Eight Unmissable Adventures In The Azores
We’ve published a couple of articles about the Azores already; an introduction to the islands for anyone who’s unfamiliar, and an article about the incredible water activities you can do there. But there’s an awful lot for land-lubbers to do here too. The earth’s core decided to bless us all with this remote, volcanic place of phenomenal beauty, and it should be enjoyed to the fullest. From the lily and hydrangea-hemmed hiking trails to the breath-taking views from the top of Mount Pico, here are just some of the adventures the beautiful Azores have to offer…
Sao Miguel has a serious supply of beautiful canyons that you can swim, jump and abseil your way down to your heart’s content. I went on a little adventure in the Ribeira dos Caldeirões National Park; it’s a great way to get hands-on with the island and explore a side of it that most people don’t and won’t get to. The canyons are beautiful, you’re surrounded by thick pine forest, yellow honeysuckle (try them), and beautiful big blue hydrangeas as you explore them. I don’t know if you’ve ever jumped off a waterfall into a crystal clear plunge pool, but if you haven’t – it’s a lot of fun and you should 100% do it. If you’ve never done it before don’t worry, the guides at Azores Adventure Islands are brilliant – you’ll learn all the basics and can take your time getting used to the gear and the heights. Yes, you will probably be a bit nervous to begin with but trust me, you’ll be flinging yourself off waterfalls in no time. Also, you will feel like a bad-ass when you do it. Trust me on that too.
More info: Azores Adventure Islands, Sao Miguel.
The Azores are a hiker’s dream and with good reason; they’re largely untouched, carefully protected, and they bear the scars (or beauty marks, really) of millions of years of volcanic activity, making them as fascinating as they are beautiful to explore. Each and every island is blessed with something particular and unique to it that makes for superb hiking, and there are trails to suit all levels of ability. Dedicated hiking holidays are really popular here, and you can find great guides to each island’s hiking trails on visitazores.com. It’s easy enough to go it alone, but I went for a hike on Santa Maria Island with a guide from S M A TUR. A walk along such a gorgeous coastline on a beautiful sunny day is always a wonderful thing, but to have a local guide who is able to provide a little background knowledge to the places you visit proved invaluable. However you decide to do it is up to you – just don’t forget a windbreaker and some good boots.
More info: S M A TUR, Santa Maria Island
There are lots of places you can go horse riding on the islands, and so many beautiful routes to discover on horseback. The one I did, and would happily do again every day for the rest of my life given the chance, is a route that takes you up the outside of Sete Cidade’s crater wall, and then down into the belly of the crater. You can hike or cycle this route too – in fact, however you want to get up onto the ridge of that crater to see the view is a-ok as long as you get up there and see it – but it’s a beautiful trail to discover on horseback. There’s something about sitting on horseback on the top of those crater walls, looking down at one of the most gorgeous sights you’ll ever see, that will make you feel like royalty. For more experienced riders, there’s lots of opportunity to have a trot on the way to the crater, and when you descend into the crater and reach its two beautiful lakes you can canter around them. For newbies, don’t worry – you’ll be given gentle steeds and you can go at a pace that suits you.
More info: Equiacores, Sao Miguel
The Azores are covered in thick, lush pine forests which not only look (and smell) absolutely beautiful; they provide a perfect playground for anyone who likes to go really fast on two wheels. On Santa Maria Island I went for an awesome MTB ride with Miguel of SMA T U R, starting almost at the top of its highest point, Pico Alto, and hurtling down the mountain along awesome singletracks through the trees, before reaching Barreiro de Faneca – or the ‘Red Desert’, an 8km squared patch of land that makes you feel a bit like you’ve landed on Mars. From here we rode on to Anjos, where we were able to take a break and appreciate some pretty stellar views of the island’s wild, beautiful coast. I honestly didn’t think I’d enjoy this as much as I did, but it was really fantastic – brilliant for groups or families with older kids, and it doesn’t cost the earth; an unexpected highlight of my trip.
More info: S M A TUR, Santa Maria Island
Climbing Pico, to be precise. Pico mountain is on Pico Island (no prizes if you guessed that one yourself), and it’s a challenging but infinitely rewarding climb of 2,351 metres. It’ll take you between 7-10 hours to reach the summit and get back down again, depending on whether or not you attempt the sunrise climb (which involves some slower night-climbing). You do need to be in relatively good shape to do it. It’s also highly recommended that you hire a guide for the hike, particularly if it’s your first ascent, as there are some different routes up the mountain, and both the weather and visibility can change quite quickly when you’re on the mountain. Wear good hiking boots, bring proper supplies, and do NOT forget your camera, because when you reach the summit you’re going to want to take pictures. It’s incredible.
Sao Miguel is still bubbling away beneath the surface, its volcanoes belching up great heat from deep underground and creating not only beautiful landscapes, but also some pretty awesome natural thermal pools. There are three really nice ones you can visit on Sao Miguel, two in Furnas (one in the Terra Nostra Park and one just minutes away at Poca Da Dona Beija), and one in Ponta da Ferraria, right over on the island’s west coast. I was lucky enough to try all three. The baths in Furnas are really relaxing, full of minerals, and being ‘man made’ they have comfortable seats and lots of powerful water jets that you can stand under for a massage-y little treat. But for the pure natural wildness of it all, it’s well worth making your way to the Ponta de Ferraria baths, where the bath is actually a natural rock pool right by the sea – and the only one of its kind in the world. Hot water from underground is diluted and cooled by the sea’s waves to create a toasty little pool for you to relax in. If you want to relax even more, head to the Spa, beside the baths, for a massage.
More info: Termas Ferraria, Sao Miguel
The same heat that brings you those lovely warms pools to relax in is the very same heat that facilitates this particular lunch that you really have to try… Cozido das Furnas, or ‘Furnas Stew’ is a hearty meal that’s been cooked underground in hot springs created by volcanic steam. Pots are layered with beef, cabbage, sweet potato, pork, kale, pigs ear (TRY IT), yams, chicken, potatoes, blood sausage, carrots and regular sausage, then sent down underground to steam. That’s reason enough to eat it, if you ask me. But it helps that it’s really tasty too. It reminds me just a little of Irish Stew actually, but with more ingredients. It’s a simple dish – meat, potatoes and veg – but it’s delicious, unusual, and it’s an absolutely authentic Azorean dining experience. Go to Lake Furnas to see how it’s cooked, and then go to a restaurant to see how it tastes. I had mine at the Terra Nostra restaurant in Furnas and I can confirm two things:
- That it is very good indeed, and
- Arriving hungry is a clever idea.
More Info: Hotel Terra Nostra, Sao Miguel
I have to hold my hands up and admit that I’ve always been a bit snobby towards Stand Up Paddleboarding. I decided it wasn’t fast enough for my taste, so I’d never tried it before I came to the Azores. Well it turns out that I’m eating my words, because it’s an absolutely lovely way to spend a few hours – and doing it on the twin lakes in the belly of the Sete Cidades crater is something particularly special. It’s not extreme, and that’s nice. It’s tranquil and strangely meditative (I imagine; I don’t actually meditate). The lakes are sheltered by the surrounding crater walls, helping you glide easily across their smooth surfaces. You’ll like it.