In this age of limited travel, I have been thinking about my past vacations. One that comes to mind was our family trip to the Azores. It is a semi-tropical, volcanic Portuguese archipelago in the mid-Atlantic Ocean. The islands recently became a popular destination for their unique landscapes, reasonable accommodations, and vibrant cuisine. For years I was intrigued by their distinct character. I badly wanted to go there.
In May of 2016 my dream finally came true. We vacationed on São Miguel, the largest in the Azorean chain. São Miguel is called the ‘Green Island’ because it is very lush. It is known for its attractions Sete Cidades and Nossa Senhora da Paz. Its principal city is Ponta Delgada, abundant with restaurants, bars and distinctive architecture. Suffice to say, we made the right choice in staying there.
This was where we slept. It is a vacation rental in São Roque, a suburb of Ponta Delgada. Quinta das Almas is a gorgeous pink villa with rich gardens, many bedrooms, and a well-equipped kitchen. The walls are decorated with azulejos, traditional Portuguese painted tile-work. The kitchen has a brick oven, giving the house an old Azorean touch. I liked that I had my own room. It was big, with a comfy bed and sofa. There was also Alex, a small dog who lived out in the garden. Alex was a sweet pup who liked being petted and spending time with me. My bedroom had a door that led to the garden and he kept waiting for me to come outside. How adorable is that? I will never forget him.
My family and I spent a lot of time in the Azorean ‘capital.’ We always went there for an afternoon stroll, drinks and dinner. It was a small but delightful city with cafes, cathedrals, fountains and monuments. By the waterfront, there was a fortress and a monument dedicated to Portuguese veterans. The sidewalks were embellished with mosaics, a common form of architecture in the Portuguese Diaspora. They displayed images of stars, pineapples, and various diagrams. The city’s restaurants served the best of Azorean cuisine: grilled limpets garnished with garlic and scrumptious queijadas. It is a place with artistic and culinary charms wherever you go.
Food of the Azores is similar to that of the Portuguese mainland. It involves a heavy emphasis on meat, seafood, carbohydrates and wine. However, it uses different spices, like cinnamon, malagueta peppers and bay leaves. Azorean dishes are heartier as well; lots of dairy and stews. I had dined at countless Azorean/Portuguese restaurants in Massachusetts and looked forward to trying the food of São Miguel. It was absolutely delicious. I never went hungry. My favorite meal was steak smothered in a garlicky-wine sauce topped with a hot pepper. I loved mixing the sauce with crispy fries and rice. Chouriços were great sausages to have for breakfast, especially when sauteed with scrambled eggs and piri-piri (hot sauce). São Miguel produces its own pineapple and tea as well. Azorean pineapples are the best; incredibly sweet and not tart. The tea was nice to drink and did not taste bitter without milk and sugar. I also enjoyed massa sovada, a fluffy sweet bread with hints of lemon. My family and I must have eaten three loaves. They were that good.
We saw magnificent churches throughout the ‘Green Island.’ They came in all shapes and sizes and were designed in the simple yet pristine Azorean style. The churches were generally made of white stone and lined with black basalt. Some of them were adorned with azulejos depicting biblical scenes. One chapel I loved was Nossa Senhora da Paz in Vila Franca do Campo. It has stairs decorated with highly colored azulejos portraying the life of Christ. Whoever painted them was a fantastic artist. The chapel also overlooks gorgeous scenery: rolling greens hills and the vast Atlantic Ocean. A large rainbow even appeared in the sky. Perhaps it was a message from above.
São Miguel has a number of hot springs. We visited two of them: Caldeira Velha in Ribeira Grande and Poça da Dona Beija in Furnas. A bunch of tourists were at the hot springs, but there was enough room for the four of us. The water was obviously piping hot and reeked of sulfur but it felt very relaxing. Both of them were surrounded by vegetation. There were countless palm trees, ferns, and moss. It felt like bathing in a jungle. I recall the weather being a little rainy but it did not prevent us from having a lovely time.
The Azorean countryside is exceptionally stunning. It is like a combination of Ireland and Hawaii. The landscapes are abundant with green patchwork fields, volcano craters and the ocean backdrop. We drove through roads lined with dazzling hydrangeas and walked on dark sandy beaches. The countryside is largely unspoiled by infrastructure, making the Azores an eco-friendly destination. São Miguel is known for its lakes, such as Sete Cidades. It is a distinctive double-crater lake, one half blue and the other half green. The attraction is an ideal place to take pictures and go for a hike. I understand why Azoreans call their homeland paradise on earth. When the COVID-19 Outbreak is long gone, I would love to return to the Azores. Perhaps I will visit the other islands. I am sure they share the natural beauties of São Miguel.