Ready for an adventure? Grab a beer and get set to make new friends in the teeming crowd when the ground thunders during the running of the bulls in Terceira. The tradition dates back to when the Spanish tried to invade this mid-Atlantic Portuguese island and residents set the livestock free to attack, but it’s all in good fun here since the beasts live to see another day—and many more sprints through other villages on this gem that’s a four-hour flight from Boston.
Visitors to Terceira and São Miguel, the two most populous of the nine islands known as the Azores, are embracing daredevil activities that spotlight the archipelago’s stunning ocean-side landscapes and dramatic volcanic rock formations. Case in point: The latter isle just welcomed a bull of another kind, the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series, for 90-foot plunges into the vibrant blue waters of Vila Franca do Campo. (Those looking to just chill at the islet’s secluded beach can try to grab one of about 400 allotted spots via daily seasonal ferry.)
Cliff plunges aren’t for amateurs, but travelers who like watersports, mountains and hiking should check out canyoning, a trendy athletic endeavor in which adventurers equipped with a wetsuit and a sense of humor climb and slide through streams and coast and rappel down or jump from waterfalls. The thrill of adrenaline is countered by a relaxing drive and pleasant conversation with the crew from tour operator Picos de Aventura as they navigate past São Miguel’s jaw-dropping cliffs and rolling emerald hills bursting with hydrangeas that mark the boundaries of farmers’ fields.
After a day of activity you’ll sleep well, especially when staying at one of capital Ponta Delgada’s newest accommodations, Azor Hotel. The 5-star property boasts rooms with clean, modern lines and harbor views, a panoramic rooftop swimming pool and a lobby cafe and wine bar with tasty homemade ice creams (the anise and coconut combo is divine, and the local beer Especial is just 3 euros). But the real star is the breakfast buffet, a smorgasbord guaranteed to give you energy for the day with breads made in the hearth of a traditional Azorean oven, locally churned butter, jam made from roasted island pumpkins, tea from São Miguel’s Gorreana plantation—which you can also visit—and creamy island cheeses, each with a distinct flavor reflecting the grazing grounds of the cows (which are everywhere, as there’s a bovine resident for every human on the islands).
Few of those Azorean products are exported, which makes for a delightful farm-to-table experience at even the most low-key of restaurants. Want a juicy steak, flame-broiled to perfection for lunch for just under $12? Simply cross the street from the hotel to the pier and enjoy that and a side of hand-cut potatoes at Cervejaria Docas. Or take advantage of the Azores’ proximity to the ocean with a truly unforgettable meal at Saca Rolhas Taberna, a mom-and-pop spot where owner Fernando Soares will bring the day’s catch tableside for you to inspect before ordering. Don’t miss out on the fresh tuna steak with olive oil and roasted garlic, lovingly served with excellent Portuguese wines.
One of São Miguel’s most unique dishes requires a drive from Ponta Delgada to the geothermal grounds of Furnas, where locals and chefs use steam from the hot springs to cook cozido: steaming plates of hearty meats and vegetables. Walk it off with a stroll through the amazing botanical gardens of the Terra Nostra hotel or a float in the geothermal pools, all accessible for just a few dollars if you’re not a hotel guest.
A half-hour flight away, the island of Terceira offers up its own cornucopia of outdoor activities, with coasteering (exploring rocking coastlines with jumping, swimming and climbing), horseback riding, hiking, hot air ballooning, whale watching and more. After a little exercise, you can unwind at Terceira Mar Hotel, where each room, common area and indoor and outdoor pool offers up views of the Atlantic. It’s located in Angra do Heroismo, the oldest city in the Azores, a UNESCO World Heritage Site dotted with colorfully painted homes and winding cobblestoned streets leading down to the shore; it has all the charm of Cinque Terre but without the crowds. Local guide Miguel Mendonça of TuriAzores can give you the skinny on the area, regaling you with the history of the 19th-century Duke of Terceira Garden and revealing where to enjoy alcatra, the hearty roast made in unglazed clay pots with onions, bacon and wine that is the trademark dish of this island. Ti Choa is one of the best options, and it’s easy to see why visitors and locals alike make reservations at the restaurant months in advance. Belly up with one of several island families here and tell them where you’re from, and undoubtedly someone will delight in telling you about relatives in Fall River or New Bedford. With a large wave of immigration in the ’60s that brought many to Massachusetts for maritime opportunities, there’s still a strong connection between the States and the Old Country.
After a week in the Azores, one thing is sure—you’ll feel one too.
-Travel from Boston’s Logan Airport or T.F. Green in Rhode Island on SATA, with new routes starting in September.
-Check out turangra.com for package deals on flights, lodging and activities.
Azor Hotel azorhotel.com; Picos de Aventura picosdeaventura.com; Terceira Mar Hotel terceiramarhotelazores.com; Terra Nostra Garden Hotel terranostrahotelazores.com; TuriAzores turiazores.com