Lagoa, Azores, Portugal

The Azores: Kicking off a Year of Travel

Onto the next international chapter of my Boston saga.

After we went to Costa Rica, there was a bit of a lull in travel. On my end, the Fall of 2014 was marred by homework, that dirty bastard. Jess was in school and also working for a school, so she had things to do. And as for Justin, my always-down-to-travel BF, he finally landed a full-time gig with benefits and vacation days that October. That was heaven to my ears, obviously.

The thing is, you have to accumulate those vacay days. I think the word is accrue. But after a few months of him being in that job, I realized that he had not only accrued over a week of vacation, but we both deserved some time off. We had also both saved a decent amount of money thanks to his new fancy 9-5 gig.

To be honest, my wanderlust was getting to me. Costa Rica was freakin’ sweet, but it was not enough to satiate me. I had been living in Boston for over 2 years now, and really hadn’t made even half of the treks around the world (or even the east coast, for that matter), that I thought I would have by now.

This realization happened right around the new year. 2015 had come slowly, but I didn’t want it to pass by that same way. So, even though I’ve never really been a New Year’s resolution kind of a guy, I decided to turn over a new leaf. 2015 would be the year of travel. Wait, is that even a resolution? Whatever, you get it.

A resolution like this was basically just waiting to happen, because I’d come to learn by this time that, even if Boston is a somewhat boring place to live at times, it’s a really, truly great place to base yourself if you want to visit destinations either along the Eastern Seaboard or not far from it.

I was a bit trepedatious, but I knew that I needed to do this the right way. If you’ve read my book, you might remember how I so confidently planned to visit Philly, DC, and NYC almost immediately after moving to Boston, as though they were trips to Target.

Yeah, that didn’t happen. I mean I definitely went to NYC immediately. And then I went back like 7 more times. But that’s it. Nowhere else! So, I went back to my two best friends, who are always there for me in times of need—Google Maps and Microsoft Excel. I began looking for places to fill up our weekends (by our, I mean my and Justin’s, who is an honorary member of BackpackProse).

Doing so was easier than I ever imagined. There were actually far too many places around Boston that I really wanted to see (or that I had at least heard of sometime in my life and was like, well, why the hell not?) to fit them all into a year. At least while I was not only working a full-time job but also in school and trying to keep my boyfriend in love with me (because he’s a catch and I gots to be on fleek if I wanna keep that dude around) and also maybe have a friend or two and stay caught up on my 21 TV shows.

Now, you may not remember this, but winter in Boston last year was absolutely fucking horrendous. It’s the stuff Stephen King movies are made of. If anyone ever uses the word “snowpocalypse” again, they’re doing it wrong, In winter of 2015, it not only snowed in Boston, it snowed and snowed and snowed and snowed. And snowed. Houses collapsed. Reservoirs flooded. People had to ski to work (!!!). I remember flying back to  Boston after spending Christmas at home and I couldn’t even see out of my airplane window. We had to try landing THREE TIMES before it took.

Now, at the turn of the new year, as the snow first started to flake, my list of places to go in 2015 looked something like this, in order of importance:

  • Iceland – There’s this new airline called WowAir that set up shop in Boston a year ago or so and they do RT flights to Iceland for something like 200-400, depending when you go. The entire city of Boston has caught onto this secret, and I didn’t want to be left out.
  • Provincetown – If you’re unfamiliar, P-Town is the ultimate gay getaway in New England, if not the whole country, a couple hours to the east of Boston. All the gays in Boston spend their weekends there. It was actually pretty embarrassing that we hadn’t been there yet.
  • Newport, Rhode Island – Newport is known for having all these grotesque but intriguing mansions from the last couple centuries you can tour.
  • Montreal, Canada – I’ve never been to Canada. Enough said.
  • Portland, Maine – A hippie enclave two hours north of Boston where pot is apparently legal.
  • Washington, D.C. – The nation’s capital, that I visited in 2004. In other words, I have no memory of it. But I do have tons of friends that live there that I had promised I’d visit, and who wouldn’t want to visit again? Also, Justin had never been.
  • Philadelphia – Actually sounds more intriguing to me than D.C. Except I have no friends there.
  • The Azores, Portugal – A volcanic archipelago of islands 4 hours east of Boston with super cheap deals. Oh and LOTS AND LOTS of Groupon deals. So everytime I logged on I was like OMG I WANT TO GO. Even though I knew nothing about them.
  • The Berkshires – I live in Massachusetts. I see people go there on The Real Housewives of New York. It looks pretty.
  • Acadia National Park – Apparently one of the most beautiful national parks in the country. We have friends who have gone camping there and returned changed people.

All of these destinations were either within a ~2-hr drive or ~4-hr flight from Boston. Some of them were really embarrassingly touristy, like Newport, which I only included because it was right next to the house Lizzie Borden murdered her parents in (allegedly). Some, like the Berkshires, were more just ephemeral ideas of place I had heard about in movies and TV but knew nothing about.

Spoiler alert: We still haven’t made it to the Berkshires, but I still really want to go. Though I have no idea what we’ll do there or even the name of a single town.

I also left out a great many other places that sounded equally interesting, such as Walden Pond, which is really only an hour away or so by car form my house. But there was (and still is) simply so much to do that some trips had to be bumped to 2016.

Some of these places were destinations that I knew I would only be able to go to while I lived in Boston, like Provincetown, which is literally out on the very, very tip of Cape Cod, or the Azores, a group of Portuguese islands that only fly to Boston in the U.S., because of a large Portuguese diaspora in the town of Fall River (same town where the Lizzie Borden house is, actually).

Also on the list was an assortment of beaches all up the New England coast that aren’t entirely worth mentioning. Though I will say that if you ever have the opportunity to check out Singing Beach, in northern MA, you should do it. THE SAND SINGS, PEOPLE! On the flipside, I also wanted to go to Mexico and the Caribbean, but more on those later.

OH and these trips don’t even include any of the less convenient trips I also wanted to embark on. I wanted to see Jess in Houston (and potentially New Orleans). I wanted to see my good friend Merritt, from high school, who had just moved to Denver in January 2015. Justin wanted to go on camping trips with some college friends in the summer. And I, of course, as always, wanted to try to fit in a Euro-trip of some sort over the summer.

Right?? That’s just too much to do in one year. I had to make cuts. I also didn’t know where to start. All I knew was that we had a lot of wok ahead of us. First of all, the issue of money. So, we started putting away $1000/month to make as much of this happen as we could.

Not a week after we had put away our first monthly installment, I got a call at work from Justin, My birthday was coming up, and he is always trying to get me a great birthday present. (Pro-Tip: If you want to date someone who is great at getting you gifts, date my boyfriend. No wait you can’t!!! Mwahaha).

He was calling me because he had gotten an email from Turkish Airlines with these super awesome deals from the US to Europe. Like Boston-Barcelona RT for $600 in March. He knew me too well and so of course his immediate reaction was that this would be the perfect present for me (DUH).

So I was all in. Screw my travel spreadsheet, who doesn’t want to go to Barcelona? We got on the phone and started calling up Turkish Airlines trying to figure out how score this sweet deal. We were then put through the ringer by about 6 different people who barely spoke English, none of whom had heard of this promotion or how to award it.

We eventually came to the sad conclusion that this was basically some scammy attempt by Turkish Airlines to get people to actually want to fly with them (because, let’s be honest, why would you, otherwise?).

So that was disappointing. That all happened on a Friday, I think. That next Monday, Justin had equally little to do at work, and so he was again scouring the internet for good deals. This time, he had found an even better one. And it looked legit.

His first text said: “Let’s go to the Azores for your birthday! It’s $320 RT!” After confirming the details myself on my office computer, I replied: “Ok.”

JUST KIDDING I RESPONDED SOMETHING LIKE “Fuck me sideways we’re going to Portugal for my birthday!!!” And then we did. And the timing could not have been more perfect. Not only was it my birthday, we happened to miss the WORST snowstorm of the whole winter. While all our friends and co-workers in Boston were shoveling and shivering, we were hiking and heating up in hot springs.

So, with no further ado, I present The Azores 101:

You can be forgiven for not having heard The Azores. They’re an archipelago out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, actually closer to Northwest Africa than Western Europe. But, they’re part of Europe. The westernmost point, to be exact. They use the Euro and even recently started picking up Ryan Air and Easy Jet itineraries, so perhaps they will soon become part of the backpacking vernacular.

But when we visited, it was still a secret. But I have no idea how. The Azores are an absolutely gorgeous and fascinating place to visit. It seems everyone and their mom in Boston is leaping on these $450 airfares to Iceland on WowAir (including me, which I will talk about in a future date), but I have not yet met another person who has taken up SATA airlines on their bottom-barrel airfares of ~$350 to check out this chain of islands.

ASIDE. For what you spend on these airfares, you could not find a starker difference in value for money. WowAir is a great airline, don’t get me wrong, but it is through and through a budget airline. That means you can expect no extras and little more convenience than how much you purchase—they will nickel and dime you every step of the way. SATA, on the other hand, is a legit full-service airline, just like Delta or KLM, with complimentary meals and drinks and normal policies when it comes to baggage It’s comfortable, spacious, and generous with the alcohol. END ASIDE

Anyway, we only ended up going to the Azores for 5 days and 4 nights. It was the middle of the school year after all, so we both had to get away from our duties at Harvard (did I mention that Justin’s job is literally across the street from where I work?). But 5 days ended up being the perfect amount of time to see everything we wanted and more on the main Azorean island, San Miguel (there are actually many Azorean islands – something like 9 – we did not even try to visit more than one, but if given the opportunity, I would go back and do so in a heartbeat).

Believe it or not, this was my first actual “vacation” in the traditional sense. Sure, I’ve backpacked across Europe and India and such but a five-week sojourn doesn’t really count as a typical trip. Besides weekend trips to NYC or the cape, I’ve never actually gone on a traditional vacation for 4-5 days or what have you like a normal person. To be totally honest a part of me was thinking “man what’s the point?” as when I go abroad for 30 days or whatever, it takes me at least 5 days just to deal with the jetlag and get in a groove.

But, more than anything else I wanted to get out of the country and I was excited to go somewhere I knew little to nothing about. We flew out on SATA Airlines at 7:00 PM for an overnight flight, arriving at something like 4:00 AM. I’m gonna say it again: SATA is an awesome airline. I’ve read some bad things about timeliness and even the condition of their planes, but I still tweet at SATA about how great of a flight I had. It was a unique experience because everyone on the flight was going to the same place (well, a few were staying on to go to Lisbon) and there was definitely an energy of anticipation. I kept overhearing so many people talk about how much they loved these islands, and the professionals were giving tips to newbies like us. I assume that must be how flights to Vegas or Hawaii must feel.

If there was one downside to going, it was that February was the down-season. The Azores are known for their blooming hydrangea, but it’s nowhere to be found in February. But, compared to the freezing temperatures of Boston, the 60-something degree weather in the Azores was heaven.

When we arrived in the capital, Ponta Delgada, dawn was just breaking. And immediately I realized that this was the best birthday present I had ever received. I had missed Europe so much, that I almost broke down in tears upon taking a look at the old town, filled with narrow, cobblestone streets, cafes, and piazzas (or whatever the word is for that in Portuguese). We immediately checked into our hotel and helped ourselves to some espresso and croissant. I even snapped a photo and tweeted it—which I NEVER do. I hate food porn.

One of my favorite  cafes. Notice the dead trees, ha. But also notice the people hanging out without jackets on. I believe we were in shorts. SCORE. It was also just sweet to be able to see the ocean from basically anywhere in Ponta Delgada.

Regardless, I tweeted the shit out of that trip. Though, to be totally honest, the food was nothing to tweet about. The Azores are a lot of things—beautiful, cheap, fascinating, and more. But they are not a foodie destination. Don’t go there if you want fine dining. It just doesn’t exist. There’s good food, but it won’t wow you. HOWEVER, there is really great wine, for cheap. We were able to find our favorite Portuguese wine for 3 euro. So obvi we bought like 12 bottles. And drank them all. In one day.

Despite the abundance of cheap food, the Azores aren’t a prime backpacking destination finance-wise either. There’s no public transit, really, so you have to splurge for a car. It’s worth it, and not too crazy expensive, but it’s the only option. We rented a car and basically just spent four days meandering around, checking various sites and activities off the map.

The island we were on, Sao Miguel, is pretty small. I would say it’s the size of 1 and a half Rhode Islands, if I had to wager a guess. So it was the perfect way to spend 4 days. It’s populated with lots of little villages, a whole lotta churches, many caldera lakes, numerous hot springs, and more dramatic cliff views than you can count. You can hike to any or all of these things, but it’s hiking-light. We were able to just drive right up to a little off-ramp, walk maybe 10-15 minutes, and then set our eyes on something like this:

Feb 17 053.JPG
Ok so I THINK this is called Lagoa de Fogo. This could totally be wrong.

The capital, Ponta Delgada, has this kind of…Gothic feel to it that I really dug. It also had tons of trendy restaurants along its great seafront and lots of welcoming people who will welcome you into their home for any and every reason.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The islands are volcanic in origin, so outside the city, there are hot springs of every kind for you to bathe, which I loved. We visited a man-made pool filled by a sulfur spring where the water was orange (and then so were we), and we also took a dip in an outdoor spring basically in the middle of the jungle. We also went on a goosehunt for this elusive pool in the ocean that supposedly had steaming water during certain hours of the day. After about four hours of driving and hiking around, we learned that we were visiting during the wrong time of the year (hence the reason we were the only people there).

But, that setback really didn’t bother us. The Azores were exactly what we needed at that exact moment in our lives. I needed to remind myself that I could still wander, and it was also proof that 2015 really would be a banner year for travel. If I could afford this first trip, there’s no reason I couldn’t afford another one (or six).

And my boyfriend, who had just finished settling into a new job and was finally becoming accustomed to a healthy paycheck and disposable income, was able to experience a sense of empowerment due to financial security. It’s a very “Grown up” feeling to afford a last-minute vacation, something I welcomed as I was turning 27. We also, as I mentioned, missed the worst snowstorm in the history of Boston, and after a whole winter of that shit, it made every moment in Portugal that much sweeter.

That particular fact also spoiled us. I now doubt we will ever be able to spend a full winter in a freezing city like Boston without aching for some respite (spoiler: We’re headed to the Caribbean over Christmas this year).

It makes me sad that most Americans will never get the opportunity to visit the Azores, or even look for it. I’ve looked at airfares lately and they are nowhere near the $320 we paid—much closer to $1000, or more. And that also makes me feel like I’m unlikely to return. But the upside of all this is that it really felt like our own secret vacation. There were some tourists, yes, but the vast majority of the people we encountered were locals. Quite a few of them spoke little to no English (which is funny considering it’s the closest place in Europe to North America).

There are some locations that everyone has been to, and they’re always overflowing with visitors. Think Rome, or Prague. You know it’s gonna be hell and overpriced, but you go anyway, because in the end it’s worth it. There’s a reason everyone goes, and they will continue to.

Then there are locations that you know everyone should go to, but no matter how many people you recommend it to, no one will ever go. They will always opt for somewhere more well-known. These places, like the Azores, refuse to be discovered. For every Bostonian that pays these islands a visit, a dozen will go to Iceland, another dozen will go to P-Town, and the rest will go to the Caribbean or even London.

It’s likely because the Azores has no single draw to entice you in. There are no world-class museums, nor are there multi-day treks into the mountains. You won’t find any Top Chefs opening up new, hip restaurants. There are no picture-perfect beaches. But, there’s everything in between. There is something around every corner and enough activities to fill up each day before you can even add up the hours (seriously, it’ll sneak up on you).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Really, the Azores are perfect for wanderers. If you’re content to just hop in your rental car, hit the open road, and wait for the world to unfold, the Azores are perfect. You can spend a whole day checking out mountain vistas, or stumbling upon hot springs. You can relax at a café or you can canoe across a lake.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

But, whether or not the world wakes up to the wonder that is this archipelago, the Azores will always be there, waiting to welcome you with open arms, and I highly recommend checking them out. If only because EVERY bar, café, and restaurant will play the same Portuguese version of Mtv, which will only cycle through 12 or so songs. So it’s very easy to come up with a nice little soundtrack for your trip that will forever transport you back in time to your vacation. Below is the score of our Portuguese island adventure:

  1. Chandelier – Sia
  2. Outside – Ellie Goulding
  3. Bailando – Enrique Iglesias
  4. Lips are Movin – Meghan Trainor
  5. The Nights – Avicii (sp?)
  6. I Got U – Dumont
  7. Rather Be – Clean Bandit
  8. Elastic Heart – Sia

Yeah, they love Sia. And now so do I. As well as every stereotypical travel song out there haha.

– Josh


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s