The Complete Guide To

The Complete Guide To

The farthest flung outpost of Western Europe comprises nine volcanic fragments peeking out of the North Atlantic. The Azores offer a wealth of wonders: from some of the oldest “New World” cities on the planet, to rich forests and dazzling lakes.

The islands are scattered across the ocean roughly 1,500km west of mainland Portugal and 4,000km east of New York. They form part of Macaronesia, a geographical region that includes the Canaries, although the Azores are much greener than the Spanish islands.

The name Macaronesia derives from the Greek term for “fortunate isles”, and is singularly appropriate.

The islands divide naturally into three groups: the eastern islands of Sao Miguel (the largest of the nine), and Santa Maria; the central group consisting of Terceira, Graciosa, Sao Jorge, Pico and Faial; and the western islands of Flores and Corvo, the smallest and most remote.

The best vantage point from which to appreciate the individuality of each island is ground level, as you drive, cycle or walk. But even when flying from the Portuguese mainland to the Azores you can find your flight involves traversing one or two other islands en route to your final destination: sitting on the left on the link from, say, Lisbon to Horta on the island of Faial should enable you to see Terceira, Sao Jorge and Pico on the landing approach and will show you just how varied are the members of this fascinating family of islands.

Where human settlement of the archipelago began. Until the 15th century, when Portuguese explorers happened upon an island that they named Santa Maria, and another that became Sao Miguel, the Azores were unpopulated.

Sao Miguel is now the most important island, and most visitors to the Azores make landfall at its main town, Ponta Delgada. By Azorean standards it is a bustling conurbation lacking the calm that is the islands’ most appealing feature, but there are some notable attractions.

The three arches in the main square, Praca Gonzalo Velha Cabral, were part of a gate through the original city walls. In front of the square, a road continues along the harbourfront to the imposing fortress of Sao Bras; behind that is an attractive square, Praca 5 de Outubro, whose highlight is the alluring Chapel of Nossa Senhora da Esperanca. In contrast with the ornate gilding around the altar, its walls are covered with blue and white tiles depicting Biblical scenes. From the square, follow the narrow street that runs parallel with the harbour road, lined with two storey, balconied houses and towers providing look out points.

The main attractions of Sao Miguel lie beyond the town. Its scenic strong point is Sete Cidades a name that translates from the Portuguese as “Seven Cities”, which is curious given it is a volcanic caldera. Unlike most such craters, this one has a village near the bottom, plus a pair of lakes with a legend. The story broadly goes that a beautiful princess fell in love with a shepherd, but they were forbidden by her father from marrying; he did, though, permit them to meet one final time. Her tears ran blue, to form the larger lake; his were green, and created the smaller.

Europe’s only commercial tea plantations are located on the north coast of Sao Miguel; the plants were brought to the island from Brazil in the 18th century.

If white sand is more your cup of tea, head next for the nearby island of Santa Maria. The most southerly of the Azores is the island that has the most conventional beach: Praia do Formosa. Santa Maria also boasts the highest average temperature in the archipelago, and offers the most reliable surfing conditions.

If you choose a clockwise navigation of the islands (by air, not surfboard), a massive 500km loop is required to reach the next in line: Flores. If one were to bestow the Azores with human characteristics, this would be the muscular, silent one. Some claim Flores is the westernmost point in the European Union (a point disputed by various French territories in the Atlantic). It possesses a peak that would narrowly count as a Munro (Morro Alto, 974m). In addition, the occidental island has a jewel of a lagoon: Funda, which looks just the place you would expect to find buried treasure. Add in weird basalt structures, vertiginous cliffs and a sprinkling of waterfalls, and you have an absurd amount of scenery packed into an island the size of Jersey.

Corvo, to the north, looks on the map like a human left ear. The lobe, dangling down to Ponta Negra, contains Vila Nova, the only significant settlement. North from here, a half day hike (happily fitted into a day trip by boat from Flores) can take you to another striking caldera, containing a miniature lakeland speckled with islets. But they provide very different experiences.

The shape of Faial approximates to a human eye, and that the iris is the rim of the caldera in the middle of the island. If by now you are cratered out, the new trick here is the approach: a tunnel through the rim that allows you suddenly to be confronted by a great gash in the u oearth’s crust. The rest of the island may look relatively tranquil in comparison, until you visit the village of Capelinhos or rather what remains of it, following a calamitous volcanic eruption in 1958.

Pico is a masterpiece. It has a shoreline full of character, and an interior that looks forboding even desolate, at least in the upper reaches of the volcano that gives the island its name, and Portugal its highest mountain (Ponta da Pico, 2,351m).

Even if you lack the time or inclination to climb it, take the high road traversing the island, which gives an excellent view of the summit (Atlantic weather systems permitting).

Sao Jorge, lying parallel to Pico, is a stripe of rock with a mighty central spine and perforated shoreline. Yet the interior could almost be Dorset pleasantly cheap jerseys rolling hills arbitrarily divided by hedgerows apart from the odd bubble that signifies a volcanic outburst. The low, flat areas are actually formed from volcanic lava and are known as fajas.

Graciosa has the shape of a teardrop, and an air of serenity. It also has a top grade geological attraction, the Sulphur Cavern. This is a “hole within a hole”. The regulation caldera is, in this case, at the far south east of the island.

Handily, you can drive into the crater and right up to the approach to the cavern. There follows one of the Azores and Europe’s most spectacular descents. A spiral staircase, looking a little like an offcut from a Disneyland castle, clings to the rock, and leads you down into the floor of the cave: perhaps the occasion when you will feel closest to the centre of the earth.

Have you left the best until last?

The 55,000 islanders of Terceira would say so. From the ribbon of white that attaches itself to the pretty shoreline, through the patchwork of fields in a spectrum of greens, to a heartland of coarse pumice, one of the historic hubs of the Azores packs in a great deal. Even though Ponta Delgada on Sao Miguel has long since taken the Azores’ lead in population and commerce, Terceira’s largest town Angra do Heroismo remains the heart of the archipelago, spiritually and architecturally. Best of all, the urban explorer can get a fix of the great geological outdoors without straying far from the Unesco Heritage List ambience of Angra do Heroismo; Monte Brasil offers a short walk and great views.

Additional research: Laura Lindsay

The town of Angra do Heroismo was born in special circumstances. In the late 15th century, Portuguese explorers were in the vanguard of mapping the world. The island of Terceira (“third”) was so named because it was discovered after Santa Maria and San Miguel. But thanks to the protection offered by Monte Brasil, it proved to have the best port. Within a few decades, Angra found itself straddling a maritime superhighway, a crucial pit stop for European vessels on their way home. The island began to make a healthy living, and also started to absorb influences from the Americas and even Asia.

Blessed with equal parts of wealth and vision, the settlers created a town for this new age, in as close to a regular grid pattern as the topography would allow.

The attention to detail on Rua da Se is worthy of a Hollywood set designer. The elaborate iron balconies have the delicacy of embroidery. Now and again you encounter an intricate compilation of azuelhos, the blue tiles familiar from the Portuguese mainland.

You can easily spot the ecclesiastical and governmental highlights the cathedral, the churches, the palaces. Yet what gives the scene such texture is the ripple of red roofs that drape themselves over the terrain as it slides down to meet the ocean.

On the island of Sao Miguel, Furnas is a village of thermal springs and lush vegetation, which sits inside a crater. Eating cozido should be a feature of any visit to Furnas. It is traditional and this is a custom still observed by the locals to take food down to the lake and leave it to cook slowly in the thermal waters; someone is there every day to keep an eye on the cooking pots. Typical dishes include cozido do Portugal, consisting of pieces of salt cod, or a meat version with chicken, sausages, yams and carrots; dessert might be a sweet rice pudding. Alternatively, it is possible to request cozido in advance from most of the local restaurants.

The Azores are accessible and rewarding all year round. In winter, temperatures rarely fall below 10C, and snow usually falls only on the upper reaches of Pico, Portugal’s highest mountain. In summer, your transport options will be much wider, and everything will seem a little busier, but none of the islands can ever be described as crowded. The ideal months, climatically and logistically, are May and September. And whale watching is available daily from several of the islands between May and September.