Part 2: Affordable Vacation In the Azores
If you’re joining us from last week – welcome back! This is Part 2 of the most exciting European vacation package I have enjoyed, about my 7-day journey to Terceira Island of The Azores, Portugal. If you missed last week’s, see Add the Azores to Your Bucket List, Part 1.
Casa das Cinco (Booking.com rating of 9.3) is a perfectly romantic, old town guardhouse turned into a modern sea cottage with breathtaking views, pool, great amenities, and Wi-Fi. It faces southwest over the Atlantic and on a clear day has an incredible view of the neighboring island, São Jorge. The property sits right above a popular diving spot, where you can find crystal clear tide pools and incredible thriving mini-ecosystems. The property itself includes three suites, one quite large and luxurious. We booked one of the smaller rooms, but it was gorgeous and perfectly suited our needs nonetheless. We had a kitchen (no dishwasher, but had utensils and pans, etc.), 4-star bathroom, and a charming living/dining room.
Once we settled in and took a cat-nap, we chowed on the complimentary breakfast of the day: the most UH-MAZING “queijo fresco,” (soft fresh cheese), with fluffy Portuguese rolls. We ventured out to the local market in Cinco Ribeiras that was recommended to us by our host. Just about a mile down the road from our flat, we filled a basket at a small corner market with local eggs, dangerously well-priced wines, Azorean pepper sauce and some extra items that the room didn’t provide (shampoo, soap, a few kitchen items, etc.).
On our way out of the market, we noticed a small café just across the street. Foodie Alert: Entering the eatery, varieties of cheese greet you with friendly signage and aromas. Tasting around the melt-in-your-mouth velvety cheeses, we learned that we were standing in the island’s oldest traditional cheese factory, called Queijo Vaquinha and were sampling their traditional cheeses “Queijo Vaquinha da Ilha Terceira.” Although there is not much else to do at Queijo Vaquinha than eat cheese & bread, enjoy local wine and authentic Super Bock beer, sip espresso and relax the day away – we felt quite lucky that we were staying just down the road. We ended up venturing back there quite a few times and loved its signature European café feel.
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As we continued to explore the island, we drove back into Angra do Heroísmo, parallel parked & paid the meter. Taking on the city by foot, street after street we discovered delightful clothing & fabric stores, souvenir shops, aromatic bistros and cafes. While taking a quick café break, we enjoyed mouth-watering food and spoke with friendly locals. One man told us about the traditional running of the bull, where each region has its own festivities where the bull is run through the street and at a local arena. Although I am certain this would be an unmatched cultural experience, I was extremely happy to find out that this was not happening during our time there. We also learned that the city does a food festival once a year and it did happen to occur during our time there. Q.B. – Food Court, Made in Azores Café, Beira Mar and Cais de Angra were amongst our favorites and definite highlights of the trip.
Not far from the center of Angra do Heroísmo lies the historic 16th century Fortress of São João Baptista – the largest Spanish fortress ever built outside Spain. We did not tour the fortress, but we did find it to be a nice hike with stunning coastal views.
As the days went on, we ventured around the island, driving around the entire circumference of Terceira in about 3 hours with all of the random stops we added to our adventure. The terrain varies tremendously throughout the island and not far from Santa Bárbara as we headed west past the town of Serreta, it felt as though we had transported to a lively rain forest, complete with a singing bird soundtrack. Because the island is not very large, within an hour we were able to make our way to one of the more famous natural attractions of Terceira, Algar do Carvao.
On our way to the main volcano, Gruta do Algar do Carvao, we drove through another forest on Doze Ribeiras and came across a recreational area called Lagoa da Falca. It is a short, worthwhile stop where a church overlooks a pond and locals can grill and enjoy the scenery. There we found picturesque jewel-tone views and saw the sweet brave duck raising its ducklings.
Algar do Carvao (video below) is possibly one of the most unique volcano experiences you can have on this planet. The site is only open during certain hours, and a combination ticket will provide you access to another completely explorable dormant lava tube nearby. Upon entering through a tunnel into the side of this dormant extinct volcano, you are able to actually walk through the main tube of the volcano. As you look up, the sun shines through the Boca do Algar or “Mouth of the cave,” and encourages nature to thrive within the volcano’s hollow cavity. The cave has man-made stairs built into its mineral deposited walls, and it is a tremendous experience to be able to reach the bottom of the cave, where in the rainy season a pool of bright blue water collects and can be over 45 feet deep. There are several different areas of the cavernous volcano that you can explore, each as exceptional as the next. Exploring the cave took only 30 minutes, but the memory will last a lifetime. We then carried on to the next lava tube attraction that our combination ticket offered us entrance to, called Gruta do Natal, or “Christmas Cave.”
On the way to Gruta do Natal, we came across a sign for “Furnas do Enxofre” and decided to see what it was about. Not even a mile down the road was a park with a walkway built through it, making this excursion even more amazing because it is highly accessible for anyone to enjoy. The walkway allows you to appreciate a relaxing sight-see tour through a small sulfur field. I am told they do not compare to the hot springs of neighboring island São Miguel, but regardless I found them to be an incredible and unexpected addition to our adventure.
We spent about 15 minutes at the furnas and then continued to Gruta do Natal. There we entered a much smaller cave and explored the areas where lava once flowed through, prior to erupting out of the larger main cavity of Algar do Carvao. The caves are lined with informative plaques, which make this an easy, self-guided, 30-minute tour. Check out the videos I took on these excursions below:
Watch Video: Inside Algar do Carvao
Watch Video: Furnas do Enxofre
On a day when we felt we had a good grasp on what the mainland activities had to offer, we decided to take part in a half day local whale watching tour, guided by a local and super knowledgeable marine biologist. I really appreciated the approach that the Azorean people have taken on marine life and the industries that once drove the Azorean economy. With a trained eye and binoculars, the Azoreans have used vigias, or whale observation posts, for centuries. In the past, these posts were primarily for hunting, and have since transitioned into the means to visually spot and track marine wildlife in the area of the Atlantic surrounding the islands, which is now one of the largest whale sanctuaries in the world. It was quite amazing to learn that we had the opportunity to see over 20 different species of whales and dolphins migrate around the 9 islands. On our trip out to sea, we spotted a majestic Finn Whale several times, and played with the friendly local common dolphins, as they raced our boat, surfed our waves, and jumped next to the vessel to say a quick “Hello!”
Overall, this destination is an untouched, unspoiled, unique experience that we did not expect to find at such an amazing deal.
P.S. Love cows as much as I do?? Check out this Azorean cow parade time lapse – my friends just LOVED it!!
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