Are you bored of Spain? Continental Europe? Tourist traps where everyone and their grandmother have been? (I'm looking at you Ibiza...)
Welcome to Azores. 9 Volcanic islands belonging to Portugal, somewhere half way between London and New York, offering amazing local food, cheap beer and natural sights like nowhere else.
I had the privilege to spend a week on Ilha de Sao Miguel, which has a wonderful balance between city life, and natural wonders. While you might be tempted to visit as many islands as you can in your stay, you have to understand how how packed they are with things to do, and how far apart they are from each other, so I will only be talking about my experiences of Sao Miguel, and the capital, Ponta Delgada.
Eat at the Canto do Aljube
First things first, you will want to know where to get good food. If you leave Ponte Delgada, any local pub in which no one speaks a word of English, is a good start. The cuisine consists of beef, cow, and a lot of flavoursome local vegetables and fruit.
The problem with Ponta Delgada, is that it is a popular docking point for cruise ships coming from America, so in the early afternoon the city is overrun by Americans donning sandals and shorts, for whom the city caters a wide array of more expensive, sub-par restaurants. My personal favourite was a bar hidden somewhere along the small alleys, Canto do Aljube. The two owners were very likeable, making their own syrups for the cocktails, and a Sikh chef making truly stand out dishes, from burgers, to curries. Expect to pay about £10, and the excellent selection of local beers runs cheap as well.
Drink at any local pubs, play darts
I had such a fantastic experience with local pubs, that I could not tell you one best place to drink. What many people will find interesting that in most bars, the owners will be working hard behind the bar, almost daily. You can truly go to any one local bar, and enjoy a good, cold beer, for not a lot of money. Eye out bars with dart boards, which seems to be the favourite local past time, the patrons are all quite friendly, and they will be more than eager to teach beginners the ropes. You might even try your luck at one of the many local tournaments!
Stay at the Out of the Blue Hostel
Without a doubt, the best time to go, is around April, when the weather is already warm enough to rock the shorts and t-shirts, but the few tourists that know these islands, have not arrived yet, thus the price of accommodation is more than reasonable. The hostel offers spacious rooms, vegan pancakes for breakfast, handmade wood fired pizza once a week, as well as delicious dinner cooked by the staff, for a tenner or less.
First of all, if you have a driving license, you must rent a car for at least a day or two, to see all the tiny villages littered along the coast, so you can get off the one and only highway and truly go explore, as well as to access some places where the busses go irregularly, or even don't go at all. I promise you, you won't regret the incredible sense of freedom as you drive up and down what once were volcanoes, taking in the breathtaking scenery.
The Ilha do Sao Miguel has a couple of natural hot springs littered around the island, with temperatures ranging from 20 to 50 degrees Celsius. They are the ultimate places to go relax after a long day of trekking through nature.
As I already mentioned, embrace the local culture. Go to local pubs, play darts with the residents, avoid tourists like the plague and find tiny holes in the wall, with some of the best food you will have eaten all year. On that note, go visit Mercato de Graca, a market based in the centre of Ponta Delgada, offering local bananas, pineapples, meats and vegetables.
You will really want to avoid the capital late morning and early afternoon as it's a popular spot for cruise ships to dock. The streets will be full with middle aged Americans, and it will be hard to find some peace and quiet. The upside to this is that none of the other villages and towns will have many tourists going around there. So these will be the ideal times to skip town and learn more about the local culture.
If taking buses around the city, be mindful of what time the last ones go back to Ponta Delgada. It is not always as late as you might expect, and once the sun sets, a taxi back might set you back about 40 to 50 quid, and while the rates are set between the cities, and the taxi drivers are very likeable and kind (one even drove my friend and I around, until we located my phone at a strangers house, in whose car I accidentally dropped it, as I was hitchhiking in the morning), for the money spent you could have 2 or even 3 crazy nights out.
Honestly, it is one of a kind place, return flights should not cost much more than £100 if you choose to travel there slightly off season and the local food, beer, and the kindness of the locals, will blow you away.