The Azores: A green gem in the Atlantic
Moonlike lava landscapes, verdant rolling hills dotted with hydrangeas and encompassed by the azure waters of the Atlantic: the Azores are a kaleidoscope of colour and the perfect escape from city life. Benedita Branco, the owner of the illustrious Lava Homes on Pico Island, joins Athena Journal to talk about life in the Azores and how the islands have developed over the years.
Accommodation photography courtesy of Lava Homes
1,600 km off the western coast of Portugal, this archipelago comprises nine volcanic islands rising from the Atlantic Ocean. Whilst many would have been hard pressed to locate the Azores on a map twenty years ago, this collection of islands has steadily been garnering interest with the number of overnight stays rising by more than 171% between 2009 and 2019. However, with around three million overnight stays booked in 2019, the highest figure over the past decade, the number of holidaymakers heading to the Azores is minuscule when compared to other island destinations in the Atlantic. To put it into perspective, Atlantic cousin and summer holiday hotspot Tenerife, one of the Spanish Canary Islands, saw 25.2 million overnight stays in 2019.
The perfect antidote to the stresses of city life, The Azores are the ultimate destination for switching off, spending quality time with loved ones and getting back to nature. Blessed with a diverse patchwork of landscape and a favourable climate, time moves slower here and the islands offer a laid-back, easy-going way of life.
Thanks to the archipelago’s far-flung spot in the Atlantic Ocean, the surrounding water is brimming with sea life including dolphins, sperm whales and loggerhead turtles. If you’re lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of a migrating blue whale.
A hiker’s paradise, there are around 60 trails zigzagging across the islands, offering postcard-worthy views at every turn. One not to miss is the hike up the imposing Mount Pico which proudly stands 2,351m tall on Pico island. All in all, it is a six or seven-hour round trip and those that make it to the top are rewarded with an unforgettable panorama.
It is on this island, in a dominant position in Santo Amaro overlooking the ocean, that you’ll find Benedita Branco’s Lava Homes, an intimate village-like resort comprising 14 houses. Originally from the northern part of mainland Portugal, Benedita’s love for the Azores stems back 40 years having first visited back when she was a teenager, regularly staying with her boyfriend’s father in São Roque on São Miguel island. Previously working in advertising for a dot com company and spending time working on London’s museum street, about seven years ago Benedita began renting out property on Pico Island and found her calling: she loved welcoming and helping guests. Having fallen in love with the spot on which Lava Homes would sit, in 2015 works began and in 2019 the resort welcomed its first guests.
When asked for a first-hand account of day-to-day life on the island, one of the things Benedita draws attention to is the wonderful community atmosphere on Pico Island.
“On the island, life is simpler and very easy going. It has no traffic lights and is one of those rare places where cars and doors can be left unlocked. Even if someone did decide to take your car, where would they go?” Benedita comments.
Whilst life is simpler here, there is no hunger or poverty as the families that live here are very self-sufficient: they have livestock, make their own cheeses and even wines. While in many other cultures it is customary to go out to restaurants and bars, here, the trend is to stay in for parties, enjoying the local produce and the company of friends and family.
Pico Island has a real intergenerational community with children living with their parents for longer than in most western European countries, and grandparents living close by. Plus, there is a real community spirit fuelled by the numerous local festivities happening such as parades celebrating saints and christenings. There is always something to celebrate and dancing brings the generations together. A traditional local dance, with some 30 commands shouted out by the caller, sees everyone from children to 70-year-old grandmothers unite in rhythm.
There are many reasons to fall in love with Pico Island and Benedita commented that after visiting Lava Homes, many of her guests were keen to purchase a property in the Azores. This lead to her and a group of her friends designing a collection of residential properties for sale, aptly named Forest Homes, on a nearby spot.
Pico island: past and present
Looking back over the past decade, Benedita feels like a lot has changed on the island. Around 10 years ago, the Azores were mainly frequented by holidaymakers from the US or Canada who would head to São Miguel for about a month. However, over the years the tourism season has extended from June to September.
In 2019 Lava Homes welcomed an even split of guests from Portugal and abroad. Most of the overseas guests hailed from Canada, and after that France and Germany. Last year, however, the clientele of Lava Homes was predominantly Portuguese. This was not only due to the restrictions on travel around the globe prohibiting international travel but it was the result of a well-received government initiative that offered travellers a financial incentive to Portuguese residents who booked a holiday in Portugal.
Though the Azores are certainly garnering more and more interest with more visitors heading over to explore their wild beauty, more development is still needed here to better cater for this growing demand.
“On Pico Island, about 60,000 visitors visit within the peak three months and there are just 20 restaurants on the island,” Benedita explains.
Benedita also owns the popular Magma restaurant on Pico Island and knows first-hand that running a restaurant in the Azores can have its challenges. As mentioned earlier, Azoreans prefer to party and dine at home with family and friends so this cultural preference means that there isn’t huge domestic demand for restaurants outside of the tourist season. However, Magma’s clever menu offers a mix of Azorean dishes and family recipes from the mainland. The regional dishes appeal to visitors whilst the north Portuguese dishes offer something a little different for locals.
As the tourist season only stretches over a limited three months, getting a table at a restaurant in the summer can be a challenge, on the other hand, the cooler months are much quieter and you may find you have a whole restaurant to yourself. Benedita is looking forward to the tourist season being extended as the destination’s popularity grows. Crucially, however, the island’s accommodation requires a bit of upgrading in terms of insulation. Most of the holiday homes here, though of a high quality thanks to the generous government grants available, are better suited to the summer climate as many lack the essential central heating that tourists look for. It’s another reason why there are new-build developments cropping up around the islands.
When asked what’s next for her personally, Benedita revealed that she is working on a new project, the aptly named Adega do Fogo which translates as cottage of fire. This new project will see an old manor house and distillery on the moonlike black rockscape by the waterfront returned to its former glory. Originally, the plan was to create a small hotel, but instead, the property will now be rented out whole and guests will be invited to stay the week. It’s perfect for those who want to really experience Pico Island and the Azorean way of life and not just island-hop. Guests can go hiking before indulging in a well-deserved massage as well as enjoy home-cooked brunches and dinners by an on-site cook.