For whale-watching, volcanic crater lakes and spectacular hiking trails, these 9 beautiful islands are hard to beat
Far-flung, volcano-sculpted, peaceful yet wild, the Azores has been likened to a real-life Atlantis. The Portuguese-owned Atlantic archipelago is easier to access though: from this month SATA International begins its seasonal once-a-week non-stop service from Gatwick to Ponta Delgada on São Miguel.
Each of the Azores’ nine islands has something to brag about:
Santa Maria was discovered first, in 1427, and is also the warmest, averaging 24°C in summer. A peaceful island home to terraced vineyards and the white sand beaches of Praia Formosa, it's the places to try local wines and Maracujá, a passion-fruit liqueur.
Neighbouring São Miguel is the largest and most populated; from the cobbles of its capital, Ponta Delgada, it’s a quick commute to volcanic crater lakes, craggy coastlines, valleys fit for horseriding and thermal springs. Ponta da Ferraria, a geothermal rock pool on the island's shoreline, is another popular spot and a favourite of adventurer Ben Fogle.
Terceira is just as fascinating. Don’t miss UNESCO-listed Angra do Heroísmo. Flanked by the 400-year-old fortifications of San Sebastião and San João Baptista, this historic port was an obligatory calling-point for ships travelling from Africa and the Indies until the arrival of steam-powered vessels in the 19th century. It was visited by the fleet of Portugese explorer Vasco de Gama in 1499.
To the west is Pico, dominated by the active 2,351m Pico Alto, Portugal’s tallest mountain. The peak makes for a challenging ascent, but the spectacular views over a coastline buckled and burnt by ancient lava flows are ample reward.
Water babies might prefer to whale-watch, kayak and dive off Faial, the 'blue island'. Dolphins and over 20 species of whale have been recorded in the Azores and short-finned pilot and sperm whales are regularly spotted here. Faial is also famous as a stop-off point for transatlantic yachts. In the tiny city of Horta you'll find coffee-house and bar Peter's Café Sport, one of the world's most famous watering holes and popular among yachtsman. An Azores institution, its walls are hung with colourful pennants and fascinating black and white photographs.
For further relaxation, try tiny Graciosa or São Jorge. The latter is popular with walkers and produces tasty cured cheeses, while the former is famed as the home of the Furna do Enxofre, a sulphur lake hidden deep in a basalt cave. Visit at midday when the sun shines through fissures in the rock illuminating the domed cavern with streaks of colour.
Flores is considered by many to be the most beautiful of the islands and is renowned for its hydrangeas, at their most spectacular in June and July. Nearby Corvo, the smallest and most northerly island in the archipelago, is similarly picturesque and underdeveloped. Carthaginian temples and pre-Christian burial chambers make it a must-visit for history-lovers.
For ocean views, stay at Quinta das Amoreiras – Casa do Arco, an apartment in São Miguel. From £44pn.
SATA International flies non-stop from Gatwick to Ponta Delgada between 5 April-18 October. From £338 return; flight time 3hrs 40mins.