Rich in untamed beauty, warm hospitality, and everything from whale watching to scuba diving, the Azores is the ultimate escape from COVID-era worries...
Social distancing doesn’t get much more spectacular than this. Out in the mid-Atlantic, hundreds of miles from its nearest neighbour, the Azores archipelago is often dubbed the ‘Hawaii of Europe’ for its dramatic volcanic beauty – replete with lush countryside, sunny climes, and UNESCO-listed heritage sites.
The archipelago is divided into three groups, with the central cluster of Terceira, Graciosa, São Jorge, Pico and Faial at its heart. To the east lie São Miguel and Santa Maria; to the west, Flores and Corvo. But while each island is unique, they’re united by their secluded splendour – with an abundance of fresh sea air, quiet hiking and cycling routes to enjoy, and a total population of around 250,000 (that’s less than half the population of Cornwall).
Here’s why you should pay a visit this year…
The UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) currently has no advisories against visiting the Azores – and, at time of press, there is no need to quarantine when you return to England (but do be aware that those returning from the Azores to Scotland will need to self-isolate for 14 days). Indeed, this far-flung archipelago has remained safe throughout the pandemic, with only a handful of COVID-19 cases recorded on the islands.
To visit, all you need to do is complete a coronavirus screening test before you fly – or take one on arrival. For the latest advice, check gov.co.uk.
Whether by land, sea or air, adventure in the Azores is rich in possibilities. On land, the best way to explore is by foot as all of the islands are embossed with centuries-old trails that have been restored and maintained. Whether you opt for one of the multi-day Grand Routes or a half-day hike, expect to see beautiful hidden corners of the Azores, vast costal views and a closer look at the rugged interior. Alternatively, swap two feet for two wheels and enjoy the many mountain biking trails that criss-cross the archipelago’s volcanic terrain. Those looking for a more slow-paced adventure can clip-clop up the mountains and past the manicured gardens and volcanic lakes on horseback. However you choose to roam the land, be sure to keep an eye out for the 30 species of birds that call the Azores home, as well as some 400 migratory birds.
Don’t forget to explore beyond terra firma, too. Go on a whale watching tour to spy dolphins and whales year-round or if you want to get the heart racing, try canyoning.Canyoning is a thrilling way to see the Azores from a different angle. There are few things like jumping from the rocks into a cooling pool beneath a rushing waterfall.
While the Azores is blissfully free of crowded ‘honeypot’ attractions, it certainly isn’t short of must-sees. In fact, it’s one of only two destinations in the world that hold all four of the UNESCO classifications – often with multiple sites in each category.
On Terceira, for example, the richly-storied centre of Angra do Heroismo is a UNESCO World Heritage Site – renowned for its 400-year-old fortifications and sea-faring history. So, too, is the wine-growing region on Pico, where premium vineyards have flourished for centuries. To experience a Biosphere Reserve, look to the islands of Corvo, Graciosa and Flores: each one has a unique geography and dazzling biodiversity.
You’ll also find Ramsar-designated wetlands throughout the archipelago, making it a haven for birdwatchers and photographers – while the Azores Geopark covers all nine islands too, protecting its unique volcanic terrain.
Summer may be almost over, but Azorean adventures are just beginning. Travel to the islands in September and October, and you’ll enjoy sunny days and a good chance of spotting blue whales, fin whales, and hopefully humpbacks too (they migrate between the islands, Cape Verde and Norway).
Winter brings great-value flights and hotels, while spring starts in February/March – heralded by mild temperatures and a vibrant carpet of wildflowers. Summer, of course, is sublime: drenched in sunshine, with long balmy days.
From bottlenose dolphins to loggerhead turtles, scuba divers in the Azores can encounter a huge variety of marine life. For beginners, Santa Maria offers shallow reef as well as deeper drop-offs, where you can scoop PADI or SSI qualifications in the colourful company of sardines and octopus.
Pico, meanwhile, is a haven for experienced divers: here, stingrays and whales frequent the underwater canyons and chasms. The island is famed for its lava caves and sloping volcanic terrain, which continue beneath the ocean’s surface – a remarkable sight in itself.
Though the islands themselves have been hewn over millennia, the Azores is relatively ‘young’ in human history – indeed, it only became inhabited (by Portuguese settlers) in the 1400s. Today, you can trace every step of the islands’ story via their UNESCO-listed heritage sites and churches – most of which are perfectly preserved.
While Angra do Heroismo grabs the limelight (for good reason: its 16th-century fortresses and Baroque cathedrals are breathtaking), other historic gems await too – such as the island of Santa Maria, which Christopher Columbus stumbled upon in 1493; and the ruins of Farol dos Capelinhos (on Faial), dubbed the ‘Pompeii of the Azores’.
Religion, too, is an important part of the islands’ history: in this untamed volcanic terrain, many Azoreans turned to spirituality for comfort – leaving a legacy of magnificent churches, particularly in Ponta Delgada, on São Miguel.
Many of the islands’ traditions still thrive today – in their food, crafts, and architecture. Terceira is famed for its intricate embroidery, while São Jorge’s artisans specialise in quilts spun from vibrant sheeps’ wool. On Corvo, wood-turners and carvers produce decorative wooden keys and locks; and Graciosa’s wicker baskets are beautiful.
For more modern designs, look to the Arquipélago Contemporary Arts Center on São Miguel, where local artists showcase their work in the grounds of a former factory, which has won awards for its striking architecture – unmissable in every sense of the word.
With the island’s farm-to-table ethos and the huge variety of product here, you’re in for a foodie treat wherever you eat in the Azores. Being surrounded by the sea, it should come as no surprise that fish is often on the menu here, with a huge variety of fresh seafood available on the menu. If you’re a meat lover, Cozido das Furnas is a must: head to the town of Furnas to watch this hearty stew being placed into the ground to be cooked by a volcano.
Other must-try food experiences include visiting the pineapple plantations on the Island of São Miguel and heading to São Jorge to try the tasty cheese that is produced there.
If there has been one positive from the world’s recent lockdown, it is that our planet has had the time to recover and revitalise, so it is perhaps more important than ever to travel with the lightest of footsteps. Travelling sustainably is made easy in the Azores which was the first ever archipelago to be certified under the EarthCheck Sustainable Destination program, recognising the Azore’s commitment to preserving its rich culture and marine ecosystems.
With a little bit of research, you can make sure you explore the pristine, unspoilt landscapes without leaving a trace. When choosing your hotel, be sure to opt for one with eco-initiatives, such as those that use renewable energy. Choosing to stay in a locally-owned hotel and to eat in a local restaurant rather than visiting chains is a great way to give back to the local economy. When booking your adventures, make sure you choose a responsible local tour operator with a good eco-friendly reputation; there are many to choose from. So however you spend your time in the Azores, you can be sure your visit will be a sustainable one.
Wherever in the world you travel right now, your custom will almost certainly be welcomed with open arms (metaphorically speaking, of course) – but in the Azores, that has always been the case. This friendly island community prides itself on making every traveller feel at home; whether that’s by going the extra mile as a tour guide, ensuring your hotel stay is extra-special, or simply taking the time to stop and chat.
In this world of social distancing and lockdown, it’s both refreshing and restorative – and just the kind of ‘new normal’ we need.
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