“Everyone says the Azores are the new Iceland,” says Catarina Maia, emphatic despite the patchy connection on our transatlantic call between New York and Ponta Delgada. “Small population, beautiful landscape, hidden treasure, close to the U.S. — and tons of hot springs.”
“But we’re not the ‘new’ anything. We’ve always been here.”
I had called Maia, who works with six-year-old Azorean-owned company Azores Getaways, to hear more from someone on the ground. Having just returned from a solo trip to São Miguel, the largest island in the archipelago, I was utterly enchanted with the place — the Azores did indeed seem like they had "always been there" — so green, so many giant succulents and sprawling ferns and primordial bubbling mineral baths. No wonder, I thought, there are rumors involving Atlantis. I’d believe it.
But there was also a frisson of something distinctly new happening — even in the most off of the off-season, during a trip where I blissfully interacted with next to nobody, I could sense it — and I was curious.
Maia is a recent émigrée to the Azores, a volcanic island chain in the North Atlantic about 1,000 miles from anything in particular. She’s also Azorean by heritage; growing up just outside Boston, in a stronghold of the Azorean diaspora, she and her family would travel back to the islands regularly to visit relatives. Now, working with one of the young gun tour operators that have popped up in the last few years, she’s in the thick of a rapidly evolving tourism industry.
“I’ve noticed a huge shift in the last five years,” Maia told Travel + Leisure. “I used to come here on vacation with my immigrant parents, and when I was a kid, it was all just families like mine. But people are starting to hear about the Azores and it’s opening doors. I have moments sometimes where it’s just me, sitting on a beach and reading, and I hear three or four languages around me.”
I had the same experience; there were tourists from the Portuguese mainland and former Portuguese colonies like Angola, large groups of Irish and Brits, and sporty Scandinavian couples. There were so many Germans that my whale-watching expedition was translated especially for them. And though I never met another traveler from the U.S., it does seem like everyone I know has a friend of a friend who has been there. Before leaving for the Azores, I was met with a chorus of “Oh yeah, I’ve heard it’s awesome,” from people who didn’t quite know where it was, but were intrigued nonetheless.
We’ve all seen places explode into the millennial traveler zeitgeist: Croatia, Cuba, the eminently Instagrammable Iceland. There are a number of reasons why the Azores could be on the brink of the same type of boom. Maia and her colleagues know that. The challenge, and opportunity, for those in the industry is catering to the new influx of tourists — which has brought unprecedented numbers of people and euros into Portugal’s historically poorest region — without becoming just another “next” in a series of trendy layovers. Luckily, they’re not about to let that happen.
Those in the travel and hospitality industry in the Azores seem to care, more than anything else, about the Azores. And they’ve decided that the place speaks for itself; rather than trying to lure travelers by following the model of other “success story” destinations, they’re focusing on building up the diverse options that already exist there, creating access, and generally messing with the place as little as possible.
Here are some of the reasons why now is the time to visit the Azores:
It’s about to be easier than ever to get there.
One thing that’s about to change: access. Until now, the only direct routes from the United States have departed Boston and Oakland, the rather infrequent flights on Azores Airlines most often shuttling people back and forth to visit relatives. But in May, Delta is launching seasonal direct flights between New York's John F. Kennedy Airport and Ponta Delgada — becoming the first U.S. airline to do so. The comfortable journey will clock in at around five to six hours, comparable to flights to Reykjavik.
Other airlines are getting in on the game, too. Ryanair, which has serviced Ponta Delgada via the mainland for a few years, recently began flights to the island of Terceira as well. TAP Air Portugal incentivizes their flights to Ponta Delgada and Terceira by offering free stopovers — up to five days — in Lisbon or Porto. Plus, says Maia, many airlines make it possible to book transfers from São Miguel to the other islands free of charge. “Now that people know more about the other islands and are interested in visiting, there’s already been a call for even more flights between islands in the daily schedule.”
The coming year will also see expanded options for visiting the Azores by sea, including several Regent Seven Seas routes with Faial and São Miguel on the itinerary; their new Miami – Lisbon "Escape to Azores" itinerary is one of many responding to the destination's increasing popularity.
Boutique inns and luxury hotels are emphasizing Azorean design and hospitality.
A number of new properties are appearing in the Azores, including a collection of high-profile city stays in Ponta Delgada — but that doesn’t mean this is becoming a resort hub. “You’ll never see a giant resort with hundreds of rooms,” Maia said. “We don’t want to follow Hawaii, for example. That’s a top priority.” Among the new urban properties are the Azor, a design-forward hotel opened in 2016, where lucky guests might spot one of São Miguel's native sperm whales from the rooftop bar; and the Neat Hotel Avenida, which caters to a younger crowd and incorporates the island's famous basalt and mossy forests into the interior design. Just down the coast is the chic WHITE Villas & Suites, welcoming guests to its Greek Islands-inspired suites and open-air restaurant since last summer. More luxury seaside properties are coming, but minimal interference with the architectural identity of the waterfront is a priority.
In the São Miguel spa town of Furnas, long a destination for wellness tourists looking to take the mineral waters of the volcanic caldeiras, many established properties are revamping to accommodate interest in spa-focused stays. The historic Terra Nostra Garden Hotel, an Art Deco property set on a sprawling botanical garden, reopened a few years ago after extensive renovations to its historic 1930s-era facilities. The Furnas Boutique Hotel also unveiled a renovation in 2015 that includes sleek, onsen-inspired thermal pools. And the Furnas Lake Villas, a beautiful collection of modernist Japanese cedar structures, are debuting four new studios, remodeled interiors, and a revamped swimming area this spring.
“Eco-conscious design is really coming up,” Maia said. “People care about preserving the landscape and historical architecture, making sure new developments don’t look out of place.” Among the understated and eco-friendly boutique offerings are farmhouse villas, like Aldeia da Fonte on Pico and Aldeia da Cuada on Flores, re-purposed historic buildings like Faial's Pousada Forte da Horta, housed in a 17th-century fortress, and "eco-resorts" like Santa Barbara on São Miguel and Santa Maria's Villa Natura. Other notable openings include the sleek new Pedras do Mar; Lince Nordeste, just reopened after a €1.3-million renovation; and Ribeira Grande's Monte Verde Hotel, debuting in April 2019 complete with a 1,000-square-meter spa.
There’s something for everyone.
Gone are the days of packaged beach vacations and three-hour cruise stopovers — though the volcanic, black-sand beaches will always be a draw. Now, a new generation of Azorean entrepreneurs, hoteliers, and tour operators are exploring off-the-beaten-path options to respond to increasing demand from savvy tourists. "Every day there's a new business," Maia said. "People are really appreciating the off-season more, and there are so many new options that have lasting appeal."
Among the fastest-growing areas in recent years is active travel and adventure tourism. Maia quickly acknowledges this as a main focus for Azores Getaways and other tour operators, a natural synergy between a millennial-driven industry trend and the diverse, ruggedly beautiful landscapes that the Azores has to offer. "There's hiking, kayaking, canyoning, mountain biking, birding, whale watching — the list goes on." These still-wild islands also host a number of international competitions for adventure sports like surfing and rally car racing.
But the archipelago, with nine very different islands flung across nearly 400 miles of ocean, has something to offer every kind of traveler. “Each island has its own array of activities," Maia explains. "When people call us to do a custom itinerary, we always say to be sure to explore São Miguel as well as one or two smaller islands."
For example, Pico, which — in addition to claiming the highest mountain in Portugal — is the epicenter of Azorean wine, and an increasingly popular stop for culinary travelers in the region. Flores, an agricultural island long known for its cheese and grassy butter, is increasingly popular for its shockingly green landscapes and waterfall-streaked rock formations. And culture and history buffs will not be disappointed, as each island has retained old traditions from the original Portuguese settlers that have transformed and thrived over centuries of isolation from the mainland. "There's always a festival going on," Maia said. "I always see tourists stumbling on religious ceremonies and parades completely by accident."
Increasing access, superb hotel properties, diversified tourism infrastructure: The Azores checks all the boxes to become a trending destination for U.S. travelers, but Azoreans know what's been there all along — and that's there to stay.