I recently returned from a long-awaited trip to the Azores Islands, and I have very conflicting thoughts to share. In some ways, the destination was SO much more than I expected, but in one key aspect, it was sadly disappointing.
I’ll get the bad news over with first. Azores Airlines, which is currently the only way to get to and around the islands, is — unfortunately – truly terrible. And I say that as someone who flies a lot, and who understands that air travel is simply a means to get from point A to point B. But Azores Airlines couldn’t even do that. We had flight cancellations, a lost day of vacation, significant delays, re-routing, and more. Nothing went smoothly, the planes are old, and there are no creature comforts whatsoever (no entertainment system, no leg room, no hot water for coffee or tea, “mystery meat” for dinner). Sadly, now that I’m reading some reviews, I see that my Azores Airlines experience is pretty universal. However, all of that being said, if you can “roll with the punches” and endure the experience of getting there, the islands are AMAZING.
The weather was beyond perfect, the people were warm and friendly, the food and wine were very good (and very inexpensive), and the scenery is a photographer’s absolute dream. If you want proof of that, check out my husband’s album from this trip.
If you have an adventurous spirit, and love exploring beautiful places, and if you can handle the fact that you might not arrive in the right place on the right day, but you’ll get there eventually, then read on for my full report…
My husband and I were super excited to take advantage of the new nonstop flights from Providence to Sao Miguel (Ponta Delgada), but were disappointed to get to the airport and find out that our flight was canceled, and that we’d have to try again the next day from Boston instead. Thankfully, we were able to notify our hotel, car rental, etc about the change in plans, and they all agreed to hold our reservations until the following day.
We did make it out of Boston the next night, and arrived in Ponta Delgada very early in the morning. The airport is small and manageable, and we easily found our car rental rep. She shuttled us to the offsite lot, and we picked up our brand-new BMW electric/diesel wagon with a sunroof and a GPS. Very easy to drive, and perfect for our purposes.
We were feeling good and the weather was gorgeous, so we decided to hit the ground running. We grabbed a delicious (and cheap!!) breakfast in Ponta Delgada, and then headed to the west end of the island to see the famous Lagoa das Cete Cidades. We were so glad that we had gotten an early start! We were ahead of all the crowds, and were able to take tons of photos from the Vista do Rei viewpoint, and then again when we hiked up to the Boca do Inferno overlook. Afterwards, we wandered our way along the coast to Ponta da Ferraria to check out the rugged black lava coastline and the lighthouse. A that point we were getting tired and hungry so we called it a day and drove to Furnas to check in to our hotel.
The Terra Nostra Garden Hotel is a lovely Art Deco property with fabulous service. They got us right into our room, and we cleaned up and then wandered across the street to the Atlantico cafe for lunch. It was the quintessential little local spot, with great food at great prices. Two beers, the octopus special, a toasted ham and cheese sandwich and fries for 17 Euros total!
After lunch we explored the Terra Nostra botanical gardens adjacent to our hotel (gorgeous…lush…and extensive – and free admission for hotel guests) and then sat on the hotel patio in the sunshine, enjoying some local wine and cheese. Had a light dinner in the hotel restaurant and an early bedtime.
After a solid ten hours of sleep, we were good to go! Got up nice and early and had breakfast at the hotel before jumping in the car and heading out to explore. The weather was gorgeous (a common theme throughout the trip), and we enjoyed a very scenic drive to Lagoa do Fogo, which is more or less in the center of the island. After a beautiful, twisty drive up the mountains to the scenic overlook, we parked the car and hiked up the nearby hill to a path along the ridge. From there, you can see both sides of the island, and we were treated to the sight of paragliders overhead.
Afterwards, we wound our way back down the mountain, and decided to skip Caldeira Velha because of the number of tour buses in the parking lot. Instead, we headed north to the coast to the Cha Gorreana tea plantation for a quick self-guided tour and tasting. After that, we continued along the coast to Nordeste, to see the Faro do Arnel lighthouse. We should have paid more attention to the VERY steep street leading down to the lighthouse, and left our car in the parking lot at the top, but of course we didn’t. It was touch and go winding our way down the steep grade and – even worse – struggling back up with our tires sliding and smoking. Not fun, and quite adrenaline-inducing, but the views were amazing.
Afterwards, we enjoyed a scenic drive back along the east end of the island, stopping at several gorgeous overlooks, and then we had a late lunch of local cheese and beer on the hotel patio before a steamy dip in the hot springs at Terra Nostra gardens. I’m glad we did it, but I have to admit that the iron-heavy water was murky and brown…nothing to compare to the Blue Lagoon in Iceland!
We ate dinner at the hotel that evening, and it was fabulous. Prawn ravioli, octopus tempura, and some delicious local wines.
We packed up, checked out, and hopped back in the car to go see the Nossa Senora da Paz church in Villa Franca do Campo, but we were defeated by the tiny one-way streets in the village, and the fact that many were closed off in the aftermath of a festival.
We eventually had to give up and head to Ponta Delgada to explore for a bit instead. We wandered through the central food market, and all along the seafront promenade, and then we visited the Igreja do Collegio dos Jesuitas – a Jesuit church that was turned into a museum of religious art.
Our afternoon flight from Ponta Delgada to the island of Faial was – not surprisingly – delayed, but we eventually made it there about 4:30 pm, and grabbed a taxi to the hotel. We had been unable to rent an automatic transmission car here (it can be difficult outside of Ponta Delgada), but that really wasn’t a problem. Taxis are plentiful.
Our hotel – the Pousada Forte da Horta – was an historic fort overlooking the harbor in the town of Horta. Great location, tons of historic charm, and the staff could not have been more helpful. Our spacious suite (bedroom, living room, large bathroom and an enormous balcony) overlooked the harbor and the island of Pico in the distance.
We walked around town a little bit to explore, stopped in the market to pick up wine and snacks for the room (a nice bottle of local wine was only 4 Euros!) and had a fairly forgettable dinner in the hotel restaurant that evening (nice atmosphere, and very earnest servers, but the food was honestly not great).
We had booked a private half-day tour of the island, and our guide picked us up about 9 am at the hotel. It was too foggy in the upper elevations for us to see the caldeira, so she took us around the perimeter of the “Blue Island” (named so because of all the gorgeous hydrangea bushes) to show us all the lovely coastal villages. We stopped at Ponta dos Capelinhos to see the lighthouse and learn about the volcanic eruption that created this portion of the island, and then she dropped us back in town in the early afternoon.
We spent a few hours exploring the marina, and the nearby beach at Porto Pim, and then relaxed on our balcony with our wine and cheese. Dinner that evening was at restaurant Atletico, which was a hit. Simple grilled meats and fish, very good inexpensive (1 Euro per glass) house wine, and grilled pineapple for dessert. Yum!
For our final day in the Azores, we had booked a full-day private tour of Pico island. We had a quick breakfast at the hotel and then took a short (15-20 min) walk along the harbor to the ferry terminal to catch the 9 am ferry to Pico. The ferry is inexpensive (3.5 Euro pp) and quick (a 30-minute trip) and it makes Pico very easy to do as a day trip from Horta. They also have ferries to Sao Jorge, though those are longer and less frequent.
We were met at the ferry dock by Raisa from Tripix Azores, and we hopped in her Jeep for a fascinating tour of the island. She is a friendly, fun, and very knowledgeable guide, who made us feel like we were spending the day with an old friend! We learned about Pico’s wine culture, toured vineyards and enjoyed some samples; we saw lovely coastal villages, and scenic overlooks; and we visited the whaling museum in Lajes. Along the way, we had a lovely lunch in a local restaurant. It’s worth noting, if you’re the adventurous type, that Tripix also offers guided climbing expeditions on the Pico volcano, and overnight camping stays in the caldera!
At the end of the day, we took the 6pm ferry back to Horta, and enjoyed our last dinner at Genuinos, which is the top-rated Horta restaurant on tripadvisor, and did feel more tourist-oriented (and more expensive) than the other restaurants on this trip. That being said, the meal was delicious (local cheese and bread, grilled prawns, more octopus) and the final tab for two with drinks and dessert was only 60 euros.
We woke on our last morning to a text from Azores Airlines saying that our return flight from Ponta Delgada to Providence would be delayed by more than six hours, but we had booked a separate flight from Horta to Ponta Delgada, so we still had to get up and out for that 9:30 am departure. Thankfully, when we got to Ponta Delgada we were able to switch to a slightly earlier flight to Boston, rather than waiting all day for our Providence flight, and we then just rented a car at Logan to drive home.
Overall, as I mentioned, the trip was fantastic, we loved the Azores, and we were willing to deal with the obstacles thrown at us by the airline. If I were to go back, I would probably re-visit Sao Miguel, and add a stay in Terceira (one of the islands we skipped this time around). Each island has a different flavor, and it would be a shame not to sample some more 😊