Amid-Atlantic archipelago might seem to be taking social distancing to an extreme, but the Portuguese islands of the Azores are enjoying a new-found popularity among lockdown dreamers with green space and isolation in mind. And unlike mainland Portugal, you can still fly there from the UK without the need to quarantine at either end.
The bucolic nature of these nine volcanic islands — havens for such wholesome pursuits as whale-watching, hiking, and bathing in warm geysers — is the biggest factor that lures people here. Nearly 1,000 miles west of mainland Portugal, the Azores are famed for their volcanic lakes and black sand beaches, their botanical gardens and tea plantations, and a certain tropicality, from the home-grown pineapples to the sudden downpours that dry up in an instant.
“People are struck by the stillness of the place. They feel like islands that have stopped in time. And the sea is still warm enough for swimming in October,” says David Moura-George of the property agency Athena Advisers. He adds that Portuguese buyers started rediscovering the islands about five years ago, but now overseas buyers — including those from sizeable expat Azorean communities in the US — are arriving too.
The climate is one reason. Influenced by the Gulf Stream and geothermal activity, summers are warm but not baking, and winters are mild; and for those who like to experience all four seasons, here you can often do it in one day.
There’s another incentive for property buyers to cast their net beyond the mainland deep into the Atlantic Ocean. In coming weeks, the Portuguese government is expected to confirm changes to its Golden Visa scheme (which offers EU residency to those who invest at least €500,000 in property, or €400,000 in some less developed areas, including the Azores). Lisbon, Porto and popular coastal areas are likely to be removed from the scheme. The Azores, however, will still qualify. “It’s all about pushing people to invest in lower-density areas of Portugal and its islands, and we’re expecting clarification in the next month or so,” Moura-George says.
Sao Miguel is the most developed and touristy island of the Azores (served by flights from the UK via Lisbon or Porto with Ryanair and TAP Air Portugal; at present there are no direct UK flights to the Azores). Buyers wanting a town centre home may be attracted to the centrally located Coliseu Residences, a new-build scheme with two-bedroom apartments from €240,000 through IAD Portugal. There are also newly renovated townhouses for sale in Ponta Delgada from about €200,000 for three bedrooms.
Those seeking the rural life are often drawn to the isle of Pico, a 50-minute flight from Sao Miguel. The Azores’ second-largest island is home to Portugal’s highest mountain — and, of far greater interest to the Insta-generation, the dramatic Cella bar in Madalena, which looms like a beached wooden whale on the seafront.
Also bringing architectural intrigue to Pico is Forest Homes, a collection of ultra-modern new homes set high among the trees on the north coast and built from volcanic stone and local crytomeria japonica wood, with large glazed walls to open up views across the Atlantic.
The two-bedroom houses come fully furnished and are priced €360,000-€380,000 through Athena Advisers. They also benefit from being within a five-minute walk of Lava Homes, with similarly modern “tree houses” available to rent, a small supermarket, yoga studio, restaurant and swimming pool on site. “Lava and Forest Homes are designed, built and managed by the same team, so prospective buyers can see exactly what to expect by staying at Lava Homes. They will also be able to rent out their [Forest] homes through the management team,” Moura-George says.
Foreign buyers in the Azores tend to want exactly this kind of quiet, rural retreat, says Laurentius Metaal, the founder of Azores Properties in Horta on Faial island, nearly four miles from Pico, and cheaply and easily accessible by ferry. “The stunning nature is a major factor, and life is fairly cheap here. A lot of people are looking to grow their own food, build a house on a nice piece of land — or buy a countryside cottage for around €150,000 — and have the feeling of being away from it all,” says Metaal, who is marketing a four-bedroom house on a large sea-view plot in Cedros on Faial for €170,000.
Since the end of the first lockdown, Metaal has seen interest from British buyers “due to Brexit”, South African buyers “looking to relocate and apply for residency” and various European buyers. “We get foreign residents on the Portuguese mainland relocating to the Azores to avoid the increasingly hot summers and forest fires,” he says.
While travel restrictions have been in place, some buyers have carried out virtual viewings, but Metaal advises against it. It’s hard to do price comparisons, since few houses are identical, and the difference between a good or a less desirable location may be a matter of less than 200ft, “depending on view, how much sun it gets, how close to the sea it is, whether it’s built on a hillside and is humid or is built on flat land,” he says. “Trying to view locations on Google maps also can be deceptive. That ‘main road’ may only see a few cars a day, but people dismiss properties on such grounds,” he says.
“The only thing to work is to catch a plane and visit,” Metaal says. “You really feel away from the rest of the world. That kind of detachment while still being in Europe makes it pretty special.”
Source: The Times