The adventure playground of the Azores

The remote Portuguese archipelago is finally getting the recognition it deserves – with jewel-coloured lakes to kayak, misty laurel forests to hike and sparkling lava tubes to explore.

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.

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.

Furnas may 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. 

The local 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.

 Five other adventures

  • 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 and Transmaçor 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 Azores.