You don’t need to journey to the other side of the world to get your adventure fix, the nine islands of the Azores each have a different vibe and plenty of unique experiences. Mild temperatures (it’s 20 degrees there in November!), few crowds and a four hour-long flight from the U.K. make this Portuguese paradise a very appealing year-round destination.
Here are our top 10 secret experiences on these fascinating islands:
1) Be a marine biologist for a day
With abundant marine life all year, the Azores are known as a leading destination for whale watching. A remarkable 26 species of whale and dolphin have been recorded here and sightings are almost guaranteed. Local DMC Futurismo works closely with the World Cetacean Alliance to ensure that such excursions are operated responsibly and marine biologists lead and accompany their trips. For an insight into the underwater world you can join a team of experts for a day to study the cetacean environment and observe social behaviour. Go out to sea with the scientists on a zodiac and use photo identification techniques to register the different species that you see. Any biological samples of skin and stools will be collected and, using a hydrophone, you can record acoustic data emitted by the whales. Back in the office you’ll analyse plankton samples to quantify the levels of microplastics present in the water and record all findings into the registered database used by the marine biologists. It’s an amazing experience to help protect and learn more about these majestic creatures.
2) Sample wine from one of the world’s strangest vineyards
Pico island is home to a picture-perfect cone-shaped volcano as well as a UNESCO-listed vineyard. This being the Azores however, means that things aren’t quite as you’d expect. The vines are planted in crevasses within walls of lava rocks and viticulture has been in operation this way since the 15th century. This method is so bizarre and beautiful that UNESCO listed this as a place of outstanding cultural significance in 2014. The best way to experience the vineyards is to visit a winery and taste the wine - and Futurismo can arrange this for you. They can also organise a sumptuous lunch at a local farm, where you can try the tasty local cheeses and a huge variety of flavoured schnapps - also made locally.
3) Soak in a beautiful natural hot tub
Extreme volcanic activity is best seen in Furnas on San Miguel island. Plumes of smoke stream up and out along the streets and roped-off geysers and bubbling mud pools form a dramatic backdrop to the town. The hot tubs and vast pool in the stunning Terra Nostra Garden Hotel are surrounded by wonderful botanical gardens that were built in the 1700s and their spa treatments are an indulgent way to unwind after a day of cycling, walking or kayaking.
4) Kayak inside a volcano
The twin crater lakes of Sete Cidades are one of the Azores islands’ most iconic spectacles - they make you feel as though you have been transported back to the Jurassic period. Lush jungle lines the steep walls of volcanic rock and the tranquil blue water will definitely have you wanting to jump into one of Futurismo’s kayaks to explore it for yourself. Alternatively, you can try stand-up paddle-boarding or, if you don’t fancy getting wet, cycle around the beautiful lakeshore. The perfect end to a day here is to take part in a peaceful picnic lunch on the shores of the crater lake, where you can admire the scenery with a piece of delicious homemade cake!
5) Share a rum with daring, round-the-world sailors
Horta, on Faial island, is a world-renowned place for extreme adventurers, either setting off or completing trans-Atlantic voyages. The excitement in the air is palpable as, after a successful crossing, crews celebrate their achievement by decorating a slab on Horta’s bustling harbour - turning it into a wonderful and sometimes very moving outdoor art gallery. Genuino’s restaurant is perfect for sunset views and is also decorated with global souvenirs from the owner’s many voyages. The food here is as amazing as the real-life adventure stories of the host! We recommend finishing with a nightcap at the iconic Peter’s Cafe in the centre of town.
6) Hike, bike and canyon through incredible landscapes
The diversity of these islands is truly staggering and they can be discovered on two feet or two wheels. Clearly marked walking trails take you through lush forests, past crystal clear lakes and waterfalls, across recently erupted volcanoes and along the dramatic Atlantic coastline. All fitness abilities are catered for, from easy coastal paths to the challenge of climbing Pico - Portugal’s highest mountain. If you feel up to the challenge, climb Pico and spend a memorable night on the summit to witness a breathtaking sunset and sunrise with panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean.
7) Cook your dinner in a hole in the ground
Food in the Azores is astoundingly good, cuisine is fresh, the chefs are creative and the seafood is absolutely sublime. One memorable experience is preparing the local dish ‘Cozido’. Under the guidance of a head chef on San Miguel island, you can walk with the kitchen staff to the local market to pick out essential local ingredients for the delicious stew and then help to prepare the dish in a professional kitchen. It is then time for a quick trip to the smoking banks of the volcano, to dig a hole, bury your pot, and place a marker so you know whose pot is whose! In the evening you’ll head back with the chef to dig up your slow-cooked dinner (powered by volcanic nature!) and the mouthwatering dish is served to you back at the hotel.
8) Explore the inside of a lava tube
Dotted all over the islands are underground legacies of the volcanic past of the Azores. Get kitted up with a hard hat, torch and a good guide and you can delve into the mysterious world of lava tubes. Formed when molten lava drains away underground during an eruption, these smooth tunnels form incredible natural ‘caves’ in the rock. Half way into a 5km tube, your guide may ask you to sit down and turn your lights off so that you can ‘feel’ the energy of the ancient lava - and the incredible darkness within the earth. Whether you believe in supernatural geographical forces or not, there’s no denying that there is something magical about standing inside one of these tubes!
9) Go birdwatching at night
The Azores are home to over 400 species of birds, many of which are endemic subspecies. The Azorean bullfinch, one of the rarest birds in Europe, and Monteiro's storm petrel can only be seen on these islands. Even if birdwatching isn’t your thing, you are sure to be thrilled by an evening with a naturalist guide on Faial, where you can head into the darkness to witness the calls of the Cory shearwaters nesting on the cliffs and catch a glimpse of them as they swoop overhead en-route to find their mate.
10) Get away from it all
In a world that is busy and overcrowded, it comes as a lovely surprise that these islands are so unspoilt. Due to their remote location, tourism seems to have had little impact and there are therefore many places where you can feel alone and at one with untamed nature around you. Getting off the beaten track is Futurismo’s speciality and their guides will take you to exciting places that are unknown to the ‘everyday tourist’. Whether it is a natural swimming pool tucked between some rocks, a hiking track with spectacular views or a secret cave hidden in a farmer’s field, these are the added bonuses that makes a visit to the Azores genuinely unforgettable.
Founded in 1990 Futurismo was one of the first companies responsible for the transition from whaling to whale watching and have grown to become the biggest operator on the Azores. They expertly provide activities for travellers who want to experience the Azores in a way that reflects the culture, wildlife and natural beauty of the archipelago. They operate high quality, sustainable and professionally-guided sea and land-based activities throughout the islands with three whale watching bases across Sao Miguel and Pico.
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