Whenever I bring up the Azores in a conversation, most Americans say, “Hmmmm, I’ve heard of it, but where is it exactly?” The Azores is actually an archipelago (cluster) of nine volcanic islands in the middle of the northern Atlantic Ocean, 850 miles west of Portugal and 2,561 miles east of New York City. They are an autonomous region of Portugal with large agriculture, farming, and fishing industries.
The climate of the volcanic islands is relatively mild with daytime temperatures ranging between 61 °F and 77 °F, and can frequently be wet and cloudy. The last significant volcanic eruption was the Capelinhos volcano off the coast of the island of Faial in 1957.
To get to the Azores is less than a five hour flight from the U.S. but flights are limited and depart primarily from Boston, causing a bit of inconvenience which could account for the relatively low United States tourism compared to other island destinations. In spite of their relative obscurity, the Azores have an abundance of natural beauty making them an absolute haven for outdoor enthusiasts. And the best way to soak in all the extraordinary wonders is hopping from island to island.
Four of the islands have slowly begun to attract tourist attention due to the diversity of sights and experiences. São Miguel Island, known as “The Green Island” is the largest, most populated, and most-visited of the Azores; Terceira, also called “The Lilac Island” is the location of the Azores’ oldest city and UNESCO Heritage Site, Angra do Heroísmo; Pico Island, “The Black Island,” features its namesake volcano, Ponta do Pico, the highest mountain in Portugal; Faial Island, “The Blue Island” with its famous yacht harbor, was known for its whaling tradition until the prohibition on hunting whales in the 1980’s.
1. The Views
The stunning panoramas in the Azores can easily rival those of other vistas around the world. Drive or hike high to the top of the volcanoes for breathtaking views of the crater lakes, or to the top of the city of Angra to look down through the pristine red tile roofs and brilliant blue Atlantic beyond.
2. The Vineyards
The black volcanic earth on Pico is responsible for its UNESCO-designated black vineyards that helped bring development and economic progress to the island.
3. The Crater Lakes
Over time, the gaping holes left after volcanic eruption created the stunning crater lakes throughout the Azores, but none more beautiful than those on São Miguel.
4. The Seafood
Incredible variety and fresh, usually caught that day. There are an abundance of savory dishes and “creatures” to try – octopus, limpets (aquatic sea snails), squid, barnacles, and rockfish are not to be missed!
5. The Hikes and Walking Trails
Hiking is one of the most popular attractions that bring tourists to the Azores. From moderate walks to entire day strenuous hikes, and even overnight hikes, the trails take you through flower-laden valleys, up gentle or steep mountains, through lava tubes, and around stunning emerald and blue lakes. The pièce de résistance is the view from the top.
6. The Beaches
Though not tropical or known as beach destinations, the Azores does have some unique beaches if you know where to look. Some are black volcanic rocks with rough surf, others are tiny, hidden coves, and there are also a (very) few stretches of golden-brown sand.
7. The Caves
Also known as lava tubes, the subterraneous openings were created as lava descended into the earth during a volcanic eruption, cooled and formed a crust into which more lava flowed. When the eruption was over, it left behind a labyrinth of tunnels under the earth, which are really fun to explore.
8. The Whales
The Azores is one of the top ten places in the world to see cetaceans. Look no further than Futurismo on São Miguel for responsible eco-tourism at its finest. Futurismo’s nature-lover attitude and practice of “observe not disturb” is commendable. The boat ride itself is enjoyable, but the thrill is seeing sperm whales (of Moby Dick fame), fin whales, and two species of dolphins jumping and showing off.
9 . The Festivals
Terceira has its own version of “the running of the bulls” similar to Pamplona, Spain’s but smaller, much less publicized and more of a local attraction. All the islands celebrate an important Roman Catholic festival called Espírito Santo, or Festival of the Holy Spirit which centers on neighborhood benevolence. Each family bakes dozens of loaves of hearty sweet bread to hand out to the community.
10. The Resorts
You won’t find any large high-rise, all-inclusives in the Azores. Instead, you’ll find charming, bungalows like those of Aldeia de Fonte on the island of Pico. The resort has cozy volcanic stone cabins integrated with nature, perched on cliffs overlooking the ocean. On property are hiking trails, some of which reach down the cliffside where, if you dare, you can use the metal ladder to immerse yourself into the wild Atlantic.
11. The Thermal Pool
Dipping your toes into the natural thermal pool at Terra Nostra on São Miguel is one of the highlights of a trip to the Azores. Hot springs feed minerals into the pool, keeping it at a relaxing around 95°F. The pool is surrounded by nature and trees, creating a mystical experience.
12. The Marinas
Horta, the capital of Faial has a most unique and interesting marina. A former whaling mainstay, due to its convenient position in the Atlantic it is now a frequent stop for those sailing from the American to the European continent. Miles of the boardwalk are painted with squares of planned and permissioned graffiti – each crew is encouraged to leave artwork of their vessel or voyage behind as a memento of their visit.
13. The Traffic
Rush hour traffic on the Azores? Yes, for sure. But expect to be “mooed” not honked because you’re likely to be stopping for cows, not cars. Disclosure: The author was honored to be the guest of VisitAzores during her stay in the Azores, but as always, the opinions, reviews and experiences are her own.