Despite all the images we have of the Azores islands seen from above – the contrast of blue and green, the tidy squares of farmed land against the dark basalt rocks, the occasional herd of black-and-white cows grazing – all nine of them are different. That was the first thing I noticed, as my flight from Ponta Delgada began to descend to Pico Island.
The mountain, seen from the top, caught my eye first but I can’t say I was surprised – it is the Mountain Island after all. Then, as the plane moved in closer to the ground, I saw them for the first time – the undulating-yet-sturdy walls made of stone, where vineyards grow, a landscape that’s been classified by UNESCO as World Heritage. Where else, but the Azores (or any island for that matter), would people make the best of whatever resources Nature gives them?
Why This Won’t Be a Full-fledged Travel Guide
I could have called this blog post something like “the ultimate things to do in Pico in one weekend to put on your bucket list”, or something clickbait-y like this. But I believe that one first look at a place doesn’t give you the full picture. Sometimes, not even a second, or a third, or a hundredth. I’d rather share my own experience of a destination – as biased as they may sound. Aren’t all travels biased?
I was in Pico for a specific reason, the 5th anniversary of the Azores Fringe Festival, hence the title. And if you’d like a more in-depth take on things to do in Pico, you can read this post right here.
That said, not all places (or events) make me want to return, but Pico was a different story. And, no, in the Azores when you’ve seen one island, you haven’t seen them all. Next week, I’ll write about the Azores Fringe Festival in more detail (it’s been one week since I returned and I’m still processing the story in my mind, alongside my inexcusable sunburn).
More than an Accommodation Recommendation (this Wasn’t Supposed to Rhyme)
When it comes to choosing where to stay, I always recommend going as local as possible. Sure, chain hotels are familiar but, when you travel, do you really want to sleep in the land of bland linen patterns? Give me a place overflowing with character, please. When Terry told me I was staying at Casas Alto da Bonança and I saw the photos I wondered if the mountain was really that close (spoiler alert: it is).
You might think that a rural tourism complex with mountain views, relaxing silence, and a handful of friendly farm animals is not new. Well, it isn’t. But not all rural tourism complexes with mountain views, relaxing silence, and a handful of friendly farm animals, have a Fátima and a Jorge. It’s the service that makes or breaks a place, and Fátima and Jorge will go to great lengths to make you feel welcomed and comfortable. And that’s their nature, truly. I think the 9.5 score on Booking.com* speaks for itself.
Good to Know about Casas Alto da Bonança
Although I spent most of my weekend in the town of Madalena, Alto da Bonança is in the town of Santa Luzia (São Roque Council), less than 10 minutes from the airport and about 15 from Madalena.
Room types: one-bedroom apartment with balcony, three-bedroom villa, one-bedroom apartment with terrace.
Average room price: prices start from €80 / USD $90 a night (4% tax included)
Great for: solo travelers, couples, and families.
Facilities: free WiFi, outdoor space, playground for kids, barbeque, free private parking.
Bonus: spectacular view to the mountain of Pico, two house cats (Violeta was the only one fearless enough to greet me every morning, but I know of the existence of a Violeto), and fantastic hosts who will pick you up from the airport or the port if needed.
Food First, Activities Breakdown Later
In the two days I spent in Pico, I didn’t have a single bad meal. Or drink. In a land with places where you can get a glass of amazing white wine for €0.80 (that’s USD $0.90) and one of homemade aguardente de amora (a local blackberry liquor) for €1.00 (USD $1.15), it’s hard to have a bad drink. But I digress.
I’ve said this a million times before, but food in the Azores tastes better and portions are generous. It’s a good thing that the proximity to the ocean opens up your appetite (at least that’s what it does to me).
I don’t have food recommendations but you can never go wrong with fish and the local white wine (Pico islanders told me the white is far better than the red and they of all people should know). If you’re adventurous, try grilled limpets (I think it’s an acquired taste).
Please note that I didn’t visit all the restaurants, cafes and bars on the island, so I’ll stick to mentioning those I went to.
Full disclosure, I did visit but, unfortunately, by the time we reached they were closing. However, it’s so well recommended by locals and tourists (and, even while breaking the news to me that they were closing, the employees were nice) that I couldn’t leave them out. Besides, I’ve been salivating over their pastries’ photos in the past five minutes so how could I not tell you about this place? Also, they’ve been in business since 1899 so I think it’s fair to say they know a thing or two about running a successful cafe.
Address: Avenida Machado Serpa 23 – Madalena
Opening hours: every day from 7 am to 7 pm
When in Madalena, a visit to the architecture award-winning bar is mandatory. The first thing I noticed was the scent of Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica) – the wood they used on the ceilings and the adjacent room and terrace, overlooking the coast. As many other plants in the Azores, this tree is not endemic and is native to China and Japan, but that scent for me (and I think most Azoreans) is the one of Christmas because that’s the tree we used instead of pine trees. The Azores are a little box full of big surprises.
But I wasn’t there with a bunch of talented artists (here’s looking at you kids Terry, Inês, Carlos, and Vitor) to reminisce about Christmas. We had just been blown away by the place, the indescribable view (yes, that’s why I have an Instagram shot as visual aid), and I was scanning the menu for Angelica (a local fortified wine that I guess I could say is similar to Moscatel but lighter in color and not as sweet). I’m happy everyone was on board with my suggestion and Angelica was the star of our first toast to the 5th edition of the Azores Fringe Festival. Incidentally, it was also the second anniversary of CELLA Bar and we were surprised with a complimentary slice of birthday cake.
Address: Lugar da Barca – Madalena
Opening hours: 12-11.45pm Sun-Thu, 12pm-2am Fri & Sat
O Ancoradouro Restaurant
If possible, get a table outside because the view is worth it and the restaurant is highly recommended. I had a hard time deciding what to have because I kept seeing the food being served around me to other customers (sorry if this sounds creepy) and everything looked great. When you hear raving reviews from the table next to yours and everyone is having something different, how do you make up your mind?
I decided to let the Universe take on this task, and the fried tuna with baked sweet potatoes got the best of me. Oh, and the sauce! The sauce! (My eternal gratitude if you know what’s in that sauce) And the cheese with honey we had as a starter. How can I forget to mention that? In the end, since no one had room for dessert, and we were told we couldn’t leave the restaurant without trying the chocolate and coconut pudding, we asked for one slice and five spoons.
The service is quick and efficient, the food is tremendous (Azorean to the core), and the view to Faial Island is a bonus. There’s a reason why the restaurant is popular.
Address: Rua João Lima Whitton da Terra – Areia Larga – Madalena
Opening hours: 12-3pm & 7-10pm Tue-Sun
This is that place you go to chill and if you’re feeling lazy and the weather is just right, where you take over the esplanade from breakfast to mid-afternoon snack. It’s also great if you’re on a budget but want a typically Azorean hearty meal. Trust me, even if all you can afford is a soup, you will not leave the table feeling hungry.
Also, Portuguese beer for €1.00 (USD $1.15) a 20cl bottle? Are you going to say no to that on a hot summer day?
Address: Lg. Jaime Ferreira – Madalena
Clube Naval São Roque
My visit here was brief and served as the backdrop to my farewell to Pico (I was leaving to Lisbon early the next day). I really didn’t want to bring up the booze topic again… but… this is the place I was telling you about, with the great white wine at €0.80 (USD $0.90) a glass.
Pico produces wine, so it’s okay to focus on the drinks, for the purpose of cultural research. And cheese. And fish. There. Done.
Address: Praceta Baleeiros – São Roque do Pico
Contemplating the ocean somewhere between climbing back up and realising I had a nasty sunburn. Photo by: Davide Sousa.
The One Thing You Didn’t Know You Could Do in Pico
Whale watching, wine tasting, and climbing the mountain (or at least going as far as you can) are what tops the list of things to do in Pico for most of the visitors. And you should do all that, so please take at least one week off to explore the island properly.
I wasn’t here for the islands’ unquestionable natural beauty and, yet, it found me in the middle of the first and only open-air art gallery. Galeria Costa finally made the official tourist office map as a point of interest and there’s a good reason for that.
We had the privilege to be guided by Terry Costa himself, the man/artist/mentor/crazy-enough-for-the-arts-to-do-this behind MiratecArts and this project. The audacity of considering art as something organic that perishes in the same way a living organism does probably isn’t new but I can say not a lot of people are ready for that. We were taught to see art pieces as something to treasure, that you put on display at a museum, or you stick the heritage label to it and then it becomes an asset. And, here, the pieces are merely the work of their creators, for you to see, touch, think about, and snap a picture because next year they will probably be gone, taken over by rust and plants.
In Pico, the only place where you can have this organic relationship with art (or it with you) is at Galeria Costa. Spotting the pieces in the middle of basalt rocks and vineyards is also part of the challenge, which means all your senses have to be on. It’s intense!
When you visit, wear comfortable shoes. Also, let me know how it looks like when you’re there because some artists were working on their ongoing projects, some were about to begin, and some had just finished one which will grow into a (hopefully) passion fruit plant that will be part of… whatever future project comes to Terry’s mind!
Address: between the towns of Candelária and Mirateca
Opening hours: 24/7
Click this link to view the full album of the Galeria Costa Guided Tour.
Not in Town in Time for the Azores Fringe Festival? Fret Not!
The Azores Fringe Festival happens every year from May to June, often island-hopping as all islanders do from time to time. But if you think this is the only artistic out-of-the-box event happening in Pico, you really have been missing out on all the things MiratecArts does (yes, I have been told Terry does take time off from time to time.)
Take note of all the events you can’t miss:
January: Montanha Pico Festival – “Winter arts festival that celebrates the mountain theme throughout the island.”
May / June: Azores Fringe Festival – “International arts festival with events planned on all nine islands.”
September: Cordas – World Music Festival – “World music festival dedicated to string instruments.”
December: animaPIX – Pico International Animation Film Festival