. It was one of those dishes that I wanted to finish, no matter how full I already was.
The absolute best steak, though, was at O Cachalote, a no-frills place with décor that didn’t exactly scream “Eat here!” Their specialty is steak cooked on a volcanic rock. The steak is seasoned, the rock is heated, and the two are put together to make your mouth very, very happy. In fact, I experienced true sadness when my steak was all gone.
And for all that we did, there were still things we didn’t get a chance to experience: The museum in town was closed when we finally found our way there, and our timing never worked to get us back. There wasn’t time to explore Praia Vittoria, as we didn’t venture too far east. We had a conflict the day the walking tour of the city was offered, a fact that dismayed us. Uncharacteristically, the cheese shop remained out of our grasp. And for me personally, there’s never enough time spent on the water.
What about you? Would you travel here? Why or why not? If you’ve visited the Azores, what did you like about the islands?
I’m typically the “sit by the ocean with a book” kind of vacationer, but it was nice to visit a place where that wasn’t an option. Without sandy beaches to occupy my time, I was “forced” – in the best way! – to really explore and see the island. With breathtaking views in every direction, I’m glad I took advantage of what the island had to offer.
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