Why Pico in The Azores Belongs On Your Travel Wish List

Noble Horvath

The stark beauty of Pico Island Ann Abel Pico Island, in the Azores archipelago of Portugal, had me at hello. Before hello, actually. A couple years ago, I went to the neighboring island of Faial and heard again and again how magical Pico is. However, it was shrouded in fog […]

Pico Island, in the Azores archipelago of Portugal, had me at hello. Before hello, actually. A couple years ago, I went to the neighboring island of Faial and heard again and again how magical Pico is. However, it was shrouded in fog the whole time. And it became shrouded in mystery and appeal to me.

Pico has the highest mountain in Portugal, an intriguing wine scene, and some truly stunning topography. It’s the youngest island among the nine volcanic specks that make up the Azores—only 300,000 years old, compared to millions for the others—and notably more rugged. It has more than 200 volcanoes, all of them dormant except for one that last erupted in the 18th century.

Some of the land is only 1,000 years old. There is striking black lava everywhere. It’s in the walls of the vineyards, in the construction of the homes, and along the coastline, where it takes the place of beaches.

Whatever isn’t black is an impossibly vivid shade of green—the result of that frequent fog and regular rain. Wild hydrangeas grow alongside all the roads. The architecture is typical and charming. There’s usually a shimmering sea view in the distance.

Hardly anyone lives here, some 15,000 people on a relatively large island, the second biggest in the Azores. One of those people, Lisbon-born Benedita Branco, tells me there are only 12 restaurants in all of Pico. That’s one reason that hers, Magma, is perpetually busy.

Another reason is that it’s very good. The food is home-style cooking, “things like your mom would do,” she says. She wanted something that was a step up from an ordinary canteen but definitely not a chef-driven fine-dining restaurant. She pulled it off, with a friendly staff and simple, straightforward dishes. A standout is the Azores-style tuna, which is slow-cooked until you can cut it with a spoon.

It’s part of her small resort, Lava Homes, a collection of 14 contemporary houses spread out down a steep hill. The project started with her own house in Pico—a place she’s been visiting for 40 years, ever since her teenage self had a boyfriend with a father in nearby São Roque—want was initially meant to be another house or two that she could rent on Airbnb. But the government would only approve the deal if she made a resort. In short order she got ten friends to invest in the project, and Lava Homes was born.

She loves Pico because it still belongs to a simpler world. “It’s one of few places left where you can leave your house open and your keys in the car,” she says, laughing. “Where would anyone go with your car? Just around the island and then bring it back.”

I would go back in a heartbeat just to chill out at Lava Homes for a few days—or to check out her upcoming hotel project, in a distillery in the charming, UNESCO-recognized village of Cabrito—but there are two main reasons that most people visit Pico.

One is the mountain, also called Pico (“peak” in English). At 7,713 feet, it’s the highest point in Portugal (admittedly not a huge claim to fame in a country that is almost all beach, though it’s always nice to summit a superlative). Because it’s volcanic and so young, it’s all lava. It’s a pretty steep uphill, and there are no paths. Thankfully the rocks grip hiking boots nicely.

Companies all over the island take hikers up Pico, both as day hikes and as camping experiences with a night in the crater. One of the best is Tripix, whose founder told me that she has climbed Pico more than 400 times, as she patiently led me up to the crater.

The other main reason to visit Pico is to sample some unusual and delectable white wines. They’re produced with grapes that grow only here, verdelho, arinto dos Açores and terrantez do Pico. The extreme climate, mother-stone volcanic soil and proximity to the ocean—back in the day, the winemakers chose land where they could “hear the crabs singing”—create a flavor profile that’s mineral, slightly salty and always interesting.

Azorean wines, particularly Pico wines, are lately getting more and more notice on the international stage, but winemaking is an old tradition here. Before the double whammy of a fungus and phylloxera in the 19th century, wine was the main business. Pico had some 40,000 acres of vineyards and exported wine all over the world—during the Bolshevik Revolution, they found a bottle of Pico wine in the cellar of a Russian tsar.

That all but died after the disease, but in recent decades, some winemakers are bringing it back. (They’re up to about 2,500 acres.) UNESCO declared the island’s traditional lava-walled corrals a World Heritage Site. They’re unique in the world, but necessary here, to protect the vines—which lie flat on the ground—and keep them warm.

The sight of the vineyards is striking enough, but tasting is even better. A good place to get an introduction is Pico Wines, the island’s cooperative. It was founded in 1949, with the first harvest in 1961. It remains a cooperative in spirit as well as name, with some 250 grape producers and winemakers involved, producing known labels like Frei Gigante, Terras da Lava and Terroir Vulcánico.

The tasting room is a rather no-frills affair, tucked beside the tanks and barrels of the working winery. But it’s a good place for a crash-course education in the wines of the island, especially given its location in the capital city of Madalena.

(If architecture is more your thing, there’s Cella Bar, a project from Porto architects Fernando Coelho and Paulo Lobo that’s somehow equal parts futuristic and naturalistic. The tasting room inside the groovy domed structure offers tastes of many of the island’s best bottles.)

For a deeper dive, it’s worth driving out to the Azores Wine Company, a newish venture from António Maçanita, the “mad genius” (in his business partner’s words) who was named Portugal’s winemaker of the year two years ago for his work at his flagship Fita Preta in the Alentejo. His father was born in the Azores, and he became interested in the islands’ wine potential around 2013.

He offered to help local winemakers. Only Paulo Machado—the fourth generation of a wine-making family in Pico—signed up, in what the third business partner, Filipe Rocha (the former director of the hospitality school in the Azores), calls a case of “only the smartest guy wanting to learn more.”

Together, the three started the Azores Wine Company, a project dedicated to doing genetic research into old varietals, reclaiming abandoned vineyards and restoring the old lava-wall system. Rocha points out how impressive that is: “If you put all the stones from these walls in a line, it would double the equator.” Just for the vineyards of the Azores Wine Company, they rebuilt about 500 miles’ worth of walls—that’s the entire length of continental Portugal.

At their brand-new tasting room—a beautiful project by architects Miguel Vieira and Inês Vieira da Silva of SAMI Arquitectos and London firm DRDH—Rocha took me through a tasting of the company’s delicious, intriguing wines. It’s hard to pick a favorite. They’re all unlike anything else.

“We’re lucky to be doing this now,” says Rocha. “People want to try something new. Twenty years ago, they only wanted to drink what they know. Now, with the right sommelier, people want to know the wines from this spot in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.”

Although American tourists still can’t travel to Europe (including the Azores), Portuguese citizens and residents in the US can now fly nonstop on TAP from Boston to Ponta Delgada. From there, it’s an easy hop to Pico.

Want more Azores? Check out one of my favorite hotels in the islands.

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