DETAILS

Sunday, March 18, 2007

GETTING THERE: Azores Express (800-762-9995, http://www.azores-express.com/), part of Sata International, offers nonstop service year-round from Boston to various spots in the Azores; round-trip fares to Ponta Delgada in the April off-season start at about $590, including fees and taxes. Seasonal service is offered from Providence, R.I., and Oakland, Calif. Fares from Washington to Boston on domestic carriers start at about $139 round trip, with restrictions.

Consider booking a discount package from the airline. A deal good for April travel includes round-trip air from Boston to Sao Miguel, six nights' lodging and breakfasts, starting at $949 per person double (including taxes); for $100 more, you can hop to another island and sample two spots. Lowest prices are generally available October through March.

GETTING AROUND: Cars are readily available in the off-season; we booked a standard from a Sao Miguel branch of Ilha Verde ( http://www.ilhaverde.com/), an Azores-wide rental firm, for about $58 a day, including taxes. If you don't want to drive, there are plenty of cabbies who give island tours, and buses run on most islands.

WHERE TO STAY: We stayed at two properties on our Azores Express package, and jumped off the itinerary for one night. On Faial, Horta's Hotel do Canal (Largo Dr. Manuel de Arriaga, 011-351-296-301-880, http://www.bensaude.pt/; April rates from about $110 a night double), a newer property in a prime location near the ferry port, featured comfy beds in smallish rooms. We liked the looks of the Hotel Horta (Rua Marcelino Lima, 011-351-292-208-200, http://www.hotelhorta.com/, from about $130), which sits on a hilltop above the town.

Our Ponta Delgada room at the busy Sao Miguel Park (Rua Manuel Augusto Amaral, 011-351-296-301-880, http://www.bensaude.pt/; from about $128) was large but tired, with nasty shag carpeting and cheap linens. We'd have preferred the Hotel Marina Atlantico (113 Ave. Infante Dom Henrique, 011-351-296-301-880, http://www.bensaude.pt; from about $132), a sleek number near the harbor with balconied rooms. Across the island in Furnas, the cozy Terra Nostra Garden Hotel (Rua Padre Jose Jacinto Botelho, 011-351-296-301-880, http://www.bensaude.pt; from about $103) is a good place to crash if you want to see its namesake and explore the area.

We adored the Aldeia da Fonte (011-351-292 -679-500, http://www.aldeiadafonte.com/; from about $109), a cluster of stone buildings clinging to a Pico cliffside. Our two-room suite had a full kitchen, large sitting area and an ocean view.

WHERE TO EAT: Anything from the sea or a cow is good in the Azores. Order a bottle (or two -- it's cheap) of regional wine with meals; two that came recommended were Terras de Lava (a Pico white) and Basalto (a Pico red).

We stopped at markets for local cheeses, sausages and bread; besides providing picnic fixin's, it was a great way to mingle with Azoreans. All three islands we visited have numerous cafes; Peter Cafe Sport, in Horta's harbor, is famous among yachtsman and has a scrimshaw museum to boot.

Dinners were usually long affairs with multiple courses, including cheeses and bread, seafood entrees such as grilled squid or salted cod and dessert, often a giant slab of pineapple. Our favorites were Hocus Pocus (at Aldeia da Fonte, see above) and its greenhouse-like dining room; Horta's Quebra Mar (Avenue 25 Abril), an unassuming little spot on the harbor; and the restaurant in the Sao Pedro Hotel (Largo Almirante Dunn), where young Azoreans learning the tourism biz waited on tables. Meals with wine were all $50 or less for two, with tip.

WHAT TO DO: Though some activities are shuttered during the off-season, including whale-watching, there's plenty to do. Most islands have numerous gardens, churches, parks and natural wonders worth tracking down.

On Pico, you can check out the history of whaling at an excellent museum (admission about $2.50) in Lajes do Pico. Faial is home to the Capelinhos volcano; stop at the tiny museum (about $2) nearby for a fascinating look at how it formed. The Botanical Garden outside Horta is small, but we got some good tips from a woman tending a patch of wildflowers.

Sao Miguel highlights include the Terra Nostra Garden (about $8) and the park at Furnas Lake; plan on spending at least a few hours at each. If you're driving among the vistas and the picnic areas on the north coast, stop at Maia's Gorreana Tea Plantation ( http://www.gorreana.com/) for some samples and a snack, and pick through the pottery at Ceramica Micaelense (Rua do Rosario 42) in Ribeira Grande. In Ponta Delgada, the wonderful Carlos Machado Museum (Convento de Santo Andre, http://www.museucarlosmachado.pt/ingles.htm; about $2.50 admission, but it's closed until May for restoration) is in an old convent and features a fascinating variety of exhibits, including modern art and gems.

INFORMATION: Visit Portugal, 800-PORTUGAL, http://www.visitportugal.com/. Azores tourism: http://www.visitazores.org/. Other good sites include http://www.azores.com/, http://www.azorestourism.com/ and http://www.azores-islands.info/.

-- J.D.


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