Why Portugal’s Terceira Belongs On Your Travel Wish List

As party islands go, Terceira is a pretty mild one. This volcanic rock in the Azores archipelago isn’t much like Ibiza, nor Mykonos, nor Hvar. But by Portugal’s decorous standards, Terceira—with its seemingly endless religious-cultural festivals and eccentric street parties—has a bit of a reputation.

“We have a saying that the Azores is made up of eight islands and an amusement park,” said Mara Godinho, my enthusiastic and personable guide from Azores Getaways in Terceira. She was referring to her own island, of course. Sure enough, when I moved on from Terceira to Pico, my guide there greeted me by asking, “How was the party?”

Point made. Except there was no party. Not in Terceira, nor anywhere else, because this is 2020. While some of the older people on the island are still observing some of the more strictly religious aspects of the commemorations, the freewheeling celebration scene in Terceira is on hold for now.

So why visit? What’s left?

There’s a lot, actually. To start, there’s some seriously stunning natural beauty, which comes in many shades of green. It’s pastoral at its most pleasant, with significantly more cows than people (and excellent cheese and butter to match). There are dramatic lava rocks where beaches should be, and picturesque stone homes in the middle of black boulder fields. If you time it right, there could be a rainbow behind one, as the rain shimmers down through the sunlight.

That nature is everything at the Caparica Azores Ecolodge, near the village of Biscoitos, where the rooms are little cabins in the forest, with private terraces and full walls of windows. The pathway up to reach them can be treacherous, but the views more than make up for it.

Even better, breakfast is a low-key way to start the day with deliciousness.

There’s the architectural equivalent of all those music-fueled street parties—most of which involve some sort of celebration or supplication to the Holy Spirit. This took on a lot of importance in the Azores a few centuries ago, when people were trying to find explanations for the frequent volcanic eruptions.

All over Terceira there are colorful little chapels called impérios. With their confectionary architecture and eye-popping colors, they reminded me of Hindu temples as much as Catholic chapels. (To be sure, they’re more cultural than religious, and they haven’t exactly been historically popular with the Vatican.)

Architecturally, there’s much more beauty, particularly in the island’s capital of Angra do Heroismo, the onetime capital of the Azores. It was recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1983, for its tidy buildings and picturesque, colorful plazas and streets.

As everywhere in the islands, there are hiking and adventure activities galore. Two of volcanic caves stand out. Gruta do Natal is typical lava tube, but it gained notoriety in the 1960s, when islanders started celebrating Christmas mass inside of it—the same spirit that led to all the street parties, or, as Godinho put it, there wasn’t very much to do on the island, and people had to get creative in order to amuse themselves.

The other important cave is Algar do Carvão, one of two huge, open caves of its type in the world. The other is in Island and it’s cold and you have to rappel down into it. This one is far more comfortable and accessible.

It’s just as well that I didn’t know about the bull thing before my trip. I saw it on television during lunch with Godinho at Ti Choa, a comfortable spot for home-style food. Watching the footage from last year’s bull runs, I was mesmerized.

This is not a violent bullfight, like in history, in which the bull suffers. Nor is it a dangerous running of the bulls, like in Pamplona, in which reckless people suffer. Rather, it’s a celebration of a strong animal. There’s a rope to limit the bull’s orbit, and sometimes umbrellas for a bit of gentle teasing with umbrellas, and people seem to like it when a bull slips on wet pavement and slides into the sea. The bulls don’t seem to mind.

The main point, says Godinho, is to admire the bull—after all, cows are vitally important here, so whoever can keep making more cows is worth admiring. She grew excited as she explained the scoring—something like Olympic figure skating, apparently, in which the bull gets points for artistic flourishes, such as sticking his head onto the first-floor balcony.

“No one cares about football in Terceira,” she says. “But we all have our favorite bulls.” She remembers swooning over specific bulls with her mother, and one particular animal that became known as the Ladies Bull, for his proclivity to move toward women in the audience. In a normal year, there can be 350 of these bull runs, sometimes three or four in a single day.

The bulls may be hanging out calmly in the mountains this year—you can hike or drive by and see them—but you can still eat and drink well. The Azores is known for excellent fish, including many varieties you don’t find elsewhere in Portugal. Along with Ti Choa, a great choice for dinner is Beira Mar in Angra, a lively, brightly lit restaurant where families share big platters of fish and seafood chosen from the fresh items on display over ice. (I confess it’s a taste I haven’t yet acquired, but my Portuguese friends go mad for the lapas, chewy little shellfish cooked with enough garlic to kill a vampire.)

I complemented my dinner with a wine called Magma, a perfectly crisp, complex white wine made with grapes grown on the island’s volcanic fields. For a more thorough introduction to the island’s winemaking culture, the Museu do Vinho is open to visitors by appointment. It’s run by the fifth generation of the winemaking Brum family, and it has an interactive garden planted with different grape varieties, a museum with the family’s old tools and various awards, and an inviting tasting room decorated with repurposed wine barrels.

It may not be all that rollicking at the moment, but Terceira is still an awfully nice place to pass a few days.

Although the Azores, like the rest of Europe, are not currently welcoming American tourists, European citizens and residents can get to the island’s easily with TAP’s direct flights from Boston to Ponta Delgada. From there it’s just a short hop to Terceira. Azores Getaways can handle all the logistics on the ground.

Want more Azores? Consider Pico, the islands’ capital of adventure and wine.

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