Virtual Vacation: Explore the Azores From the Comfort of Your Couch
With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic grounding most travel plans for the foreseeable future, we’re all starting to get a bit of cabin fever. However, the safest (and smartest) way to visit far-flung corners of the world is via your screen. So, where are we headed? The Azores — an archipelago in the Macaronesian Region of the North Atlantic Ocean, roughly 850 miles west of continental Portugal. The chain of nine volcanic islands is actually one of the two autonomous regions of Portugal — Madeira being the other — and, for decades, it was a relative secret to foreign tourists.
Wanting to curb overtourism is another compelling reason to make your visit to the Azores a virtual one. In fact, a few years ago, when Delta Airlines started offering more accessible flights from North American hubs to the island, tourism spiked. The small nation has a population of about 245,000 and, in 2017, roughly 645,000 foreign tourists visited. Comparatively, Iceland, another spectacular Atlantic stopover caught between mainland Europe and North America, has a population of 330,000 but took in a whopping 2.1 million visitors in 2017.
"[The Azorean government] has taken preventative action, not reactive action," Rui Amen, of online travel agency Azores Getaways, told Conde Nast Traveler. "They always knew that tourism would grow in the Azores — this didn’t start last year. It started way before the Delta flights." To mitigate overtourism threats before they even began, Azorean officials set a cap on the number of beds that could be made available in hotels (not counting Airbnbs); now, around 12,000 beds are available to visitors across the archipelago, which is far below the 20,000-bed cap.
Additionally, the archipelago hopes to become the first one to be deemed a "sustainable tourism region" by EarthCheck, ensuring businesses will have to comply with some pretty rigid green policies and practices. This desire to protect the Azores gets at the heart of what makes it such a compelling destination in the first place: all that natural beauty.
Tour the Archipelago Virtually With “Planet: Azores”
Pitted with large, volcanic craters, São Miguel is the largest of the nine islands that make up the Azores. Despite being the most developed of the islands, 29% of São Miguel’s total land area is protected national parkland, and it’s this stunning landscape that attracts so many eager visitors each year. From coastal lava fields and volcano-built cave systems to roughly 60 protected marine areas that are home to jaw-dropping reefs and unique biodiversity, it’s difficult to compare the Azores to anything else on Earth. In some ways, the rugged beauty is comparable to Iceland, but, in most other ways, that comparison feels off.
Get a Taste for the Azores by Making These Dishes
Unsurprisingly, Azoreans have developed their own distinct identity and culture by mixing their environment with customs from mainland Portugal and those brought to the archipelago by other immigrants. Part of that cultural identity, of course, is food. Thanks to the islands’ many microclimates, Azoreans have the ability to grow certain resources that mainland Europeans just don’t, including coffee beans, pineapple, blueberries, passion fruit and bananas. Additionally, the fertile volcanic soil has encouraged Azoreans to produce quality wine for the last 500 years or so, with Pico even being named one of just 14 UNESCO World Heritage Wine Regions that exist globally.
Get Swept Away by Saudade, Rap and More
In addition to guitars (violão) and the 15-stringed bandolin, Azorean musicians play an instrument unique to the islands called the viola da terra. The instrument has between 12 and 15 strings arranged in five or six courses and has the traditional "hourglass" shape, though the instrument uses thinner tone woods than a standard guitar. According to Dazed, "Its very design is a nod to Azorean life in the middle of the Atlantic: the dual sound holes carved into the base of the wood are in the shape of two hearts, one to symbolize the heart taken with you when you’ve left the island…and one for the heart you’ve left behind."
Hang Out on the Azores With Anthony Bourdain
After working in kitchens with generations of Azorean Portugese immigrants, foodie and modern-day philosopher Anthony Bourdain decides to take a trip to the Azores in one of the most engaging episodes of his No Reservations travel show. During his time there, Bourdain visited three of the country’s nine islands and, in doing so, he helped put the Azores on the map for many Americans back in 2009.
Explore the Street Art of the Azores From Your Bedroom
The architecture of the Azores is unique: Black, volcanic stone and white stucco are punctuated by Roman Catholic influences, for example. This particular blend of aesthetics extends to the archipelago’s collection of art as well. For example, the Museu Carlos Machado, located on São Miguel, features a small but robust collection of "sacred art." The most impressive part of the collection is, by far, this wooden altar — the carvings are so numerous and intricate that it’s hard to believe your eyes, whether you’re there in person or peering through a screen. Outside of religious art, the Azores boasts a few other museums of note, like one dedicated to the history of wine on the islands, and another that spotlights the volcanic and geothermal qualities of the archipelago.