30 Nov,2016 By Jagabond
Before my trip, the Azores islands were a mystery to me. This collection of nine volcanic islands sits in the center of the Atlantic, allowing for convenient direct flights from Boston, not coincidentally the site of the largest Azorean population in the U.S. I’d do searches online and find nothing specific regarding proposed itineraries, or find insanely conflicting advice. How long to stay on Sao Miguel? Some people said 3 days, some said 2 weeks. Maybe research will be easier in a decade when this isn’t an under the radar tourist spot. I decided to just wing it with the planning, and for the most part everything went smoothly. I present to you now the things I learned while traveling the Azores…things to keep in mind when planning your island hopping adventure.
1. Make restaurant reservations – With the exception of the Michelin three star I booked in Reims, I can’t recall ever making reservations for a restaurant in any European country. Azores was wildly different, with massive lines every night at all possible restaurants. Without a reservation your only option was a ‘snack bar’, where you could get things like tuna or turkey sandwiches, but not much else. My theory on why it was this way is their non-acknowledgement of tourist season. Even though most Europeans visit the Azores in the summer months, the Azoreans don’t change, and because they aren’t used to tourism they keep staffing at the same levels, which causes a supply and demand crisis. If you visit in summer, I would actually recommend making dinner reservations two days in advance.
2. Rent a car – I suffer from driving anxiety…I hate cars! But even I could navigate the roads here, as no one ever seems to be on them. If you stay in the main city, you only have a day’s worth of sights, maximum. Venture out and drive the entire island, which often times, for all islands besides Sao Miguel, can be done in one day. To get a full of picture of the Azores, you need to see the nature, so therefore you need a car. They have public transport here, but similar to Malta they run on island time, so you can never truly plan an itinerary using the bus system.
3. Plan your itinerary wisely – Like I said before, I couldn’t find hardly anything written on Azores before I went, so I based my travel plan around the middle cluster of islands. The easy ones to hit (according to both myself and Anthony Bourdain) are the main island of Sao Miguel (5-7 days), Faial (2 days), and Pico (3 days). From Sao Miguel the flight to Faial/Pico is only 40 minutes, and you can easily go between Faial and Pico on a 30 minute ferry trip. We added on Terceira, which was an additional 40 minute flight, but was also the most unique island and good for 3 days as well. This is what I’d recommend for an ideal two-week trip.
4. SATA is a great airline – Piggybacking on the itinerary blurb, the local airline SATA is how you get between most of the islands. Some, like Pico-Faial-San Jorge, are connected via short ferry trip. It’s not the cheapest airline, probably more expensive than RyanAir, but the flights are mostly on time and the airport traffic is limited, so lines are short.
5. WiFi is prevalent – I was surprised by this, as I actually considered buying a Vodafone plan for my two weeks here. Most restaurants had WiFi with ridiculously easy passwords – usually just the name of the restaurant in lowercase letters, as I impressed myself by guessing right multiple times.
6. Churches are everywhere and similar – For church fans Azores will offer you many opportunities to genuflect and take wonderful pictures. You will soon realize that most churches are replicas of each other, with similar style and construction. There are some minor regional variations, but overall I would say that if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.
7. Weather can be bad but changes are frequent – Our time on Faial was the most variant, where we’d attempt to go ‘whale watching’ or ‘swimming with the dolphins’, but the rainy weather in the morning caused those trips to be canceled. It was not uncommon, however, for the sun to be shining brightly that same afternoon. I recall Iceland being this way as well…just because the day starts crummy doesn’t mean it will end that way.
8. No pubs…at all – This was difficult, especially since I was with two Belgians. We found one traditional pub and one wine bar across all four islands we were on. Again I attribute this to the Azores being relatively young in the tourism industry.
9. Very cheap – The Azores is technically Portugal, and Lisbon is already one of the cheapest cities in Western Europe…but the Azores is significantly cheaper. You can plan on eating out more, and having that one extra drink at the end of the night.
10. Swimming options are everywhere, so bring your snorkel – Often these swimming spots are off the side of cliffs, so you enter the water at your own risk. At other areas they have flag conditions showing the risk of swimming…red flag basically means unless you’re Michael Phelps stay out of the water. Bring a snorkel as there’s definitely a nice diversity of fish in the waters off the islands. The main island of Sao Miguel also has multiple locations where you can dip into hot springs.
11. Fish is really good – However I caution, don’t get too excited until you confirm the restaurant has the fish you want. The menu depends on how the local fisherman did that week. It wasn’t uncommon to see the initial menu, then have the waiter cross out half the fish options because they weren’t in stock.