Nicely paved low traffic roads.
Family owned dairy farms.
Rural taverns to refill the water bottle.
Bicycling in southern Wisconsin?
No, I'm talking about Sao Miguel, the largest of nine islands in the Azores chain in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
We stumbled across this little slice of emerald green paradise 850 miles west of Portugal on a just completed spring break trip with our fifth-grader.
My bargain hunting wife found a Groupon deal offering round trip air from Boston along with seven nights in a hotel with a euro-style buffet breakfast for $650 each. After a bit of research, we figured what the hell and booked a trip for three.
What a great decision. My only regret now is not arranging to bring or rent a road bike, but we can save that for next time. And I do plan to return and join the many European cyclists I saw enjoying butter smooth pavement with stunning views of the coastline. The ocean side scenery reminded me of U.S. Highway 1 in northern California—except without any traffic.
Still, despite not having a bike there was no shortage of outdoor activities on Sao Miguel. We spent one day on the water watching dolphins and whales. Our guides with Picos de Aventura got us so close we could hear a pair of giant fin whales breathing through their blowholes.
Another day, we hiked 3 kilometers deep into a shaded canyon near the little seaside town of Faial da Terra, where we rested under the dramatic Salto do Prego waterfall plunging out of the mountain side. Boulder-hopping took us to the other side of the stream for a death-defying close-up view of the azure blue pool below.
There was also an easy walk along a popular ridge top route in the Sete Cidades Massif. From the trail, hikers can gaze down into the valley to the twin Green and Blue lakes, each dramatically different in color.
Adventure-minded visitors to the Azores can also try "canyoning," mountain biking, hang-gliding or surfing.
And if narrow, cobblestone streets, local Portuguese cuisine and nice $5 bottles of wine are your thing, you could spend your days just walking the capital city of Ponta Delgada. Whitewashed 18th century buildings with red tile roofs and open air plazas are the thing here—although newer high-rises are going up in this city of 70,000.
So why the sudden great travel deals to the Azores? It's all about luring more American visitors, building the economy and giving the young people a reason to stay on the islands after high school.
"I grew up here and tourism gives us a chance at a good career," explained Pedro Cabral, 38, our waiter at Calcada do Cais, an affordable seafood restaurant popular with both locals and visitors.
Sata, the Azorean airlines, offers six flights weekly from Boston into the Ponta Delgada airport. You can also fly via Toronto. Renting a car for the week was a good move considering the free parking at the hotel and the well-marked road system.
Just driving around Sao Miguel in a Renault hatchback was an adventure in itself. Around every corner there was another scenic view turn-off with picnic tables and stone grills. The highways on the island featured public waysides with manicured gardens and tile-roofed gazebos.
Venturing inland would take you up switch backing mountain roads to peaks topping out over 3,000 feet above sea level. But you need to hike in 7 kilometers to reach the island's highpoint, Pico da Vara at 3,619 feet.
Bring the jackets and rain gear, however. The weather is moderate but definitely not tropical. Due to the Atlantic Ocean, temperatures never get much above 75 degrees Fahrenheit in summer or below 50 degrees Fahrenheit in winter.
If Americans even know where the Azores are located it's likely because the islands were used as a refueling spot for U.S. military aircraft in World War II and later for atomic bombers with the Strategic Air Command during the Cold War.
But the islands have been long used as a stopping off point for sailors, beginning in the 1500s when Europeans explorers began making the long voyage to the New World. At one point, Ponta Delgada was the third largest city in Portugal. Farming, fishing and whaling—a practice that ended in 1984—were the main economic drivers.
Today, the Azores are known for their specialty cheeses and handcrafted sausages—two products certainly familiar to folks in this part of the world.
Of course, I was drawn to the many taverns located in all corners of the island. Dairy farmers in tall rubber boats would quench their thirst on bottles of Especial, the local lager, while playing Sueca, a popular small deck card game similar to our own euchre. The television was always tuned either to a soccer game or the endless analysis by commentators between matches.
Ah, the universal language of beer, cards and sports.
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