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Polaroid Photos of 12 Surreal Experiences in a Volcanic Wonderland

Island-hopping through the Portuguese Azores one volcano, cliff-hugging drive, and thermal pool at a time.

With lush green gardens and grids of cow-dotted farms, the Portuguese archipelago of nine volcanic islands smack in the middle of Atlantic Ocean offers Jurassic-like landscapes and a serene sense of isolation. Exploring four islands in just one week—hopping from São Miguel to Pico, Faial, and Terceira—is an otherworldly and ambitious journey where visitors can feast on farm- (or sea-) to-table cuisine, hike (and drive) atop (and inside) volcanoes, and become entranced by algae-tinted lakes and a magical European-meets-Hawaiian charm. With affordable new direct flights between Boston and Ponta Delgada, the largest “city” in all of Azores, there’s no better time than now to experience these otherworldly islands.

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PHOTO: Ross Belfer
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Soak in Thermal Pools at Terra Nostra Garden

WHERE: São Miguel

A highlight of any traveler’s visit to São Miguel Island is a full day soaking in the iron- and zinc-rich, yellow-tinted water within a masterful garden at Terra Nostra Garden. Located in the far-flung village of Furnas, the park is home to an Art Deco-style building originally created in the 1920s by the former American Consul to Portugal (and home of the island’s most high-end hotels), who resided on the property during his term and commissioned an imaginative garden-park with plants, trees, and flowers imported from China, Japan, and the Americas. With several volcanically-heated thermal pools spread across the park and an upscale restaurant that serves geothermically-cooked local favorites like Cozido, this is a surreal natural wonderland.

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Discover Local Art at Arquipélago Arts Center

WHERE: São Miguel

Located in the town of Ribeira Grande, which boasts the youngest population of residents in all of Portugal, the Arquipélago Arts Center is a former industrial tobacco processing complex that was transformed into the Azores’ largest cultural center. Winding thru the concrete-clad buildings, you’ll see video-based collage pieces, interactive VR programs, and shows by artists-in-residence, like Cataraina Branco’s work consisting of towering paper-based sculptures that pay homage to religious ceremonies and traditional floral carpets. Arquipélago’s impressive Blackout Room is a modular space that can be restructured according to a specific performance or production.

The center also attracts international talent, most recently London-based artist Graham Gussin, who presented his new works created during a residency at Pico do Refugio, a guest house residency program located on a 300-year-old tea and citrus farm.

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Dance at Tremor Music Festival

WHERE: São Miguel

The annual experimental music festival is the perfect time to pay a visit to Azores. Tremor is a collaboration between Antonio Pedro Lopes, Luis Banrezes, and Lovers&Lollypops record label, and creates a stage for innovative, emerging artists like Norberto Lobo and Filipe Furtado. Tremor wows attendees with performances in thermal pools, amidst stunning algae-tinted lakes, and in other out-of-this-world venues across the island throughout a five-day period, culminating with a 24-hour extravaganza of musical performances.

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Visit an Abandoned Hotel

WHERE: São Miguel

True adventure in the Azores starts with a visit to Vista do Rei, the site of the now-abandoned Hotel Monte Palace. Azorean folklore says that the property was constructed in the 1980’s as an audacious eco-resort, which did not catch on to travelers (or locals) at the time. A visit to the abandoned hotel at Vista do Rei is an absolute necessity when visiting Sao Miguel. The moist, graffiti-laden walls and decrepit, winding staircase are magical, and the unobstructed views of the Lagoa Verde y Azul will give you goosebumps.

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Hike to the Lighthouse at Vulcão Capelinhos

WHERE: Faial

Imagine being trapped inside a David Lynch film, driving on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean amidst a barren, Mars-like, edge-of-the-world landscape. This is Capelinhos. This otherworldly section of Faial island covered in black sand boasts a historic lighthouse that has been half-sunken by the most recent volcanic explosion in Faial in the 1950s (for which JFK granted 1,500 natural refugee visas to the U.S.).

Explorers of Capelinhos can tour the visitor’s center, designed by Portuguese architect Nuno Ribeiro Lopes, before or after ascending to the top of the lighthouse for sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean and the caldera.

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Dine like a Local at Genuino’s

WHERE: Faial

Genuino, a Faial native and unassuming restaurateur, has sailed across the world — twice — only to return home and open his own restaurant that is praised by locals for the no-frills dishes of local halibut, octopus, and lapas (limpet clams) that the sailor catches each morning before opening. Stroll around the black sand beaches of Porto Pim bay to gather inspiration before a heavy meal at Genuino’s (which begins serving customers at noon).

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Experience Serious Solitude

WHERE: Pico

Home to the largest volcano in the Azores at 7,713-feet, Pico Island has a primordial atmosphere where humans, for all intents and purpose, seem non-existent. Besides a whale-watching expedition with AquaAzores and visits to Criação Velha Vineyards, Mirateca Arts Center, and Pico Wine Museum, encountering other human beings on this island is rare. Visitors are encouraged to traverse Pico Island in the off-season in order to best experience the full, extra-terrestrial atmosphere seeping through the trees.

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PHOTO: Ross Belfer
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Drink Wine in Lajido

WHERE: Pico

Walking along the gravel roads in the historic wine village of Lajido feels like a scene in a Wes Andersen film. This UNESCO World Heritage Site along the rocky Atlantic coastline is like a land lost in time, where tumbling leaves and the undulating sea are the only sounds to be heard. Generations of Lajido residents maintain their winemaking heritage by producing a special varietal of grapes, Arinto do Açores, that are magically transformed into a local wine that is acidic, salty, and delicious. Head south along the coastal pathway of Lajido to discover the volcanic water cove of Cachorrro, a perfect natural complement to the scenic town.

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Dine on Contemporary Cuisine at Casa Âncora

WHERE: Pico

The tiny coastal town of São Roque de Pico is probably the last place on Earth you would expect to find a contemporary restaurant opened by a commodity trader from Moscow. However, the airy and modern Casa Âncora restaurant is the perfect place to try elevated Azorean cuisine with a fine-dining twist, with dishes like stone crab paté with avocado mousse, and grilled octopus with mashed sweet potatoes and tomato salsa. As Pico is known and celebrated for its distinct grape varietals grown in iron-rich volcanic soil, Casa Âncora pairs its delectable sea-to-table cuisine with a verdant menu of local wine.

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PHOTO: Ross Belfer
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Climb Mount Pico

WHERE: Pico

Drive 3,600-feet above sea level through the clouds on a forest-lined dirt road until you see nothing in  but cows, green fields, the Atlantic Ocean, and a structure that serves as a check-in point for brave hikers willing to make the 7-hour trek to the top of Pico’s massive volcano. There’s a lone guard on duty who surveys and monitors groups of hikers via web can, ensuring they reach the pinnacle and return back without injury.

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Travel Back in Time at Quinta do Martelo

WHERE: Terceira

Qunita do Martelo, an authentic culinary experience with farms, a restaurant, and oddly, a barber shop, is by far the most exquisite meal in the Azores. Inquisitive guests are welcomed by a mustachioed man who serves plates of cured olives and beans, soft cheese, and other heritage Azorean finger food, paired with local wine. The Quinta is part of the rural tourism association of Azores that erects authentic hospitality and culinary experiences across the nine islands. Wandering into a 100-year-old barbershop with a perfectly-curated level of dust and soot, walking through sculpture gardens with roosters running about, and exploring deserted farmhouses bursting with unavoidable charm, is all part of the experience at Quinta do Martelo, where everything feels like it’s from the past.

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Go Inside a Volcano at Algar do Carvão

WHERE: Terceira

If you’re wondering if the uphill drive to Algar do Carvão on Terceira island is worth the trouble, the answer is yes. Descending into the underground lava tube (which extends 300 feet through subterranean, lava-hollowed earth) is literally entering the inner chamber of a volcano that has sat dormant for more than 3,000 years. Moss and lichen paint the walls in orange, yellow, green, blue, and brown, and stalactites shimmer from the natural light pouring in through the mouth of the natural cavity, creating a surreal ambiance.