More than a decade ago, I had the opportunity to visit Iceland with several friends. Even though, thanks to a blunder calculating the exchange rate, we were broke on arrival and forced to survive on Icelandic lunch meat from a gas station, it was fantastic! The Azores (located in the North Atlantic somewhere between Virginia and Portugal) are the “next Iceland.” Continue reading to see why…

This is what most of Iceland looks like. At least as far as I can recall nearly 15 years later…

The Azores are the next Iceland

Air Azores may not be the nicest airline, but it’s your only choice to get directly here from North America (until May 2018 when Delta starts service!)

I’d wanted to visit the Azores for a long time. Like Iceland, there’s a rugged, natural beauty here. But, even still, it’s well-developed with comfortable hotels, great restaurants, and excellent roads. There are plenty of opportunities for hiking and other outdoor activities. And, in April and May, whales migrate just off the coast.

The roads are spectacular. I absolutely loved driving here! And I hate to drive…

When I expressed my desire to visit this corner of the North Atlantic, a good friend of mine (and frequent reader of the blog), said he’d like to join. We quickly booked our tickets and began making plans. I’m not much of a “planner,” so all we did was book a rental car.

Here’s the marina at sunset. It’s kind of like Monaco’s cousin.

A short, four-hour hop from Boston will land you in Ponta Delgada on the island of São Miguel. It’s only another two hours and 45 minutes to Lisbon on the mainland. Despite its close proximity to North America, we haven’t seen a single American. Part of the reason is that it’s so poorly served by airlines. Only Air Azores (a/k/a Azores Airlines, a/k/a SATA) provides flights here. You can travel directly from Boston or Toronto. That’s it. That will change later this year when Delta will begin service from JFK.

We visited in January, the “low season.” The weather was still great for most of our time.

As we sat in the Boston airport waiting for our flight, our minds turned to those “plans” we’d made many months before.

“Does the car have a manual transmission?” my friend asked.

I froze. Of course, it wouldn’t! I should have planned better. Not true, I should have planned. Despite the efforts of countless instructors, I’ve never been able to coordinate my feet to the degree required by a clutch. I can’t drive a stick.

So, when we got to the rental car agency after our quick flight, we had to “upgrade” to an automatic car. Here’s the upgrade:

YESSS!! It’s a Smart Car. It’s a “Fortwo.” I think that’s the name because it has four wheels and two seats. It has more in common with a golf cart than a car. Getting our luggage in was . . . a challenge.

A (Haunted?) Abandoned Former Five-Star Hotel…

On our first full day on the island, we climbed into our golf cart SmartCar. We’d learned the night before about an abandoned former five-star hotel on the western side of São Miguel that was worth exploring, so we headed there. Directions were quite rough (“turn before you get to Sete Cidades”), but we discovered it. It was truly one of the creepiest places I’ve ever seen. And, to be fair, had I not had a friend, I’m not sure I would have gone in. It’s best described in pictures:

Welcome to the Hotel Monte Palace in Sete Cidades.

The atrium was grand in the 1980s. It, along with fabulous service, apparently garnered five stars.

Obviously, more than a few of those five stars have been dropped.

The entire hotel was looted shortly after it closed. Everything was taken. We met one bartender who claims to have taken the pool table.

We made a quick stop for lunch in the seaside town of Mosteiros. There, we were served by a waiter whose pants were made for a much smaller man, which meant they settled well below his waist, and each time he turned around, we were treated to an unappetizing view. When combined with the roach I had to toss from the table, my Tosta Mista (a ham sandwich) was a little less appetizing. Better, I’d say though, than the roach-infested meal I had in Fiji a few years ago.

Back in Ponta Delgada. This place is straight out of a Hollywood set!

Returning to Ponta Delgada

We returned to Ponta Delgada and sat down at Caf? Central, which became our go-to for the trip. We made fast friends with a waiter there named Silvio who was also quite the entrepreneur. He plans to join the Portuguese army but moonlights for now as a builder and dog breeder. If you want an Azorean German Shepherd, we’ve got your guy.

The Eastern Side of the Island

The other side of the island is known for its calderas (“boilers”). These are places where it’s hard to forget the Azores are still geologically active. The smell of sulfur is overwhelming. One local delicacy is meat and vegetables cooked in pots buried in the boiling hot earth. I passed due to the smell. Sorry. Not sorry.

I can still smell these things as I look at the picture.

The fumes did lend a mysterious feel to the place.

In Conclusion

The Azores have turned into one of my favorite places. The landscapes were practically Jurassic. Although I’ve only visited here and the Canaries, I’m quickly coming to believe the Atlantic islands are some of my favorites. I can’t wait, for example, to visit St. Helena in the South Atlantic. For all of you history buffs, that’s where Napoleon was exiled the last time.

And, as for you, get here soon! It’s still rarely visited by people from the United States and I predict that will change soon. It’s a very special place that ranks highly on my list of favorites. Maybe, in part, because I got to experience it with a good friend!