Arriving in the Azores, it feels like reaching an ethereal outer world.
Legend says that these nine lonely islands, 1300 km off the coast of Portugal, are leftovers from Atlantis. In reality, the archipelago was born out of volcanic activity, and first settled by Europeans starting in the 1400s. Since then, the Azores have flown under the radar for many travellers, partly due to their distance.
But it's well worth the trek: the "Hawaii of the Atlantic" is teeming with wildlife, outdoor adventure, spa offerings, and incredible gastronomy. It's easy to explore one island, or hop between several, enjoying a plethora of activities and sights. Before you go, here are a few weird and wonderful experiences to be had in the Azores.
1. You can eat lunch cooked by a volcano
Every morning at dawn, locals drive to the Furnas Valley with cast-iron cauldrons filled with a hearty stew. Gently, the pot is lowered into a hole in the earth using a rope. Then, the pit is sealed with a wooden cover.
This is how lunch is cooked on Sao Miguel Island. Because here in the town of Furnas (Portuguese for "fire"), locals use volcanic heat to slow cook their stews in the ground.
Over six to seven hours, the stew slowly simmers in its own juices at 80 degrees Celsius or higher, until it's roasted and ready at noontime. After the pots are unearthed, the stew is transported to nearby restaurants, where hungry bellies await.
At the Terra Nostra Garden Hotel, stick a fork into the stew and feast on tender meats and vegetables.
2. Venture inside the chimney of a volcano
On Terceira Island, the Algar do Carvão is the world's only extinct volcano where you can enter the cone. Descending a steep staircase, you enter a chamber embossed with ancient stalactites and stalagmites, as well as a shimmering lake at the bottom.
The hot magma drained from the chimney thousands of years ago, but left behind magnificent geological artwork. Performances are held in the cave on special occasions, showcasing the amazing acoustics of this natural concert hall.
3. Feast on barnacles, sea snails, and other ocean critters
(Above: A platter of barnacles at Restaurant Beira Mar)
It's an "under the sea" buffet on any Azorean island, with chefs featuring endless marine delicacies -- some of which you've likely never tried.
On Terceira Island, barnacles aren't just for pirates. The Restaurant Beira Mar serves a giant platter of these green crustaceans filled with tender, sweet meat.
Or go to the jam-packed Petisca Tidbit House on Pico Island. The waiter delivers a sumptuous plate of erva-patinha (seaweed) and grilled limpets (a sea snail) sautéed in garlic, onion, butter, and spices (below).
For something more vanilla, order a "Fish on a Stick" - skewered shrimps and white fish dangling from a hook - at the Restaurante Marisqueira Ancoradouroorde on Pico Island (below). You'll want to spend the entire lunch hour playing with your food.
Restaurante Genuíno, considered by many the best restaurant on Faial Island. The dishes are incredible and inspired by the Portuguese chef's multiple sailing expeditions around the world.
4. The cheese is a world champion
There's one dining tradition that no one balks at: meals always begin with Azorean cheese. Slices of Sao Jorge Island cheddar with little honey pots are served at tables in restaurants. Savour each slice now: this yellow, semi-hard cheese is coveted worldwide for its creamy texture and buttery flavour. It's believed that the cheese-making tradition dates back to the 1400s, when Flemish settlers first inhabited the islands and got their cheese on. When in the Azores, do like the locals and drizzle honey on each piece -- it adds a dash of sweet to the salty.
5. It's an awesome spa-cation destination
(Above: Ponta da Ferraria)
No matter which island you visit, getting Zen is guaranteed. The Azores have been a popular spa destination since the sixteenth century, renowned for their geothermal springs, waterfalls, and iron water pools.
For starters, how about unwinding in a hot spring adjacent to the Atlantic? Surrounded by ocean and black boulders, Ponta da Ferraria is a natural swimming hole fed by a hot spring. Cool and steamy waters ebb and flow with the tide, and you may even catch a glimpse of (harmless) sea critters in the waves.
For a less rustic experience, book a treatment at luxurious Furnas Boutique Hotel Thermal and Spa, and then float in one of the geothermal pools (above).
6. Their wine has been trending since the 1400s, a favourite among Russian Tsars
No one in the world makes wine like the Azoreans. Arriving on Pico Island, it may not look like wine country: a 2,350-metre volcano rises from the centre, usurping the landscape. The rocky, volcanic terrain is coal black, and a salty breeze gusts over the isle. Seemingly poor conditions for grape-growing.
Remarkably, locals have learned how to grow grapes in lava rock, producing sensational red and white wines. The grapevines are planted along the coastline and protected by walls of black stone laid out in plots. The walls trap in warmth and shield the plants from wind and salt spray, creating a microclimate ideal for ripening.
Today, these black walls represent the biggest stone networks built by humans, and the wine-growing practice is so unique that it's now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Get a taste by taking a wine and biking tour with A Abegoaria.
7. Take a crater walk
Forget scaling Everest. How about hiking the outer rim of a volcano? On Faial Island, bring a picnic lunch and trek the 7 km lush trail skirting the crater that's 2 km wide and 400 metres deep. Along the way, you'll see the villages on the north coast, rare flora blooming, and if it's clear, the volcano's chimney poking out of the crater.
(Above: Hiking on Sao Miguel Island)
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