Beautiful, Remote and So Instagrammable. Can the Azores Manage Popularity?

Our columnist, Sebastian Modak, is visiting each destination on our 52 Places to Go in 2019 list. Before the Azores, he was eating well in the Spanish city and province of Cádiz.

a large green field with a mountain in the background: The Serra do Cume viewpoint on the island of Terceira extends over a patchwork of verdant farmland.

“Get ready to have your mind blown,” I tell Maggie, my partner, who joined me on the 30th stop of my trip in the Azores, nine volcanic islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean that are part of Portugal.

I had been in this spot two years ago and I pull the vision out of my memory bank: a clear panorama of the twin lakes — one blue, the other green — that sit at the bottom of the Sete Cidades volcanic crater on the island of São Miguel. We turn the final corner of the winding road that leads up to the Vista do Rei viewpoint and, just as we pass the binoculars icon signaling a “miradouro,” we enter a dense, white cloud. We can barely see past our noses.

a large body of water with a city in the background: The town of Angra do Heroísmo, Terceira’s main hub, is so charming it hurts.© Sebastian Modak/The New York Times
The town of Angra do Heroísmo, Terceira’s main hub, is so charming it hurts.

So much for that. But then, walking back to the car, we see something else: the kind of out-of-nowhere, punch-you-in-the-face beauty that we’ve grown accustomed to over the course of a week. A full rainbow cuts through the mist, one end settling just behind a bush of soccer-ball-size hydrangeas, the other stretching into the patchwork of glistening green fields that blankets the slopes of the volcano. As we drive down into the lowlands of São Miguel, there are more of them: little rainbows that stretch over the asphalt and vanish as we drive through them; double ones, hanging over cow pastures.

Two years ago, when I told other Americans I was going to the Azores, the response was along the lines of, “A-what?” But last year, Delta started direct flights to Ponta Delgada, on the island of São Miguel, from Kennedy International Airport in New York, adding a more accessible option for Americans; the new flights were one of the reasons the islands made the 2019 52 Places to Go list. At the same time, the Azores, with their glowing green fields, hot springs, and perennially warm Atlantic waters, became a favorite for Instagram influencers. And with the oversaturated photos of volcanic craters framed by wildflowers, came crowds.

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“Tourist numbers have doubled in the last four years,” Luís Nunes, founder of Azores Getaways, an online travel agency, told me.

He — and others that I met on my first trip to the islands, when I came during the low season, in November — warned me that this trip would be very different. There would be summer crowds; restaurants would be full; rental cars might be in short supply. While some of that was true, the allure of the Azores as a natural wonderland, an improbable paradise that rises out of the deep Atlantic like the mirage of a homesick sailor, remains.

a close up of a hillside: The Azores is full of scars from volcanic activity, including the Algar do Carvão lava tube on Terceira.

Where the backup plan is just as good

One thing that has helped the Azores stave off major crowds is that, despite being an archipelago, it is not a beach destination. Travelers looking to post up on the sand and drink sugary cocktails all day under sunny skies should look elsewhere. In the Azores, the beaches are mostly black sand and blacker rock, and the ocean, open as it is, can be rough. Weather is unpredictable, even during the summer. We saw more rain than not, but where there’s rain, there are rainbows, and to see a sky go from blue to apocalyptic in minutes, as it hangs over a landscape so green it doesn’t look real, is an experience that is in itself worth traveling for.

Many a plan failed thanks to forces outside of our control, but, as we quickly found, Plan B hardly felt like a backup.

On a drive across São Miguel we hit a roadblock caused by an accident, and were forced into the back roads that led into villages where row upon row of pink and blue hydrangeas lined the streets and the day moved slower. When the rain came down in Furnas, the town by the volcano of the same name on the eastern end of the island, we walked to the hot springs at the Terra Nostra Gardens. Submerged up to my neck in water made murky by minerals, I looked up to the sky, the cold pattering of raindrops lighting up every nerve ending on my face.

In fact, the entire itinerary — put together, as is the pattern for the 52 Places trip, at the last minute — was a bit of a Plan B. I had wanted to spend at least some of my time on the smaller islands. I heard tales of São Jorge, with its 9,500 inhabitants, famous cheese and wide tracts of land still left wild, and Pico, with its massive volcano and the vineyards that cover its slopes. But limited by my travel dates, none of those islands were feasible. Instead, we split our time between São Miguel and Terceira, the second most populous island in the Azores.

Though just a 40-minute puddle jump away, Terceira feels markedly different from São Miguel. It’s less developed, which becomes clear from a bird’s-eye view.

One afternoon, we found ourselves the only people at the Serra do Cume viewpoint, where a balcony extends over a quilt of farmland hundreds of feet below. The wind howled, carrying with it the scent of cattle and flowers. The blue of the sky was marred by a vortex of deep gray, where the sun cracked through incoming storm clouds like a pickax through a sheet of ice.

Elsewhere, there was Algar do Carvão, a volcanic tube that runs 300 feet into the earth, ending in an underground lake. I thought about moving to Biscoitos, a town on Terceira’s northern coast, where I could start my day with laps in the natural swimming pools formed in the pockets along its craggy volcanic shoreline.

While São Miguel’s main city, Ponta Delgada, has a charming old center, where black-and-white cobblestone designs lead you down narrow streets and past grand churches, Terceira’s hub, Angra do Heroísmo, feels like an alternate universe. The palette, all bright colors framing whitewashed buildings, looks like it was chosen by a preschooler.

Terceira is hoping to draw some of the tourists from São Miguel to its own volcanoes, rocky coastlines and dollhouse towns. In Terceira’s case, it’s also about economics: In 2015, the United States Air Force began closing down its base on the island, which had long served as the foundation of the local economy. Islanders hope that tourism can replace those lost dollars.

“People from São Miguel come here to feel nostalgic for what life used to be like there,” Sandra Rocha, a photographer who, along with some friends, recently opened Caparica, an eco-lodge in Biscoitos, told me.

If you go

■ If you’re going to island hop — and you should — be flexible with dates and give yourself some wiggle room so you don’t find yourself stranded in Pico on the day of your flight off São Miguel. The little Azores Airlines puddle jumpers that make the trips can be hindered by bad weather, which can show up suddenly and unexpectedly.

■ On São Miguel, don’t be afraid to venture out of the main hub of Ponta Delgada come mealtime. Some of the best restaurants on the island are in outlying towns. For seafood, head to Ponta do Garajau in Ribeira Quente for an array of delicious mollusks and whole fish bought straight from local fishermen. If land-dwelling animals are more your speed, go to the restaurant in Ribeira Grande run by the local agricultural association and get ready for a protein overdose of steak topped with a fried egg.

a flock of seagulls flying over a body of water: In the Azores, you can swim with wild dolphins, and tour operators make sure it is done responsibly and sustainably.

■ Terceira has its fair share of great food options, too. If you want to feel like you’re in someone’s countryside living room instead of a restaurant, try Taberna Roberto where Roberto himself will take you into the kitchen to show you what’s on offer and recommend one of the local wines, given a mineral-rich kick by the volcanic soil where the grapes are grown.

a group of people walking in the water: Throughout the summer you can find touradas à corda, or “bullfights by rope,” happening throughout the Azores.

Choose your own adventure

One afternoon on São Miguel, Maggie and I got into a boat and traveled far from the shoreline. We bounded across the waves until we spotted them: common dolphins, rocketing through the water, one of 27 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises that call these waters home. We lined up along the edge of the boat and then, just as the pod of dolphins swam past, dropped into the ocean, snorkeling masks on. There’s something disorienting about dropping into deep blue, where, at first, it can be hard to tell up from down. I panicked momentarily, but then was calmed by the graceful movements of the dolphins through the water, unconcerned by our presence in their world.

a large body of water with a mountain in the background: For one of the best sunsets on São Miguel, head to the black sand beach at Mosteiros, on the western edge of the island.

That lack of concern stems, at least in part, from the strict regulations around interacting with the animals. Outfitters like Picos de Aventura may only follow the dolphins for a certain amount of time; no more than three people are allowed in the water with the dolphins at once; and every guest can only enter the water up to three times on a trip.

It’s the photogenic attractions that bring people to the Azores. Along with dolphins and whales, there are steep cliffs and waterfalls that make ideal territory for canyoning, a sport that involves rappelling down the side of rock faces. Mountain bike trails wrap around craters, and the ocean stays between about 63 and 77 degrees Fahrenheit all year, thanks to warm currents.

Beyond the outdoor pursuits, there is the food: a surf-and-turf array of grass-fed beef and ocean delicacies like limpets, marine snails that are cooked in copious amounts of garlic, and barnacles that taste like lobster. There are the only major tea plantations in Europe and pineapple farms, where the fruit tastes like it’s been dipped in sugar.

In Terceira, we followed a tip that brought us to the village of São Mateus da Calheta, where a traditional bull run — a tourada à corda, or “bullfight by rope” — was taking place. Over the course of two hours, while spectators watched from high ground and behind barricades, one angry bull after another was released into the streets. Men — and it was almost always men — took turns goading the animal; getting as close as possible before it lashed out and they had to maneuver to avoid the filed down horns. More than once the bull chased revelers into the ocean.

It was a hard tradition to watch. The animal was clearly stressed. But for Azoreans, it was clearly meaningful: The crowd was made up mostly of families, including aunts and uncles back on the island from their new homes across the world (more Azoreans are part of the diaspora than live on the islands). There were six bull runs happening across the island that day and over 60 in the month of August alone.

Spread the wealth

Put all the Azores’ natural beauty together with its history — it’s a kind of Portugal but not, separated from Lisbon by almost 900 miles of deep blue — and its strategic location as an ideal stopover between North America and Europe, and you’ve got a recipe for crowds. Many of those same ingredients turned Iceland from sparsely touristed to a place where, as was the case before the collapse of the low cost Icelandic carrier WOW Air, American tourists outnumbered residents.

But Azoreans have the benefit of having seen where others who entered the tourism zeitgeist before them went wrong; despite hearing some complaints from locals about traffic and the need to make dinner reservations, things still seem to be at least somewhat under control. You still won’t find major resort chains, with accommodation options still dominated by boutique hotels, guesthouses and, increasingly, Airbnbs. The government still has limited the number of hotel beds across all nine islands to 20,000 and that limit has yet to be hit.

Will I come back to the Azores again, for a third time? No doubt. But on my next trip, I will do things differently.

I’ll go in the off season, as I did on my first trip (the difference in weather is minute), and I’ll go to the less-visited islands. I’ll do it, in part, for the sake of the islands’ future, because the more people who don’t follow the seasons like geese, the longer places like the Azores will retain their magic and the more people can make sustainable livelihoods in the tourism industry. It’s a decision more tourists will need to make if all that delicate beauty is going to live on. And if it sounds like a sacrifice, I promise you it is not.

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