An island-hopper's guide to the Azores Islands, Portugal
Until recently, even seasoned travellers would are already hard pushed to discuss the Azores on the map. But finally the entire world is getting out of bed to the allure these nine volcanic islands, scattered like stepping stones inside the mid-Atlantic. Whether you're watching the sunrise sneak up Pico's perfect cone, tearing around a crater lake with a mountain bike or holding your breath like a whale surfaces through the deep blue, using rumbling mass of beauty, are surely among Europe's last great island adventures.
All you observe is that whopper of any volcano: a wonderfully symmetrical cone thrusting across the deep blue Atlantic, its summit often wreathed in mist. So big it threatens to swallow within the entire island, the 2351m Montanha do Pico may be the first (and last) thing you observe whether arriving by boat or plane. Its profile hogs the horizon, begging to get admired, photographed and hiked - three hours up and four down, with the record. It is here on Pico you can wander through Unesco-listed volcanic vineyards within the 10.5km Caminhos de Santa Luzia and descend to the half light in the 5km Gruta das Torres, one of the entire world's longest lava tubes.
Dry-stone walls hemming in patchwork fields and much more cows than people - on Terceira's backroads, you'd be forgiven for thinking you'd been teleported on the Yorkshire Dales. But the illusion is short-lived since you round a bend as well as the Atlantic appears piercingly blue within the horizon, the meadows cave in to primeval laurisilva (laurel) forests freshly minted for Middle-earth, and also the volcanic Serra de Santa Bárbara massif looms on the west. Begin your discoveries the place that the great Portuguese navigators did: Unesco-listed Angra do Heroísmo, the Azores' oldest city, that has a formidable 16th-century fortress along with a pristine Renaissance old town. Descend to your island's core at Algar do Carvão, a 90m-deep volcanic chimney, then head northwest past postage-stamp vineyards to Biscoitos to swim in lava-rock bathing pools, sheltered through the crashing Atlantic.
You can't really say you've been to your Azores until you've bounced along the choppy Atlantic within a semi-rigid boat, the wind with your salt-entangled hair, waves tossing you against side to side. And all suddenly of silent exhilaration because you first glimpse a whale: the blowhole of your migrating blue or humpback, or even the smooth, torpedo-like form of the surfacing sperm whale, mostly sighted in Azorean waters. Faial is certainly one of the best islands to hook onto a whale-watching tour, including those run from the inimitable, bandana-clad
Norberto (www.norbertodiver.com). Whale-watching excursions depart through the marina in Horta from April to October. Here you'll also find Peter's Café Sport (www.petercafesport.com), the jolly, flag-bedecked haunt of yachtsmen since 1918. Pop in for any G&T or possibly a plate of just-caught limpets. Upstairs is usually a one-of-a-kind scrimshaw museum, a nod for the island's former whaling industry. At the region's western tip is Capelinhos, the final volcano to erupt from the Azores in 1958, now an eerily beautiful, ashen landscape that falls abruptly on the ocean.
Even Azoreans spoiled with magnificent nature on every corner go misty-eyed with the mentioned of Flores, a Unesco Biosphere Reserve since 2009. This luxuriantly green botanical garden of the island receives the biggest rainfall, hence the profusion of lagoons, waterfalls and inky blue crater lakes. In summer its plateaus undoubtedly are a fragrant mass of pinkish-blue hydrangeas. Out on its lonesome within the western Azores as well as Corvo, this can be a terrific outdoorsy pick, with coastal hikes (Ponta Delgada to Fajã Grande, as an illustration), canyoning, mountain biking and diving to lava tubes and caves. In Fajãzinha, 20 waterfalls spill down cliff faces in wispy threads, the greatest of which is 300m-high Ribeira Grande. The fluted basalt columns of Rocha dos Bordões will be the island's most visible natural icon.
If you might have time for under one island, go with the biggest. São Miguel packs the very best bits from the Azores into one enticingly volcanic bundle. The southern capital Ponta Delgada, can be a graceful black-and-white affair, with mosaic cobbled streets meandering to a marina lined with fish restaurants. Base yourself here and day-trip to island hotspots like Furnas, in which a placid crater lake contrasts with spluttering caldeiras (hot springs) and smouldering fumaroles. Here, cozido, a fun meat and vegetable stew, is slow-cooked a metre deep for seven hours inside soil's geothermal heat; do it at Tony's Restaurant. You can float in brackish thermal waters for the 18th-century Terra Nostra estate nearby, now a botanical wonderland of ferny groves and gardens nurturing azaleas, camellias, hydrangeas, ginger lilies and cycads. When the fog peels back from Mirador do Rei lookout, the vista of Sete Cidades is staggering. Local lore has it the twin crater lakes were formed through the tears shed by way of a pair of star-crossed lovers: a green-eyed princess plus a blue-eyed shepherd. High on your itinerary, too, needs to be a dip inside pool at Caldeira Velha waterfall, a hike within the Lagoa de Fogo nature reserve and also a visit towards the time-warp which is Gorreana, Europe's only tea plantation, little-changed given it opened in 1883.
One caldera, one village, 430 inhabitants, 17.1 sq km of unbridled nature: Corvo's stats are music for an escapist's ears. In the western Azores, this droplet of your island is home to considered one of Europe's smallest communities, whose traditions and idiosyncrasies are actually preserved and polished over centuries of isolation. Folk here speak that has a medieval Portuguese dialect whilst still being lock their doors with juniper latches - trust is the vital thing when you know your entire neighbours. The island is really a much-loved hangout of birdwatchers, specially in October and November when migratory species like the American heron might be sighted. If hiking is much more your scene, consider the 5.3km trail from Caldeirão to Cancela do Pico for broad views across a 300m-deep caldera. Prime dive sites are the skylit cave Gamela as well as the Caneiro dos Meros, where groupers swirl among submerged lava formations.
Small and serene, Graciosa will be the northernmost island with the central group. Its geological centrepiece will be the Furna do Enxofre, a 40m-high volcanic cave, whose sulphurous lake and stalactites glimmer within the midday sun. On the easy-going 7km Serra Branca to Praia trail which criss-crosses the region from west to east, you may pick out some from the island's other idiosyncrasies, for example red-turreted basalt windmills and, if you are lucky, Azorean dwarf donkeys (you will discover just 20 left). Another hike leads about the perimeter from the Caldeira's volcanic cone, commanding far-reaching views through the whole island. Diving is best inside the island's northwest, and whale- and dolphin-watching boats depart on the port of Santa Cruz.
A 54km-long slither associated with an island, São Jorge is scenically considered one of the most dramatic from the Azores. Its big-shouldered mountains, deep ravines, wave-lashed cliffs, fjord-like lakes and distinctive fajãs (coastal plains formed by lava flows or landslides) turn it into a prime island for everyone manner of outdoor pursuits, including mountain biking, canyoning, canoeing, and speleology at Montoso and Bocas do Fogo caves. Above all, though, this can be a brilliant island for hiking, with trails like the 10km Fajã dos Vimes, leading down from thickly wooded hillsides through vineyards and villages to your sea. Sub-tropical dragon trees, together with banana, guava and low plantations thrive with this mild climate, as well as the island's tangy unpasteurised cow's milk cheese may be the Azores' best.
Santa Maria was the first from the Azores to bubble for the surface around tens of millions of years ago, and early volcanic activity could be traced from the pillow lavas at Pedreira do Campo and also the basalt columns at Ribeira de Maloás. The 'mother island' is blessed while using Azores' best beaches, with paler sand and warmer water than elsewhere. Among the best will be the amphitheatre-shaped bay of São Lourenço, where terraced vineyards march around the hillside towards the Atlantic, and Blue Flag Praia Formosa for watersports like jet-skiing, surfing and kayaking. Beyond the beach lie villages reminiscent from the Algarve, with limewashed houses topped with cylindrical chimneys. Walk the 14km trail from Pico Alto (587m) to Anjos to contrast the lush greenery from the island's laurel forests with all the wave-like, rust-red soils in the Barreiro da Faneca desert. In Anjos, a statue of Christopher Columbus stands proud at the chapel where he ordered a Thanksgiving mass to celebrate his safe return in the New World in 1493.
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Make it happen
Sata (www.sata.pt) operate frequent flights to every one nine Azorean islands; the flight time approximately three-and-a-half hours from London Gatwick/Heathrow and around four hours from Boston. The Visit Azores website really should be your first stop for planning your Azores trip, using the lowdown on sights, accommodation, transport and hiking trails. Ferries run by Atlânticoline (www.atlanticoline.pt; May to September only) and Transmaçor (www.transmacor.pt; year-round) serve beautiful hawaii, but it's quicker plus much more convenient to fly if you wish to explore islands that happen to be far apart. On São Miguel and Pico, Futurismo organises all sorts of outdoor activities, from hiking to diving, whale-watching and mountain biking.