The Azores comprises tiny ISLANDS off the coast of Portugal, and although each of these has its own distinct APPEAL, as a whole, this BREATHTAKING archipelago is an ideal retreat for the SOUL. Here you’ll find space to seek out adventure, nurture your sense of wellbeing, and reconnect with NATURE
Scattered amid the turquoise waters of the Atlantic Ocean are the nine volcanic islands that make up the Azores. Located 900 miles off the coast of Portugal, they stretch for a total of 372 miles from Santa Maria island in the southeast to Corvo in the northwest, covering over 390 square miles of simply breathtaking scenery.
The archipelago itself is divided into three geographical groups: the eastern group, comprising Santa Maria and São Miguel; the central group, comprising Terceira, Graciosa, São Jorge, Pico and Faial; and the western group, comprising Corvo and Flores. These islands along with Madeira, the Canaries, and Cape Verde archipelagos make up Macaronesia, an ancient Greek word meaning ‘islands of the fortunate’. And there’s absolutely no denying that any visitor to the Azores is extremely lucky to experience one of the most beautiful island clusters on the planet.
Here, you’ll find vibrant landscapes, where ancient forests meet sapphire waters under a cloudless sky. The volcanic terrain cuts a striking profile against this backdrop of green and blue, with plunging craters and jagged rocks jostling amid the flora, which is in itself a sight to behold, particularly in summer when the islands’ iconic hydrangeas are in full bloom. Thanks to their unique geographic position, the Azores benefits from both a subtropical climate and the warm waters of the gulf stream making it a haven for biodiversity, both on land and in the sea.
It’s hardly surprising that Azoreans take such pride in protecting and conserving their little slice of heaven. In 2019, the Azores became the first Archipelago to be recognised as a sustainable tourist destination by the EarthCheck Sustainable Destination programme. This initiative works to constantly measure and monitor the environmental and social impact of tourism in popular destinations, to ensure they continue to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals on matters such as carbon offsetting and using local produce.
The Azorean Government, tourism industry, and its communities are united in preserving the islands’ culture and ecosystems through compliance with the EarthCheck programme, and it shows. From UNESCO World Heritage sites like the ancient vineyards of Pico to the protected Nature Parks on the islands of Corvo, Faial, and Flores, bringing visitors to the Azores all is about giving thanks and giving back, to ensure this remarkable place stays just so for generations to come. And it’s wonderfully refreshing.
A SAFE HAVEN
Travel abroad has been tricky of late, but it’s worth noting that the Azores was recognised as one of the safest destinations in Europe in 2021 by European Best Destinations for its proactive approach in addressing restrictions posed by the pandemic. At the time of going to print, visitors are offered to take a Covid test 72 hours before arrival into the archipelago and all venues operate safe distancing; as a result, cases of Covid-19 have been comparatively low throughout the islands over the last 12 months.
Add to this an abundance of outdoor activities to try, incredible scenery to uncover, and tranquil places to explore, and it’s easy to see why the Azores is the ideal antidote to months of being indoors. The islands cater for virtually every kind of adventure pursuit you can imagine from canyoning and paragliding to diving and surfing. And if you prefer a more sedate pace of life, long walks and wildlife watching are high on the agenda. Art lovers and culture vultures will be spoiled for new experiences to soak up on the islands, with historical buildings, religious artefacts, and delicious local cuisine all on the menu.
If the last year has taught us anything, it’s the importance of finding balance and putting wellbeing first. What better place to unwind and recentre yourself than an island paradise where being at one with nature is paramount?
The origins of the Azores can be traced back over 8 million years when shifting plates and seismic changes in the Earth’s crust literally caused the islands to erupt out of the seas. With so much natural magic behind the islands’ beginnings it’s little wonder they’re the subject of myth and legend. The Azores inspired the ancient Greek poets Homer, Horace, and Plato, who wrote about the mysterious underwater City of Atlantis in 360 BC.
Geotourism is really a catch-all term for exploring the islands’ unique geological features — and thanks to the Azores’ extraordinary volcanic make-up, there’s plenty to discover both above and below the ground. Visit collapsed volcanic cones (calderas) on So Miguel, hike along the coastal fajãs (solidified lava flows), and see the dramatic volcanic hill ranges and the remains of recent eruptions. For those who want to dig a little deeper, the caves and volcanic tunnels like the Gruta do Carvao in Ponta Delgada, offer a special insight into the history of the islands’ creation, while on Santa Maria, you can hunt for marine fossils along its beaches.
Of course, with rock formations like these, adventure abounds. If you want a hands-on experience with a difference, you should definitely give canyoning a go. The practice involves rappelling down steep, fast-flowing watercourses into natural pools, jumping, leaping, climbing and using abseiling techniques to navigate the best route over obstacles. It’s a great way to take in the spectacular high cliffs with their coastal waterfalls, and it’s a real adrenaline rush, too.
Besides the striking landscapes, another draw of all this geothermic action is the natural hot springs. Visitors can take the waters at Furnas on So Miguel where the bubbling, mineral-rich pools offer bathers a wealth of health benefits. You can also taste the waters from one of the many roadside taps or as a tea. Furnas meat stew (cozido das Furnas) is baked beneath the earth by Furnas lagoon in a pot that is buried next to the hot water springs and is a must try for foodie visitors.
ON THE TRAIL
In ancient times, the easiest way for Azorean people to travel around an island was by boat. Roads were few and far between and those that did exist were merely well-trodden single-track paths carved into the earth by herders and their animals. This network of ancient trails has been re-established in recent times and now forms an essential link to the past, giving modern explorers a chance to experience the Azores as its ancestors did centuries ago.
There are now roughly 89 different certified and signposted trails on the Azores covering a total of around 500 miles, so there’s plenty to satisfy even the most ardent tramper. The trails are classified according to their level of difficulty, distance, and whether they’re linear or circular. The Visit Azores website (www.visitazores.com) has an excellent tool for filtering the trails into categories, so you’re guaranteed to find the right trail to suit you on every island.
The trails are accessible year-round, with or without a guide, and each season offers a different kind of beauty from the blue-purple pomp of the islands’ hydrangeas in summer to the stunning autumn foliage. They’re ideal for exploring both on foot or by mountain bike, but if you really want to take a step back in time, why not try riding them the old Azorean way on a well-trained Lusitano or Portuguese Cruzado horse? There’s no better way to reconnect with nature than taking life at an animal’s pace.
If challenging yourself is more your thing, head to the island of Pico where you’ll find the eponymous Ponta do Pico. At 2,351m it’s the highest point in Portugal and a hike to the top is well worth the effort for the stunning views across the Atlantic Ocean. While you’re here, be sure to take in the UNESCO vineyards, too. These unusual structures were built to help protect the delicate grapes from high winds and seaspray, and after summiting the volcano, an afternoon lazing among them (and sampling the produce) is well spent.
SIGHTS TO BEHOLD
Taking in the sights of the Azores is easily the highlight of any visit here. There’s so much natural beauty to soak up and enjoy that you’ll want to spend every single minute of it outdoors, made all the more tempting by the islands’ temperate weather. Expect highs of 25C during the summer months and lows of 12C in the winter. There are numerous ways to see as much of the archipelago as possible, but if you want to experience them from a bird’s eye view then paragliding is the way to go.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the concept, paragliding involves strapping an enormous pair of wings to your back and launching yourself off the nearest cliff. It’s an adrenaline rush for sure and definitely requires a head for heights, but for those adventurous enough to take the leap, you’ll be rewarded with views that are second to none. As well as the genuinely breathtaking vistas, you’ll also get to feel the kind of peace that comes from being high above it all, with nothing but the sound of the wind to accompany your seemingly weightless descent to earth.
There are roughly 32 paragliding sites around the nine islands where you can take off and land safely. Technical cross-country flights, like those on Furnas, will give you spectacular aerial views of the island’s volcanoes while clifftop flights will allow you to take in the beauty of the coastline from above. It’s possible to paraglide all year round thanks to the mild conditions, but summer months are best; the popular Azores Paragliding Festival takes place in August and is now in its 20th year.
If birdwatching is more your pace, the Azores is teeming with wildlife with around 64 species of the feathered variety calling the archipelago home. Among these are the Azores Bullfinch and Monteiro’s Storm-petrel, both endemic to the islands and a draw for avid twitchers.
From one of the smallest Azorean animals to one of the biggest — whale watching is among the most exceptional wildlife experiences to be had on the islands. If you’ve never seen a whale in the wild before, it’s certainly worth adding to your bucket list. The waters around the archipelago are home to around a third of the world’s 81 species of whales and dolphins, and in addition to a wonderfully relaxing boat trip around the coast, you’ll get to see these magnificent creatures up close while helping to preserve their marine habitat and support small local businesses.
Of course, being an island nation, the sea plays a vital part in Azorean life and culture, and no visit here would be complete without spending some time with the ocean. Once a safe haven for cargo ships journeying to and from Africa and the Indies, the islands’ ports are teaming with historical treasures from a bygone era, like the fortresses dating back to the 1500s, which were used to keep a lookout for pirates. If you want to have a go at sailing the high seas yourself, sailboats are available to hire with or without a skipper, so you can island-hop your way around the archipelago.
Water sports are also a popular pastime around the islands and there’s a huge variety to choose from, whether you’re looking for a thrill ride or something more sedate. Canoes or kayaks are ideal for exploring the tranquil lakes at the bottom of volcanic cones — the perfect way to immerse yourself in the stunning Azorean scenery. Out on the open water and along the cliffs, stand-up paddleboards (SUP) are a great way to discover hidden coves, aquatic caves, and spot wildlife as you float gently along. A very calming activity and a good one for soothing for the soul.
The variety of coastlines around the islands, from high cliffs and rocky bases to flat sand and sediment, means there’s huge scope for every kind of surf in the Azores. Its geographical location makes the archipelago the perfect destination for wave sports of all kinds with the unique position and make-up of individual islands creating the ideal conditions for surfing, bodyboarding, SUP, windsurfing, beach breaks, reef breaks, and point breaks. Whether you’re a gnarly pro or a complete novice, you’ll find a spot that suits you, and there are a few companies around the islands offering surfboard hire and courses. The warm waters and temperate climate mean water sports are possible year-round.
With crystal-clear waters and an average sea temperature of 22C in summer and 16C in winter, the Azores is a diver’s paradise. Add to this the diversity of sea life and underwater landscapes to explore and you’ll wonder how anybody can bear to come up for air. The seafloor is a labyrinth of unique features created by the lava flow, while beneath the waves, a sunken trove of underwater archaeological sites adds to the appeal for experienced divers and first-timers alike.
Here you’ll find underwater caves that play host to a rich and thriving ecosystem, nurtured by the warmth of the Gulf Stream. Azorean waters are home to five species of marine turtles, over 24 species of marine mammal, and around 600 species of fish. From swimming with the whale sharks — the world’s largest fish — to finding yourself surrounded by dozens of giant oceanic manta rays or blue sharks, the Atlantic waters around the Azores are teeming with life just waiting to be discovered.