From making a splash with wild dolphins and whales to exploring the rich cultural heritage and sampling the local delicacies, there's every reason to visit the Azores...
The nutrient-rich waters around the Azores attract dolphins and whales year-round – whether they’re passing through on migratory routes, or settling here for a more permanent home. As such, the islands are one of the world’s most reliable places for seeing cetaceans: around 27 different types have been sighted off-shore.
In spring, blue and fin whales are abundant, while the summer months are best for encountering pilot whales, striped dolphins and Atlantic spotted dolphins. Even the winter season is fruitful: bottlenose dolphins, blue whales and fin whales are all around – and humpbacks often migrate through the area in January.
You can observe from a boat, or leap into the ocean on a wild swimming trip – with eagle-eyed spotters situated at vigias (observation points) to direct your captain to the nearest pods
On dry land, the Azores is a prime bird watching destination: over 400 species have been spotted in the archipelago. The forests of São Miguel are home to the endemic (and endangered) Azores bullfinch, known in Portuguese as the priolo. Also look out for Bulwer’s petrels, grey wagtails and Cory’s Shearwaters.
The industrial plantations of Gorreana ( producing black and green tea since the 1800s, with five generations of the same family at the helm) and Porto Formoso, appearing in the horizon as a sea of green leaves, are unique in Europe. During visits to the museum-factories,you'll learn the history and evolution of the machinery. Its cuppas are top-class, and best enjoyed after a stroll through the beautiful grounds.
But that’s only one of the archipelago’s unique culinary highlights: it boasts a bounty of Pico wines (grown on the island’s seawater-spritzed coast, a UNESCO World Heritage Site), creamy Azores cheese, and some surprisingly exotic fruits – including bananas and pineapples. Off-shore, fishermen’s hauls include tuna, lapas (limpet clams) and lobster galore; served everywhere from fancy restaurants to humble seafood shacks. The local farm-to-table ethos makes the Azores a great-value dining destination.
**Though it’s widely described as the only tea plantation in Europe, Gorreana Chá isn’t – there is also a tea plantation in Cornwall. But it is the oldest!
The best way to explore the Azores is on foot: epic coastal views and wild landscapes come as standard, with rarely another soul in sight. There are over 80 signposted hiking trails – encompassing over 800km – and five multi-day ‘Grand Routes’ in Graciosa, São Miguel, Santa Maria, Faial and Flores.
Many of the footpaths were once used as shortcuts between villages, so you’ll be guaranteed a good night’s sleep at the end of a long day’s hiking; with plenty of places to stock up on supplies, plus a local tipple or two.
From scuba diving and swimming with dolphins, to surfing and spelunking along the coast, the waters around the Azores are brimming with adventures. For paddleboarding and kayaking, the lakes of Sete Cidades on São Miguel offer calm conditions and jaw-dropping crater views; while for cyclists (of every ability) there are signposted trails all over the islands.
Climbers find it hard to resist Mt. Pico, Portugal’s tallest peak (2,351m), while the island’s scenic bridleways are catnip for horse riders too – whether for epic day trips or a wild cross-country jaunt.
The Azores are dotted with geothermal pools, untamed waterfalls and pristine forests – the ideal setting for reconnecting with nature. Take a restorative dip in one of São Miguel’s iron-infused pools (they’re spectacularly soothing, say the locals) – or head to Graciosa, where Carapacho’s mineral-enriched hot tubs overlook the roiling ocean. Wellness doesn’t get much wilder than this.
The Azores is one of only two places in the world that hold all the UNESCO classifications: World Heritage (Angra do Heroísmo’s historical centre and Pico Island Vineyard Cultural Landscape), Biosphere Reserve (the islands of Corvo, Flores and Graciosa, and the fajãs – volcanic landscapes – of São Jorge Island), Ramsar sites (13 wetlands across the archipelago) and Geopark (121 locations in total). In short, these islands are incredible!
Whether you’re staying in a family-run quinta (farmhouse) in Ribeira Grande, or a boutique hotel on picturesque Pico, the archipelago’s accommodation is unique and charming – and always offers the warmest of welcomes. Budget-conscious travellers will find a wide range of guesthouses, B&Bs and self-catering options, while those looking for luxury will enjoy the heritage properties and eco lodges throughout the isles.
There are five gateways into the Azores: on São Miguel, Terceira, Faial, Santa Maria and Pico. It takes just four hours to fly to the islands from the UK, with direct flights from London Gatwick and Stansted – as well as indirect routes connecting through Portugal (via Porto or Lisbon). From the UK , the following carriers serve the islands: Ryanair, Azores Airlines and TAP Portugal.
The archipelago is making strides with sustainable travel, leading the way with everything from eco-friendly hotels to low-impact tours and experiences. And the wider world is taking note! In 2019, for the fifth year, the Azores islands were voted one of the world’s greenest places by the Top 100 Sustainable Destinations awards – and judges declared it one of the top ten regions worldwide.
European Best Destinations, whose awards focus on excellence throughout Europe, has recognised the Azores as one of the continent’s ‘Most Beautiful Landscapes’, and one of the ‘Best Destinations to Watch Dolphins and Whales’. Set foot on these spectacular islands, and you’ll soon see why…
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