Youâ€™ve got a long weekend and youâ€™d love to get awayâ€”a real getaway this time, to a place with a different culture, unique food, and maybe a bit of warmth. But youâ€™ve only got three days. What to do?
Try this: from the east coast of the U.S., a four hour flight will take you from Boston to SÃ£o Miguel in the Azores, a string of green jewels sitting in the middle of the Atlantic just waiting for you to explore.
Youâ€™ll land in Ponta Delgada, the capital and largest city in SÃ£o Miguel, where you could spend the entire weekend exploring the historic sites and shops, walking narrow streets past colorful chapels and open-air markets. But then youâ€™d miss some of the most stunning scenery on the planet.
So rent a car and head west to the Sete Cidades (Seven Cities) region, where a short hike rewards you with breathtaking views of volcanic crater lakes, lush hillsides that sweep down to deep blue-green water. (The Azores were formed by volcanic action and the remnants of that activity is evident everywhere.) Youâ€™ll be traveling on a long and winding road that leads around SÃ£o Miguel, where every turn rewards you with views of the ocean, rolling hills, and occasional cattle wandering down the middle of the road.
From Sete Cidades, continue on to Ribeira Grande, where youâ€™ll find the beautiful Logoa do Fogo (Lake of Fire). Ribeira Grande is also home to two tea factories and a plantationâ€”the only such plantation in Europe, courtesy of the islandâ€™s balmy climate. (It rarely gets below 50Â°F or above 80Â°F in the Azores.) Walk the fields, tour the factories and have a cup of tea in a stone-walled tea room.
Nearby, visit the Mulher de Capote (Cloaked Woman) liquor factory and sample liquors made from passionfruit, pineapple and other island fruits. (In the Azores the word â€œfactoryâ€ generally means â€œquaint building surrounded by trees where local woman sort tea leaves or paste labels on liquor bottles.)
Stop for lunch at the posh Terra Nostra Garden Hotel, where the restaurantâ€™s menu features cozido, a combination of meats and vegetables cooked in the ground by volcanic steam. If youâ€™re not a meat-eater, try the fishâ€”itâ€™s always astoundingly fresh, thanks to the deep waters that surround the islands.
After lunch, take a dip in the hotelâ€™s naturally heated pool, which was created by an American expatriate during the time of the Revolution, or walk the English garden planted by a French viscount to honor his parents.
A bit further east, youâ€™ll come to the Furnas region, where geysers hiss from the ground and mineral water (in 23 different flavors) pours from taps as you walk the cobbled streets. (Note that some of these flavors are strong; raspberry-lime isnâ€™t one of them.) The Furnas region is famous for its natural spas where travelers have come for decades to soak away their cares.
Running through the center of Furnas is a bridge with eight arches, one of SÃ£o Miguelâ€™s many architectural wonders. The Azoreans are a religious people and innumerable churches, chapels and cathedrals adorn the island. These range from the colorful little Holy Ghost chapels to magnificent cathedrals. If youâ€™re lucky, youâ€™ll land on the island during one of the many Holy Ghost festivalsâ€”a kind of â€œold home daysâ€ and religious holiday. These events vary from island to island, but invariably involve music, dancing, and free food.
On the second day of your trip, plan to spend some time in the great outdoorsâ€”on-land or on the ocean. The Azores are prime spots for whale and dolphin watching, practiced in an environmentally sensitive fashion. Scuba enthusiasts will find plenty of sites to explore, or try your hand at deep-sea fishing. For landlubbers, there are self-guided hiking and biking trails that range from easy to challenging. And donâ€™t forget to bring your cameraâ€”SÃ£o Miguel is a paradise for flowering plants, trees and colorful birds.
By the end of the weekend, youâ€™ll feel at home in SÃ£o Miguel. Of course, SÃ£o Miguel is one of only nine islands in the Azores, each with their own unique flavor and charm. Youâ€™ll just have to come back another weekend.