It had been eleven years since I last visited the Azores. A remote archipelago of Portugal, this small group of volcanic islands — isolated in the middle of the Atlantic — is the very verdant-but-austere birthplace of my in-laws. Since my last visit, Portugal converted from the escudo to the Euro, tying the country more closely to other Western European standards of living. A number of Azorean emigrants to America found its spartan island lifestyle of stone houses and no utilities now forgiving and modern enough to move back. And I started coffee ratings Web site.

A blog post was inevitable.

“I think the Azores must be very little known in America. Out of our whole ship’s company there was not a solitary individual who knew anything whatever about them.”
–Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain), 1877

Sunrise on Pico, the mountain on Pico island Old vineyards protected by volcanic rock walls on Pico island, overlooking Faial island

Statue of Henry the Navigator in São Roque, Pico, overlooks São Jorge island across the channel Side street in Lajes do Pico, Pico

“You’re going to the Ozarks”?

Mention the Azores to most people, and they might think you’re talking about the Ozarks. Discovered in the 1400s by Portuguese explorers, the isolation and remoteness of these islands gave rise to resilient settlers and, later, some value as a transatlantic weigh station. Some locals still speak Portuguese with an accent that might be more familiar to a 15th century Portuguese explorer than a 21st century lisboeta.

Past and present homes near Calheta, São JorgeHowever, there are a few references to these islands in popular culture. Besides an economy predominantly based on agriculture and fishing, the Azores once supported an active open-boat whaling economy until the practice was outlawed in 1984. Herman Melville, in his infamous 1851 novel Moby-Dick, wrote about the many hardy whalers from these islands aboard Capt. Ahab’s Pequod — a ship that almost gave Starbucks its name until a co-founder vetoed it in favor of the Pequod’s first mate. (You knew there had to be a coffee tie-in somewhere.)

“No small number of these whaling seamen belong to the Azores, where the outward bound Nantucket whalers frequently touch to augment their crews from the hardy peasants of those rocky shores.”
— Herman Mellville on the crew of the Pequod, Moby-Dick, Chapter XXVII

Turning their underdeveloped remoteness in the Atlantic to an advantage, these islands have more recently begun to focus on ecotourism. One can often think of the Azores as Portugal’s equivalent to Hawai’i, but a Hawai’i long before its tourist economy appeared. In one of the world’s better examples of economy conversion, open-boat whaling has given way to open-boat whale watching. Meanwhile, the maritime themes that inspired Moby-Dick still live on in local imagery, the names of commercial establishments, and even a local version of the mobile coffee cart.

Backside of the Moby Dick II mobile café in Lajes do Pico Easy whale access to the Moby Dick II mobile café in Lajes do Pico

A symbol of Lajes do Pico whale watching at sunset Portuguese brickwork in front of the Moby Dick II café, Lajes do Pico

Of Pico Island & São Jorge Island

The presence of whales and the history of whaling is most acutely felt on the Azores’ Pico Island. In addition to visiting Pico (a first for me), I spent more extensive time eleven miles across the ocean channel on my return to nearby São Jorge Island (aka, Land of My In-Laws). This narrow, 35-mile-long island has only about twice the land mass of San Francisco and is home to a mere 10,000 residents — plus some 20,000 cows who contribute to the island’s famous cheese production.

São Jorge from Sete Fontes - as seen on the Ocean Mist WordPress theme - with Pico behind Some of São Jorge island's many bovine residents

If the Azores are remote to begin with, the quiet island of São Jorge is even more isolated — even if some bloggers might unknowingly recognize its distinctive landscape from a semi-popular WordPress theme. In the previous season of his food/travel TV show No Reservations, Anthony Bourdain visited São Jorge and dined in the tiny fishing community of Fajã da Caldeira de Santo Christo — a town that is still only accessible by foot, by fishing boat, and (only just recently) by ATV. Mr. Bourdain wrote of the village, “Totally remote, no power, no running water, no TV, no phone … gorgeous. Best meal of the trip but hairy getting there.”

“When I say this place is isolated, I mean end-of-the-world isolated … 2100 miles from New York City, 900 miles from Portugal, and God only knows how far from anything resembling civilization. It feels about as far from any place as you can possibly be.”
–Anthony Bourdain on Fajã da Caldeira de Santo Christo, São Jorge Island; No Reservations, Season 6, Episode 4

Fajã dos Cubres and Fajã da Caldeira de Santo Christo, São Jorge Fajã da Caldeira de Santo Christo and its lake filled with the local amêijoas, or clams

Church at Fajã da Caldeira de Santo Christo, São Jorge Hydrangeas are abundant on the Azores and are a regional symbol

Changes since 1999

For centuries, São Jorge, like the rest of the Azores, has been characterized by austere, maritime frontier living carved into rock and sea … and by its self-sufficient country folk living in simple-but-immaculate dwellings overlooking beautiful green cliffs and blue ocean. But there were noticeable changes since my last stay. Some of these changes were welcome progress. Other changes — particularly those from expats returning from America with a little too much cash to flaunt — weren’t as good.

In 1999, many buildings in the main village of Velas looked worn and run down. Today they show signs of reconstruction and a fresh coat of paint. A number of municipal buildings and facilities have been either modernized or recently constructed — newly paved roads, modernized island airports with free Wi-Fi (sometimes the only place on the island), investments in wind power, etc. In 1999, the Fajã da Caldeira de Santo Christo looked largely abandoned, in slow decay, and “governed” by feral children (Lord of the Flies style) whom I then jokingly called “The Children of the Clams” — in reference to the locally famed amêijoas de São Jorge clams that come only from its tiny lake. Today there’s an influx of people, adults even, with a number of surfers who have since spruced things up a bit and made it their home.

Shoreline of Velas, São Jorge, with modern municipal building and Pico in the distance Residences in Velas, São Jorge

From the same seaside cabin I stayed in 11 years ago along the tiny Porto dos Terreiros, I again heard the familiar yet bizarre nighttime call of the cagarro, a regional seabird. But on Friday nights that sound is now mixed with the sounds of Portuguese karaoke down at the new unnamed bar at the shore.

Surprisingly, the food has gotten much better here too. Dining in the Azores has always been a regular repeat of the same, limited, local-but-good menu items. However, this time I got the sense that the global standards and awareness for food quality have somehow made their way ashore here: the food seems more flavorful and slightly more varied than it did 11 years ago. I even encountered the publicized concept of do prado ao prato — or “from the meadow to the plate”.

Cafe Restaurante Velense in Velas attracts fishermen to its bar Espresso set up at the Cafe Restaurante Velense bar in Velas, São Jorge

O Borges café in Fajã da Caldeira de Santo Christo is popular despite the broken espresso machine A Torrié espresso shot, Cafe Restaurante Velense, Velas, São Jorge

Island Coffee Standards

The coffee, on the other hand, has not changed much at all. You can look at this as either good or not so good. Combine this with the islands’ isolation, and exploring the coffee here becomes a bit of an anthropological study — not entirely unlike chain-free Carmel-by-the-Sea. There are virtually no chain stores of any kind on the Azores.

The coffee stasis here can be considered “good” because the local standards were never half-bad to begin with. This is Portugal, after all, where the tradition of good coffee and a public obsession over it is almost as strong as Italy’s. The stasis here is also good because the convenient, quality-stunted, environmentally regressive consumer fad of single serving coffeemakers has not yet arrived from continental Europe.

An Azores home coffee ritual: Sical and a Moka potYet clear opportunities for improvement exist. While the Azoreans drink their café several times a day as a fact of life and a matter of social discourse like any other good Portuguese citizen, there is something of a cultural split over milder coffee served at home in the morning and the more serious, big pants coffee served in the afternoon or evening. Morning coffee at home is often café cevada (café de cebada in Spanish) — a sort of mild, granular instant coffee made primarily from grain (literally: barley) and typically served with larger quantities of milk. While not terrible, it’s not at all like the serious coffee served in homes from Moka pots (and the occasional pour-over) later in the day. All separate from the many commercial cafés selling the various Portuguese coffee drink staples — from the bica (the typical espresso shot cost €0.50, or about $0.70) to café pingado to the garoto to the galão.

The more cautionary tale when being invited to someone’s Azorean home is that it’s customary to break out delicious pastries but also the family moonshine — typically a homemade angelica fortified wine or an aguardente brandy. Often very good, often served from a re-purposed liter-sized plastic soda bottle, and often something to make one pace themselves and their social calendar.

Azorean espresso machines and coffees

Nicola - if only it weren't just available on TerçeiraLike any other import, the distribution of roasted coffee and espresso machines is severely limited in the Azores. Portuguese machine manufacturers, such as Fiamma, were far more prevalent than in continental Portugal — despite the occasional two-group La Spaziale. And while we’re huge fans of Portugal’s Café Nicola coffee, it is essentially unavailable on the islands of Pico and São Jorge. The much busier, more cosmopolitan Azorean island of Terçeira hosts a number of Nicola-branded cafés — plus the lone international airport in the area — but that almost seems wasted on the locals; as a local saying goes, “Terçeira drinks tea, São Jorge drinks coffee.”

On the islands, Sical is the king of coffee — both in cafés and on retail store shelves, in whole bean and ground forms (5 Estrellas Clássico at €6.90/kg, or about $4.35/lb). I repeatedly came across Sical so often that I got music stuck in my head — disturbingly, it was the otherwise-unintelligible opening chants in the French Tecktonik remixes, and 2007 Eurotrash fad, of Yelle’s “A Cause Des Garçons.” While not necessarily poor coffee, Nestlé acquired Sical in 1987, and nothing of artisan value has ever survived in Nestlé’s mass production clutches. Otherwise, there were a number of Torrié cafés and the occasional Delta Café.

While it is generally quite difficult to find poor espresso on the Azores, it is next to impossible to find a café that stands out from the crowd as anything exemplary. Hence why all the café reviews are left here as a list rather than individual blog posts. About the only stand-out you might find are the places that end-to-end grow their own green coffee (rather unique for Europe), process the beans, roast them, and serve them to their café customers — a true bean-to-cup example, as it were. Café Nunes, in São Jorge’s tiny Fajã dos Vimes, being one such example.

Looking below on the tiny village of Fajã dos Vimes, São Jorge Café Nunes in Fajã dos Vimes, São Jorge

Inside Café Nunes, Fajã dos Vimes Café Nunes espresso, Fajã dos Vimes

Coffee plants behind Café Nunes, Fajã dos Vimes, São Jorge Communal gather at a café in São Roque, Pico


Name Address Island Espresso [info] Cafe [info] Overall [info]
Aeroporto de São Jorge Café Aeroporto de São Jorge, Estrada Regional R1-2a, Fajã de Santo Amaro São Jorge 6.50 6.00 6.250
Águas Cristalinas Rua das Poças, São Roque do Pico Pico 5.80 6.20 6.000
Café Ilhéis Estrada Regional M 1-2a, Urzelina São Jorge 6.90 6.80 6.700
Café Nunes Estrada Regional M 1-2a, Fajã dos Vimes São Jorge 6.70 6.50 6.600
Cafe Restaurante Velense Rua Conselheiro Doutor José Pereira, 5, Velas São Jorge 5.40 6.00 5.700
Compre Bem de Almeida & Azevedo Largo do Cais, 4, Calheta São Jorge 6.00 6.20 6.100
Compre Bem de Almeida & Azevedo Av. do Livramento, Velas São Jorge 6.40 5.20 5.800
Fornos de Lava Travessa de São Tiago, 46, Santo Amaro São Jorge 6.60 6.20 6.400
Lajes Airport Café Aerogare Civil das Lajes, Pedreira – Lajes Terçeira 7.30 6.20 6.750
Manézinho Restaurante Caminho do Açougue, Urzelina São Jorge 6.40 7.00 6.700
Moby Dick II Rua Manuel Vieira Soares & Rua Engenheiro Arantes Oliveira, Lajes do Pico Pico 7.20 6.80 7.000
O Milénio Snack-Bar Rua do Corpo Santo, 21, Velas São Jorge 6.70 7.00 6.850
Pastelaria Aroma & Sabores Rua do Capitão-Mor, 9, Lajes do Pico Pico 7.10 7.00 7.050
Restaurante Castelinho Caminho das Ávores, Urzelina São Jorge 6.70 6.80 6.750
Restaurante Lagos Largo de São Pedro, 2, Lajes do Pico Pico 6.70 7.20 6.950
Restaurante “O Baleeiro” Rua São Pedro, Topo São Jorge 6.70 6.80 6.750