“This is the most famous lookout in all of the Azores,” utters my guide Miguel as he proudly puffs his chest. The so-called Vista do Rei, or King’s Viewpoint, on the largest island, São Miguel, is an unassuming spot where travelers can swerve their cars to the side of the road for a peek at the scenery.
But when I get out of my vehicle I’m immediately confronted with a menagerie of oddities: a massive carcass of an empty hotel covered in graffiti, wild patches of hydrangeas bursting with fluorescent indigo flowers, and a chubby donkey parked without a master, balancing dozens of tiny pineapples—around the size of a fist—on his saddle.
The view beyond the low-slung hydrangeas is indeed great—a smoldering crater with dazzling pools of emerald and turquoise—but I’m much more enraptured by the abandoned hotel and bonsai fruit.
The panoramic merits of Vista do Rei aside, the lookout is the finest example of what the Azores are really all about: a destination that has yet to construct its glossy travel veneer. And the honesty is refreshing, especially in the era of travel when authenticity is paramount—the islands are flush with that “local experience” currency.
A four-hour non-stop flight from Boston on Azores Airlines (formerly known as SATA; www.azoresairlines.pt) positions the Azores as a worthy alternative to hyper-trendy Iceland or any swath of the Caribbean, but the islands are brewing something completely different instead—something that could best be described as Portugal’s Hawaii, swirling together majestic volcanos with Iberian savoir faire.
The nine islands owe their Game of Thrones-esque landscape to millions of years of tumultuous tectonic activity beneath the ocean floor, as it’s here that the North American Plate, European Plate, and African (or Nubian) Plate collide to form an oceanic zone that rivals the Bermuda Triangle.
The shifting shelves have given rise to hundreds of volcanos spewing forth plumes of lava from deep in the planet’s core, which ultimately formed the relatively young—in geological years—archipelago.
Discovered in the 15th century during the advent of Portugal’s nautical domination, the islands were largely considered the end of the world until Columbus sailed by a few decades later to touch down in the “New World.”
And the Azores were indeed “discovered,” unlike Columbus’s conquests, as there was no previous evidence of human life throughout the entire archipelago.
Colonization happened gradually with settlers seeking refuge from the clutches of the Inquisition.
But then came the brimstone and hellfire—earthquakes and volcanos rocked the tiny islets, and while these phenomena could easily be explained by modern science, pioneers holding on for dear life at the end of the world thought it was a message from god.
Religious fervor increased every time the ground shook and lava belched forth from the bowels of the planet—surely the Azoreans were angering their divine master. And the Cult of the Holy Spirit was born, or rather brought over from continental Europe by the Franciscans and hyperbolized away from the watchful eye of the Vatican.
The sects of the cult were organized into brotherhoods, or groups of families from the same parish, who were responsible for administering elaborate acts of devotion that involved processionals, feasts, and coronations that were largely forbidden in church. Elegant impérios—small, dollhouse-like structures in which devotees could practice their rituals—were constructed all over the islands as a result.
Today, this offbeat interpretation of Catholicism is alive and well, with hundreds upon hundreds of impérios still standing, adorning every intersection of practically every street with their brightly painted trim, ornate tile work and gilded cupolas.
In fact, most of the Azores in general still feels very much as it did hundreds of years ago—crumbing medieval villages strapped to the ledges of cliffs, unfazed by the ever-busying of the world around them.
Of the nine quiet islands in the archipelago, the one that most adeptly combines superlative landscapes with retro European flair is Pico, the second largest island (173 square miles) with a population of around 15,000.
With nary a single beach in sight due to its rough terrain, Pico’s locals gravitate towards the shoreline’s natural swimming pools that ring around the island’s imposing volcanic summit.
Formed by solidified lava flows when the molten rock cooled after touching the chilly North Atlantic waters, these tide pools are naturally occurring shallows protected from the crashing waves by outcrops of lava stone.
Municipal funds have evened out the jagged stone into cemented platforms, which are not only a unique trademark of the island, but are also the fixtures of the local social scene during summer.
In recent years, cool cafes and restaurants, like Cella Bar have even cropped up next to these veritable watering holes.
Pico’s other distinct curio is its adega, or “cellar” culture. Almost every family on the island owns a small stone shed, built above grade, and filled with farming tools and barrels; vestiges of the once booming wine industry. Amateur grape pressing and moonshine making is still very much a pillar of local culture, and friends gather in each other’s renovated cellars for special events.
If you don’t manage to earn an invite into an adega, you can visit Adega A Buraca on the north coast to try their highly acclaimed fortified Verdelho from 2009.
At one time—over two hundred years ago—Pico had 3000 hectares of vineyards and produced over nine million liters of exported wine. The climate was rough, so thousands of rock walls were constructed to protect the grapes from the elements. A certain amount of brininess still crept into the terroir and made the export a unique commodity on the mainland that was reputed to be a favorite of Czar Nicolas of Russia.
But Pico’s industry and reputation came to a crashing end in the 1850s when phylloxera obliterated all but 100 hectares of vines. Today, from the higher vantage points of the island, the evidence of the once-booming grape trade can still be easily glimpsed; the abandoned walls of volcanic stone look like some kind of giant labyrinth that snakes across a vast majority of the coastline.
Professional wine production is, however, starting to make a comeback following a UNESCO decree in 2004 protecting the remaining viniculture as an “outstanding example of the adaptation of farming practices to a remote and challenging environment.” An infusion of international funds ensued, and over 400 hectares of land have begun to produce quality grapes anew.
The most promising project is the Azores Wine Company, which, after only two years, is already producing products like their Arinto dos Açores 2015, which earned a whopping 93 points in Wine Advocate.
Later, my cab driver offers me a tiny pineapple like the one strapped to the donkey at Vista do Rei. The incredible tang and juicy flashes of citrus awaken my tongue.
I think back to what Miguel, my guide, explained to me about the spiky fruit. Unlike in Brazil, Hawaii, or other warm destinations, where pineapples practically grow like weeds, the Azorean version carefully ripens in a greenhouse over the course of a couple years, quietly defying the harsh Atlantic climate and rough volcanic soil.
They will never grow as large as their tropical counterparts and may not look like much at first but—like the Azores itself—once you bite in, it’s twice as sweet.