Asking someone to find the Azores on a map would probably have drawn a blank look a decade ago when the remote Portuguese archipelago was still terra incognita for most travellers. But this chain of nine islands spread across more than 600km in the Atlantic Ocean is finally getting the recognition it deserves, as both an emerging adventure travel destination and a place of pristine, singular beauty.
Born out of a series of volcanic eruptions, the Azores started rumbling to the surface 10 million years ago, eventually splitting into three clusters: the islands of Faial, Pico, São Jorge, Terceira and Graciosa in the centre group; Corvo and Flores to the west; and São Miguel and Santa Maria to the east. With volcanoes to climb, jewel-coloured crater lakes to kayak, misty laurisilva (laurel forests) to hike and glittering lava tubes to explore – as well as some of the finest whale watching on the planet – the Azores are ripe for discovery.
Whale watching on Faial
Few Azores experiences are as enthralling as bouncing at rollercoaster speed over wind-whipped water in a semi-rigid dinghy in the hope of spotting a whale. Pods of resident sperm whales and other migratory species can often be sighted in Azorean waters, holding groups of whale-watchers captive as they rise torpedo-like from the inky depths of the Atlantic, emitting geyser-like sprays of water from their blowholes.
The Azores are one of the world’s foremost places for spotting these giants of the deep because of the islands’ relative isolation and their position on the whale migratory route between America and Europe. On the island of Faial, bandana-clad guide Noberto Serpa runs guided whale-watching tours from Horta marina. Something of a local expert, Serpa will explain to visitors that more than 20 resident and migratory cetacean species splash around in these waters – a third of the total number of existing species. In addition to sperm whales, blue and fin whales and bottlenose and spotted dolphins can, with a little luck, be seen from April to October.
When it comes to whales, conservation is the watchword – a remarkable volte-face considering that whaling factories were in operation until the 1980s. This whaling past is spelled out at Peter's Cafe Sport in Horta, where a one-of-a-kind scrimshaw museum upstairs highlights the art of carving elaborate designs on a whalebone. Downstairs, the jovial flag-bedecked space has been a sailors' haunt since 1918, and is still the go-to place for an expertly mixed gin and tonic or a plate of freshly caught clams and limpets.
Volcano and vineyard hiking on Pico
Pico, Faial's closest neighbour, makes no secret of its main attraction. Thrusting above the island in solitary magnitude is the 2,351m-high Montanha do Pico, Portugal's highest peak. With its perfectly etched cone, the volcano looks extraordinary whether enshrouded in fog, dusted with snow or surveyed in the first golden light of dawn.
A stiff 1km trudge begins at 1,200m above sea level and is best negotiated with a local guide between May and September. Hikers are rewarded with broad views of the five central islands, their intense greenery and the glistening Atlantic providing a striking contrast to the volcano’s rocky, barren summit.
To see another side to Pico, the 10.5km, three-hour Caminhos de Santa Luzia trail begins immediately north of Montanha do Pico, following deep lava grooves made from the ox-carts that were used to transport barrels of wine from local vineyards. Pico has been cultivating wine since the first settlers arrived in the 15th Century and is today best known for its sweet white verdelho dessert wine.
With a unique, sustainable viticultural landscape that was awarded Unesco World Heritage status in 2004, the scenic route passes through a patchwork of hundreds of currais, tiny stone-walled vineyards , which protect the vines from sea breezes, and is surrounded by woods nurturing heather, incense trees and picconia azorica, a white-flowering shrub endemic to the Azores. Viticulture is still practised on a small scale and the grapes are picked entirely by hand.
Cycling and kayaking in São Miguel
São Miguel, the largest island with a population of 137,700, packs the best of the Azores into one spot, with volcanic heights, geothermal springs and subtropical microclimates where yams, pineapples and Europe's only tea plantation thrive.