Azores (Açores) Islands – Hidden Jewels of the Atlantic

Where are they?

The Azores archipelago is almost half-way across the Atlantic.  Well off the beaten track, that’s 1500km off the coast of Portugal. I took a 4-hour flight from London (from North America, it’s only 5-hours from Boston). Few sandy beaches and the variable Atlantic weather keep away the sun and sand brigade. The local mantra is that you can get all four seasons in one day. Until recently the islanders’ main income was whale hunting, now it’s whale-watching. The nine islands are a fantastic place to experience nature, scenery and food and drink. They are part of Portugal, but the local culture feels authentic. The population remains low after islanders migrated during the days of whaling and after catastrophic eruptions.

Furnas-lagoon-são-miguel
Furnas Lagoon São Miguel Azores

Why go to the Azores?

I wanted to compare the Azores with the Galapagos Islands. Formed by lava squeezed up through three fault lines in the mid-Atlantic. I saw similarities, black basaltic lava, the yellow ash cones, and reddish cinder. Walking over the lava shores I observed familiar ropy ‘pahoehoe’ and rough ‘a-a’ shapes. The Azores are much greener as they get more rain. Like all islands where man has settled, many invasive plants have taken over. Spoiler – There are no iguanas nor giant tortoises. There is wildlife is on the lesser visited islands of Corvo, Graciosa and Flores, which are UNESCO biosphere reserves. The archipelago has over a dozen Ramsar wetland sites. Everywhere there is marine life a plenty, and whale-watching is a major activity. The Azores are home to more than a third of the world’s whale and dolphin species. Sperm whales, common dolphins, bottlenose dolphins and Risso’s dolphins are present throughout the year. Tourism is sustainably managed and there are no big resorts allowed.

baleen_whales
Whale-watching Azores – courtesy of Futurismo

Best time to visit?

The Azores are sub-tropical, bathed in the Gulf stream. The weather is comfortable from May to September. The long-distance ferries between the island groups only operate in summer. Though August is the warmest month, it is best to avoid if you want tranquillity. Whale and dolphin watching are possible throughout the whole year.

Pico island hiking Azores
Hiking Pico Island Azores

São Miguel – Where Volcanoes collide

São Miguel is the easiest to reach island with plenty to see and do. Ponta Delgada is a busy town where the main airport lies. The population of 140,000 is concentrated here, so the rest of the island is rustic. Strolling around the waterfront town at night, it felt safe, with hidden cafes and bars to explore. The town does become a thriving metropolis when a cruise ship arrives. São Miguel Island is an Instagrammer’s delight – crater lakes, waterfalls, hot springs to verdant forests.

Hiking SãoMiguel
Hiking SãoMiguel

To the west is the spectacular Sete Cidades: a dormant volcano three miles across. Within lie two crater lakes. After gazing in awe from the Vista do Rei, we drove down to the lakes for a closer look. Sete Cidades means ‘Seven Cities’, but only one small village survives today. After a tasty picnic lunch, I joined a tour to mountain bike ride around the Blue and Green Lakes. I followed this with a kayak trip. The backdrop of steep, green crater walls made a dramatic setting. It is ideal for outdoorsy travellers.

Kayaking São Miguel Azores
Kayaking São Miguel Azores

We criss-crossed the volcanic spine of São Miguel, stopping at viewpoints. First at Pico do Carvão viewpoint for a panoramic view of the island. Nearby Lagoa do Fogo is the most recent volcanic complex on the island of with a native laurel forest. Now declared a biosphere reserve for the unique flora and fauna. The view from Miradouro do Pico da Barrosa is one of the most iconic in the archipelago.

Salto do Pego São Miguel
Salto do Pego São Miguel

São Miguel is ideal hiking country. I did a moderately steep hike from the old whaling harbour of Fail da Terra. The path climbed up to a hidden village of Sanguinho. The village is partly in ruins but slowly being restored to holiday cottages. To cool off I descended to the waterfalls of Salto do Pego, surrounded by forest. The eastern side of the island is quite wild.

Ponta Delgada has a place for foodies! The intimate Tasquinha Viera restaurant was exceptional food and staff that went beyond the call of duty. I’ve never tasted mushrooms like theirs, in a creamy mustard sauce.

Thermal baths and volcanic cooking

To the east end of the island, sits the small town of Furnas in another vast caldeira. There is a pervading sulphury smell, as steam escapes from vents.  We stayed at the beautiful Art Deco Terra Nostra Garden Hotel.  The hotel has its own thermal pool at a balmy 40°C. It feels like wallowing in soup but is very relaxing. Tip: take an old swimsuit as the water leaves a muddy stain. Nearby are amazing botanic gardens with lakes, grottos, trees, and exotic shrubs. Allow some time to do this justice. There are gardens for cycads, camellias and one for ornamental flowers.

Terra-Nostra-gardens-Azores
Terra Nostra Botanic gardens Azores

We helped prepare a Cozido das Furnas (Furnas stew), a gastronomic specialty of Azores. First purchasing produce in local shops. The chef marinated the meat, layered with vegetables and herbs into a big pot, tied up with muslin and string. This was lowered into a fumarole (steaming vent) and covered with hot sand. Several hours later the slow-cooked stew was dug up and served. The meat was melt-in-the-mouth texture. An ideal dessert in São Miguel is pineapple, which are grown locally and delicious. There are excellent places for foodies too such as Tasquinha Vieira, where you can watch the chefs prepare your dish.

Tasquinha Vieira restaurant São Miguel
Tasquinha Vieira restaurant São Miguel

Time for Tea

A surprise visit was to the oldest, and only tea plantation in Europe. Since 1883 tea has been grown following original traditions of the Orient. The family owned Gorreana plantation produces black and green tea. The tea is grown organically, as tropical diseases and parasites do not survive in the island’s climate. A visit to the production warehouse culminated with a tasting of three varieties. The tea-growing landscape was ethereally beautiful.

Tea-plantations-são-miguel
Tea Plantations São Miguel

Faial Island – Sailors & Catastrophes

A short 45-minute flight took us from Sao Miguel to Faial in the central group. This small island (around 70sq. miles in size) is a legendary destination for sailors. Horta is a charming town with a famous sea-faring harbour. Almost all yachts crossing the Atlantic stop in the marina. Traditionally sailors paint their yacht name on the harbour wall, to get divine protection for the rest of their voyage. The Peter Sport Café overlooks the marina and serves its own brand gin and tonic. Inside we enjoyed looking at years of sailing memorabilia and scrimshaw carvings. One of the local characters has sailed solo around the world twice in his boat ‘Hemingway’. Today he owns a bar.

Cafe-Sport-Horta-Azores
Cafe Sport Horta Faial

In Horta, I walked into a square alive with a local fiesta (celebrating the end of dictatorship). Costume-clad locals in danced to a folkloric band. There were stalls selling food drink and local crafts. It was an event for locals. Horta is a picturesque town with three churches worth a visit São Salvador, Nossa Senhora da Carmo and S. Francisco.  There is also an art Museum. We stayed in the small Hotel do Canal overlooking the harbour and Pico Island nearby. At dawn we awoke to fantastic views of Pico volcano, Portugal’s highest peak.

Fort of Horta town in Faial
Fort of Horta town in Faial

The whole northwestern point of the island was created by Capelinhos Volcano. It erupted in 1957-58, burying cottages and part of the historic lighthouse under ash. This was the last major eruption in the archipelago. Part of the vent was underwater, causing explosive eruptions. It destroyed much of the island’s crops, causing mass migration to North America. Today, only a few plants survive the dry, windy environment. At the visitor centre you can learn about plate-tectonics with modern audio-visual presentations. Rather than climb the lighthouse, we took a gentle stroll down to the small fishing harbour below. Portuguese Man O’ Wars were washed-up on the rocks. A tern flew overhead. This remote area is a refuge for nesting birds like Cory’s shearwater, common and roseate terns.

Ponta-das-capelinhos-faial
Ponta das Capelinhos Faial Island

From arid to verdant, nearby lies the incredibly green Caldeira Grande. This vast crater of an extinct volcano is two km in diameter and now forms a nature reserve, rich in flora. The lush vegetation includes cedars, beeches, ferns, mosses, and blue hydrangeas. Plus, endemics like pericallis, Euphorbia and juniper. The birdlife includes an endemic subspecies of chaffinch, blackcap, and buzzard. The Faial Natural Park was the first Portuguese destination awarded the EDEN prize (European Destination of Excellence). Following the volcanic theme, we dined at the Canto da Doca restaurant. Here you cook your own food on a slab of hot lava rock. It was a fun way to prepare tuna, meat and seafood and cook to perfection!

Local Festival Horta
Local Festival Horta

Pico Island

We took the 30-minute ferry ride to Madalena on Pico Island. The rugged black lava shoreline is impressive. Pico Island is home to the highest mountain in Portugal, at 2,351m above sea level. The hot and dry climate of Pico and the lava soil is perfect for the quality grapevine Verdelho. We rambled among a mosaic of black stone plots or currais, with red soil. These became a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2004. It’s hard to believe that the dried vines could grow in these harsh conditions, but they shoot back to life later in the year. The hand-bulit stone vineyards called lajidos, stretch for miles. The landscape is punctuated by striking Dragon trees (Dracaena draco). These spiky-topped trees arrived from the Canary and Cape Verde Islands hundreds of years ago. They are used for dyes, medicine, and natural nail varnish. The name comes from the blood-like sap.

Pico mountain and vineyards
Pico mountain and vineyards with Dragon tree

On the rocky north side of the island, we stopped at the hamlet of Cachorro, here there is an arch made of lava. The rocks resemble a dog’s head. Cachorro is a spot where you can take a dip or snorkel during the summer. The road loops all the way to the eastern most point of the island, to Ponta da Ilha lighthouse.

Heading to the southern coast, the scenery was even more dramatic. We passed former whaling villages. Near Lajes do Pico is a whaling museum. Here one can learn more about the gruesome whaling history of the islands. The old industrial machinery had English and American trademarks.

Delicious food and wine

We took lunch at the boutique Aldeia da Fonte Hotel in Lajes do Pico. The rustic hotel has six comfortable cottages built out of lava rock. This would be an ideal place to spend a few days. Like all the food in the Azores the meal was excellent. Fresh seafood is an obvious speciality. Though, I enjoyed one of the best steaks of my life. Azorean cows live a happy life – on pastures overlooking the ocean – this seems to improve the taste.

Happy-cows-azores
Happy cows of the Azores

In the evening the gourmet theme continued with a food and wine tasting at the Azores Wine Company. This chic establishment also has a hotel, ideal for those who don’t wish to negotiate the narrow roads home afterwards. For appetiser, oysters served on a lump of lava, embellished with edible seaweed. Each course paired with a native wine such as the Terroir Vulkcanico.  This with unique mineral notes. At one time Pico wine was sent to the Czar of Russia. The industry all but collapsed due to philoxera in the 20th Century. It jump-started in the 1990’s with help from the EU. One of the best places for seafood in the town of Madalena, is O Ancoradouro restaurant. On the ocean front, we enjoyed a huge seafood stew cataplana and sizzling fish skewers.

Azorean-seafood
Seafood stew Azores

The food on Pico is quite traditional Portuguese, but there are a few restaurants offering something different. I enjoyed dining at Casa Ancora, on the north coast, a modern and stylish place with fusion food. The dishes vary from grilled octopus, fine steaks to burgers to die for. The brownies are very tasty too.

Whale-watching

My first whale-watching adventure was at San Miguel on a catamaran with about 60 or 70 passengers. We had great views of the island leaving the harbour. The weather can change as squalls pick up. Despite hunting for the big baleen whales, we saw dolphins, enough to delight the families on board. The short-beaked common dolphins (Delphinus delphis) are present all-year round. They travel in large pods and are very playful often jumping out of the water, or somersaulting. Overhead were flocks of shearwaters and wheeling terns.

Whale-watching-boat-azores

On Pico I joined a tougher group at Lajes. Clad in waterproof clothing we boarded a 12-seater rigid inflatable Zodiac boat and headed out to sea.  An exhilarating ride, bumping across the waves, likened as being on a bucking bronco. The marine biologist guide pointed out the wildlife. First, we saw marine turtles bobbing about. Then we watched in awe as sperm whales and three sei whales appeared close by. Sei whales (Balaenoptera borealis) belong to the large baleen filter-feeders or mysticeti. Sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) belong to the toothed variety and hunted for their oil, right up until 1987. I tried to capture these leviathans with my camera, not easy from a moving dinghy. Bottle-nosed dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) surfed in the waves beside the boat. It was a lovely end to an exhilarating trip. Nothing is guaranteed in nature. Here boat operators claim a 95% chance of seeing whales and dolphins, plus turtles and seabirds.

Common dolphin Delphinus delphis
Common dolphin Delphinus delphis

Lava Caves

Pico island is riddled with more than 130 lava tubes. These are natural caves left after the lava has flowed out. The Gruta das Torres is the longest in Portugal.  Passing the majestic Pico Mountain, we arrived at a hidden entrance. Donning helmets and lamps we took a guided tour of this subterranean world. We only reached 500m of the total 5,150m long lava tube. The guide spoke about rare bacteria, ropy lava, stalactites and stalagmites, lava benches. Apart from the staircase down, this cave is not changed. There are no artificial lights inside, so torches essential. At one point the guide told us to turn off the lights so that we could experience complete darkness. After a couple of minutes, one starts imagining all sorts.

Gruta-das-torres-lava-cave-Pico
Gruta das Torres lava cave Pico

Birdwatching

The archipelago boasts 33 breeding species and a total count of over 400. São Miguel has some good birding spots such as Nordeste, Furnas, Vila Franca do Campo and Caloura. On São Miguel there is a chance to spot one of the rarest birds in Europe: the Azores bullfinch (Pyrrhula murina). Thanks to conservation efforts, no longer facing extinction. The tiny bird of 30g and 16cm exists in Serra da Tronqueira, on the eastern part of São Miguel. Endemic subspecies can be seen around the island, such as the Saffron finch (Serinus canaria) and the Common Chaffinch of the Azores (Fringilla coelebs moreletti), the Goldcrest (Regulus regulus azorica), Azores Wood Pigeon (Columba palumbus azorica) and Kite (Buteo buteo rothschildi). São Miguel has different habitats: forests for passerines, coastal areas for waders, lakes for water birds and seabirds. Throughout the year, resident birds coexist with migrants and some rare visitors. The western islands get American migrants.

Cory's shearwater
Cory’s shearwater Azores

The Azores hosts 65% of the world’s population of Cory’s Shearwater. Each return to the same nest after wintering in the South Atlantic. On Faial Island one can take a night tour to visit the largest colony of Cory’s Shearwaters. Watch these birds coming back from the ocean and hear their extraordinary loud calls.

Plan your trip to the Azores

The Azores are an adventure destination that surprises and delights at every turn. Although I only spent a week on three fascinating islands, I can’t wait to go back to explore the rest. Choose from budget to luxury and there are activities suitable for all ages. Other activities include canyoning, deep-sea fishing, Surfing, paragliding, and paddle-boarding. As a bonus, the local food and wine here are delicious. The islands are a hidden gem, few people know about this thrilling part of the world. Direct flights from London are starting in July with British Airways; Ryan Air also have weekly flights from Stanstead. From the US there are flights from Boston or Newark.

To discuss a bespoke trip to the Azores please contact us.

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