Azores Islands: An Eden For Outdoor Enthusiasts
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The Azores islands are an Eden for anyone who loves the outdoors and appreciates rich cultural heritage. I spent two weeks exploring its scenery, which is like a blend of Hawaii, Iceland and Ireland. Let me share with you the highlights of the landscape, which includes a pineapple plantation, geysirs, volcanic peaks, and vast expanses of vineyards. And in the waters surrounding the Azores islands, you might just experience a close encounter with a pod of whales! I'll also recommend the best cultural attractions of the Azores islands to experience, which include culinary dishes cooked underground, colorful festivals, exotic gardens and distinctive architecture.
This archipelago of nine Azores islands has earned top rankings for sustainable tourism by the likes of National Geographic Traveler. Thanks to conservative tourism policies, the Azores Islands have remained off-the-beaten-path, despite a location in the North Atlantic between the U.S. and Europe.
The Azores islands are an autonomous region of Portugal. It’s a destination close enough for a romantic getaway, while also offering plenty to happily fill an extended vacation with the kids.
The Azores islands first appear in the historical record in the 14th century, in Italian and Spanish maps. It’s believed that the islands of Santa Maria and São Miguel were discovered in 1427 by Portugues navigator Diogo de Silves. Colonization of the Azores islands began in the mid-15th century by settlers from Portugal, Spain, Northern France and Flanders. Santa Maria was the first to be settled, followed by Sao Miguel and then Terceira--whose name literally means “third island”.
Each of the Azores islands has its own distinct personality. I’ll give you my take on the scenic attractions & cultural highlights of:
- Sao Miguel, the biggest Azores island, and site of the capital, Ponta Delgada;
- Terceira, with the oldest city of the Azores island, which today is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and;
- Pico, with its network of historic vineyards, which are also recognized by UNESCO.
Azores Islands Location, Weather and When to Go
The Azores islands are located about 2,400 miles from Boston in the U.S. and about 1,000 miles from mainland Portugal. Flights from Boston to the main city of Ponta Delgada on the island of Sao Miguel take four hours and 45 minutes. The journey from London to the Azores takes about three hours.
The location of the Azores islands means the climate is temperate and not tropical. The best months to visit are May through October. The temperature during these months will be in the 70s, which may sound rather low, but the humidity makes it feel hotter. During my two weeks on the Azores islands in late July and early August, we experienced an occasional shower and mistiness but by and large, it was all sunny skies.
The Azores islands have a very rich culture and one of the ways to access it is through attending one of the many festivals held over the summer. With a Portuguese heritage rooted in the Catholic faith, most of the celebrations are associated with religious holidays. Not surprisingly, there are also many fetes that honor the sea, as well as more mainstream music events.
We visited at the height of the summer season and at no time experienced crowds. In fact, we often felt like we had incredibly magical places entirely to ourselves. Even when attending the Bom Jesus Festival on Pico, navigating the crowd of locals was easily manageable.
Azores Islands: The Lay of the Land and Suggested Itinerary
Inspired to take a trip to this eco Eden? Currently, direct flights from the U.S. are available on SATA and depart from Boston. Smart money is betting that there will soon be more planes lifting off from American soil for this patch of paradise. Why? A consortium headed by Jet Blue founder David Neeleman recently acquired a 61% interest in TAP, a Portuguese-owned airline which now offers service to the Azores from Lisbon.
The Azores' nine islands are grouped into three clusters: Flores & Corvo to the west; Graciosa, Terceira, Sao Jorge, Pico and Faial in the middle; and Sao Miguel, Santa Maria and Formigas to the east.
Sao Miguel is the main island and where the primary airport serving the Azores is located, so its a logical starting point. We went from there to Terceira and then on to Pico and lastly Faial.
Once you reach the Azores, if you plan to do some island-hopping, you are likely going to need to get on a puddle-jumper or two. There is a ferry service but it is a long journey on the water between some of the more popular islands.
For example, there is currently just one ferry route running between Sao Miguel and Terceira operated by 1 ferry company – Atlanticoline. The Ponta Delgada to Praia da Vitoria ferry crossing operates weekly with a scheduled sailing duration from about 4 hours 30 minutes.
The exception is if you are going from Pico to Faial--these islands are very close together. Atlanticoline conducts this crossing operates up to 56 times each week with sailing durations from around 30 minutes, departing from the town of Madalena on the west coast.
Inter-island flights are available only on SATA/Azores Airlines. A flight from Sao Miguel to Terceira takes about 40 minutes.
Azores Islands - Unique Traditions Of Furnas
Case in point is the enchanting village of Furnas on the main island of Sao Miguel. Set inland from the southeastern coast, Furnas is nestled in a valley renown for both its verdant charm and active geology. Among Furnas' myriad manifestations of the area's volcanic origins are dozens of thermal mineral baths, each with different properties, and a mystical crater lake, Lagoa das Furnas.
Just beyond the lake, a road leads to a belvedere, from which there is a spectacular view of Furnas, looking like a Mediterranean-style Brigadoon, with the red-tiled rooftops of its whitewashed stone buildings visible through the atmospheric mist.
Further down the ribbon of road is a lunar landscape where muddy holes in the scorched earth belch plumes of smoke, and scores of men with hoes tend anthill-shaped mounds. At 12:30 pm sharp, pairs of the men tunnel through the piles of dirt to extract huge covered metal pots buried below; each duo carries off their bounty to a cheering crowd. The scene seems an unlikely setting for preparation of a cultural and gastronomic treat but no visit to Furnas is complete without savoring a lunch of Cozido das Furnas, a traditional Azores stew cooked underground for eight hours with volcanic heat.
Minutes from these subterranean ovens, the elegant dining room of Terra Nostra Garden Hotel provides a refined atmosphere to enjoy the earthy local dish of pork, beef, cabbage, kale, potatoes, carrots, chicken and chouriço sausage; the Art Deco gourmet restaurant also offers other fare from an eclectic menu.
After a leisurely lunch being pampered by the attentive wait staff, I walked off the calories with a long stroll through the adjacent botanical park. Terra Nostra Gardens was founded in the 18th century by Bostonian and American consul Thomas Hickling, who built his home “Yankee Hall” alongside a thermal spring.
Today, bathers young and old enjoy the warm waters of the expanded pool that is the park’s frontispiece. The Garden’s magical 30-acres teem with indigenous plant life as well as thousands of exotic species from all over the world, woven together with serpentine water canals, mysterious grottoes and a whimsical lily pond.
In fact, the whole of Sao Miguel is like one big nature conservatory. At a mere forty miles long and ten miles wide, the island is small enough that its sights are within easy reach of the capital of Ponta Delgada, a small modern city on the southern coast. All within a short walk of each other are sights such as the charming Campo do São Francisco square, the historic Church of Sao Jose, and the 16th-century Forte de São Brás.
Azores Islands - Lagoa Das Sete Cidades, A Gorgeous Geomorphic Gem
Lagoa das Sete Cidades, or “Lagoon of the Seven Cities” is just one of Sao Miguel’s many geomorphic gems, and a forty-minute drive east from Ponta Delgada, through rolling hills of idyllic pastures seamed by criss-crossing rows of brilliant blue hydrangea bushes. I let out a gasp as I crested a hill and caught sight of adjoining lakes at the bottom of the crater below, one a brilliant jade, the other a translucent azure. A trail runs along the crater’s perimeter for those seeking a 360-degree perspective; hiking the circumference takes about three hours, and is one of the most beautiful vistas you’ll encounter during your Azores Islands travel.
In the opposite direction from Ponta Delgada is Caldeira Velha, a secluded thermal pool beneath a cascading waterfall, reached by a path through a deep forest of cedar and laurel. Amidst prehistoric-looking vegetation, a handful of bathers lounged in steaming waters made rust-colored by iron-rich minerals.
Azores Islands - Terceira: Historic Angra Do Heroismo, Lava Beach Of Biscoitos and Algar Do Carvao
The island of Terceira, a half-hour hop from Sao Miguel by plane, lays claim to being home to the oldest settlement of the Azores. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Center in 1983, Angra do Heroismo, or Bay of Heroes is said to date to 1450 and was a wealthy port during centuries of trade between Europe, Africa and the Americas. The enclave was also the scene of more than its share of power struggles and named in commemoration of its citizen’s successful defense against attack in 1829.
Military commanders once kept a watchful eye on the horizon from Pousada Forte de Sao Sebastiao, a 16th century fortress that dominates the clifftops above Angra do Herosimo.
In Terceira’s village of Biscoitos, lush green hills roll gently down to an other-worldly beach where visitors can bath in pools of aquamarine water surrounded by strange rock formations of black lava. The Azores’ volcanic origins means white sand beaches are virtually non-existent but the fantastical geology makes for memorable swims.
In the center of Terceira, it’s possible to get up close and personal with an extinct volcano by descending into the belly of Algar do Carvao, a cave that is more than 425 feet deep and features a massive "cathedral" dome, a subterranean lake and artistic patterns on the wall created by ancient gases.
Azores Islands - Pico's Festivals, Vineyards and Whale Watching
Another puddle-jump away is Pico, one of our favourite places to visit in the Azores. It’s an island named for the enormous volcanic cone in its center, which dominates the skyline. The fertility of the black earth here was cultivated to grow grapes centuries ago—the viticulture proved so distinctive that Pico's vineyards were designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 2004.
The intensity of the magnificent black crusty soil gives birth to life and the recognition that with enough time, scorching fires yield abundance. Vivid green growth emerges from cracks and crevices, and luxuriant vineyards sprawl across the island.
On Pico sturdy houses of volcanic rock sit low on the ground. Scattered here and there, these humble dwellings seem to say "I belong here, I am a part of this earth." These houses remind you that, one rock at a time, we can create home, we can create harmony and a simple beauty with even the harshest of surroundings.
On Pico, there is the time and space to make another kind of connection...a connection with the creative force within all of us, connection with the divine that we call art.
And in the tiny village of Santo Amaro, that connection is shared by twin sisters Consaysons and Alzira Neves, who founded the Santo Amaro Craft School in 1986, A loving homage to Pico's legacy of centuries-old craft traditions, the school overflows with the bounty of the sister's creativity: embroidery, lacework, flowers made from fish scales and hydrangea, dolls made from straw and corn husks, traditional costumes all made by hand.
Alzira invited us into her home next door to the museum and shared with us her personal collection of pieces she has made over the years. The extent of Alzira's creativity was astonishing, invigorating and inspiring.
The awe-inspiring forces that made all that rich, hard black lava rock are unpredictable, and so on Pico, most people seek a connection with a comforting, protective divinity...and with each other. At the Bom Jesus festival, held in the village of Sao Mateaus each August 6, you sense the profound faith and spirit of community that is part of life on Pico.
Once an epicenter of the whaling industry, Pico is now a base for eco-tours that hunt whales for communal rather than combative purposes. Espaço Talassa in the tiny village Lajes about 40 minutes west of Pocinho Bay offers excursions on 29-foot, Zodiac-style vessels--a far more intimate experience than the large vessels used for such excursions in the U.S. The company, founded in 1989 by a former whaler and a French sailor just two years after the whaling trade went extinct, employs both ancient tradition and the latest technology to locate whales, using spotters in observation towers as well as underwater microphones.
Be prepared for a wild ride. After receiving word from a spotter stationed high in the hills along the coast, our skipper made a beeline four or five miles out to sea at high speed. The bouncy ride atop the waves was well worth it—eventually, the engines were cut and we drifted alongside a pod of more than a dozen female sperm whales, which each average 50 feet in length and weigh about 20 tons. For twenty minutes or so, we rocked in reverent silence, feeling privileged to be in the company of these peaceful giants.
Whether you need to decompress or rev up your energy level, there are different kinds of Azores islands experiences to replenish your spirit.
Azores Islands - Logistics & Lodging
You'll need a rental car for your Azores tour. Check out the best options on RentalCars for rentals on each island you visit on your trip.
Driving is easy and downright idyllic compared to the congestion of Boston! The roads are good, there is very little traffic and the signage is plentiful and clear.
I highly suggest you book your car in advance. We failed to do this and there were none available at all while we were in Sao Miguel! The good news is that you can negotiate with taxi drivers to take you on an un-narrated tour. Agree on the locales to be visited and a price before you embark. Taxis are easily found in downtown Ponta Delgada near the waterfront.
In Ponta Delgada on Sao Miguel, we found the Hotel Marina Atlantico, a gleaming glass landmark located across from the harborfront promenade and marina to be the perfect base—and where I enjoyed quite possibly the best massage I’ve ever had!
On Terceira, the 16th century Forte de Sao Sebastiao is now a luxury retreat, part of Portugal’s pousada system—historic hotels housed in former castles, convents, palaces and fortresses.
Ensconced between a swath of luxuriant vineyards and the aquamarine surf of a dramatic shoreline is guest house Pocinho Bay, the labor of love of two former sociology professors from Lisbon. This exclusive sanctuary of six suites opened 12 years ago after an extensive renovation of the former winery’s seven basalt structures, each exquisitely decorated with exotic art from the proprietors’ own travels to locales ranging from Guatemala to Malaysia.
We recommend GetYourGuide for Tours. They offer highly unique tours with Local Guides.
Recommended Tours for Your Azores Holidays
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. I never ever go on a trip without it. I recommend World Nomads Travel Insurance.
A shorter version of this article first appeared in Long Island Pulse Magazine, May 2017
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RECOMMENDED TOURS ON THE AZORES ISLANDS
Publisher and editor of www.BestCulturalDestinations.com (BCD), which profiles people engaged in creating & preserving culture, and celebrates our unique differences and shared human condition. BCD defines “Best Cultural Destinations” as those that teach us, and help us grow in understanding, compassion, and capacity for connection.