Why Europe's Closest Islands Should Be Your First International Trip Next Year
These past months have forced many frustrated travelers to put their plans to visit Europe on pause. But when transatlantic travel does open up again, don’t blindly book the first flight you can find to the mainland, because you might end up flying over one of the continent’s hidden gems on your way to somewhere that’s farther away, more expensive and more crowded.
Instead, consider taking your first overseas trip to Portugal’s Azores Islands—Europe’s closest outpost at four hours away—and trade in the 30,000-foot view for a “see-level” exploration of this archipelago with verdant green patchwork fields, rustic terra cotta roofs in Old World cities and volcanic peaks ringed by black sand beaches that rise dramatically out of the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
And, it’s getting easier to get to—nonstop flights are scheduled to start in February from Boston to Terceira Island, one of the nine Azorean islands that is home to much of the eye candy earning the Azores all the buzz and glossy spreads in publications like Travel + Leisure and Conde Nast Traveler.
Terceira has also quickly become a Travelzoo staff favorite in the last few years. Here's what our colleagues rave about when they return …
The landscape is postcard perfect
OK, so maybe no one sends postcards any more, but it's a guarantee you will be posting to your Instagram as you explore Terceira.
Maybe it will be after you climb the Serra do Cume lookout to view the patchwork green fields bracketed by walls of volcanic stone. Maybe it's the view (and sounds) of the ocean crashing against the seaside cliffs you are met with while hiking the Baías da Agualva trail.
Maybe it's the surreal experience of walking inside the one-time magma chamber of a volcano at Algar do Carvão, and looking up to see the sky through a volcanic vent.
Bottom line: This part of the Azores has all the angles.
You'll eat like royalty (without paying a king's ransom)
Those familiar with Portuguese cuisine love the simple dishes rich with flavor. The nation's seafaring exploration in the 15th and 16th centuries brought spices galore from the Far East to the plates and palates of Portugal well ahead of the rest of the Western world.
While in Terceira, you'll dine on fresh-caught tuna at Beira Mar. (The tuna from the waters around the Azores is so sought-after, it's shipped all the way to fish markets in Tokyo.) And you won’t want to miss a chance to try alcatra, a rich beef dish slow-cooked in a clay pot with red wine, onions, garlic, cloves and black peppercorns, served with a side of massa sovada (a popular Portuguese sweet bread). Secure a reservation at Ti Choa or Os Moinhos, for a taste of this flavorful dish unique to Terceira. Our colleagues rave about dining at O Cachalote in Angra do Heroísmo—get the steak cooked tableside on a lava rock.
For dessert, jump at the chance try Queijada Donas Amélias, treats created for the Portuguese king and queen upon their visit to Terceira in 1901.
Fortunately, you don't need to be royalty to enjoy this local delicacy, or to eat like a king in Terceira. A fantastic dinner for two with wine can be had for 40 Euros.
It's worth stopping for a glass or two
While neighboring Pico Island is the best-known wine-producing region in the Azores, Terceira's rich volcanic soil and Portuguese roots mean there's no shortage of varietals to sip and savor while visiting. To get your bearings (and a taste), head to Museu do Vinho in Biscoitos. Get a bottle of the fruity Verdelho wine to pair with a dinner of fresh shellfish.
The capital is an Old World charmer
Walking around Angra do Heroísmo, you'll swear you were dropped into the Old City of one of Europe's more famous capitals. Thanks to the Azores' setting in the middle of the Atlantic, this UNESCO World Heritage site was a linchpin in the era of transatlantic trade and conquest. While Angra's forts no longer protect travelers from pirates and its cathedrals no longer call wayward sailors to Mass, its narrow cobblestone streets framed by whitewashed buildings outlined in bold colors encourage visitors to explore from the bakeries along Rua da Sé to the Duke of Terceira botanic gardens.
For the energetic, a hike up to the top of nearby Monte Brasil (another extinct volcano) affords an amazing view of the city as well as a chance to explore the impressive fortifications of Fortaleza de São João Baptista standing guard over the island.
Angra is also the spot from which to catch a whale-watching tour and other activities out in the Atlantic. The Azores are well-positioned as a year-round whale watching capital, with 20 different whale and dolphin species passing through the waters that are warmed by the mild air of the Gulf Stream.
It still feels untouched and undiscovered
While the Azores have garnered plenty of buzz in recent years as added flight service opened the islands up to new visitors, Terceira still feels like a best-kept secret. After all, you're visiting an island with more cows than residents.
What this means for travelers is you're not paying inflated tourist prices, and the locals are happy to share their island with you.
Like the rest of Europe, the Azores are currently closed to American travelers. Travelers from other countries are required to present a negative COVID test result taken within 72 hours prior to arrival, or take a free test upon arrival and agree to quarantine until receiving the results, which are typically available within 12 hours.
Although it is the third-largest of the Azores islands, Terceira is still a relatively small island. You can go from one side to the other in 45 minutes (plus, they drive on the right side of the road). About the only predictable thing about the weather is that it's unpredictable (think: layers), but even in the winter, the temperate climate makes it easy to explore and enjoy those postcard views.
It's home to one of the coolest swimming holes in the world
Let's be clear about one thing: Even though many publications compare the Azores to Hawaii, these islands are not a beach vacation.
That said, you'll want to bring your swimsuit with you to Terceira. While the island does not have hot springs like a few of its neighbors, the unique tide pools amid the lava rocks of Biscoitos make for a memorable swim. Set right up against the crashing Atlantic Ocean, during the warmer months you can snorkel, swim, sunbathe and get a few snaps in, as you brag to your followers that this beats any hotel pool you've ever visited.
You'll quickly see (and smell) why Terceira is called the Lilac Island
If you're a hydrangea fan, then the Azores needs to be on your bucket list. These flowers are prevalent throughout the islands, providing pops of color alongside the hiking trails and in the fields. Terceira is known as the Lilac Island, and you'll catch whiffs of the sweet scent in the air as you explore. One of the best collections of lilacs can be found at the Duke of Terceira Garden in Angra de Heroismo, but you'll find them in the wild as well.