I first heard about the Azores a few years ago when I noticed a trip advertised for what seemed to be a ridiculously low price of $499 to the island of Terceira. For less than $500, the trip included a four-star hotel for a week, breakfast, transfers and airfare from Boston. It’s rare to find a price that low to visit New Orleans or Atlanta, let alone a distant green European island. It seemed to good to be true.
I must confess I knew next to nothing about the Azores before I visited. These nine Portuguese islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean don’t make many headlines and I’d never met anyone who’s been there. However, the pictures I Googled showed a gorgeous, green volcanic archipelago and after an amazing stop in the Portuguese island of Madeira last year, I decided to give the islands a closer look. Then I booked it. I’m here right now. I’m writing this as I look out my window at the waves crashing on the cliffs below my hotel. Did I mention my hotel is in the middle of a 450-year-old fort? Yeah. It’s good. Definitely worth the price.
I’m not island-hopping on this trip, but it can be done. There’s a ferry that runs during the high season and it’s very inexpensive, but you have to fly this time of year to get to a neighboring island. The crazy thing about flying from here is you might pay anywhere from $75 to $150 to fly to a nearby island—yet you can fly to Portugal or Madeira for $28! It makes no sense, but you could actually book this trip and continue on to Europe for next to nothing. This time of year is off-season, so tourist site hours are limited, and some places are shut down entirely, but if you like to avoid crowds, you pretty much have the place to yourself. You can rent a car for less than $25 a day to drive around the island and visit places public transport don’t service.
Terceira island’s main tourist town is Angra do Heroismo (which translates to "Bay of Heroism") and it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The port is fringed by ancient fortress walls and there’s a nice collection of old buildings within the city. The island was actually discovered before Columbus began any of his voyages to the New World and was frequently used later as a midway point between the two continents. Since the island is of volcanic origin, there’s some interesting topography and cool land formations to see. There’s also a great museum and some beautiful botanical gardens.
Algar do Carvão is one of the most interesting natural wonders of the island. It’s best described as an “empty volcano.” Visitors enter through a tunnel in the side of the volcanic cone and can walk around inside the cavelike chambers. At first glance, the attraction seems like a Mexican cenote or sinkhole, but it’s definitely different. As you descend into the subterranean depths,you can see the hole above where the eruption took place. During off season, opening hours are only 3 to 5 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The same holds true with the nearby Gruta do Natal, a more traditional cave with stalactites and stalagmites. Visitors can buy combo tickets for €9 or visit a single attraction for €6.
Terceira is a hiker’s paradise with great trails scattered across the island. Routes are clearly marked and can give travelers a much better insight to the beauty of the island than you can see by car. The weather is usually great all year round, so even at its coolest, nothing more than a light jacket or windbreaker is necessary. Since the island is volcanic, good hiking boots are necessary for traversing the lava rocks and more challenging hills. One of the most interesting areas of the island is Furnas do Enoxfre, where sulphuric steam escapes through volcanic fissures and creates steamy fumaroles and a surreal landscape covered with moss and its own microclimate.
Biscoitos is about a 20-minute drive from the center of the island and has an interesting wine museum as well as one of the Azores’s most famed swimming holes. There’s not much of a beach but the lava has formed a series of inlets that keep swimmers from being bashed onto the rocks. Developers have added sidewalks and stairs to create one of the world’s most unique places to swim. The water was a little cool for me to jump in this time of year, but that didn’t stop some of the locals who love their swimming spots regardless of temperature.
The “rope bullfight” is the island’s biggest attraction and is so interesting in itself that you might want to visit Azores just to see this bit of craziness. It usually begins in May and lasts until October. It’s not a bullfight in the traditional sense, but more of a bull party that takes place in the streets. The creature is held by a four to six men with a rope as wannabe bullfighters provoke the animal with jackets and umbrellas until he charges. It’s like a semi-controlled version of Pamplona's famed “running of the bulls” where one can choose to watch the action or be in the action. If the bull gets angry enough, even casual bystanders are targeted. Many of the shops have TV screens in the windows playing clips of people falling down and running away from the furious bovines. It’s hilarious to watch and must be a hundred times better in real life.
There’s no coral reef in the island, but Arraia Divers can take you visit a 19th-century shipwreck or to see stingrays, octopi, colorful starfish and other interesting creatures in pristine waters right off the shore or from a short boat ride. I dove in January in a wet suit and after the initial few seconds of cold, had a very comfortable dive. If you’ve never been diving, you can take an introductory course, or if you have a few days to spare, you can get your PADI certification. If nothing else, at least you can see what the fish on the restaurant menus look like before they’re served to you.
If all of this hasn't convinced you to book a trip to the Azores, consider a few final encouragements: The weather is amazing all year round. Everything is green. There are beautiful views everywhere you look. There are plenty of historic sites to explore. And, of course, there's the cost.
It’s not only incredibly inexpensive to come here—it's also cheap to stay here, drive here, eat here and drink here. You can buy a bottle of wine for 72 cents! My parking ticket yesterday was $6. A four-star hotel costs $65 per night. Dinner for two with drinks and appetizers runs between $25 and $30. And you can stay in a fort, standing on the top of your castle walls, drinking your delicious cheap wine and whale-watching in the blue waters that stretch out in front of you as far as the eye can see. It doesn’t get much better than that. For more information, check out azoresgetaways.com. Tell them you want the fort.