Updated: 6 days ago
Welcome to the Azores!
You can be forgiven for not being able to locate the Azores islands on a map. This nine-island archipelago lies 1500km off the coast of Portugal, surrounded by nothing but the mighty Atlantic Ocean. They are a geological hotspot, dotted with volcanoes and vast crater lakes, and the surrounding waters offer excellent whale and dolphin watching opportunities.
I had no idea that each island was so distinctly individual. In true Fam Trip style, our activity packed itinerary took us to three islands in just seven days. Island hopping was made extremely easy thanks to frequent inter island flights and ferries.
Sao Miguel. A volcanic hotspot
Covering an area of around 290 square miles, Sao Miguel is the largest Azorean Island and where our exploration began. As we journeyed across Sao Miguel, we were presented with one natural wonder after another! In the west of the island is the jaw dropping Sete Cidades: a dormant volcano that houses two spectacular crater lakes. After gazing in wonder from the caldera edge we drove down to the lakes for a closer look. Our peddle and paddle afternoon involved an easy cycle around the lakes followed by a leisurely kayak across the clear waters. The soaring crater walls made us feel quite small!
At the other end of the island, the small town of Furnas sits in another vast caldera. The area is a thermal hotspot: the smell of sulphur hangs in the air, warm steam escapes from the ground. We stayed at the beautiful Terra Nostra Garden Hotel which features a large geothermal pool filled with volcanic water naturally heated to 40°C. The muddy coloured water was a little off putting, but once in there was nothing but happy murmurs as we relaxed in the warming waters. This was followed by a hearty traditional dinner of cozido stew that had been slow cooked underground. We all slept well!
Faial. Maritime history.
A short 45-minute flight the next morning took us from Sao Miguel to Faial. This small island (around 70 sqm in size) is a legendary destination for sailors and its maritime history is ever present, particularly around Horta’s colourful harbour which is famous for being the start and end point for intrepid round the world expeditions. The excitement in the air is palpable!
We then headed to the western tip of the island to the spectacular Capelinhos volcano. The volcano erupted in 1957-58, partly burying cottages and the historic lighthouse, and as we trekked across the stark, lunar-like landscape you could feel the power of nature. In contrast, we also visited the incredibly green Caldeira Grande. This vast crater of an extinct volcano is two km in diameter and now forms a nature reserve, rich in endemic flora.
Pico. Wine and whales.
From Faial you can see the distinctive island of Pico – just a 30-minute ferry ride away. The skyline is dominated by Mt Pico, a 2350m high volcano. Sadly, we didn’t have time to climb it as the views from the peak are spectacular.
As we arrived in Pico I was stunned by the heavy black lava coastline. This landscape is also surprisingly home to unique UNESCO World Heritage vineyards. It was amazing to think that vines could grow in these harsh conditions, but as we walked through the square stonewalled sections, we could see flashes of green, hardy vine shoots. Of course, a wine tasting was in order at the spectacular Azores Wine Company which specialises in producing wine from the indigenous Pico grapes.
The tranquil waters around Pico are also one of the best places in the Azores for whale and dolphin watching. Clad head to toe in waterproof clothing we boarded a 12-seater Zodiac boat and headed out to sea accompanied by a marine biologist guide. An exhilarating ride, bumping across the waves, produced shrieks of delight, which I was sure would scare off any marine life! Luckily, I was wrong and over the next two hours we watched in awe as two sperm whales and three sei whales appeared in the surrounding waters and dolphins surfed in the waves beside the boat. It was a spectacular finale to an exhilarating trip.
The Azores are an adventure destination that surprises and delights at every turn. Although you could spend a week or more on fascinating Sao Miguel, the islands are all so different, that it would be a shame not to explore further. Accommodation options range from budget to luxury and the diversity of activities make The Azores suitable for all ages. Along with that, the local food and wine here is utterly delicious! The most incredible thing about the Azores however, is how little people know about this truly thrilling part of the world.
How to get to the Azores.
These far-flung islands are surprisingly accessible from the UK. Ryanair operates direct weekly flights from London Stansted, or it is an easy transfer via Lisbon or Porto on TAP Airlines from London Gatwick daily. British Airways will be operating two new direct flights from Heathrow this summer.
Futurismo was one of the first companies responsible for the transition from whaling to whale watching. 30+ years later, it is the biggest operator on the islands but still has the friendly, personal vibe of a family run company.
They arrange authentic activities for travellers who want to experience the ‘real’ Azores in a way that reflects the culture, wildlife and natural beauty of the archipelago. They combine cultural immersion with environmental protection, education and a strong sustainability ethos.