For an archipelago with precious few sandy beaches, the Azores is great for anyone who loves swimming. On the coasts of São Miguel, Faial and Pico, the locals have turned natural lava pools into appealing seawater swimming pools by adding walkways and steps, so you don’t have to scramble over the rocks.
The northernmost islands are well off the beaten track, so are perfect places to bond with nature. All three are UNESCO biosphere reserves where seabirds outnumber people – Flores and Graciosa have fewer than 5000 inhabitants each and Corvo, under 500.
Little known outside the archipelago, Azorean tipple wine has been produced as long as the island has been settled by Europeans, particularly dry whites and fortified wines. The production is a triumph of problem solving, with neat lava stone walls warming the vines at night and sheltering them from Atlantic winds. The traditional grids of lava currais (enclosures) found in Pico’s winelands, where Verdelho and Lajido wines are produced, are World Heritage listed.
In the 1950s, a 13-month volcanic eruption destroyed 300 houses, ruined a lighthouse and boosted Faial’s area by 2.4 square kilometres. The lighthouse in Capelinhos is now part of the Centro de Interpretação do Vulcão dos Capelinhos, a volcano museum with a striking, modern design and snazzy multimedia displays.
You can’t really say you’ve been to the Azores until you’ve hung out with the locals – the local cetaceans, that is. You can often catch a glimpse of a fluke or a fin from shore, but heading out by boat is best. Strict guidelines are in place to ensure good practice and sightings are pretty much guaranteed.
Exploding out of the ocean between 250,000 and 10 million years ago, the Azores have all the hallmarks of a volcanic archipelago – craggy peaks, gaping craters, mysterious lava caves, steaming fumaroles and relaxing thermal pools. With ever-changing light, this is a fascinating location for landscape photography.
While the classic Azorean hike is the trek to the top of Mount Pico, the massive volcano that’s highest peak on Portuguese territory, there are also many gentler routes to enjoy on two legs or two wheels – along coastal paths, around crater lakes and through cool, mossy laurel forests.
Clustered around busy harbours, the old towns of Ponta Delgada on São Miguel, Angra do Heroísmo (a World Heritage Site) on Terceira and Horta on Faial all brim with Portuguese charm. Decorative cobbles and whitewashed churches trimmed with dark lava stone give their streets and squares an attractive and distinctive character.
All too many Azorean hotels and restaurants have yet to catch up with the global fascination for all things fresh and flavoursome. The best they can offer are dull buffets.
The Azores are pretty clued-up on sustainability and marine conservation, but plastic shopping bags are a blind spot. A campaign to ban them is underway, but for now, just say no thanks.