Exploring Portugal's Island Playground

Riding the rim of Sete Cidades Credit: Raven Eye Photography

In the middle of the ocean, hundreds of miles from anywhere, volcanic islands soar thousands of feet into the sky, waterfalls rush down craggy rock cliffs, and perfect waves crash onto empty beaches.

Hawaii, right?

Actually, it's the Azores, a chain of nine islands 900 miles west of Lisbon. Settled by Portuguese colonists in the 15th century, the Azores have more centuries-old churches than all-inclusive resorts. But it's the same kind of haven for surfers, bikers, and other adrenaline junkies.


"If our island was a celebrity, she would have the most Instagram followers," Paolo Medeira, a local guide, told me. I met Paolo on São Miguel, the largest and most populous of the islands. I'd hiked eight miles along steep cliffs shaded by bizarrely large hydrangeas to Lagoa do Fogo, a jewel-tone crater lake set below the rim of a 3,000-foot volcanic peak. When a stiff headwind dashed my plans to explore the lake by SUP, he offered to take me mountain biking in Sete Cidades, a pair of linked volcanic lakes — one emerald green, the other sapphire blue — where we rolled through farmland and down some snaky singletrack.

Paolo dropped me at my hotel in Furnas, home to São Miguel's famous hot springs. I stopped by a tavern, dug into the island's famously tender steak, served with a fried egg, peppers, and lots of garlic. I asked the bartender about surfing — the islands get swells from all directions — and he insisted I meet his surfer pal, Paco.

The next morning Paco whisked me to Ribeira Grande, a fun beach break on the island's northern coast. The following day I climbed moss-covered boulders and rappelled down the waterfalls in Ribeira dos Caldeiros National Park. But the best part was returning to Furnas and soaking in its mineral-rich, 90-degree waters. "In Furnas, happy hour isn't about drinking away life's stresses," a local told me during one evening. "We melt them away in a hot bath."

Rediscovering Europe

In centuries past, traders from all over Europe stopped in the Azores to resupply. But only recently has it become a destination for tourists. Visiting is like taking a giant step back in time to a preindustrial Europe that no longer exists. The economy remains almost entirely agricultural — "there are more cows than people," says Liam Brockey, a historian at Michigan State. To make cozido, a traditional meat-and-vegetable stew, locals bury pots in the ground to simmer in geothermal heat. And eight times a year, the faithful don medieval garb for Catholic festivals long since forgotten on the mainland. Says Brockey of Azoreans: "They've maintained a lot of traditions that people on the Continent have lost."