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September 20, 2019
By Emma Dodd
You’d be forgiven for not being able to find the Azores on a map. Drifting way out into the Atlantic Ocean, past the Canary Islands and Madeira, this Portuguese archipelago is fairly uncharted by British travellers.
But that’s all about to change. Because when travel experts aren’t singing their praises, low-cost airlines are hawking cheap-as-chips flights direct to the capital, Ponta Delgada. In all, it means the Azores are quickly sneaking up the bucket list ranks.
Of course, if ‘getting there first’ isn’t enough, here are a few more reasons you should consider a trip to this spectacular set of islands.
The Azoreans know they’re hoarding a bounty of natural beauty. Lucky for us, then, that they’re happy to share in its spoils; viewpoints (miradouros) that could be plucked out of a Planet Earth documentary are scattered across the nine islands.
Some of the Azores’ most iconic snapshots – of both the coast and the lakes – are found on São Miguel, the largest island. Take your camera for a ride around the island, and point your lens in the direction of Lagoa do Fogo (tantalisingly translated to Lake of Fire) from Miradouro do Pico da Barrosa and the twin lakes at Sete Cidades (Miradouro da Vista do Rei, Miradouro da Boca do Inferno).
For coastlines, the unmistakable Vila Franca do Campo islet can be captured from Miradouro da Nossa Senhora Da Paz and the winding road up to the Arnel Point Lighthouse looks a treat from Miradouro da Vista dos Barcos.
Misty mornings are not uncommon on these characteristically moody islands, but waiting out the gloom is worth it – the haze tends to clear not long after it descends, leaving you with the perfect views promised on postcards.
Even a passing interest in nature will become a full-blown obsession by the time the Azores are through with you. For starters, look to the waves for an unforgettable wildlife show.
Whales are big fans of the wild Atlantic, and, among others, the three biggest species – blue, fin and sei – can be found here throughout the year. The main whale watching season runs from April to October (the big three are mostly spotted in spring), while sperm and pilot whales – who like the Azores so much they don’t migrate – can be seen all year round.
Playful dolphins also have a whale of a time in these seas and most boat tours offer a 98% chance of spotting some. You’ll find plenty of reputable companies in Ponta Delgada.
Twitchers will be in their element in the Azores too, with over 400 species, including the São Miguel goldcrest, the Azores bullfinch and Atlantic canary, calling the islands home.
It might be tempting to step off the plane and into your rental car but you’d be missing out to skip the islands’ capital, Ponta Delgada.
While there’s not all that much to do here, the city is a sight in itself – and easy to walk to boot. Charmingly narrow and decoratively paved, its streets reflect the distinctive black and white buildings characteristic of the city. Down by its busy marina, a beautiful promenade hugs the coast.
For a taste of the islands’ history, check out the Arruda Pineapple Plantation and celebrate the unique Azorean version of the fruit (small but packed with flavour) with a free tour. Or, pick one up fresh at the Mercado da Graça.
On your way out of the city, consider a tour of the Coal Caves. An ancient lava tube extending almost two kilometres, the attraction isn’t for the faint of heart but is a great kick-off point for an adventure holiday. Tours start at around £5.
Inspired by the sea and influenced by rural tradition – with a few cherry-picked elements of Portuguese cuisine thrown in – food in the Azores is the culinary equivalent to the outdoor adventures it offers. It means you can be snacking on crumbly pastries for breakfast, tucking into a fresh seafood feast at lunch and slurping on a flavour-packed stew by dinnertime.
The islands' famous dish is Cozido das Furnas, a traditional meat-and-veg stew slow-cooked by underground hot springs (caldeiras) in the São Miguel town of Furnas. Meanwhile, seafood specialities include grilled garlic, butter and spicy red pepper lapas (limpets), deep-fried eel and, on the island of Terceira, a type of barnacle called cracas.
The Azores are also known for their distinctive cheeses: Queijo São Jorge is a favourite, as is anything from Terceira. Head to specialist cheese shop O Rei Dos Queijos in Ponta Delgada to have your pick of the bunch.
For a spa day with a difference, head to one of the Azores’ many natural hot springs. These bubbling pools are dotted across the archipelago, but you’ll find some of the best on São Miguel, often in typically dramatic surroundings.
Think pools hidden deep in lush, waterfall-laden forests, coastal hot springs battling the cold Atlantic waves to bring warmth to the fore and mineral-rich ponds smack bang in the middle of a botanical garden.
For the former, head to the ever popular hot springs at Caldeira Velha. Here, in the centre of the island, three pools sit deep within a prehistoric valley, surrounded by thick ferns and trickling waterfalls. On the west coast – literally – are the Termas da Ferraria, where the tide ebbs out to reveal bubbling springs among the rock pools. Just remember to check the tidal timings before you go.
Easy-access relaxation comes at Terra Nostra Park in Furnas. This hotel, spa and botanic garden is perched on an iron-rich, sprawling hot spring – and while the natural minerals don’t make for the prettiest picture (the pool is rust-red), the experience is unmissable.
Dark or old swimsuits are recommended for use at the hot springs, as the iron in the water can dye swimwear and towels an irreversible shade of red.
Generally, the Azores have a similar weather pattern to mainland Europe. The main tourism season lasts from April to October (which is also the best time to go for whale watching), when the weather is at its most stable. Prices peak around summer (July to September) as this is when you'll get the most sunshine and the warmest weather – think highs in the mid-20s.
Cheaper deals are available over the winter, but there’s more chance of rain, particularly in January and February. That said, the archipelago has a fairly mild temperature year-round, so there’s never really a bad time to visit.