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An Overview of Portugal's Islands: Madeira and the Azores

An Overview of Portugal's Islands: Madeira and the Azores

Continental Portugal’s fusion of traditional and cosmopolitan, rural and urban culture, gastronomy and landscapes will surely keep you busy and coming back for more.

Then, once you think you’ve seen it all, you’ll realize that just off the coast of Portugal lie Madeira, the Azores and a whole other balmy, peaceful, striking and unique slice of water-bound Portuguese life to discover.

Câmara de Lobos, Madeira

 Câmara de Lobos, Madeira

These islands are melting pots of Portuguese and internationals who pit-stopped here along historic trade and discovery routes and undeniably left an imprint. 

Are you looking for sun and warmth, white sand beaches, mountain hikes, refined tourism amenities and Port wine’s “tropical” sibling? Do you prefer lush and desolate nature, volcanic vibes, crater lakes and heavenly cheese? Madeira and the Azores have it all, and more!

Madeira 

Madeira’s capital, Funchal, is where football star Ronaldo (akin to royalty in Portugal) was born. This small city features a picturesque old town, bourgeoisie hilltop neighborhood, botanical gardens, contemporary art museum, Michelin and traditional restaurants, accommodation ranging from hostels and eco-lodges to boutique hotels and 5-star resorts, wine bars, cafés and a few clubs. 

Funchal Bay

Funchal Bay

The island’s interior is wild and largely uninhabited. Walking paths meander along irrigation aqueducts, dense forests, cliffs and waterfalls. Agriculture relies mostly on sugarcane, miniature bananas, tropical fruits, sweet potatoes (introduced from the New World) and grapes.

Terraced vineyards up steep cliffs over the crashing Atlantic have been cultivated since the 1400s to fuel Portugal’s Age of Discovery with Madeira wine.

 Madeira

Like Port, Madeira is fortified to 18-20% alcohol. However, unlike Port, it’s made from 1-2 rather than 18+ grape varieties which grow on volcanic rather than schist soils in more tropical rather than arid conditions and is cooked in estufas at 45 C to expedite aging.

The result is complex, ranges from dry to sweet and pairs perfectly with Madeira’s gingerbread-like bolo de mel (“honey cake”) after a meal of lapas (“limpets”) grilled with garlic and deep-sea espada (“swordfish”) served with buttery sweet potatoes. 

Madeira boasts relatively dry weather and Portugal’s warmest winters.

 

The Azores

This 9-island Archipelago, connected by planes and ferries, is the real off-the-beaten-path deal.

Sapphire blue and emerald green lakes like Sete Cidades sit at the bottom of still-active volcano craters (the last eruption in the 1950s caused mass immigration to the US East and West coasts). 

Huge cows roam the Azores in expansive lush pastures - their milk produces amazing cheeses like Terceira’s smooth and creamy Queijo Vaquinha or São Jorge’s spicy and nutty Queijo da Ilha. Enjoy succulent beef stewed with vegetables in underground pits after a day at the furnas hot springs.

Azores cows

Roads lined with colorful hydrangeas and azaleas meander from rainy mountaintops to forested hillsides down to black sand beaches. 

Snack on sweet pineapples, fried manioc and tender octopus braised in wine accompanied by bolo de caco sweet potato bread slathered in garlic butter.

Wash it down with a glass of fresh and mineral Azorian Arinto, Terrantez or Verdelho - these grapes grow on unique bush vines protected from strong, salty winds by rock walls called currais on Pico. 

Likened to a mix of the best of Hawaii and Ireland, the Azores is an island-hopping paradise for active tourists and nature lovers looking for peace, quiet and perhaps a glimpse of dolphins and whales along the way!

São Miguel

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Odile Bouchard

Hi! I'm Odile; I am half-French, half-American and grew up between Burgundy, Napa Valley and Tuscany - wine and travel run deep in my veins. My family owns Quinta do Tedo in the Douro Valley, one of Farah Trading Co's favorite producers!

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