Make Your Next Trip Extraordinary

Susan Crandell and her family on the coast of São Jorge Island in the Azores, Portugal.

Susan Crandell and family near a tide pool on the coast of São Jorge Island in the Azores.

Just back from 11 days in the Azores. That’s more time than many tourists spend, because the islands are often an add-on to mainland Portugal. I am so glad my family invested more time to explore this archipelago, rich in geology and history. A skillfully drawn itinerary by travel planner Gonçalo Correia allowed us to see four islands with only two changes of lodging. We stayed at two hotels on the main island, São Miguel, and in a spacious two-bedroom villa on the vineyard-rich island of Pico. Ferry rides so pretty they made transportation an event in itself took us to Faial, where a dramatic lava formation soars into the sky, from an eruption in the 1950s, and to São Jorge, where lava flows and landslides have created fajãs—level land at the foot of volcanic cliffs that support small seaside communities. The volcanoes that shaped this archipelago gave each island a different geography, every one beautiful in a unique way.

Our itinerary had us outdoors every day, hiking, kayaking and mountain biking, tasting local wines and cheeses, even cooking our dinner underground in the geothermal area of an inactive volcano. We visited a town inside a caldera, did an off-road Jeep tour, and spotted two species of whales, three species of dolphins, and an elusive hammerhead shark on a private boat tour. Most of our guides were locals who conveyed deep knowledge and even deeper passion for their islands. We soothed jet-lagged bones in geothermally heated pools on our first day; on our last full day, I had one of the top massages of my life (ask for Andre at the Octant Hotel in Ponta Delgada). I encourage anybody to mimic our extended itinerary and give the Azores their due.

My family of 5 (2 parents, 3 adult children) traveled to Portugal May 27-June 5th 2024. We were assisted by Goncalo Correira and his assistant Joana Sousa.

We had a very good introductory meeting via Zoom, probably one of the better ones we have had when meeting one of Wendy’s trip planners. Eventually Goncalo’s team sent us an itinerary that dovetailed nicely with what we discussed. We elected to spend our first 3 days in Lisbon, and then rent a car and drive to Evora, the Alentejo, and eventually on to the Algarve. We returned to Lisbon for our flight home. I think the planning process went well, with Joana responding to our emails within a few days. I did get concerned when we had less than a week to go before our departure, and we still had not received final confirmation nor been asked to put forward our final payment. I reached out to Joana, and things were finalized within a few days of that communication.

The hotels were all lovely and had fantastic morning spreads available for breakfast. We had asked for ample room for our family and adult children, and that was certainly provided for as well.

Although we certainly enjoyed our time in Lisbon, I would place some of the tours and guides toward the bottom of the list of the many we have experienced through the WOW List travel planners. Some of this may have been the actual subject matter, and some may have been the delivery. We took a wonderful sailboat ride over to Cascais and enjoyed some time there, and then went on to have lunch at a seaside restaurant called Mare touted as being run by Michelin chef Jose Avillez. I had seen mixed reviews, and I thought a good description of this restaurant was “good seafood at twice the price.” The waitress was completely incapable of describing any wine to me so that I might make a good choice and the view, while pleasant and on the water, was hardly a “can’t miss.” Later on that day we went to Sintra, and we spent an inordinate amount of time at Biester Palace, a 19th century palace, as well as the grounds. Interesting, but hardly unique and no older than many places in the US. There is a mysticism ascribed to it, but this did not justify spending a few hours there. Meanwhile, as first-time visitors to Sintra, we never set eyes on the Pena National Palace, Torre de Regaleira, or the Moorish Castle. We spent a few minutes in the old town, and did sit down to have a pastry there. But there were no special stores to see that the guide might know of, or anything seemingly unique. I would say the overall sentiment from my family was the day was underwhelming.

The next day we did have a delightful time with Lara, who led our cooking class where we made Pastel de Nata. She was fabulous, but the experience was billed as a food tour stopping for pastries, gelato, and cherry liquor….all quintessential experiences in Lisbon and none of which happened! But nevertheless, we had a wonderful time making pastries and sharing a charcuterie.

The third day we had a 4-hour tour of Lisbon in the Belem area. The first part went well, but we were to spend the last 2 hours in the Carriage museum. We actually had 5 pre-paid tickets. But when we got there, it was closed…apparently a “strike” was in place. Our guide nor our planner seemed to know anything about it, so basically our 4-hour tour was over and our tickets out the window. Of course there were many apologies offered, and it did seem to catch everyone by surprise, but usually these high-level professionals have a back-up plan and perhaps someone could have offered some compensation or an alternative “on the house” to make up for the hour or so where we just stood around trying to figure out what to do. I did inform Goncalo’s office, and they were apologetic but that was that.

We went on to Evora, and I had asked Goncalo to arrange some dining for us that he felt would be nice, and we did have a very enjoyable lunch at Fialho. Classic old-style service and a very good choice. The next day we had a picnic meal arranged outside at a beautiful winery (although very difficult to find!), and it was wonderful.

We then arrived at Sao Lourenco do Barrocal, our home for the next 2 nights. This was a lovely choice, and we enjoyed a little downtime there. In addition, we had a WOW Moment that was right up our alley…a few hours alone searching the night sky with a fantastic astronomer who was as knowledgeable as anyone we had experienced, and had great skills in communicating his information.

If I were to be a little picky, I would comment on one other minor irritation. Perhaps we should know this as experienced travelers, but when we arrived, there was no availability at the better restaurant the 2 nights we were there, and we could only get 2 of the 5 of us a spa treatment due to availability. I would think that Goncalo’s team should have let us know that or warned us to make arrangements ahead of time. The same thing happened at our hotel in the Algarve, where several of the restaurants were unavailable to us at the hotel. It would have been nice to be warned and reminded about that ahead of time.

Our time in the Algarve was enjoyable. Once again, we had great difficulty finding on our own the sailing boat that we had chartered. The directions were skimpy, and there was no contact number. GPS is sometimes unreliable. In fairness, Goncalo’s office did answer our calls as we simply could not find the place, and did help us. But it was a lot of wasted time and energy. We did enjoy our hike on the Seven Hanging Valleys Trail, but also missed our guide there for about 20 minutes, but eventually hooked up, and finished that hike with a nice picnic. The guide was excellent.

We finished by driving back to Lisbon. Driving on the highways in Portugal was easy. However, we returned our rental car early the next morning to the airport, something I probably won’t choose to do again. We were in rush-hour traffic, had to find gas, and the signs for the rental car return were non-existent. I probably would find a way to get rid of the car beforehand, and simply get dropped off at the airport next time!

Overall, we had a wonderful trip, and I think some parts of the planning went off very well. There were a few hiccups, but it’s a high bar when you are compared to many of the WOW trip planners we have had previously! But I would use Goncalo’s company again, as I think they tried very hard to put together what we desired, and made themselves easily available and have a good knowledge of the country.

Travelers hiking on São Miguel Island in the Azores, Portugal.

Clare, Lynn, and Thomas Casper hiking on São Miguel Island in the Azores.

Just returned from an awesome trip to Portugal and the Azores! Myself and my children ages 26 and 23 spent a week that we will not forget. Our trip planners Gonçalo and Joana did a win job and included a stay in the beautiful Alentejo region of the country that I’m sure we would not have on our radar. A guided walking tour of the historic city of Évora was a highlight as well as a stargazing event with an astrologer!

The Azores were so different from mainland Portugal, but just as wonderful and fun. The wine and food we enjoyed, as well as our favorite Super Bock beer were another highlight! The guides that were arranged by Gonçalo and Joana were great! So willing to pivot when the weather didn’t cooperate and extremely proud Azoreans — eager to teach us about their history and culture. We were able to enjoy a surprise WOW Moment (which I will not give away the secret — but lived up to the WOW Moment title). I highly recommend Gonçalo and Joana if you decide on Portugal! Loved it.

Thanks again to Wendy’s WOW List for matching us up with Goncalo and Joana — we had a wonderful trip to Portugal. Portugal is a beautiful country, and Joana put together a great itinerary that gave us a real flavor of the area. We traveled to Portugal in May 2024 for a wedding in Lisbon and worked with Joana to put together a trip for us and three family members for 11 days after the wedding. We had a Zoom call with Goncalo and Joana initially to determine our interests and where we wanted to go. As food and wine lovers, we focused on the Alentejo wine region and Douro Valley. We finished our trip with stays in Porto and Estoril.

Positive Feedback:
• The hotels that Joana selected for our trip were outstanding. The service was exceptional, and everything was very comfortable. The locations were all convenient to area attractions and able to accommodate the van we were driving. Our favorite accommodation was Sao Lourenco do Barrocal — a beautiful property with many activities. We enjoyed running on the trails in the morning, and especially enjoyed our stargazing activity with a local astronomer — we learned so much about the stars that night!
• The highlight of our trip was the visit to Dona Maria winery. It was so much fun learning about the winery from Isabel, one of the owners. She has an amazing home, and we felt fortunate to share lunch with her and enjoy her company.
• Another highlight for us was the cooking class in Porto. We enjoyed going through the market with Chef Hugo and learned some great tips from him on Portuguese cooking and cooking in general.
• Having the emergency phone/text line available was very helpful, especially with the rental car mix-up and a few activities running late.
• Joana did not plan the Lisbon portion of our itinerary but was very helpful in adding a few activities in Lisbon to our itinerary. We added a tuk tuk tour, which gave us a great overview of the city and helped us get around while we were there. We also asked Joana to make reservations for a family dinner while we were in Lisbon and she selected a good restaurant close to the wedding activity for that night.
• Our tour guides were outstanding, knowledgeable, and passionate about their country, and very interesting and fun to talk with. Our drivers were also very professional and courteous.

Constructive Feedback:
• We did not receive our final itinerary until the week before the trip, so we did not pay until right before we left. There was a mix-up in payment, and one couple wound up paying twice. We did get things straightened out but feel this could have been avoided if the billing hadn’t been last-minute.
• There was an error on our itinerary for the rental car we had ordered. The itinerary indicated that our rental car would be with Sixt. However, Sixt could not find our contract when we tried to check in. I contacted the emergency line and discovered that our rental was instead with Europcar, not Sixt. Big kudos to our driver who stayed with us the whole time and ensured we safely made it over to Europcar and got the car we reserved. However, the error put us about 2 hours behind schedule and as a result, we missed most of our walking tour of Evora that day.
• The one disappointing activity on our trip was the visit to Quinta do Crasto Winery. We had lunch and a tour scheduled at the winery at 12:30 PM, and the driver was scheduled to pick us up at 10:30 AM. However, the winery was 10 minutes from our hotel! So we had quite a bit of time to kill and not a lot of options near our hotel. The driver did a good job of making some suggestions, but we would have preferred either just leaving the hotel later or having a defined activity in the morning.
o Quinta do Crasto was very busy, and our tour started 30 minutes or so late. We waited in their small shop until the tour guide was available.
o My mother’s mobility is limited, and she opted out of the winery tour. Our tour guide asked to have my mother transported to the lunch area while the rest of us went on the hour-long wine tour. When the tour was over, I asked the guide where my mother was — she was still sitting in the wine shop below! I was disappointed that they overlooked her sitting for an hour in the shop.
o The lunch was not good, and there were many bones left in the fish. The food did not pair well with the wines we were tasting. We asked to try one of their white wines instead of a red but were told it was not included in the package. The winery likely has very good wines, but our package did not include tasting them. We would have liked to have had a better selection of the packages and what was included.
o Our guide at Quinta do Crasto was great and made the most of the sub-par experience. While the grounds and winery are beautiful, I would not recommend the Quinta do Crasto winery to future clients.
• Our Douro Valley itinerary only included the tasting at the Quinta do Crasto winery. Looking back, we wish we had insisted on including one or two other tastings for the two days we spent in the Douro Valley. Once we were there, we attempted to schedule other wine tastings but last-minute availability was limited.

Despite our disappointment with the Douro Valley, this is now our second trip using Wendy’s WOW List, and overall our trip was a great experience. It’s getting hard to imagine traveling any other way. It’s a huge advantage to have someone knowledgeable about the country plan the trip and make recommendations. We are already thinking about our next trip!

Response from Wendy:

Goncalo was particularly troubled to hear the Tylocks’ feedback about Quinta do Crasto, which had until now garnered great reviews, so he will be investigating the issues that the Tylocks raised before sending any other travelers there.

Portugal is one of the world’s most popular destinations right now, and as a result Goncalo has fallen a bit behind in delivering final pre-trip documents. The benefit to travelers is that they can hold off on making their final trip payment. As happens with all WOW Listers during peak travel periods, Goncalo is making the travelers who are currently on the ground his highest priority. So our advice to travelers who are dissatisfied with a certain experience is to contact the WOW Lister immediately, during your trip. That’s when they have the most tools at their disposal to remedy the situation.

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