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City girl's guide to the Azores - Kateryna Review

Getting around

City girl's guide to the Azores by KaterynaWhile there is public transportation, it is scheduled to accommodate the locals and their regular work days. As such, it does not reach all points of interest, runs infrequently and not very late. While there are a number of tour operators offering their daily sight seeing tours they average at about $75+ EUR per person for a 4 hour/half day tour and well over $100 EUR for an 8 hour/full day tour. Having a limited budget we wanted to maximize our experiences and have the freedom to see and do things at our own pace, hence, (as per multiple TripAdvisor suggestions) we rented a car.

 Azores operates on standard transmission vehicles so, if you thought you'll ever want to pick it up as a skill, now is the time – Europe does not do automatic. While driving a small standard car might not seem like a challenge, driving it in the Azores is. The islands are very hilly, roads are usually very narrow, especially in larger cities, and quite often even the GPS gets confused.

Speaking of GPS, rental cars don't come with these and you'll need to pay extra if you want to be able to find your way around (or even figure out where you are on occasion). If you already own a GPS unit you can purchase a set of maps for it and, thus, further save yourself quite a bit of money. For about $60 CAD we found on Amazon an "All of Europe" set of maps on an SD card for our Garmin Nuvi GPS unit. GPS rental in the Azores runs about $50 EUR per day and you will want to have a GPS if you're making your own way around these seemingly deserted islands.

If you're like us and are used to twelve-lane highways, driving in the cities on the Azores islands will probably be challenging and frustrating. The roads are predominantly cobble stone, generally averaging 18% slope, barely-enough-space-for-two-small-cars-to-get-by narrow thus seeming like a one-lane street with two way traffic (so avoid renting full-size or larger vehicles on your trip). Most importantly, you know those spacious sidewalks allowing the driver a clear view of the surrounding environment and the upcoming cross road intersections? They don't have them in the Azores. The city roads there are more like narrow pedestrian alleys between buildings with doors opening right into the street with people coming out of walls before they suddenly materialize in front of the car. Warped hidden-driveway type of mirrors are usually your only way to see if it's safe to proceed through an intersection.

Driving outside of the cities provides a different set of challenges. It's just a paved path (well, mostly paved) through the mountains, frequently zig-zagging up and down the hills, an abyss on one or both sides of the said path, and cows crossing it will stop in front of the car and stare at you for a while before sauntering up or down the steep hill and out of your way. I can't speak for what it's like driving in the tourist season, but in April it is frequently rainy and foggy. Clouds get "stuck" between the mountain peeks and you get the unique experience of quite literary driving through the clouds. Often the clouds are the rain storm kind where you don't really see where you're going, don't see the sides of the narrow road you're on, nor where the said road might suddenly end.

Accommodations

Sao Miguel. We rented a garden flat through AirBNB just outside of town which made it easy for us to get to town but less easy to get home, with the narrow hilly streets and such. As we learned throughout our travels there is no central heating or Air Conditioning in most houses. We had a small heater to keep our rather large room warm but since Azoreans are well aware of the temperature change they provide you with plenty of blankets! Also, the hot water does not last very long and you may have to wait for it to heat up before the next person can enjoy a warm shower.

We've also spent our last night before heading back to Toronto on Sao Miguel and for that night we stayed at the Hotel Talisman, a 4-star hotel in Ponta Delgada center. After a tiny hotel room we had in Terceira this place seemed like a much deserved loft (though the rooms are not by any means particularly large). As our flight from Santa Maria landed around 8 am we have arrived at the hotel well ahead of the standard check-in time. However, as our room was free and ready, the hotel stuff was kind enough to let us check in at 9 in the morning and everyone was very friendly, though the friendly part pretty much applies to most Azoreans. The hotel has a roof top pool and sunbathing areas, a rare benefit.

Terceira. This island was a challenge when it came to finding accommodations. We didn't have a lot of suitable options with AirBNB (there were 4 of us at the time) so we ended up at a hotel. While looking at the hotel options hotels ranging from 2 to 4 stars seemed equally unexciting in photos and all had similarly poor ratings and comments on TripAdvisor so we went with the one that was in the city, had WiFi, and was affordable, Hotel Zenite. The WiFi kept dropping, the rooms were incredibly small, but it did the job and the staff were very helpful.

Pico. Here we, once again, went through AirBNB and rented a rural house near Santo António. We found ourselves in a two story house a walk away from the ocean. The place was very rustic with volcanic rock walls, vintage furniture, a stone oven kitchen, and a mini fireplace.

Half of our party departed from Pico on day 3 so for our last night on Pico island Anna and I moved into hotel Baía da Barca, just on the outskirts of Madalena. Coming in we already had high expectations for this sustainable apartment suites resort: there was a beautiful pool on the grounds and a promise of a nice view. The promise of a nice view was an understatement, our ocean view suite looked out to the ocean through one window, where you could also clearly see the Faial island floating in the distance, and Mount Pico out of our kitchenette and living room window. Strong WiFi, cable, consistent supply of hot water, and hot tea were much appreciated in the stormy weather.

City girl's guide to the Azores by KaterynaSanta Maria. As the island that was the first to be populated by people it had very limited accommodation options (even for the off season time of the year) both hotels and AirBNB. We ended up in guest house in Malbusca. Out host insisted on picking us up at the airport. The location seemed close to the beach on the map so we didn't think it'll be a challenge to get there. However, with only one main road on the island we circled and zig-zagged throughout the island until we got to our valley house, above the said beach, with only the mountains to look at, no cell reception or cable. Completely unplugged with a sea of stars above our roof we enjoyed a different kind of quiet and calm of nature.

Food & Drink

Non-alcoholic drink: Kima – passion fruit juice.

Liquor: Pineapple liquor is a local drink and while we found it too sweet to drink without a mix or tea we've seen locals drink it neat first thing in the morning as a digestive.

Local fruit: Pineapple, they put that shit in everything, even the blood sausage.

Meat and Seafood: Beef, Pork, and a variety of grilled and fried fish. Local favorite delicacy is Limpets (or lapas in Portuguese), shelled sea snails of sorts, cooked in various sauces they are chewy and rubbery and I don't love them just yet. it might take a few tries.

Cheese: OMG cheese. Most restaurant serve fresh cheese which is, as we learned, made of goat or a mix of goat and/or sheep and/or cow's milk. It's wet, incredibly soft and smooth, and melts on your tongue. Usually served with a spicy tomato sauce (not always spicy and often very salty).

Odd things: when you ask for milk for your tea it is served warm. The blood sausage is by default sweet (pineapple). The meal starter is bread with cheese and, sometimes, olives that often get served by default and added to the bill later as a table order or per person. Because their kitchens are only open for lunch and dinner (7PM) here are a lot of snack bars, small convenience store looking places you can drink and smoke in while enjoying either a savory or a sweet pastry. The drinks are small, there are small beers, small milks, small juices, everything is small. There is no junk food, we saw one McDonalds in Ponta Delgada that didn't appear to be much of a destination.

Having come from Toronto with an avid flavor palate and high expectations we were frequently disappointed.

The bad things: almost everything comes with potatoes, they are not big on seasoning so we always had to ask for pepper, and things are often very, very salty. Due to the lack of seasoning the flavors often seem bland and boring. When you order what looks like steak it isn't always steak, sometimes it is a thin piece of meat served with a topping, like a fried egg or sandwiched with ham.

The good things: once again, cheese! Azores is famous for their seafood so we kept on trying it. We had some great octopus and parrot fish. In Pico we found some great pizza, with a lot of cheese, off course, in Clube Naval in Lajes. On our second night there we had dinner at a restaurant Ancoradouro in Madalena suggested to us by the locals, which was the best meal at this point of the trip. Note that the Cataplana de Marisco is listed as a dish for two, but the two of us ate it for two days so yes, the portions are generally very generous.

During our drives we also stopped and had lunch in local small town cafes, where they hardly ever speak English and serve authentic Azorean meals, the kind they eat at home.

Activities:

All roads are scenic so driving around never gets boring. There are plenty of options for hiking. Most islands also have scuba diving, whale and dolphin watching, jeep tours, and horse back riding.

São Miguel: this island can well enough be a trip on its own with all of the scenic points, caves, sports activities, and hot springs. On the day we visited Furnas, in addition to soaking in a hot spring and hiking down to the lake to see the hot steam come straight out of the ground we opted in for Canyoning. It is not canoeing or walking along the shore and looking into the canyons – canyoning is hiking up a mountain and then finding your way down by rappelling and jumping off of waterfalls. We were warned about the dangers and the cold that was to come but I don't think either of us was really ready for what was about to happen. The entire way up I was genuinely afraid of slipping on the wet, muddy leaves and falling into the nature's abyss off a mountain rock. On the way down it was cold, wet, with a scent of fear and extreme thrill. Terror aside, I would do it again, with proper hiking shoes and a couple years of swimming lessons behind me.

Terceira: The obvious thing to do in Terceira are to visit the caves. When you are standing at the bottom of an empty volcano 82 meters deep things really do come into a different perspective. What we were not expecting to do in Terciera is party. One of the nights our waiter recommended checking out a club across the street where there it was some sort of a dance lesson night. Hesitating going there we wandered around the block quickly realizing that Angra do Heroísmo is the party central of Azores, even though it was a Tuesday night. The Snack Bars were full, the streets were busy and, it seemed like, everyone in town was at the Club. People sitting around on stairs and tables, leaning and smoking out of the windows, an occasional child running across the room, and one notable man working the dance floor in what seemed like Brazilian fusion.

Pico: My clearest memory of Pico is driving through the mountains through a dark white cloud wondering if we will ever get home and how likely are we to slide off the said mountain into the ocean on the next turn. There is also a small wine museum (no wine tasting), a few small vineyards along Madalena and a cool tour though Gruta das Torres, a recently opened to public volcanic lava tubes. Overall, Pico is a great place for scenic drives.

Santa Maria: The beaches, people come here for the beaches and they are worth it. There is a number of natural swimming pools where the ocean water fills the pool area with plenty of sunbathing room around – this is where I want to spend a week in August. The island is small, we did everything that can be done on it in 3 days, enjoyed the view of the entire island from the single highest point on the island, saw the "red desert", looked off every viewing point, found the 100 meters tall waterfall, hiked down to the ocean from a lighthouse and up the mountain between the vineyards.

Clothes to bring

The obvious packing rule is bring comfortable fitness clothing, hiking shoes and, if you plan to head up mount Pico, sufficiently warm waterproof clothing (serious hikers only, no joke). I picked up a couple outfits from Titika for extra comfort and to look good for...the cows I guess, our audience was mostly cows. Sadly, I only got to wear the shorts under the wetsuit – the comfort and warmth quality active wear brings is priceless.

Less obvious is bringing city clothes. In bigger towns, like Ponta Delgada and Angra do Heroísmo we frequently felt underdressed when dinning out. Somehow, our yoga pants did not align with the heels and dress shirts throughout the restaurants. Our city attire consistent of skirts and dresses which, sadly, it was too cold for during our trip.

Language

City girl's guide to the Azores by KaterynaWhile most people speak some English, at least in hotels and restaurants, having minimal Portuguese knowledge really helps. I'd say common courtesy is also to remember that this is their country, you're lucky if they speak any English at all.

More photos can be found on Flickr here and if you are on Instagram the trip was also documented with the #XOAzores hashtag.

Full review in "City girl's guide to the Azores" - Kateryna

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