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.
At the island's
mountainous heart, cloaked in luxuriant greenery, lies the village of Furnas.
One of the best ways to discover its otherworldly landscape of steaming
fumaroles and spluttering hot springs is by taking a morning bike ride around
the forest-rimmed crater lake, Lagoa das Furnas; Futurismo can arrange
guided tours. Alternatively, Rent
a Bike Azores rents out mountain and electric bikes for self-guided cycling
tours, with bases in Furnas and Ponta Delgada on the island of São Miguel.
Locals come to
cook their lunch on the lake’s shores in the boiling, sulphur-scented depths of
the earth. The local speciality is cozido,
a rich stew made of kale, cabbage, carrots, potatoes, pork, beef, chicken and
sausages, cooked for six to seven hours in the soil's geothermal heat. This hearty
dish is the perfect prelude to a mellow afternoon of kayaking on the
bottle-green lake. Oftentimes fog descends like a veil to obscure the view, but
rather than detract from its allure, the mist lends the scene an air of mystery
akin to that of a Scottish loch.
attract adventure-seekers today, but in the 18th Century it was the
much-loved retreat of American and European elite who built whimsical holiday villas
and artistic escapes. One of the finest
is the Terra
Nostra estate where locals and day-trippers come to float in the
brackish waters of a natural thermal pool. The water is fringed by ferny groves
and pond-dotted gardens that nurture azaleas, camellias, hydrangeas, ginger
lilies and endangered cycad trees. The stubby palms of the latter are botanical
wonders; often nicknamed “living fossils”, they have been around for millions
of years and herbivorous dinosaurs used to nibble on their leaves.
microclimate that allows these subtropical species to thrive also supports Europe’s
only tea plantation, Gorreana, 13km north
of Furnas, where the same machinery has been used to chop and dry green and
orange pekoe teas since 1883. Here on island’s north coast lies a truly Azorean
landscape – the crashing Atlantic on the horizon, a ripple of volcanoes in the background,
an undefinable pinch of the exotic.
- Dive the Caneiro dos Meros,
where large dusky groupers swirl among submerged lava formations off Corvo
- Descend into the half-light of
the Algar do Carvão, a 90m-deep, 3,200-year-old volcanic chimney on Terceira
- Explore the magnificent
waterfalls and lagoons of Flores, a veritable botanical garden and a
Unesco Biosphere Reserve
- Hike the ashen, eerily
beautiful Capelinhos at the western tip of Faial, the last volcano to erupt in the
Azores between 1957 and 1958
- Go underground to the Azores
longest lava tube, the 5km Gruta das Torres, in Pico's northwest
Sata operates frequent flights to all nine
Azorean islands from destinations in the UK, Europe, US and Canada. Atlânticoline
ferries make island-hopping possible, especially between the central islands in
summer, but flights are quicker and more convenient for exploring further distances.
If you are planning a hiking holiday, check out the routes and maps on Trails