When I’m traveling, the days are packed with visiting sites, learning, meeting people, and sampling the local cuisine. Everything is new and exciting until it’s time to check into a hotel. The rooms are often rectangular-shaped boxes with flat-screen televisions, overpriced minibars, and a few forgettable pieces of art on the walls. The breakfasts are usually sugar-laced, tired, and industrial.
When I arrived in the Azores—a dramatic, volcanic Portuguese archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and only four hours from Boston on SATA Airlines, I was ready for another boring lodging experience, but boy was I wrong.
Close to the town of Angra do Heroísmo, on the island of Terceira, is the small village of São Bartolomeu. This is where archeologist, historian, and museum curator Francisco Maduro-Dias just opened his 18th century, rural, basalt stone home as a bed and breakfast called Quinta do Espírito Santo. In his words, he wants to accommodate “educated, intellectually and culturally curious guests for great conversations and exchange.” Bravo, Mr. Maduro-Dias!
The courtyard of the house and colorful mosaic bench were designed by Maduro-Dias’s father, a well-known Azorean painter. A plaque on the wall includes a mysterious and lyrical line from one of the painter’s poems: “Let me be the solitary stone that only desires to be a rock in the sea.”
Chickens and ducks roam freely and birds chirp wildly among the lush foliage and fruit trees on the grounds of the historic home. A few of the birds perch on terra cotta ollas and an old millstone.
Guests can choose to stay in the main house—where six generations of the family have resided—or in two small apartments with whitewashed limestone walls, which once housed the servants. They are equipped with a fridge, stove, and washing machine. Any frequent traveler who travels light knows that a washing machine is like an angel of mercy, sparing the wearer from another day of the same shirt and jeans.
Later that day, I drank local wine with the owner and at night, he drove me to a deserted spot along the jagged coastline. We stood under a canopy of stars that dotted a black sky, and Maduro-Dias told me that hundreds of years ago, this was where people could stand and watch ships returning to Europe laden with silver from the New World. We spoke quietly of the age of discovery of the Americas, native populations, and the mindset of early explorers. It was deeply personal and moving.
Next, I spent two nights at the glam, 18th century Quinta das Mercês, outside of Angra do Heroísmo, also on the island of Terceira. It took five years to restore the property, and I shudder to think of the expense. The elegant sitting and dining rooms, outdoor dining overlooking the ocean, infinity pool, gym with Turkish bath, game building, private chapel, and antiques from Macau where the owners once lived, made this an elegant place to stay.
Also on Terceira was the brand-new Angra Marina Hotel, the first five-star hotel on the island. The lobby looks like a sailboat and features huge sofas that face inclined picture windows, which frame the marina. My luxurious suite included a large balcony, a bathtub in the bedroom that overlooks the harbor, a sitting room with velvet armchairs, a white leather sofa, and two marble-floored bathrooms. Alas, the service was still rough around the edges, but a little time, I hope, will add the needed polish of a five-star hotel.
For people with a real sense of adventure who appreciate rural tourism, cultural preservation, and the devoted attention to historical accuracy, check out Quinta do Martelo on Terceira. The 2,000-acre property was once a functioning farm village with a barbershop, post office, school, and general store. The owner—whose grandfather worked on the farm—has spent 22 years restoring the property (he calls it a “recomposition”), and you can stay in rock house apartments with authentic straw beds. Of course, you don’t sleep in them, as the accommodations are equipped with modern comforts. For 100 euros a night, you get a room, rental car, breakfast, and you can wander into the shoemaker, pottery, and winemaker workshops. It’s like staying in an ethnographic museum that happens to have modern tourist amenities.
São Miguel Island
In the city of Ponta Delgada, on São Miguel Island, my favorite was the four-star Hotel do Colégio, which is a converted primary school built from basalt and dripping with history, stone arches, and charm. It is located on a narrow street with black, volcanic paving stones. The chef who helms the hotel’s Colmeia Restaurant cooks for the president of the Azores. You can imagine that regional specialties like octopus with broad beans, pork in red wine, and stuffed horse mackerel were impeccable.
On Pico Island, the Aldeia da Fonte is a four-star, sustainable, rural hotel where I slept in a two-story stone house with a red tile roof, constructed and designed to resemble the local architecture. The idea behind the hotel, which was built on an abandoned vineyard near the edge of the ocean and dramatic, rocky coastline, was to open the property to visitors without destroying nature and, when possible, to enhance it through design and landscaping. The hotel was built by a doctor and his wife, and they offer guests yoga, a fitness room with sauna, palm trees, gardens, a rock-pond with goldfish, a whale watching tower, and stone steps that lead down to swimming in the summer and crashing surf at other times of year.
Graciosa Hotel is small, breathtakingly beautiful, and has been dubbed “the white island” because of the white buildings in the historic area. I lodged at this three-year-old, four-star hotel, which is situated in the middle of an old vineyard. The food was jaw-droppingly good, and I dropped my jaw as I ate for two hours. The hotel itself is a marriage of ancient and ultra-modern, polished basalt stone and glass, and the reception area features black marble flooring. My room was furnished in light wood and rattan furniture. The only art was the ocean, visible from the balcony.
Just writing about these little-known islands and the delightful array of hotels makes me homesick for that crashing surf, and anxious to go back again.
Judith Fein is a multiple-award-winning travel writer who has contributed to more than 100 publications and is the author of “LIFE IS A TRIP: The Transformative Magic of Travel.” Her website is www.GlobalAdventure.us
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