Views over Pico and Horta from Faial

Vines, volcanoes and vigorous testing: an autumn escape to the Azores

Dark clouds danced above São Jorge in the distance, the angry winds of the Atlantic keeping them moving at pace. Far beyond the natural swimming pools sunk into the slate-black volcanic rocks, I fixated on a flurry of ocean activity, my eyes unsure if it was a family of dolphins or simply ferocious waves.

Behind me, the imposing peak of Portugal’s highest mountain had broken through the heavy cloud which had hugged it so tightly. Rows and rows of UNESCO-listed linear walls, each consisting of hundreds of volcanic rocks and protecting the countless small plots of vines, spread out towards the ocean like a green and black tartan pattern towards us.

Here, in the quaint Café dos Arcos, plentiful in ‘petiscos’ and limpets, laughter and locals, I sipped on a glass of the strong local wine and smiled.

For a few moments, the Atlantic sea-breeze seemed to blow away months of anxiety and, dare I say it, life felt normal once more.

Situated somewhere between the Portugal mainland and the USA, the Azores feels far enough for an adventurous escape, yet close enough for comfort in these uncertain times. Hues of greens, blues and blacks define the landscape of the nine inhabited islands in the archipelago, each one calling you to discover its lush hiking routes to calderas, adventurous cycling trails along vine lined roads, and the whales and underwater marvels of the ocean.

As autumn arrives, and the world’s borders and travel restrictions tighten once more, for those seeking a get-away amongst nature, the Azores promises to deliver.

Benefitting from a rare spot on England’s infamous ‘air-corridor’ list, it’s also a fine option for families effectively cut-off by the rules looking to reunite, it’s not exactly a middle-ground, but it’s somewhere all parties can enjoy without any quarantine.

One of the largest appeals for the Azores right now is also the vigorous testing regime they have in place. At the time of writing, testing on arrival is both fairly quick and free, while negative tests within 72-hours of travel will speed up the process. For those travelling from the mainland, your flight ticket and a new government website will quickly arrange this for you in a local laboratory. For those staying a certain amount of days, a second test will also be supplied on the island of your choice – providing further reassurance about safety on the archipelago.

It’s these reasons which make the Azores feel like a little bubble, able to actively manage and monitor the situation, track and trace with ease, and have kept their count of the coronavirus cases at bay.

While the most famous tourist island of São Miguel is by far the most popular place to venture of all the islands, I opted to recently spend 10-days exploring the ‘Triangle Islands’ group, consisting of Pico, Faial and São Jorge. Short ferry connections, unique activities, and direct flights from Lisbon made this an appealing adventure, one very much devoid of mass-tourism, making social-distancing the norm rather than a modern-day buzz word.

Here’s the Guide2Portugal guide on what to explore, eat and enjoy across the three islands.

Pico Island
Pico Island, as the name suggests, is most famous as home to Portugal’s highest mountain, at some 2,300+ metres above sea level. Hiking to the top of the mountain, weather conditions allowing, is, therefore, a must-do activity for those who want to strap on their hiking boots and head above the clouds. The use of a local guide is recommended, and registering at the Mountain House for those planning to hike to the peak.

Pico’s secondary claim to fame is the wine production, which is UNESCO-recognised thanks to the uniqueness of the landscape and extreme skill in harvesting grapes on a volcanic island. Wine tasting is possible across the island, including at the coop in Madalena (www.picowines.com), which offers a few tasting slots throughout the day with bookings. A walk through the impressive landscape of black walls and sprawling green vines, either outside Madalena or towards Lajido, will leave you in awe.

In Lajido, you’ll also find two museums, the Interpretation Centre of Wine and Culture (different from the Madalena wine museum) and the relatively new and modern Casa dos Vulcões (House of Volcanoes). A joint ticket to both will explain the history of the island’s wine production, including a tasting, while the impressive House of Volcanoes will teach you about the birth of the archipelago, including an interactive journey to the ‘centre of the world’ and a shaking platform allowing you to experience the two hardest-hitting earthquakes the region has experienced.

Close by to Lajido you’ll find the lava cliffs of Cachorro, a small village framed by striking black rocks rising from the angry Atlantic ocean, coated in occasional greenery and a contrasting white walking platform.

Another unique experience which shouldn’t be missed is the walking tour of Gruta das Torres, this pre-bookable experience (www.parquesnaturais.azores.gov.pt) will take you inside a lava tunnel, where, under torchlight, you will learn about the flow of lava that burst through these spaces and created the island as it is today.

For the rest of your time on Pico Island, exploring the lush green nature and rocky coastal swimming pools are the order of the day. A criss-cross of hiking trails can be found across the island, while whale watching and scuba-diving experiences can be found right across the archipelago, with most operators in Pico working out of the main towns, Madalena, São Roque do Pico and Lajes, the first two being the ferry ports of the island and all three worth of a visit.

São Jorge Island
Defined by its long and narrow shape, São Jorge island rises from the ocean towards the clouds and spills down on each side to the island’s main attractions, fajãs.

Denoting an area of land where lava flows have streamed towards the sea or cliffs have collapsed, the various fajãs across the island are homes to flat surfaces, natural swimming pools, village life and impressive views, both from above but also on ground level, looking up at the imposing mountains with their green coating, seemingly sloping down from the heavens.

Some of the most famous to visit are on the north coast, including Fajã dos Cubres, noted as one of the ‘Seven Wonders of Portugal – Villages Category’ and best explored jointly with Fajã da Caldeira de Santo Cristo as part of the Caldeira de Santo Cristo hike. This beautiful 10-kilometre trail, taking around three hours with photo stops, is part of a much bigger trail route that spans much of the island. With many of the trail routes being linear rather than circular, you’ll want to either double back or come prepared with a local taxi driver’s number to return you to your car or accommodation.

Fajã do Ouvidor is another striking beauty not to be missed, a collapsed cliff and home to the Simão Dias natural swimming pools, often boasted as the most beautiful swimming spot in the Azores.

Along the south of São Jorge, there are also plenty of treats to enjoy. Nearby to Calheta, one of the island’s ports, is Fajã dos Vimes, home to Europe’s only commercial coffee farm and a must-visit. Couple this with an hour or two to visit sleepy Calheta, where you can enjoy the simple and great value daily lunch at Café Calhetense, where tables sit under vines looking out at Pico.

Finally, no visit to São Jorge would be complete without sampling the delicious and famous semi-hard local cheese, a protected product of origin. There are a few places where you can tour and see the cheese-making process and it lining the shelves ageing, such as Uniqueijo in Beira (www.lactacores.pt) and Finisterra in Santo Antão.

Faial Island
Flying into Pico Island and home from Horta to Lisbon is possible, making Faial Island an ideal final stop of the Triangle Islands group.

Surprisingly, some of the best views of Pico can be found here, particularly in my case from the balcony of the rooms at Hotel Horta (www.hotelhorta.pt), well worth checking in to for this alone. A beautiful morning watching the clouds cover the peak as the sun rose in the distance was the perfect start to a busy day.

The town of Horta provides a perfect base for exploring the small Faial Island from, with a plentiful selection of accommodation, bars and restaurants – the Tuna at Cantina da Praça in the market of particular note.

With a well-marked ‘Horta on Wheels’ route in the town, which could be walked or, as the name hints, explored on electric bike from the tourist office, you’ll see the main attractions in a half-day, including the wonderful views from Capela de Nossa Senhora da Guia, earning a chance to relax and have a dip at Porto Pim Beach, one of the most traditional beaches on the islands.

Beyond Horta, a must-visit is the Caldeira, the hollow remains of the volcano, which can be hiked around in a few hours, or even hiked into with a local guide.

On the far side of Faial, you’ll find the landscape a far cry from the greenery. A striking space of sand, dust and layered rock cascades into the blues of the ocean at Capelinhos Volcano, a reminder of how these islands formed over time, with different eruptions creating different terrains. The lighthouse here provides further information in a small museum format, and for those with the time, a hiking route from here leads right across the island.

Getting to and around the ‘Triangle Islands’ of the Azores
Azores Airlines (www.azoresairlines.pt) offer direct flights from Lisbon to both the islands of Faial and Pico, while from the UK flights are available to Ponta Delgada, on São Miguel, where passengers who have received their PCR test before travelling can connect onwards to the ‘Triangle Islands’ Group. Those opting for tests on arrival will need to wait for their results before continuing their connection.

Travelling around the ‘Triangle Islands’ is quick and easy, which is much of their appeal. Daily ferries by Atlântico Line (www.atlanticoline.pt) connect between either of the two ports each on Pico and São Jorge, and more regular connections arrive and depart at the single port of Horta on Faial Island. Tickets are affordable and should be booked in advance.

By Daniel James
|| features@algarveresident.com

An avid traveller, Daniel James found a much-loved home in Portugal. Recently, he co-founded Guide2Portugal.com to inspire visitors and locals to explore and discover more of our magical country.

Views over Pico and Horta from Faial
Tuna, cheese, limpets and wine are must samples in the Azores
Trekking routes and views of the Faja are the stars of São Jorge Island
The unique and UNESCO listed Vineyards on Pico Island
The striking black lava cliffs of Cachorro on Pico Island
Other worldly landscapes on Faial Island
Nature’s swimming pools on São Jorge Island
Entering a lava tunnel on Pico Island.