Azores, Portugal’s Not So Hidden Gem

The Azores offer food, wine, and relaxation in a stunning setting. Why not go?

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Last spring, I was lucky enough to visit Portugal. I really can’t remember why we thought we should also visit the Azores, an island chain in the Atlantic that belongs to Portugal. The Azores are well known as a holiday spot to North Americans (no doubt due to their location, it is only a 4 hour flight from Toronto) but seems largely unvisisted by the rest of Europe save for Portugal itself. In fact when we told people in England we were heading for the Azores, they looked puzzled and said ‘ The Azores? isn’t there a weather station there?’ or ‘ The Azores? Why not Madeira?’ Which is a legitimate question as Madeira  is rumored to be beautiful.

But so are the Azores. Stunningly beautiful in fact. We stayed in Ponta Delgada, the largest city on Sao Migeul the largest island. There are 9 islands in the Azores and Sao Miguel has the largest population. We didn’t get a chance to see the other islands, that is for next time especially Pico known as the black island for its volcanic sand as it main island for the vineyards. Getting between islands can be challenging due to weather conditions via boat and air can be a challenge as well but it is well worth it to try!

Back to Sao Miguel, the Green Island,  where to start? Well I would suggest using the Pure Azores tour company. https://www.pureazores.com/en/tours/sao-miguel They were the company we used,426 though there are lots of excellent ones to choose from. Sao Miguel is a small island I strongly suggest doing both the East and West tours of the Islands. The tour in the West takes you to the Pineapple Plantation as the  pineapples grown in the Azores are delicious. You also get to see the amazing Sete Cidades volcanic lakes complete with an abandoned 5 star hotel. This tour takes you to the hotel as well and you can see vestiges of its former glory and get the best views of the lake.

The East takes you to Furnas, bathing in the natural  thermal ponds heated by volcanoes (amazing but wear a dark suit the minerals in the water can stain), eat cozido a meat upon meat stew with cabbage and potatoes made in the ground and cooked by volcanic activity. You also visit one of the islands 2 tea factories. the baths were my favourite and my skin felt amazing afterwards, @benton8tor was looking forward to the meat stew but… it might have been to much meat. all he wanted to do after that was nap and then nap again.

We wanted to see more of the island so @benton8tor decided the best way to do that was to rent a scooter. I interpreted this idea as certain death but @benton8tor assured me that they were safe and I would enjoy it. Despite secretly hoping for rain which didn’t happen, we set out on the scooter on a bright sunny day. . We made it to Ribeira Grande the second largest cit on the island (approximately 32,000) to visit Fabrica de Licores  Muhler de Capote, a factory that makes gin and vodka and infuses a lot of the product with local fruits. Tastings are amazing and it is well worth the visit. http://www.mulherdecapote.pt/en/site/. From there we visited the second and smaller tea factory but I swear the tea was better, the factory beautiful and the view? Out of this world so check out the Cha Formoso http://www.chaportoformoso.com

/principal_ingles.php. Afterwards we made it to the small town of S Vincente Ferreira to visit th Quinta De Jardinete vineyard. It can be very hard to find so trust your GPS/google map and you will need to make an appointment. The tour is really good and I feel completely comfortable in saying that Quinta de Jardinete produces the best Azorean red wine that I tried. https://www.quintadajardinete.com/ In all @benton8tor was right and the scooter was the best way to see the island. I did get really comfortable on it.

Finally the food, the Azores are a meat and dairy lovers paradise. They are famous for their cheese and with good reason, the cheese is ridiculously good. Taberna Acor has a great selection of cheeses to try (and wine) as well as local Azorean delicacies including pork bites and sausage. https://www.ponta-delgada.com/en/taberna-acor-2/. Reserva wine bar also has great cheeses and meat to try along with wine https://www.facebook.com/reserva.bar/ and finally Calcad de Cais was my port in the storm as I needed a break from the rich food and they offer some more veggie options along with the Azorean specialties including some amazing pineapple chutney. https://www.facebook.com/calcadadocais

In Ponta Delgada itself, there is shopping, markets etc… There is also a incredible botanical garden to check out with giant fig trees .

The Azores also offer hiking, water sports beaches etc.. there is lots to do and it is a cruise ship destination so it can get busy. It is best to book ahead. I could write and write about the Azores but really the pictures are what sell the Azores . The Azores offer food, wine, and relaxation in a stunning setting. Why not go?

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Islands in the Stream (or Sea)

, Ilse d’Aix offer bikes to see the island. Easy to ride with out worrying about traffic, you can get that baguette, cheese, and bottle of wine and bike with the wind in your hair to a beautiful spot to enjoy your very French picnic.

Islands are a popular tourist draw. Especially islands located in warm climates with sun, sand sea. Islands in the Caribbean remain a popular tourist draw. However amazing sun, sand and sea are, islands offer much much more. In fact in big tourist crowds aren’t your scene, it might be worthwhile to check out some of the smaller or less well known islands that are off the beaten path and enjoy all that they have to offer.

Isle of Wight in England is actually a well known island for its delicious produce, maritime feel, famous music festival,  and for being the favourite vacation spot of Queen Victoria at Osborne House. Isle of Wight is accessible by ferries from Southampton, Portsmouth, or Lymington to the north, east and west of the Island. the Island is roughly 389sq kilometres. There is lots to do but I recommend checking out Freshwater Bay with its stunning cliffs, beautiful beaches and tasty restaurants. Church at BrookIsle of Wight is home to many artisans and local pottery (my favorites!) and some of the best pubs in the UK. The pubs are often old, but clean (extremely so) and serve Delicious food and drink. Take a drive over to see Osborne House or just explore the island. Check out the Horse and Groom pub for a truly delicious meal. http://horse-and-groom.com/

The Ile de Porquerolle is just a short 10 minute boat ride from Hyeres off the Cote d’Azur in France. Though the boat ride is expensive and the Island busy, it is beautiful and well worth it to visit this beautiful island with its clear Mediterranean waters. Ile de Porquerolles offers lots to do.IMG_4935 It does have the aforementioned beaches but also world class restaurants overlooking the harbor serving local ingredients and local wines because yes you can visit vineyards too!!! You can walk through forest, bike the hills or simply hang out and shop. After biking on Ile d’Aix (more on that later) I thought myself an expert and was ready to bike on the Porquerolles. The Porquerolles are very hilly so if you aren’t an experienced biker, maybe stick to walking or as in my case drinking. Ether way the Porquerolles are beautiful and provided me with the best salad I have ever eaten, a tomato salad complete with poached egg, local ham and a from of forcaccia esque bread that I still dream of that bread. check out L’Orangeraie for its salad, views, wine and exceptional service.  http://www.orangeraieporquerolles.com/

 

The Azore Islands really need their own blog post but because the are so underrated they get a mention here and their own post (coming soon) The Azore islands belonging to Portugal are about an hour or so plane ride from mainland  Portugal. Located directly in the Atlantic, the Azore Islands are an Island chain, San Miguel is the largest. 440The Islands are well worth a visit (also a popular cruise ship port) for their food (cheese! milk! pineapple!) wine (multiple producers), gin, and tea (2 plantations). The scenery is stunning, ideal location for hikes, biking, and swimming or surfing ( I prefer to drink wine on the beach that surf and that is encouraged too!) make sure to tour the Islands (and or islands) enjoys the natural hot springs through out the island, visit the Cha Formosa http://www.chaportoformoso.com/ smaller tea factory with excellent service and vies. Visit the Quinta de Jardinete winery https://www.quintadajardinete.com/and eat the stew prepared in a volcano. Best places on San Miguel to eat was the Taberna Acor  which is best for local amazing food with stellar service https://m.facebook.com/Taberna-A%C3%A7or-636639843115341/, Calcada do Cais with lighter options and amazing gin and tonics, https://www.facebook.com/calcadadocais Reserva Bar with an out of the world selection of wines highlighting but not limited to Portugal and the Azores, https://www.tripadvisor.ca/Restaurant_Review-g189135-d3193030-Reviews-Reserva_Bar-Ponta_Delgada_Sao_Miguel_Azores.html and finally Boca de Cena, with the best tuna and chef who serves, cooks and makes sure you have an amazing meal. https://www.tripadvisor.ca/Restaurant_Review-g189135-d1309662-Reviews-Boca_de_Cena-Ponta_Delgada_Sao_Miguel_Azores.html

Ile d’Aix in the Atlantic is about an hour boat ride from La Rochelle in France. The island is small, no cars allowed. Accessible by boat, this is a island with a population of 600 and the perfect place to enjoy a laid back day away from the crowds, easily walk able with hiking baths, beaches and lovely restaurants, thumbnail_IMG_8633 Ile d’Aix offer bikes to see the island. Easy to ride with out worrying about traffic, you can get that baguette, cheese, and bottle of wine and bike with the wind in your hair to a beautiful spot to enjoy your very French picnic. The restaurants are small but good and you can enjoy some shopping for local goods too! Check out La Bar Beau Teint for some really delicious food. https://fr.tripadvisor.ca/Restaurant_Review-g608802-d4458947-Reviews-Bar_Beau_Teint-Ile_d_Aix_Charente_Maritime_Nouvelle_Aquitaine.html thumbnail_IMG_8632

Check out islands for a day trip or longer, the pace of life is often slower, and culture different than the mainland. Islands are a great way to enjoy, relax and really savor your getaway.

Out of Your Comfort Zone

It is good to go out of your comfort zone. You may find a new favourite and if you don’t well you will still have a good story and the reputation of being adventurous.

Most times when traveling, you will be out of your comfort zone a little. Different culture, different food, maybe different flora and fauna, even where you stay. Sometimes it it mildly out of our comfort zone, sometimes a lot. I think it is important to be pushed out of our comfort zones. Its how we learn and grow. Some experiences are good, some not so much but I learned from each one. This does not apply to phobias however.

I take the stairs more often than the elevator, always like the aisle seat in a plane. Open spaces are comforting, closed spaces are not. That said I have a  long term love affair with history (historical geography if I was to be honest and yes I realize how deeply uncool that sounds to most people except other historical geography buffs) The point of this diatribe is back in 2016 @benton8tor and I were planning our summer vacation in France and he had found this amazing site the Caves of Niaux nestled in the Pyrenees. 20160903_154650The Caves feature prehistoric paintings that can be viewed in small groups. Note they fill up fast and when we booked, the English tours were sold out. So we booked the French tour. My historical geography self really wanted to see these paintings. The side that hates closed spaces? Not so much. On our way to the caves I kept thinking, what if it collapses and we re trapped?, what if we get stuck? what if I can’t breathe? and other sorts of ridiculous thoughts. Upon arrival I looked at the entrance and thought ‘Oh hell no, I will wait in the car’. Then I saw a mom with her baby strapped to her ready to go on the tour and realized I was being truly silly. So I sucked it up, my nerves jangling I got ready to meet certain death (I thought).

Not surprisingly I was wrong wrong wrong. The caves to this day stand out as the most beautiful sites I have ever laid eyes on. Sheep, bison, fish and deer painted on the walls. Old symbols telling a story I can not know. All I know is that art has survived since 1200 BC and I can still view it today. The site is well maintained (telephones in case you get stuck!!) and the paintings are in excellent shape. This is because they do an excellent job at maintaining them and this does mean no photography. This does mean however, you can connect with art and history from a time that seems almost unfathomable. The caves are wider than I  would have thought with some tight spots. The Caves of Niaux remain one of my most favorite and inspiring travel memories. http://www.sites-touristiques-ariege.co.uk/sites-touristiques-ariege/grotte-de-niaux

Sometimes being pushed out of your comfort zone doesn’t give you the best experience. Also in 2016, @benton8tor really wanted to see the Pont d’Espagne in the Pyrenees and hike it. http://www.cauterets.com/en-ete/pont-despagne/ I looked at the website and agreed. Of course I did there was a bar at the top and bottom. My kind of hiking. We arrived and it was very busy. We took the chairlift to the top. They told us we could return that way too. I was puzzled,’ why not walk down’, even though even on the ride up it was definitely steeper than I thought. 20160902_163719At the top we walked a super well marked path to the bar. So far so good. We stopped at the bar on the lake with crazy beautiful views. I was relaxed and happy.We then started down. I quickly realized I was out of my element. It was challenging and not well marked. And quite solitary. As an extrovert I found that the most troubling. At one point we got off the path and I used my superior understanding of geography to get us back on. No I didn’t obviously I completely freaked out. @benton8tor to his credit kept his calm and tried  to calm me as well. He was more successful at staying calm. I heard voices and scrambled/ran so fast towards them it would make your head spin. When we finally came to the end we stopped at the second bar ( I totally get why they are here now, your nerves really need it) I ordered my wine and tried to appreciate the beauty around me. My experience wasn’t quite over. My ego took such a beating that it still hasn’t recovered. a the table next to me was the same woman I had seen at the top, Considerably older and I believed in worse shape, she had beat me down the mountain.  Lesson learned. All said and done, I am glad I did it as it was so beautiful but I think I am better suited to guided hikes if at all.

This past month in Portugal I was out of my comfort zone again. @benton8tor wanted to rent a scooter to see the island we were currently on in the Azores. ‘Sure’ I said secretly praying for rain as aren’t these scooters death machines? The scooters were 125 cc. I wasn’t sure what that meant but I was certain it was bad. Again I was wrong. He was so excited, he booked it well in advance and the day came. Of course it was bright and sunny. So off we went. It really is an amazing way to see the sites. About 20 minutes in and I never wanted to travel by car again. When we got home, I have spent many nights trying to convince @benton8tor to buy a scooter. Stay tuned.

Sometimes it is convincing the people with you to go out of their comfort zone. My mom was not always the most adventurous eater. In fact I have it on good authority (my dad) that in Ireland once, she ate a turkey sandwich every night. So in Carcassone, France with my mom we are going out for dinner. Every restaurant we stopped at she vetoed. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘There is nothing I’d eat here’ she tells me.’They have gazpacho’ I say. “I hate gazpacho” she lies back to me. After 5 restaurants (all of which served gazpacho but no turkey sandwiches) we finally agree on a restaurant. This may have been due to the fact and that it was raining and she was carrying 27 bars of soap that she bought (really it was 27 but I still suspect more). Nevertheless the restaurant was cozy, old with amazing wood beams and welcoming. Probably because I was in a jerky mood, I ordered gazpacho. “Try It”I told my mom and probably to get me off her back, she did. ” it’s good’ she says surprised, ‘I do  like gazpacho.’ Cue eye roll.

It is good to go out of your comfort zone. You may find a new favourite and if you don’t well you will still have a good story and the reputation of being adventurous.