Azores: Pico, plus tastes of Faial and Terceira

By Randy Keck
This item appears on page 71 of the April 2009 issue.

by Randy Keck, Part 1 of 2 on the Azores

Many travelers are not aware that it is possible to fly nonstop from the US to the Azores. My wife, Gail, and I did just that on a 7-day November ’08 getaway, taking a 5-hour flight from our Boston gateway to the lush Portuguese islands nestled in the eastern Atlantic. We were hosted by Azores Express, the only airline that flies to the Azores nonstop from the US, and the Azores tourist office.

Despite being on the same latitude as the Baltimore-to-Philadelphia region of the US East Coast, the Azores have a mild, humid climate, with balmy temperatures in the mid to high 60s in November. Ample rainfall combined with the mild climate insures a year-round growing season and a perpetual green landscape. The nine islands are, in fact, a huge, extended botanical garden.

An unplanned adventure

The Madalena waterfront with Pico Mountain rising into the clouds. Photo by Gail Keck

Due to high winds on the island of Pico, our scheduled destination, we were unexpectedly diverted to Terceira on our connecting flight from São Miguel.

Imagine our surprise when, on arrival, we discovered that Azores Express, as policy, accommodates all passengers from weather-related canceled flights in nice hotels and provides transfers and generous meal vouchers. This would be the first example of the great hospitality we experienced daily in the Azores.

On Terceira we were transferred to the nearby town of Praia da Vitória and accommodated at the waterfront Praia Marina Hotel Apartments. With the evening at our disposal in an unplanned destination, we wandered the charming cobblestone streets of Praia near the hotel.

For dinner we chose the Pescador Restaurant and began a week of experimenting with the fresh seafood that forms the base of Azorean cuisine. Throughout the week, restaurant portions were consistently quite large, with most foods steamed or grilled and a general lack of spices. Dinner for two with salads and soft drinks our first evening cost $48.

The strong winds persisted in the morning, so, continuing our unplanned adventure, we diverted to the island of Faial. Upon arrival, we were transported directly to Horta Harbor, where we boarded a ferry for the 30-minute, rock-and-roll, 4-mile crossing to Pico. On arrival, we finally met our Pico-based guide, Delores Rosa, over 24 hours later than originally planned.

Rural tourism scheme

We had agreed to accommodate on Pico at a house, constructed from volcanic rock, that is part of the Azores Rural Tourism program now being promoted to visitors. In earlier times the property was a grist mill, and the main living area of the house is built around the original grinders.

It was situated in Prainha, a small, rather isolated village on a hillside overlooking the sea, with views to the neighboring island of São Jorge. In the evenings, the twinkling night lights of São Jorge in the distance were absolutely mesmerizing.

The grounds featured local flowers, fruit trees and the rambling volcanic rock walls that proliferate throughout the Azores. We managed the remote location because of our fast-paced touring schedule, but most visitors staying in such properties should definitely have a rental car.

One of our two evenings, we walked to the village’s only restaurant, Canto du Paco, where we enjoyed a pleasant meal of fish and beef for $49 for two, including beer.

Pico touring

Our first afternoon on Pico, we traveled across the island to Lajes do Pico to visit the impressive Whaling Museum, which detailed the fascinating history of whaling on the island and throughout the Azores. Whaling was an important part of Pico’s economy until its controversial cessation in 1984. Today Pico is regarded as one of the best whale-watching venues in the world, with a viewing season running from April to October.

After visiting the museum, there was an unexpected opportunity to chat with the museum owner at a coffee bar next door. He revealed that his family was among the last whalers on Pico and indicated that the importance of the local whaling industry to the island’s economy was generally greatly misunderstood by the world at large.

Faial on the half day

The next day, our itinerary called for an early-morning ferry excursion back to Faial (population 15,000) for a half-day tour. On arrival, we briefly visited a traditional island windmill, then made an up-close inspection of the six huge hilltop wind turbines that today provide 27% of Faial’s electricity. The island is also experimenting with wave-energy power.

Next we enjoyed a highly educational visit to the island’s botanical garden, established in 1989, which provided much insight regarding the huge range of native species that both struggle and thrive at various altitudes in the unique maritime climatic conditions of the Azores.

Regrettably, we had to pass on our planned visit to the upland caldera, which provides expansive views over Faial and neighboring Pico and São Jorge, because it was covered in clouds.

We then went on to the site Capelinhos, where a major volcanic eruption in 1958 caused extensive damage and loss of life and added 2.4 square kilometers of new land to the island.

The devastation was so extensive that 40% of the island’s population was allowed to emigrate to the USA and Canada. Fifty years later, many of those immigrants and their descendants still reside in the coastal regions of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. We have met a few.

Horta impresses

It was time to return to Horta (population 8,000), Faial’s only town and arguably the most attractive in the Azores.

Our first stop was the all-important famed yachtsmen’s base and watering hole, Peter Sport Café, an utterly charming, colorful, flag-adorned pub/café across from Horta Marina.

We met the owner, Peter, the latest in a lineage of Peters, who provided a very interesting personalized tour of his adjacent scrimshaw museum. The extensive, valuable collection of historic whale-tooth carvings is impressive, to say the least. An important part of Azores and Atlantic whaling history and tradition, it should not be missed.

The Horta Marina serves as the Azores North Atlantic crossing pit stop annually hosting over 1,100 transatlantic yachts stopping in for restocking, refueling and revelry. This creates a lively, festive atmosphere during the summer months, all with an unrivaled scenic backdrop of the massive volcanic Pico Mountain scaling the heights on neighboring Pico across the waters.

Many of Horta’s attractions can be experienced on self-guided walking tours. After a short walk along the waterfront, we reboarded the interisland ferry for our return crossing to Pico. We had by now become adept at handling the bouncy conditions.

Pico touring

Upon our arriving back on Pico, the cloud gods decided to reward us with our first view of the peak of Pico Mountain. It was well worth the wait.

First we visited the UNESCO World Heritage Centre-cited microclimate vineyards, with vines amazingly growing in precise rows on short lava rock walls instead of in the traditional manner. The local specialty wine produced is verdelho, which is sherry-like.

Next we ventured inland into the solitude of the high country, sharing the upland roads with small herds of cattle that appeared extremely healthy. We learned that free-range Azorean beef is a prized commodity in Europe today, making cattle production an important industry.

We enjoyed the pristine highland scenery of two small mountain lakes before returning to our coastal abode in Prainha.

Pico’s heights revealed

Our final morning on the island, we awoke to a completely cloud-free Pico Mountain and began touring the nooks and crannies of the rough volcanic rock coastline between our village and Madalena. We first visited the rustic whaling industry museum at Cais do Pico in the district of São Roque, the former center of the island’s whaling industry. It is a fishing port today.

We then wandered on back roads past aged private wineries, which are mostly in ruins today. A few cooperatives are still in operation, using the old traditional methods for distilling grappa.

Throughout Pico as well as on the other islands, the adaptive, creative and inventive Azoreans have compensated for the lack of beaches by carving out a plethora of natural-rock swimming pools along the rocky coastline for all to enjoy.

In Madalena we had time to wander on our own before our afternoon flight to São Miguel. We discovered that big things are planned for Pico’s future; new construction will add significantly to the current room inventory.

While we greatly enjoyed the island of Pico, during our abbreviated visit it was not accorded the opportunity to share what are perhaps its two greatest visitor attractions. Pico’s whale-watching is virtually unsurpassed, but we were visiting in the wrong season.

Also, many people go to Pico specifically to hike on the fine range of walking trails for which the island is noted. Unfortunately, we did not have time to partake. Good walking trail brochures for Pico and the other islands are available from the Portuguese National Tourism Office.

Final notes

We found the Azores to be generally user-friendly regarding getting by speaking English. All children are taught English in school. Most restaurant menus are in English as well as Portuguese, and most people dealing with foreign visitors speak at least some English and happily so.

Sometimes truth can seem to masquerade as promotion. With that caveat, I must report that in our entire week in the Azores we did not encounter or observe a cross word being spoken. On the roads, drivers were unhurried and supremely courteous. Also, the city streets and rural roadways in all areas visited were unbelievably clean.

It should therefore come as no surprise that even before we departed, we were looking forward to a return visit and another dose of Azorean hospitality.

Before you go

For information concerning travel to the Azores, contact the Portuguese National Tourism Office (New York, NY; 800/767-8842, ext. 3, Also recommended is the excellent Bradt travel guide “Azores” by David Sayers.

Azores Express (800/762-9995, flies nonstop to the Azores from Boston twice a week, with additional service in the summer months. The airline also has weekly nonstop service from both Oakland, California, and Providence, Rhode Island, mid-June to the end of October.

Next month: São Miguel.

Keck's Beyond the Garden Wall

❝These verdant specs of terra
embossed on timeless seas
render all else redundant
Ambrosia in purest form ❞
— Randy acknowledging the amulet nature of the Azores