My local guide seems disappointed in me.
Here we are at Sete Cidades on São Miguel Island, the largest in the Azores, overlooking one of the seven wonders of Portugal, and I’ve apparently lost interest a little too quickly. Around 25 years ago, some enterprising businessmen had the idea to make this place a kind of Monaco in the middle of the Atlantic, a secluded five-star hotel where you could gamble, dine, and hobnob with other glamorous travellers. When you consider the view — two conjoined lakes resting in the lush palms of a comatose volcano — the idea seems golden: the place would be right next to a point called Vista do Rei, which literally means a king’s view. A bit of a pain to get to, maybe — narrow, steep winding roads, unpredictable weather, not to mention all the standard island hopping required to visit the Azores — but a place like this, priceless natural views mingling with jet-set luxury, would have to be exclusive.
They couldn’t get the legal go-ahead for a casino, but they built it anyway. The Monte Palace opened in 1989 and closed a little over a year later. Now the hotel has been stripped of everything of potential value, from windows and doors to copper pipes and any trace of furniture. All that’s left is a concrete husk, the view, and, hopefully, some ghosts. It’s open to anyone who cares to go in.
Abandoned Monte Palace Azores at Ponta Delgada, Portugal.
My guide shrugs his shoulders as if to say, you’re the boss. I should care more about the natural wonder before me than the ruined corpse of a failed business venture from the ’80s. It’s like going to the Grand Canyon to admire the minivans of fellow travellers. But anyone who hears about an abandoned hotel — is, in fact, within a dozen or so steps of one — and doesn’t investigate? Such a person is not worthy of imagination. They will die without poetry or adventure. Those people shouldn’t travel, especially to the Azores. A visit to the Azores is all about imagination.
Amidst the grand ruin and graffiti, you want to hear the faraway sounds of ancient travellers, echoes of music and parties, legends about gangsters and forgotten crimes somehow pouring from the broken-tiled walls. You don’t, of course. But the husk of the hotel, juxtaposed by the view of the twin lakes — each reflecting light differently so one looks blue, the other green, like an art contest between God and man — makes me want to see more. Of everything.
In a way, imagination plays a part in the founding myth of the Azores. The archipelago of nine islands, 1,360 kilometers off the coast of mainland Portugal, was first discovered and claimed around the 15th century. As the story goes, it was named after the goshawks (açor in Portugese) that explorers saw circling the islands’ rocky peaks. It’s possible they saw what they thought they saw — the hawks could have been on a hunting expedition, maybe, or been lost — but since then, it’s become clear that those birds were never native to the island. What the explorers probably saw were common buzzards, still birds of prey, but with a worse name. Thank the imaginations of those near-sighted amateur ornithologists.
The Salto Carito waterfall.
I learn about this the day before my encounter with the abandoned hotel on São Miguel. Along with my guide (whom I do not disappoint), I’m walking the streets of Angra do Heroísmo, the capital of Terceita Island. We stop in the Palace of the Captain Generals for a tour. Like many things on Terceita, this political building began life as a Jesuit school. The resulting architecture and style are humble and utilitarian on the outside, but the building is filled with traces of opulence and the sombre hush of history. We walk through the dining rooms and halls — dark wood, hanging lights, creaky floors, and ancient busts of those misidentified birds — while we’re monitored by the painted, puffed faces of past kings and queens, rogues and rebels. The history lesson quickly becomes overwhelming.
My guide and I climb a steep set of stairs toward a bright yellow steeple at the top of a hill. From here, I can see most of Angra tumbling out from the surrounding hills. Nearly every structure is painted one of four colours: yellow, baby blue, soft green, contrasted everywhere with stark white. Even on this cloudy day, it’s cheery — Old World optimism like you see in fairy tale villages.
In 1980, Terceita was hit by a devastating earthquake that destroyed or damaged many structures on the island. The homes were rebuilt and repainted in historical fashion (and in only four years), but they are only slightly older than I am. Somehow it’s more than simulacrum, though, as though the city never lost its ties with its own history.
In 1983, this was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so now the candy coloured houses, pressed together as tightly as Lego blocks, are mandatory. It’s a sweet bit of pretend, though, an exercise in communal imagination.
That night, we eat a traditional Azorean feast and we play make-believe. The first floor of the restaurant is a museum of an Old World general store. The whole place is meant to feel like time travel. My guide and I are the only ones there. We eat slow-cooked pork, dipping gloriously sweet bread into the Christmas-spiced broth. At our table, tucked into the corner of the dining hall, it feels less like a restaurant and more like our family has stayed up late to feed us after a day of travel, then left us alone to go to bed. The emptiness of the place feels safe.
The grand, fading beauty of the Palace of the Captain Generals.
The Azores can feel like Europe’s overlooked stepchild. You think you know Europe, but until you’ve been to at least one of these nine islands, you don’t. While on the two I visited, I was constantly surprised by the landscape. It swings wildly between European-style villages, bursting with religious iconography, to mountain highways that remind me of British Columbia, to rolling green hills dotted with cows, the ancient fences made from volcanic rock being the only reminder that you aren’t in, say, Scotland. And then, of course, there are the volcanoes.
As the Azores’ economy relies less on agriculture and dairy farming and instead becomes more and more dependent on tourism, you’ll hear about the islands more often. The attention is deserved. Climb any hill and survey the vast greenness, the ancient rocky paths that were formed by lava hundreds of years ago, the fists of stone jutting out from the ocean.
The upside of their relative obscurity is that, for the moment at least, the Azores can focus on the kind of tourism that perfectly suits their setting. There are no gaudy attractions. There are no desperate scenes. Even that abandoned hotel — a more desperate destination might charge admission to walk through it, billing it as a place to hear ghost stories, instead of keeping it open, sometimes letting locals use it for paintball battles. What this means is the Azores are an unspoiled setting for adventure. Biking and hiking over centuries-old magma, opening up to vistas of primary colour clarity. Whale watching. Surfing.
In São Miguel, I’m picked up by two guides, one with wavy Richard Branson hair, the other with his head shaved — the picture of an extreme-sport duo. They run an adventure company. I put on a wetsuit and follow them along a small river. Rain has knocked down trees recently, so we can’t quite make it to the top of the small mountain. We rappel down waterfalls, jump off short cliffs, and slide down slick, smooth rocks until we reach our car again. Then, after a traditional Azorean lunch, we’re zipping along the shore of a swollen lake, past ancient churches and more and more trees, on e-bikes that make riding a snap. I make easy work of all the puddles, spraying myself with mud.
We stop at a place that looks like a picturesque hellscape. The hill in front of me is obscured by steam rising from the earth. Along a wooden footpath, boiling water is bubbling from the ground. Mixed with mud, it looks like grey lava. The government has thoughtfully constructed pits for public use. It’s how our lunch was cooked, in fact. You pile meat upon meat, top it off with some vegetables, put it all in a pot and bury it in one of these pits. There’s a beach nearby.
It’s only later I realize that when I was splashing through mud, it wasn’t only mud; that the smell that had been following me around for the afternoon isn’t just the eccentric smell of a foreign town. I’ve covered myself in excrement. People will smell me coming for the rest of the night. Poor them, because I stop noticing. Instead, I savour the best fresh-caught fish I have ever tasted at a place called Caloura. It’s simple fare, a perfect metaphor for the trip. The fish, two platters filled with several different kinds, is subtly seasoned with salt and pepper, then grilled. There’s no added flash, no pretension. It’s just what’s available, and it tastes like heaven.