The Azores: Paradise Is Closer Than You Think.

As the plane pulls away from Sao Miquel Island in the Azores, I feel wistful. Having worked remotely for 5-weeks from the capital city, Ponta Delgada, I am tan, relaxed and happy. Even my dog, Freddy Mercury, is two pounds thinner from long, aimless afternoon walks.

The Azores—a Portuguese archipelago in the mid-Atlantic—are one of Europe’s best-kept secrets. A quick 4.5-hour flight from Boston, I’m already dreaming of my return. 

This island is so special. Below are my favorite memories, which will fail to capture the surreal splendor: 

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1.  Nature. It’s no wonder that Forbes Magazine dubbed the Azores one of “the coolest places to go in 2019.” The island is an adventure-seeker’s paradise, boasting lagoons in volcanic craters, natural thermal springs, black sand beaches and thrilling outdoor activities like diving, whale watching, hiking, and surfing. Like a mix between Hawaii and Ireland, the landscape is verdant, lush and green. A drive reveals natural jewels—blooming hydrangea, emerald green lakes, rows of tea bushes, cows grazing on mountainsides and stunning ocean-views.

Sardines with Vino Verde wine at lunch.

Sardines with Vino Verde wine at lunch.

2.  Food, Glorious Food. I am obsessed with food in the Azores, as the island’s gastronomic pleasures are mind-blowing! Food is local, sustainable, and organic. I ate more than ever—including the dairy, gluten and sugar that I normally eschew at home—but lost weight. Some favorites? Fried sardines. Freshly-baked bolo levedo (the Portuguese version of an English muffin). Cheese. (The Azores is a dairy-lover’s dream.) Pineapple. (A locally-grown favorite.) Decaf cappuccino. (I top mine with whipped cream.) Wine. (The grocery store has a cornucopia of red and white wines for between $2-4 a bottle.)

3. Hospitality. The Azoreans are kind, friendly and helpful. Almost everyone speaks English. Every day yielded lovely pleasures: 

  • My AirBNB host inviting me for tea and a chat in his backyard garden.

  • The trainers at my gym greeting me by name & offering helpful suggestions (unprovoked). 

  • A vendor at the farmer’s market gifting me a turnip (because I had forgotten one the week prior).

  • Eating family-style at a table of strangers—only to find ourselves laughing and hugging by the end of the meal.

  • Everywhere I walked, people smiled, met my gaze and said hello. 

4.    Cleanliness. Coming from Brooklyn, I am used to overflowing trashcans and litter on the streets. In 5 weeks, I saw nary an errant bottle anywhere. I asked my AirBNB host, Rodrigo, about this phenomenon. “The government tells us to dispose of our trash in proper receptacles, so we do.” I am blown away by this logical approach. Consideration for neighbors is the norm.

My blissed out reaction to whale and dolphin watching.

My blissed out reaction to whale and dolphin watching.

5.    Safety. As a solo female traveler, I’m extremely careful about my safety. In the Azores, my shoulders relax. My AirBNB host, Rodrigo, leaves us guests in charge of his antique-filled house, so he can work from Lisbon.  “Aren’t you paranoid?” I ask. He looks at me puzzled. “Why? I trust everything is going to be ok—and it always is.” Pretty soon, I’m leaving my backpack (with cash and credit cards) unattended at the gym locker room. Just as Rodrigo predicted, it’s all good. I breathe out—my soul and mental health are replenished from feeling secure. 

6.    Affordability. In the Azores, I live like a rich person! 

  • My AirBNB (in a beautiful, antique-filled home) is a designer’s dream. My private room (with shared bath) includes housekeeping service, laundry and a modern kitchen for $20/day. 

  • I fill my backpack with grocery—almond milk, muesli, cheese, eggs, produce, wine, chocolate—for $30. (The equivalent would cost me $100 in the United States.) 

  • My gym membership at $60/month includes group classes, state-of-the art equipment and homebrewed ice tea. (At home, my ClassPass membership is $146/month.)

  • I sit on the pier and gaze at the yachts, while drinking decaf cappuccino for $1.75.

  • My five-hour whale watching tour (with sightings of sperm and blue whales and dolphins) costs $45. 

  • I relax in the thermal baths for $6. 

  • My dog, Freddy Mercury, gets his teeth cleaned at the local veterinarian for $70. (The same treatment is >$400 at home.)

  • Cars cost around $6 a day for rental.

For once, I am not worried about money. I can enjoy all the fruits of hard work. 

A cappuccino on the pier makes for a decadent afternoon.

A cappuccino on the pier makes for a decadent afternoon.

7.    Time to Relax. Like many places in Europe, the Azores is relaxing and tranquil. Everyone takes a lunch hour. Groups of people eat, laugh and sip coffee. The days are slower and longer. I daydream in the sun. I write every morning. I breathe. I begin talking and walking slower. Even my clients notice that I sound different. Maybe it’s the 8-hours of uninterrupted sleep that has me feeling more refreshed than I’ve felt in years.

8.     Fashion. Unlike Paris, London or New York, Sao Miguel isn’t a place for high-end designer fashion. However, I still find gems. For example, I buy myself a pair of beautiful Portuguese-made platform heels that are so comfortable that I dream of dancing outside in the summer.  The mall in Ponta Delgada is modern with an array of good choices. Oysho—a bathing suit and lingerie store—outfits me for summer at the pool, as 2 swimsuits only cost $74. Both are elegant, fashion-forward and fit like a dream. 

Travel + Dog = Bliss.

Travel + Dog = Bliss.

9.    Chivalry. Back home, the news has me depressed. Trump will no longer speak to the Democrats. Mayor DeBlasio is running for President despite the objections of 76% of New Yorkers. Women’s reproductive rights are under assault, as are the majority of Americans who are living under the specter of gun violence.

I turn off the television. 

Feeling safe and relaxed, I enjoy the chivalry of Portuguese men. They buy me lunch. They send wine and dessert to my table. When I open my car door, they chide me. Courtship still exists! A gentleman brings me flowers on our first date. Every day, a man tells me that I’m beautiful—without a trace of aggression or toxic masculinity. I laugh and flirt with strangers. I feel so empowered and safe that I recognize it’s time to break out those platform heels and start dancing.

Gorreana Tea Estate.

Gorreana Tea Estate.

10. Government Safety Net. I talk to everyone. Europeans from Spain, France, Poland, Scotland, Ireland and Croatia share amazing anecdotes. I can’t help but notice how healthy, happy and relaxed they appear compared to the average American. What’s the secret?

·     Universal health care?

·     Free education?

·     A healthy diet free of toxins?

·     Reasonable work hours and strong divisions between work and play?

Portugal isn’t as rich as the United States, but I can’t help but marvel at their wealth. 

My Favorite Spots: 

Food & Drink:

  • A Tasca. One of the most famous restaurants in Ponta Delgada—and with good reason. An assortment of Portguese tapas will set you back less than $20, including wine. Ask about the daily lunch special!

  • Rotas. Creative, inspiring and healthy vegetarian food. I’ll be dreaming of their vegetable paella and chickpea curry for months. 

  • Louvre Michaelense. A quaint restaurant designed to look like a general store. I indulge in their lunch two days in a row!

  • Cafe Central. A great place to linger over coffee, wine or dessert. The best place to people watch in Ponta Delgada, too.

  • Mercado da Graca. The main farmer’s market in Ponta Delgada is a food-lover’s paradise. Go on Friday and Saturday for the best selection.

  • Ta Gente Bar. The cocktails rival those of New York’s best speakeasies at a fraction of the price. The interior was designed by my AirBNB host, Rodrigo, and is so cool.

  • Armazens Cogumbreiro. My favorite cafe to stop for tea and a croissant on the walk to the market.

  • Restaurant o Giro. A traditional Portuguese restaurant with a popular and crowded lunch buffet that includes wine for less than $10.

  • Azor Hotel. This hotel reminds me of NYC in its fashion forward design. Their Whale-Watching Rooftop Bar has stunning views of the marina.

Activities:

  • Moby Dick. The owner of this whale-watching tour has a tremendous love for the sea and its creatures. He knows the best spots to find whales and dolphins—and will keep going until we find them.

  •  Get Your Guide. I booked two tours through this online service—(1) Sao Miguel West Full-Day Tour with Lunch ($72) and (2) Furnas Hot Springs at Night with Dinner ($66). Both were incredible value and a great way to see the island if you don’t rent a car (which I didn’t).

Services:

  • SP Fitness Studio. I loved their spin and QueenAxe classes. Their metabolic workouts get me fit fast and in less time. Their trainers are some of the nicest people on the island.

  • Marco Melo Veterinary Hospital. This veterinarian office is clean, helpful and kind. They helped me get Freddy Mercury an EU Passport for $10, too.

 Retail:

  • Elegantastral. Portugal has beautiful shoes—and this store is no exception. My killer platforms cost approximately $100.

  • Oysho. A beautiful store with swimsuits, workout gear and lingerie.

  • 5th Avenue Hair Salon by Carla Vieira. This salon rivals New York salons for a fraction of the price. Blowouts were $15, keratin treatment was $100, and color & cut was $60. Ask for Carla—she’s a total badass. 

Getting To & From Ponta Delgada:

  1. SATA & Azores Airlines now offers direct flights from Boston and New York to Ponta Delgada, Azores. For a shorter trip, I recommend Azores Getaways, as their trip packages are amazing deals.

  2. Due to price, I leave from Boston for the 4.5 hour flight. My roundtrip flight costs approximately $550. (I also have to pay $200 roundtrip to have my dog, Freddy Mercury, fly with me.)

  3. I take the Amtrak train from New York City to Boston. (My ticket there is free, as I had credits. My return passage is $108.)

  4. On both my outbound and return trip to Ponta Delgada, I stay in The Revolution Hotel in Boston. The Revolution is a unique and hip hotel concept— an upscale dormitory with shared bathrooms on every floor. The lobby is a friendly place to meet people from around the world. The surrounding neighborhood, South End, has a host of cool eateries, shops and bars. I enjoy dinner at Meyers & Chang the night before my departure.

Bringing a Pet Into Europe:

  1. For a full description on how to bring your pet into Europe, click here.

travelMonica Parikh