, Gloucester, MA

February 26, 2013

Azores calling visitors back to their roots

By Nancy Gaines

---- — For the thousands of people hereabouts whose families hail from the Azores, a visit to the homeland has never been faster, cheaper and more welcome.

A new schedule from SATA airlines covers the speed (nonstop, under four hours) and cost (as low as about $500 roundtrip), and the archipelago’s authorities and Mother Nature are doing the rest. Offers of discount packages, top-grade accommodations, gourmet meals and extraordinary eco-excursions this time of year are aimed to boost the tourism trade the islands so need.

Yet, even in Gloucester, where so many families trace their origins back to the Azores — and where linguica, kale soup and sardines are common stock — the motherland can be a mystery.

“It’s an undiscovered Hawaii,” said Gloucester resident Christina Morais Parisi, whose parents came from the islands to Cape Ann in 1967. She first brought her young son to visit his great-grandmother and several aunts and uncles two years ago, and hopes to go back soon.

Even if you have not heard of the Azores, a collection of nine islands in the Atlantic Ocean about midway between Boston and mainland Portugal — never mind been there – the land, the closest point to Europe from the United States, evokes so many foreign styles and attractions, it can thrill the most seasoned traveler.

Island officials, meanwhile, are happy to have relatives and descendants of Azoreans visit, but wish they could allure more of the travel and leisure set to partake of the beauty, peace and adventure the area proffers.

“We are struggling for more tourists,” said Carlos Rodrigues, a hotel executive on the largest island, San Miguel. “For example, I spoke to a group of 1,200 people in Toronto and you could count on your fingers how many knew about the Azores.”

Like so many countries, the Azores (and parent nation, Portugal) were walloped in the financial crash. The economy is making a comeback, but aside from exporting pineapples and tea, tourism is the trade mainstay and not enough tourists, say officials, think of the Azores as a destination.

Indeed, the Azores are an undiscovered bounty of many places. From Hawaii, it borrows surfing competitions and boasts lava beaches of powder-soft dark sand, occasionally eruptive volcanoes and literally breathtaking mile-high mountain climbs, by car, bicycle or foot, into fog-laced heights. Lush jungles harbor swimming and fishing lagoons as rich as those of the Amazon. Waves crash on craggy coastlines that for sure could be Ireland; the golf courses rival Scotland.

With a climate similar to Boston — but with no snow — the Azores don’t have a great deal of accessible beachfront but what they offer comes in an unusual array of white, gray and black sand beaches.

The Agua d’Alto beach on the southern coast of San Miguel could pass for the Cote d’Azur, without the crowds. It is part of Vila Franca do Campo (pop. circa 11,000), the hometown of Gloucester business mogul Deo Braga, who left in 1981 when he was 19.

“Vila Franca was a cute place,” says the man with holdings now estimated at more than $20 million, including the Azorean Restaurant and Gloucester’s Dunkin Donuts franchise shops.

“Most people didn’t have a car, everything was right there. The big night was the disco. I was always trying to be the best,” he says, chuckling.

“We first had TV in 1976. It broadcast only four hours a day,” he recalled. “All the neighbors used to come to my house to see it. That’s how I met my wife.”

These days, Vila Franco hosts one of the international Red Bull diving contests, where daredevils plunge straight down more than a quarter mile into a (water-filled) crater.

Throughout the variegated 300 square miles of San Miguel are acres and acres of meadows, laced, Swiss-like, by stone or shrub lanes to mark one farmer’s land from the neighbor’s, populated by chubby cows – famed for their milk, cheese and meat.

Every now and then, the grazing lands give way to villages tucked into ravines or atop cliffs, peppered with small, tidy homes in the black and white beam-and-stucco, red-tile-roof exteriors that are an Azorean trademark. Real estate is not cheap. Small houses are on the market for about $150,000.

Courtesy of SATA and Bensaude Hotels, the latter operated by an Azorean family-owned conglomerate, I visited the Azores for the first time last fall and – albeit feted first-class — fell unabashedly in love with the culture and terrain.

Year-round, palm trees and pine trees sway side by side in the countryside, overarching a miraculous profusion everywhere of lusty hydrangea blossoms, beginning in early spring. Growing to more than 6 feet tall, hydrangeas are the national plant, cultivated in neat rows along nearly every road and blooming wild in gardens, yards and parkland.

The largest of the towns is Ponta Delgada (pop. c. 45,000), established in 1432 by Portuguese sailors as a fishing village. A city by fiat if not feel, it is the capital of San Miguel, the primary island. Like its smaller counterparts, Ponta Delgada comprises narrow streets of cobblestone (trucks park on sidewalks) but, as a port of call for about 100 mammoth cruise ships per year, it has the requisite shops and restaurants.

The Hotel Marina Atlantico, which is especially eco-conscious, offers a world-class gourmet restaurant as well as a nightly buffet for the budget-minded. A block inland, the Restaurante San Pedro — whose proprietor, Joao, volunteered he lived in Rockport in the 1990s —capitalizes on the area beef with dishes like its superb tournedos Rossini.

Braga’s favorite places in San Miguel to eat are, for fish, Beira de Agua in the city of Lagoa, he said, as well as Associacao Agricola (for meat) in Ribeira Grande.

“But Mother Nature is what we really offer,” said guide and lifelong resident, Patricia Raposo. “We’re not for people who want to lie down in the sun like lizards for a week.”

Nancy Gaines is a regular Times correspondent and a longtime writer and editor of both Boston-area and national publications.