Terceira is a volcanic island in the middle of the Atlantic that boasts endless rolling hills of green pasture, outstanding seafood, and endless trails. One of the island’s most dominating features is the incredible intense green of the extensive pastureland, with its meadows walled-in with black volcanic rock giving the impression of a huge patchwork which covers the majority of the island. Get your adventure on because there are plenty of places to explore on land and in sea!
How to Get There and Get Around
Azores Getaway has great deals in the off season, which is one of the big reasons we went in January. $499 per person included roundtrip airfare and hotel stay. Public transportation is few and far in between so upon arrival, we rented a car to get around the island. Note that most rental cars are manual, so be prepared to drive stick-shift or pay extra for automatic. Driving around the island was interesting to say the least. My most profound observations were that the roads are narrow and people tended to drive however they wanted (i.e., lane lines were pretty much ignored). Drive slow and keep an eye out for cattle! In the countryside, it is not uncommon to see cows on the road making their way from one pasture to another.
We did so many hikes that I can’t fully recall the names of each one. There were two in particular that stuck out though, and were probably my favorite.
Misterios Negros (Black Mysteries) is a 6km circular hiking route in a large forest that goes between two volcanoes. It takes about 2.5 hours to complete, going at an average pace. Many websites and forums will rate this hike as “difficult”, but it’s not steep or treacherous. I think the difficulty is in the varying terrain and navigation through dense forest. What I found to be particularly unique and fun was the change in scenery every couple hundred meters. Some parts of the trail make you feel like traveling inside middle earth as you walk through hills made of volcanic rocks. Other times, you feel like you are in a jungle, dodging twisty trees and vines covered in moss and ferns covering overgrown tree roots. Watch out for the low hanging tree branches otherwise you get a good head-whacking. Be extra careful if you are doing the trail on a rainy day or if it rained the night before because it can get really muddy and slippery.
Serreta is a 6.8km circular hiking route through the Natural Reserve of Serra de Santa Barbara. We did this hike on a misty wet day, and it was for the most part, fine to do. As always, just be careful when the trail is wet—this is especially true for the part going up to Lagoinha. It started pretty straightforward on a gravel road, then onto a dirt trail. Then part of the trail branches off and takes you up to Lagoinha, a small lagoon in the flank of the volcano of Serra de Santa Barbara, surrounded by a wood of Cedars. This part was perhaps the most difficult because the trail was wet, slippery, and steep. There wasn’t much of a “trail” actually. You just follow a small stream upwards until you reach the summit where the lagoon is. It was hard but definitely worth the hike up. After descending, you continue back on the original trail but about a hundred meters down is where I failed to see a trail marker and walked past it about half a mile or so. Follow the wide main road until you reach a pasture on your right and look for the trail marker on the fence post. Go through the fence and into the pasture then continue to walk along the fence until you enter back into the forest. The trail is easy to navigate thereafter.
- At the trailhead, take a picture of the map and trail info with your phone. (This was a lifesaver)
- Carry a light rain jacket with you as the weather is often unpredictable.
- Bring plenty of water and snacks!
- If you’re doing a linear hike (one that does not loop around), always be prepared to do a double hike to go back or have a plan (i.e., taxi) to get back to the starting point.
- Trail markers are about spaced out about 100 meters from each other. If you don’t see one within 500 meters, you’ve most likely passed a turnoff.
Food and Dining
Don’t miss the seafood! Seafood is prominent in both Azorean and Portuguese cuisine. Not surprisingly, this island surrounded by cool Atlantic waters enables fishermen to haul in a lot of seafood. Notable things to try are:
- Bacalhau: If I had to choose only one thing to eat on the island, it would be Bacalhau. This traditional food is one of Portugal’s most treasured dishes. This dried salted cod fish is rehydrated, then cooked in a variety of ways—you can boil it, fry it, stew it, grill it, roast it, or mash it into pulp for meatballs! It can be found in practically all grocery stores or food markets and served at almost every restaurant.
- Lapas (Limpets): One of the most popular seafood dishes usually served as an appetizer. It is usually served grilled, in a sauce of butter, garlic, and spicy red pepper. It is so darn good!
- Cracas (Barnacles): Easily mistaken for a chunk of rock, these large barnacles are edible! These barnacles are boiled in seawater and served chilled, with a small prying device that looks like a piece of dental equipment. You remove the “tooth” from the top and hook it out using the tool. This peculiar sea creature tastes similarly to crab.
- Octopus: Another popular dish in the Azores. Grilled octopus was an all-around favorite for all of us.
Wine is cheap. Wine is good. Lots of wine is always good. The Azores is known for vinho verde, in other words, “green wine”. They are made with Portguese grapes varietals such as alvarinho, loureiro, trajadura, and pederna—all which are lower in alcohol. But what makes this wine unique is its age. The short aging process creates a dry, light bodied wine with hints of green apple, pear and citrus notes. Vinho Verde wines are also characterized by their slight fizz, the carbonation that comes from the release of carbon dioxide during the fermentation process. It’s a delightful light wine that pairs well with food, particularly seafood.
- Steak: With all the free range grass fed cows, you’d think the steak would be fantastic, right? We tried steak at a couple restaurants and were left slightly disappointed. It might be the cut or the way they make it, but it’s not that great. If you want steak, I would recommend buying it at the grocery store and cooking it yourself if you have a kitchen to use.
- Alcatra: This is a braised beef that is typically cooked for 12-24 hours and instantly falls apart when you touch it. It is commonly served with sweet bread, rice, and potatoes. The stew is what makes this dish so flavorful.
With all those cows, what better product to make than cheese?! In the Azores, days strat and end with dairy. More specifically, cheese. At breakfast, there is usually a cottage or soft cheese to spread on toast. Dinner is often capped with sharp cheese stacked with chunks of fruit, paired with port. People have been making cheese in the Azores since they first settled there in the 15th century, and although the island is fairly small, they produce 50 percent of the country’s cheese and 30 percent of the country’s cow milk. Don’t leave Azores without trying the cheese! In fact, you can take most cheeses with you on the plane or in your checked baggage. If you bring it with you in your carry-on, just be sure that the cheeses are hard cheeses and vacuum sealed. (I nearly got one of my cheeses confiscated because it was borderline too soft.)
Gluten Sensitive Diet
Staying on a gluten-free or gluten-sensitive diet wasn’t all too difficult. Weirdly enough, although I’m gluten-sensitive, my stomach was able to tolerate the local breads and pastries. (As I’ve traveled around Europe, I’ve found that my stomach can tolerate European wheat, but not American wheat—probably due to the fact that American wheat has been overly genetically modified. That’s a different story that I’m happy to get into if you’d like—just shoot me an email or leave a comment.)
Many restaurants were accommodating to my gluten sensitivity, although many of their sauces inherently had gluten in them. (I still ate it nonetheless and was fine). Shopping for gluten free items at the grocery store was a cinch. They had an entire section of gluten-free items. So don’t worry if you have any sort of food allergy, the Azores is well-prepared to suit your dietary needs.
Places to Visit
Sao João Baptista Fortress sits on the peninsula known as Monte Brasil. There’s a free tour that takes you through the fort, the ramparts, the church, the prison, and the wells. Check ahead for their tour times. There’s also an easy hike around Monte Brasil that takes you up to a monument. At the top, there’s a signal station and a small zoo with various animals (e.g., peacock, chickens, parrots).
Praia da Vitória
In the summer, the man-made beach is the perfect place to lay out and catch those rays. In the off season, you can expect a quiet town and peaceful stroll along the coast. There’s a two-mile walkway along the coastline that ends at a seaside cafe bar.
From afar, you can see the monument of the patron Saint of Praia da Victoria. Drive up to Miradouro do Facho or walk up from the town center for a breathtaking view of the city! From the lookout, you can see the beach, yachts docked at the marina, shopping areas, and layers of houses perched on the hillsides. It’s a great spot for sunset!
Serra do Cume
The picturesque countryside boasts a horizon of glowing green fields speckled with cows. Serra do Cume reaches an altitude of 545m and on clear days, it provides a panoramic view of the island. This area is famously known for the astounding view over the bay of Praia da Vitória and the flat interior of the island divided by walls of volcanic stone. When the clouds are low, it may be difficult, almost impossible, to see nature’s patchwork from the viewing platform, so depending on the weather, you can either wait for it to clear or choose another day to visit.
Instead of driving to the viewing platform, we drove close to it, just beneath the clouds to get a glimpse of the landscape and the view was just as beautiful. You can drive up towards the platform and stop somewhere safely on the side of the road to get just as good pictures if the viewing deck is not an option.
Serra de Santa Barbara
At 3350 feet, the summit of Serra de Santa Barbara is the highest point on the island. On clear days, visiting the looking ensures stunning 360 degree views of the island. There’s little point visiting if the top is covered in clouds though. Regardless, it is pretty windy up there, so bring a jacket!
Ponta das Contendas
A beautiful lookout with a view of the Lighthouse of Contendas and the islet. There’s also a trail that starts here and ends at Fortes de São Sebastião. Along the way, you can visit Forte da Greta and Catarina das Mos, and enjoy views of the ocean from multiple platforms.
Furnas do Enxofre
Even though the last volcanic eruption that took place on Terceira was in the 18th century, the volcano still presents some activity through these fumaroles that send out warm gases and odorant steam through a system of fissures. There is an easy dirt trail that goes around the area with viewing points from many angles. The landscape is laden with red soil contrasting with the green of the moss. It may be pretty windy here, but the whole atmosphere is warm from the steamy mist seeping through the ground.
Algar do Carvao
This extinct volcano is probably the biggest attraction and highlight of Terceira because you can walk right into it! It is well lit and an easy walk through the cave. With a vertical drop of 150 feet from the mouth of the cavern to its floor, and a further 150-foot descent to the rainwater-fed lagoon that marks its deepest point, it’s a rare opportunity to walk inside a volcano—this is definitely not to be missed!
- During the off-season (winter months), they have limited hours so check ahead of time and plan accordingly. Schedule as of 2019, from March to May – Every day (2:30 pm to 5:15 pm) From June to mid October – Every day (2:00 pm to 6:00 pm) From mid October to mid March – Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays (2:30 pm to 5:15 pm).
- If you are visiting this cave, purchase the ticket that includes both caves. It is 8 euros for one cave or 12 euros for two caves. Since the hours for the caves are limited, if you aren’t able to visit both caves in one day, you can visit the other cave another day. The ticket is good for a year, I believe.
Gruta do Natal
This cave was opened to the public on December 25, 1969. During the Christmas season, the cave takes on a certain social importance for the community—hence the name, “Christmas Cave”. Famous for its lava tube, the walls, ground, and ceilings have different colors and shapes, transforming the cave into a mystic place.
Tip: The Misterios Negros hiking trail is right next to this cave. You can knock out both the cave and hike if you plan accordingly. Give yourself approximately half an hour to an hour to explore the cave and another 2.5 hours to complete the hike.
Have you visited the Azores? If so, did you visit during low or high season? I would love to hear about your experiences! Share your story in the comments below or shoot me a message through the contact form!