The Azores

Author: Shelby Clark

Tags : Beach, Europe, Museums & Culture

Learn more about these intriguing islands off the coast of Portugal and how to enjoy a bargain vacation in a little known spot.

From the air, the Azores look as if their creator tossed a handful of emeralds onto a carpet of blue. Up close, they're a rugged jumble of black basalt cliffs tumbling toward the sea, then suddenly shearing off into the ocean, a legacy of the islands' violent, volcanic beginnings.

The Azores are isolated. Even the Portuguese, who own these nine gems located 900 kms off their coast, think of the islands as foreign. Yet hundreds of Azoreans living in the United States return every summer to the land of their childhood. They go home to bask in the warmth of friends and family, and to teach their children some of the centuries-old traditions that still form the basis of their society. It is a trip all children can learn from. Each island is different from its sister islands, but no less beautiful. Choosing which one to visit is difficult, but for convenience's sake, the islands of Faial, Pico and São Jorge are more easily reached by short ferry rides.

The Mariner's Island: Faial

Faial's port city, Horta, is a mecca for intrepid trans-Atlantic sailors drawn by the beauty of the land and the activity at Peter's Cafe Sport, the social hub of Horta. Opened on Christmas Day 1918, the cafe is now run by orginals owner José "Peter" Azevedo's son who extends a warm welcome with inexpensive beers, good food and good conversation late into the night. You can exchange money here or send a fax, buy a gift, make arrangements to go sport fishing or whale watching. The Cafe also contains a small museum that features a sperm-whale's teeth which have been engraved by whalers.

Horta's black-and-white-cobbled streets were long ago laid by hand in intricate patterns. The white-washed, Mediterranean architecture is interestingly and incongruously highlighted with typical New England-style touches -- widow's walks and wooden shutters, leftover from vibrant and successful whaling days.

Petite Pico

Take an early morning ferry to Pico, and you'll feel as though you're entering a world in miniature, built up by whalers, farmers and fishermen. You'll share the short ride with local farmers and their baskets brimming with fresh tomatoes, potatoes and other vegetables, and eavesdrop on the matriarchs of the island exchanging the news and gossip.

In Pico, explore the rugged countryside, tiny fields sewn together with black volcanic fences, which create a patchwork of green and black dominated by the island's namesake, a volcanic peak rising straight up 7,750 feet. If you dare (and you're fit), hike it for impressive views of the ocean and Pico's fabled vineyards, whose wines once graced the tables of the Russian court.

At the end of the day, reward yourself. There are authentic and very reasonably priced restaurants in the capitol, Madalena. Try the polvo guisado em vinho (octopus stewed in wine), a local wine and some fresh bread, and watch the European sun-seekers streaking by in their bikinis.


St. George's Isle

On the island of São Jorge, rent a car and drive to the other side of the island, to the fajãs, flat coastal plains at the bottom of sheer cliffs. Caldeira de Santo Cristo, at the bottom of one such white-knuckle descent, is a small village where the only way in or out is by boat or hoof -- yours or a mule's -- down a rugged path. Still, there's a beautiful church there, several houses and a cafe. White specks set against a bucolic backdrop, the flowery settlements of São Jorge stretch along the ocean and up the cliffs. Contemplate the silence.

Whichever of the islands you visit, be sure you take part in at least one of the almost nightly festas -- religious or secular celebrations and parades, proudly showing off their filharmónica bands. Nearly every town on every island has a filharmónica band. And practically everyone in town is in the band. The older children play percussive instruments or dance, their handsewn traditional outfits swirling in the dusk as they move to the beat. The older folks, including the eldest of the elders, always play the brass instruments. The festas don't start until dusk or later, but when they do, the entire island comes alive. Don't miss these timeless shows of community spirit. It's a feast for your eyes and all your senses.

These are the Azores, nature's crown jewels.

Details, Details

There are few guide books specific to the Azores. There are, however, sections on the Azores in "Frommer's Portugal" and the "Michelin Guide to Portugal."

For brochures and information, you can contact the Azores Ministry of Tourism at 21 315 24 68.

Azores Express (1-800/762-9995), a US based tour operator and SATA International (+351 296 209 700), both members of the SATA Group, offer year-round service from Boston to the Azores, and in summer from Providence, Rhode Island as well. International flights from the US arrive at Sao Miguel (also at Terceira in summer); SATA Air Azores operates domestic flights.

Here's a look at the islands through video, produced by Travel Video Postcard.