Are The Azores for you?
When I told people that I was going to the Azores, the response was overwhelmingly something along the lines of the following: “Ooooh, the Azores… Where’s that?”
It’s an understandable question. Somehow The Azores have remained one of Europe’s most mysterious destinations. The simple answer is that this 9-island archipelago is pretty much in the middle of the Atlantic. Sure, it’s a little closer to Europe than it is to the US but that’s splitting hairs, really. Suffice to say, it’s remote. The other part of the response – the ‘Oooooh, The Azoooorrres’ part – is also understandable. There’s something about that word, Azores, that just sounds exotic. People imagine white sands, Caribbean-style bathtub seas, beach huts and palm trees. Well let me put that one to bed straight away… from the moment I arrive on Sao Miguel, the largest of the islands, all I can think is just how similar it is to Ireland. Field after field full of cows, little stone houses and painstakingly built stone walls, huge blue bursts of hydrangea flower lining the roads, thick pine forests, a black coastline that’s been battered beautiful by the Atlantic – and green. Everywhere you look there’s green.
Of course, Ireland it definitely isn’t. For one thing, I visit in October and despite overcast skies (just like home!), the temperatures are still up around the 20ºC mark. And it is exotic, it’s just not exotic in the way lots of people might expect. The best way I can describe the Azores is… well, imagine that Iceland, Ireland, Sri Lanka and Jurassic Park all got together and made beautiful little island babies. That’s what the Azores are like.
They’re the kind of place where you can go whale-watching in the morning, eat a meal that’s been cooked underground in the heat from a volcano afterwards, hike into the belly of a huge crater in the afternoon, and stew yourself in natural thermal baths in the evening. The islands are very easy to fall in love with, and the fact that they are still relatively untouched makes them even better.
I have a lot to write about the Azores and the incredible experiences you can have there, but before getting into all that it’s worth giving the islands a proper introduction, considering how mysterious they still are to so many people. So before I give you the scoop on dolphin swimming, scuba diving, and mountain biking – here’s the basic stuff you need to know to decide if the Azores should be one of your bucket list destinations. Go to the Azores if…
You don’t want a typical beach holiday (but you’d like a beach option):
There’s nothing wrong with wanting a lazy beach holiday – in fact they should be mandatory for everyone once in a while. But I really think that coming here to just lie on the beach is a bit of a waste. There are some great beaches, but this isn’t a beach resort kind of place. It’s a volcanos, forests, lakes, rivers, craters, mountains, boiling mud, thermal baths kind of place. It’s a ‘holiday of a lifetime’ kind of place. If you want to chill by the sea, it’s best done at one of the many natural swimming pools carved into the volcanic coast. But don’t expect beaches like those on the Balearics or Greek islands.
You love a bit of natural beauty:
Well – a lot of natural beauty. The Azores are all about natural beauty. These nine little islands rose out of the sea, formed out of molten lava, and created some of the most lush, beautiful, unusual, diverse and dramatic landscapes I’ve seen in a long time. Each island has its own particular draw, and everything feels fresh and pure and unpolluted. In one week I saw my very first rainbow’s end, and then four more for good measure – it’s that sort of place. It’s a paradise, but not a ‘white sand and turquoise sea’ paradise – it’s more like Eden, or the Great Valley at the end of ‘The Land Before Time’. Azoreans know a good thing when they see it too, and thankfully, they’re fiercely protective of the island’s ecology and environmental health.
You like doing stuff:
Lots of stuff. If you’re the kind of person who loves the sort of holiday where you fall into bed completely exhausted at the end of the day, you’ll love the Azores. For outdoorsy people, the Azores are the ultimate holiday destination. The whole archipelago is like one giant natural playground, and whether you like land-based action or water-based action, you’ll be like a kid in a candy shop. Climbing, canyoning, mountain biking, scuba diving, hiking, golfing, fishing, horse riding, whale watching, snorkelling with wild dolphins, cycling, paddle boarding, kayaking, surfing… You could easily create a serious week-long itinerary on Sao Miguel alone, but different islands offer different things, so be prepared to do some hopping (there are inter-island flights, and during summer a ferry to get you to different islands).
You like it hot, but not too hot:
The coldest it gets is about 10°C in the depths of winter, and it never gets dead hot in summer either (up to 26°C is standard for July and August). But it’s very humid, it can get windy throughout the year, and there’s always a chance of rain. If you want a sun holiday with guaranteed heat and sunshine every day, you’re taking a bit of a risk with the Azores (you’re in the middle of the Atlantic, remember!). Look, chances are it will actually be lovely if you come here in summer – but you just never know; you’re at the mercy of the Atlantic. The payoff for the archipelago’s changeable weather is more than worth it, and if you’re here for an active holiday you’ll appreciate the lack of extremes.
You’re not looking for a rave:
The Azoreans like to have a good time, but this isn’t Ibiza. You won’t find banging clubs or neon-lit main strips full of people up all night on a mad one. What you’ll find is really nice bars – ones that stay open well into the wee small hours and everything – but the whole buzz is just laid back and relaxed. And that’s really nice – besides, if you’re getting the most out of the islands during the day, it’s probably all you’ll be able for. The islands are known for their festivals though, from traditional religious ones through to a renowned annual blues festival on Santa Maria, and if you go there during one of these you can be sure of a bit of a party.
You want to see whales, but you also have realistic expectations:
I spent the first four days there obsessively looking out plane windows, car windows, restaurant windows and hotel windows, desperately staring at the water in the hopes of spotting a whale. I kept telling the guides I was with that I was looking for them. The guides kept politely telling me that I wouldn’t see any from the coast at this time of year, with the sea as choppy as it was. It was only on day five that I started to actually listen to them. I still looked and everything, but with a resigned acceptance of defeat, instead of the excited hope I’d been running on for the previous five days. The Azores are one of the best places in the world to see whales, and to see many different species of them. If you actually want to see them, go on a proper boat trip, ideally between June and September when the water is calmer. Don’t bother staring hopefully out of car windows at the ocean. You’re welcome.
You’re ok with life in the slow lane:
Or sometimes, the ‘not moving at all because there are cows in the way’ lane. The islands are gorgeously untouched, and while you’ll find wi-fi all over the place and it’s by no means a backwater, the islands are very rural, very unhurried, and wonderfully simple. Azoreans all seem to know each other, at least they all wave at almost every car they pass on the road. They don’t have to lock their cars or fit alarms on their houses. People seem really happy, so much so that you might take a notion to just jack it all in, run away from the rat race and move here to work the land. If you’re like me, you’ll quickly remember that you haven’t a clue how to actually ‘work land’, so you’ll just go home instead – but the Azores will give you that feeling.
You would travel for wine and cheese alone:
There are vineyards and cows all over the islands, and those vineyards and cows produce some excellent wines and cheeses. Production is relatively small compared to some of the world’s bigger wine and cheese producing regions, and the prohibitive costs of exporting fairly small amounts of produce such long distances mean that it’s difficult to find Azorean wine and cheese outside the Azores. So, go there to try it. And while you’re there, try Azorean liquors too. And don’t forget the local pineapple, tea, passion fruit, and beef either.
You’re prepared to come here more than once.
That’s the curse of this place. I love seeing new countries and discovering new places, but there are some holidays that I just want more of. That’s how I feel after the Azores. I did so much there, but now all I want to do is go back and do it all (and more) again. I’m day dreaming about my return, thinking about the islands I didn’t get to yet, and the islands I can’t wait to visit again. I’m bumping other destinations down my list to put the Azores back in at the top. If you come here and really get stuck into the islands and all they have to offer, you’ll probably feel the same.
This little archipelago, right out there in the middle of the Atlantic, is a pretty special place. If you love and respect the amazing beauty and nature of the islands and the bounty of activities they offer, then you might just find The Azores making their way onto your list of favourite destinations. The fact that they are so easily within reach of London, Lisbon and Porto, and yet so untouched and exotic, make them the perfect place for people who want to go somewhere really and truly different – but without the long-haul trip.
On three of the five occasions when I saw a rainbow’s end during my week there, I excitedly pointed it out to the guide I was with. They all seemed quite used to it, and each one of them laughed (I was probably going a bit ‘double rainbow guy’ over it) and said ‘ah, you have to go and find the treasure!’. I really couldn’t help but think that I already had found it, and the rainbows were just reminding me.