For the past decade or so, Iceland has been the place to go, and for good reason. It’s easy to reach, safe to visit and absolutely gorgeous. And word has spread: Last year, the nation of 334,000 hosted more than 2 million visitors. But never fear: If you like to be on the cutting edge of family travel — or just enjoy seeing places that aren’t overrun with tourists — we’ve found the next Iceland. Welcome to the Azores.
Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of the autonomous region of Portugal called the Azores. Until recently, these remote volcanic islands in the Atlantic Ocean were better known for fishing than tourism, like Iceland. But unlike Iceland, the Azores enjoy a surprisingly mild Gulf Stream climate (year-round temperatures range from 40 to 85 degrees). There are nine islands in all, but most travelers visit the largest, São Miguel; its nearest neighbor, Santa Maria; or Terceira, which has its own international airport.
Why the Azores?
Why are the Azores next in line to become the favorite destination of Seattle families? They have none of the cons of Iceland (weather, prices, crowds) yet offer many of the same pros (natural wonders, low crime rate, fascinating culture).
In Iceland, my family of four spent more than $100 on a pizza dinner. In the Azores, we spent less than $1,000 per person for one week; that includes hotel, airfare and local transportation. The towns were tiny, but we rarely saw another tourist outside of our hotel (which was inside a UNESCO World Heritage site).
Even though everyone we met spoke English, we got a taste of family-focused Portuguese culture, too. Locals welcomed our kids everywhere and often for free or at a discount. One example comes to mind: When my family landed on Terceira, we were among a group of passengers whose suitcases had gone missing. It was 5 a.m., and only one person was working the tiny arrivals area. He loudly announced, “It’s always my policy to help children first!” and left everyone else waiting until he tracked down our missing bag. No one questioned his priorities. It was a sharp contrast from the side-eye parents often get in the United States.
What to do in the Azores
Where Iceland presents austere grandeur, the verdant islands of the Azores could pass for Hawaii, and they offer many of the same adventures.
As in Hawaii, you can island-hop to sample unique cultures and biomes, or rent a car and explore one island more deeply. The numerous beaches are great for swimming in summer. Fishing, surfing and diving are also options. Mountain biking, exploring canyons, hiking on and in volcanoes and whale watching are among your other choices.
And if you prefer relaxation over adventure, you’ll fit right in. Amble along cobblestone roads to visit botanical gardens and museums dedicated to the Azores’ military, whaling and artistic histories. Most of the islands have their own local history museum, as well. (The small museum on Terceira held my kids’ attention for more than two hours.)
Whatever your speed, you’ll want to eat — a lot. The Azores offer amazing fresh seafood as well as locally grown pineapples (they taste different from the ones you’re used to), cheese and fancy pastries (gingerbread-like Dona Amelia cakes are a specialty).
On Terceira, try alcatra, a slowly baked cross between pot roast and stew. On São Miguel, sample cozida, a one-pot meal geothermally cooked in the ground. Drink local wine or the only tea grown in Europe, while your kids enjoy the Portuguese soda Sumol. (Tip: The only place I’ve found Sumol in Seattle is Luso Food and Wine in Greenwood.) Just remember to find a restaurant before everyone gets hungry. Azorean food is slow food — everything is cooked from scratch after you order.
With direct flights from Seattle, Iceland still holds the advantage when it comes to accessibility, but the Azores are getting easier to reach. Until recently, all North American flights to the Azores originated on the East Coast (Boston is still the departure point for most flights). Last year, Azores Airlines (formerly SATA) introduced a summer-season direct flight between Oakland and Terceira. Taking a page from Icelandair’s playbook, Azores Airlines and TAP Portugal both offer free stopovers in São Miguel or Terceira.
Another thing that makes the Azores accessible? Amazing package deals. (As I’m writing, Azores Getaways offers one week on São Miguel during spring break for $1,260 per person, Seattle-based airfare included.) Sign up for Travelzoo to receive alerts when the best deals pop up.
Just the facts
Safety: According to the U.S. State Department, travelers should exercise normal caution in Portugal, which has a relatively low crime rate. Low-level street crime, such as pickpocketing, is the most common threat. The Azores have a lower incidence of crime than mainland Portugal.
Health: The water is safe to drink, and there is virtually no air pollution. Hospitals are located on the islands of São Miguel, Terceira and Faial, and meet European standards (which the World Health Organization ranks higher than standards in the United States).
Anyone dreaming of a trip to Iceland this summer should consider this: In the coming decade, the Azores will become the place to go. If you visit now, you can still beat the crowds.