A cluster of nine islands in the middle of the Atlantic, The Azores are an exotically enigmatic archipelago of islands that champion eco-tourism and beguile the avid adventurers’ sense of discovery.
Dramatic landscapes on the islands are characterised by lush, dense, jungle-like flora and rugged mountains, with the Pico mountain being the highest in Portugal. The islands are a product of volcanic eruptions, and their lava rock landscapes have seemingly been carved out by the elements alone.
The Azoreans are justifiably proud of their endeavours to keep the islands as pure and untouched as possible and the eco-tourism that is encouraged strongly embraces the sustainability attitude of residents. Some of the outer islands such as Flores and Corvo have limited lodging, as if to insure themselves against eco destruction that is all too frequent with mid or mass tourism.
The islands are enchanting precisely because they remain something of a mystery to mass tourism and development – although they have been on the map since the 15th century. Perhaps the magic also lies in the fact that the ecosystem is still something of a mystery to its inhabitants, many of whom are constantly studying its uniqueness.
Whilst the islands certainly are exotic, they retain a strong Portuguese culture, (most evident in Sao Miguel) mixed in with a native Azorean twist, and it is this European factor that makes you feel at ease for the islands, despite their untamed beauty, are not too foreign as to be overwhelming.
We spent a week island hopping: from the self-acclaimed capital that is Ponta Delgada in Sao Miguel, to the UNESCO volcanic vineyards in Pico, to the calm and beautiful ex-whaling harbour in Horta.
We started off in the South with a pit stop stay in Olhao. Olhao could be considered the poorer cousin of Faro but what it lacks in big hotels and fancy shops, it more than makes up for in character, charm and beauty. Across the harbour from Olhao lie the golden trio of islands: Farol, Culatra and Armona – a must visit on any tourist’s visit to the Algarve.
Where to stay:
Casa do Majgino B&B – A quirky B&B in Olhao with only two rooms! The owners, Maj (Maya) and Gino are some of the zaniest and most awesome hosts to be found in Olhao, if not the Algarve.
The historical capital of the Azores, Terceira de Lajes is an island that is rich in history, boasting architectural wonders such as the former palace, the Palácio dos Capitães-Generais and the walls of a castle that was formerly a royal prison. Today, the island boasts myriad architectural (such as the Cathedral of Angra do Heroísmo or Duke of Terceira Garden) and natural places of interest. Whilst Terceira was only a pit-stop for our island hopping adventure, it is a vibrant island that we hope to return to.
Where to stay: Casa do ti’Marrão – a mere 5 minute drive from the airport, Casa do ti’Marrão is your choice accommodation for convenience as well as comfort if you’re looking for a hotel near the airport. We were met by the genial host (who also acted as a private taxi to and from the airport) who introduced us to her very special property. Full of quirky features including a traditional bread oven and high wooden beamed ceilings, the room is more of a mini apartment, replete with a large showeroom, washing machine, kitchen and living room.
Our only regret was that we could not stay longer as Casa do ti’Marrao without a doubt, is a superb base for exploring the island of Terceira.
Horta, Faial Island
Faial Island is a must visit for several reasons: the island boasts a beautiful (and calm) harbour and ideal hub for those sailing around the Azores; it is a spectacular example of sustainable tourism in action; it offers some of the most epic landscapes in the Azores; it has a friendly and lively community, and the island is part of the central trio of islands (Faial Island, Pico Island and Sao Jorge), one of the island clusters that should absolutely be on your radar.
The main town, Horta, has many references to its whaling and agricultural past, mixed in with a dose of modernity as evidenced by the cool boutiques and eateries that have popped up. Taking a stroll around the harbour and town is one of the most relaxing and pleasant of ‘activities’ you can do whilst on Faial. And be sure to visit Gelados do Atlântico gelateria!
Where to stay: Porto Pim Bay Apartamentos
What to do: We would highly recommend any of the activities on offer by Toboga Azores. We experienced a 3/4 hour comprehensive jeep tour of the island by part-time volunteer/part-time chief of the fire department/full time teacher Bruno. The company will both show and explain to you the tourist hot spots such as the Caldeira or the old lighthouse/new volcanic ash landscape on the peninsula of Ponta dos Capelinhos and Costa Nau, as well as providing you with a dearth of information on local life, wildlife and the geography of the island. You will also have the opportunity to visit some of the more secluded parts of the island such as the magnificently positioned church on Monte Da Guia. To book a tour with Toboga Azores visit https://azores.toboga.pt/en/.
If you talk to any islander, they will say their home island is the best, followed by the exotically untamed Flores. Whilst we didn’t manage to visit Flores on our whistle-stop tour of the Azores, our firm favourite was Pico.
Pico has an unusual landscape. The island is the most ‘volcanic’ within the Azores which means that it is the youngest island within the archipelago to have emerged and also the most recent to have had an eruption, in 1963. The landscape, therefore, whilst overwhelmingly green, is regularly punctuated with masses of volcanic rock, a lot of which has been used as a natural fence on land. Most notably the rock has been used to separate small vineyards within the World Heritage Pico Island Vineyard Culture.
The island, whilst the second largest in the Azores, has seen relatively less development than that of its neighbours. It is this, in part, that contributes to the beautiful wilderness which is interrupted only by small, friendly towns throughout.
We loved the lazy center of Madalena and the mellifluous, relaxed and charming atmosphere of Lajes do Pico. Lajes do Pico is a hub on the island due to the activity companies that are based out of there. We would also attribute some of its attraction to the family-run restaurant Ritinha where the ‘fish of the day’ is the simplest and, we we would say, the best on the island. No reservations are needed and flip flops are encouraged!
Where to stay: Atlantic Heritage Villa
What to do: Swimming with Dolphins is one of the most magical experiences you can have in the Azores. The trip consists of a boat ride into the middle of the Atlantic whilst the dolphin spotters on land navigate the skipper to the schools of dolphins. Once located, you have the opportunity to dip into the Atlantic sea and see the dolphins swim under/near/next to you, and hear their majestic cries. It is an exhilarating, incredible, beautiful, awesome and totally unforgettable experience.
The largest of the islands and the self-proclaimed capital of the Azores, Sao Miguel is worthy of an extended stay. With so much to do, see, eat and just enjoy, a minimum of three days is needed in order to truly appreciate the island. With its 700km+ vast expanse of land, there are both highlights and lowlights in regard to the attention the island has received.
The island has fully embraced modernity with its big shopping-malls and large-scale hotels. Whilst tourists are certainly spoilt for choice, some of the island’s newer and uglier developments mar what is otherwise an extraordinary landscape. And, as ever with mass tourism, there is sadly a tangible trace of eco-destruction (on beaches and by the wayside).
The city center of Ponta Delgada, however, does retain its charming native architecture, with its older buildings now hosting quirky fashion boutiques and eccentric cafes. Outside of the city center the island keeps its expansive green, development-free landscape and smaller towns such as Ribeira Grande are, as of yet, seemingly impervious to the hand of larger developers. Long may it last!
Some of the wonders we experienced are below. Whilst we will include a short description, each merit a visit as your experience will be both inimitable and awe-inspiring.
Sete Cidades: A volcanic crater stretching three miles across, Sete Cidades consists of two crater lakes, Lagoa Azul and Lagoa Verde, referring to the blue of the water and the green reflection. Legend has it that the differently coloured lakes were created when a princess and her lover, a young shepherd, had to part from each other. The tears they shed at their farewell became the two lakes, with the water colored like their eyes. An epic view can be seen from the formerly abandoned Monte Palace Hotel, which will be transformed in 2021 to a luxury boutique hotel.
Gorreana Tea Factory: The Gorreana Tea Factory has one of the most enviable accolades to its name: it is the only tea factory to exist in Europe. See first-hand the factory, the tea fields and taste some of the rich flavoured teas!
Furnas Hot Springs and Terra Nostra Gardens: In the village of Furnas are the Furnas Hot Springs, a geothermal wonderland of 22 hot springs, that visitors can bathe in, and the beautiful Terra Nostra Gardens, which are a must see!
Centro de Interpretação Ambiental da Caldeira Velha: If you’ve ever fantasised about swimming under a waterfall, then head to Velha. Here, they not only have waterfalls but hot springs, where you can bathe your worries away.
Ribeira dos Caldeiroes Natural Park: A nature park with unrivalled beauty, here you can discover numerous waterfalls and in general, stunning vistas.
Restaurante da Associacao Agricola de Sao Miguel: one for the foodies. If beef is your thing, head to this restaurant. Owned by the agricultural association, the beef here pretty much goes from cow to plate. The quality is so good that if you ask for your steak to be cooked ‘rare’, it will be rare, with a beautiful deep pink hue. Gluttons that we are, we went twice within the space of three days.
Ponta Delgada: The historic center with various quirky boutiques and eateries, as well as home to companies offering various tours. The ideal base in Sao Miguel.
Ribeira Grande: Surf’s up, dude! We visited Ribeira Grande pretty much by accident, only to discover a charming small town and an awesome surf beach, with the super trendy TukaTula bar on hand to keep you merry pre and post-surf.
What to do: We went whale watching with the fabulous Picos de Aventura. Whilst a long adventure (up to, and sometimes over four hours), we found the excursion not only hugely enjoyable but hugely informative. Here you get to learn about the species, and see the guest appearance of different dolphin groups, dancing on the water as if on show. The most awesome part? Seeing the whale slap its tail. You can book directly by visiting http://picosdeaventura.com/.
The cosmopolitan city of Lisbon has always been one of our favourites. With its large boulevards filled with striking architecture and hands down one of the best food scenes in Europe, this vibrant city is one that will always leave you wanting more.
We stayed in the fashionable Bairro Alto which is seemingly close to everything. The district itself, however, has more than enough to offer. With hipster-like boutiques around and quaint/sometimes architecturally-magnificent eateries dotted throughout, there is more than enough energy to hold your attention. Or, if you’re looking for something more relaxed, you can make your way towards Avenida da Liberdade and quench your thirst at a local café, with a wonderful band serenading you as you look over the cityscape.
Where to stay:
Memmo Principe Real – THE hotel is Lisbon if you appreciate quality and design-led comfort.
Time Out Market: Another one for the foodies. The Time Out Market plays host to numerous pop-up eateries, offering a splendid range of cuisine, most of which has a Portuguese twist. If you’re hankering after a good quality meal and something a little adventurous, head here.
The Old City: Inconspicuous cafes and eateries line the less-touristy part of the old city. The historic centre consists of magnificent architecture, now complimented by boutique shops dotted throughout. Enjoy a historical and romantic walk here before heading back to the modern side of town.
If Lisbon has left you feeling overwhelmed, you might be inclined to escape. If you’re heading South, our money is on Comporta. If North, Odibos would be the obvious choice.
Obidos is a beautiful Portuguese fortified town, boasting one of the best kept churches from the Roman, B.C. times. Quaint, cobbled streets and Portuguese-style houses are the hallmark of Obidos. Nearby is the working fishing port of Peniche and the pristine beaches of Lagoa de Obidos
Where to stay: Praia d’el Rey Resort