One of the first things I decided after dropping out of college was taking a trip out of North America. I had only got my passport six months prior, yet to get a stamp in my passport, and was itching to explore abroad.
To be honest, I didn’t have a set plan to go anywhere specific after I had dropped out of college. I just knew I wanted to go somewhere and not having a ton of money, somewhere I could fly cheap. I use Pomelo Travel, an email service that sends cheap flights from airports in your region, and when the Azores flight deal came across my inbox, I just knew that’s where I was going. Visiting Ponta Delgada was one of the highlights of this trip!
Some background on the Azores
Before I get into the actual trip, some background on these islands I think is required. The Azores, or Açores, are a string of 9 volcanic islands part of Portugal in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Americans, imagine the beauty of Hawai’i but in the Atlantic, and significantly less touristy currently. For the science nerds like myself, the Azores developed from volcanic activity and are on three separate tectonic plates. And as these plates move slowly away from each other, the Islands begin to distance themselves as well.
Flash forward to arriving in the Azores, I had set up a 7-day itinerary, bouncing between 4 islands (flying between them on SATA Azores Airlines). If you have some energy and are willing to travel around, this was a fantastic first trip to the Azores. This post will cover specifically my time in the largest city, Ponta Delgada on Sao Miguel!
The City of Ponta Delgada
Growing up in California, I’m used to the quaint ocean-side towns such as Pismo Beach and Fort Bragg. The ocean smell, mom and pop shops and boutiques, the souvenir stores, local food. Ponta Delgada in the Azores is like if you took that same energy and just gave it a larger city. Even comparing it to the cities in the islands of Hawai’i, it lacks the over sunscreened and rude tourists. It’s the feeling of a populous city, while also being a seaside town, that is somewhat a secret still.
I flew into Ponta Delgada on Delta (a route that no longer exists as of 2020) and arrived at João Paulo II Airport, a small airport but busy nonetheless, where our rental car company picked us up. Fair warning: if you are getting a rental car, make sure that you either know how to drive a manual stick shift, or that the rental company has automatic. Most places I looked only had manual stick shifts, and I luckily was taught on one. A little refresher in the parking lot, and I only stalled out once that trip.
Visiting the smoking Pineapple Plantation
One of the first things that I visited in Ponta Delgada was the Augusto Arruda Pineapple Plantation. If you enjoy pineapple to any extent, this is a must-visit, and it is free. The first thing you notice when you walk up to A. Arruda is the smell of sweetness and smokiness. The aroma comes from the fact that the pineapple growing process is unlike anything else in the world. Over 18 to 24 months, the pineapples cultivate within greenhouses, where they undergo various stages. One of these stages is the smoking process, where leaves are burned in containers, causing smoke to fill the greenhouse. The following day, smoke gets released, and this cycle continues for around a week. This process forces the plants to all bloom together and provides a unique flavor I had never experienced before with pineapples.
After taking the self-guided tour of the plant, the gift shop was next. I tried a sample of their famous Pineapple Liqueur. At the time, I was a newb about my liqueurs, but I remember it as pleasantly sweet but packing a punch. I think I coughed from the strength. However, I do regret not buying some (this becomes a reoccurring trend from this trip). Finally, outside they had a small booth that served my favorite pineapple treat in the world, upside-down pineapple cake! The unique flavor of the Azorean pineapple, a hint of smokiness, and a unique sugar profile; it was melt in your mouth cake. I’ll be making a recipe for a version here.
Shopping in Ponta Delgada
Needing to digest from the sugar, strolling the main streets of Ponta Delgada was the next logical solution. The Azorean architecture is characterized by black volcanic stone and white stucco, and it’s all over the city. One side of the town is the harbor, bountiful with boats and some higher-end hotels, while the other side has quaint shops, cafes, and beautiful gothic style chapels. Growing up in Catholic school, churches rarely do anything for me, however, take the 5 minutes, go inside, and admire one of the most beautiful stained glass designs I’ve ever seen. (Unfortunately, they don’t allow photos inside, so you’ll have to go for yourself).
Downtown Ponta Delgada is a lot of fun to walk around, visit the different shops, and get my first European style espresso shot. American coffee has nothing on the smoothness and creaminess of the straight espresso shots I had every day in the Azores. I now own an espresso machine and am addicted, thanks to the Azores. One of my recommendations to visit, whether for yourself or for a gift to bring home, is Comur. Comur sells a fantastic selection of canned seafood in olive oil, everything from sardines and tuna, to octopus and sea bream. Being a foodie, I ended up taking home some canned octopus, which tasted almost like a decadent cheese, and the world’s best canned tuna I’ve ever had. Again, it was one of those, you have to just get some yourself to understand.
Finally, throughout the city are various Azorean gift shops. There you can find beautiful pottery, unique embroidered goods (such as the apron below), and a lot of licores, liqueurs in English. The Azores are known for their many unique flavors of liqueur. I ended up buying a bottle of passion fruit liqueur, and a unique bottle of Leite de Licor, milk liqueur. Cows and milk are an integral part of Azorean society, something I go into in this post. This liqueur is unique with the region, and in my head, I couldn’t believe it existed or what it could mix well in. Leite de Licor tastes like those square, soft caramels. Sweet and creamy, with hints of vanilla, all combined within an alcohol. Leite de Licor can be drunk straight or in a cocktail. I used it in this Azorean Rye Old Fashioned cocktail I made.
Whale watching in the Azores
History of Whaling in the Azores
Finally, at the tail end of the trip (you see the pun 🙂 ), we decided to do the one thing that most tourists to the islands come to experience. Whale Watching! The Azores are historically and famously known as the ocean’s cetacean capital, with over 20 different species visiting their waters throughout the year. In the past, the Azores was a large whaling community, using every aspect of the whale for some type of economic export. Oil, blubber, even the bones the Azorean people found a use for the ocean creatures.
However, in 1986 the Azorean government changed lanes and began an initiative to protect these creatures. The Azores is now one of the world’s largest whale sanctuaries. One of the old whaling techniques includes a spotter located on the side of the island. They then would communicate to whalers where the whales were swimming. That same technique is still employed for boats that take tourists out to where the whales can be observed from a distance, safe for the cetaceans and humans alike.
Whale Watching Excursion
We took a whale watching tour with Picos de Aventura. We all loaded into a small cruising rib, and after a 30-minute trip, they killed the motors and told us to look out the left-hand side. Much to my excitement, we saw two Sperm whales breaching for air. The whales hung around for around 30-minutes, breaching, coming up for air, and then diving again. At some point, they didn’t come back up as Sperm whales can hold their breath for up to 90 minutes, so we motored back. More of the whale species migrations occur during the late springtime, so I hope to visit in April next time.
And that was Ponta Delgada in my first ever travel blog. It was a fantastic little city, introducing me to proper espresso, sensational pineapple, and the closest I’ve ever been to one of the ocean’s giants. I’m not an experienced writer, better at just talking to camera vlog style, so any comments or advice would be excellent. I’ll continue the Azores blogs, talking about where I stayed during this trip and the food that I experienced, so I think you can subscribe to the blog below, or follow us on Instagram or Youtube for more content!
Thanks and DFTBA, Alex~