The Other Eden

A far-flung archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic, the Azores – part of Portugal – comprises 9 islands that are divided into three geographical groups: the Eastern Group, comprising Santa Maria and São Miguel; the Central Group, including Terceira, Graciosa, São Jorge, Pico and Faial; and the Western Group, composed by Corvo and Flores.

 

THE AZORES

The Azores lie on the nexus of three tectonic plates, and are in fact the exposed tips of underwater mountains. The landscape here is of volcanic origin, and is a world of mud pools, fumaroles, geysers, and scalding springs, complemented by blue lakes ringed by forests, caverns formed from molten rock, and green pastures carpeting caldera slopes. Remotely located in the middle of the Atlantic, the weather can be very unstable.

The remote archipelago contains two UNESCO sites (the vineyards of Pico and the old town of Angra do Heroismo on Terceira), and three biospheres, bolstered by a network of natural parks and marine reserves. The built environment covers only 5% of the land, making the rest a patchwork of protected areas.

This makes it an incredible place to enjoy nature, and hiking trails take you past volcanic craters, scenic ridgelines, and plenty of gorgeous villages and vineyards. The waters surrounding the archipelago are a magnet for wildlife – from migrating whales to a kaleidoscope of other marine life like gigantic rays, turtles, tuna, barracuda, and more.

Add to this a landscape of underwater cliffs, caves formed from lava tubes, and a number of shipwrecks. In addition, there are also activities like canyoning, horseback-riding, surfing, paragliding, and whale-watching on offer. Despite its distance from mainland Europe, prices for accommodation (and other amenities) are on par with Portugal, which means it’s excellent value for money.

 

GETTING THERE

There are direct flights to the islands of São Miguel and Terceira from numerous destinations in Europe – the shortest connections are from Portugal (Lisbon, Porto) and Spain (Barcelona, Madrid). Azores Airlines and TAP Portugal offer regular flights to the Azores, in addition to budget carriers like Ryanair, TUIfly, and Primera Air.

 

TRAVEL BETWEEN THE ISLANDS

Flying between the three groups of islands is the best way to get around; Azores Airlines runs daily flights to all islands within the archipelago. Alternatively, if you’re planning to explore only the Central Group of islands, you can hop on ferries to get between São Jorge, Pico and Faial.

 

CENTRAL GROUP

The Central Group of islands comprise Terceira, Graciosa, São Jorge, Faial and Pico, the second-largest island in the archipelago.

 

Pico

Its most defining feature is the Montanha do Pico (2,351m), a perfectly symmetrical volcano cone that is often wreathed in mist. You can hike to the top (7 hours return) or take the Lagoa do Capitão (one of 12 official hiking trails) for stunning views of it.

Pico is also home to a UNESCO-listed vineyard that dates back to the 15th century. This breathtaking manmade landscape of currais (stone walls) is laid out in a grid near the rocky shore to protect the grapes – which uniquely grow on the black basalt rock – from harsh winds and seawater. The 10.5km Caminhos de Santa Luzia takes you along centenarian paths flanked by stone walls through the vineyards.

You can descend into Gruta das Torres, one of the world’s longest lava tubes at 5km, to inspect rare stalagmites of lava, as well as bizarre forms resembling benches, balls and rope.

While whale watching can be done all around the Azores, Pico is located close to whale migration routes, making it – and the nearby island of Faial – a great place for whale watching excursions. The best season is between April and October. Sperm whales, blue whales, and dolphins can be spotted.

 

Faial

Faial is known for its diving and whale-watching scene, but it’s also a haven for yachtsmen who stop here during their Atlantic journeys. On land, you can hike to the the Capelinhos volcano – it last erupted in 1958, creating an eerily beautiful landscape resembling the surface of the moon.

 

Terceira

Home to the Azores’ oldest city, the UNESCO-listed Angra do Heroísmo with its formidable 16th-century fortress and a pristine Renaissance old town, the island is reminiscent of the Yorkshire Dales with its patchwork of dry-stone walls hemming in herds of cows.

The volcanic massif of Serra de Santa Bárbara looms to the west, and a hydrangea-lined road leads to a viewpoint where you can see the Santa Barbara Caldeira. In the centre of the island is Algar do Carvão, a 90m-deep volcanic chimney featuring caverns full of stalactites and stalagmites 100m deep which lead to a subterranean lake.

Biscoitos has unique lava formations, and is home to postage-stamp vineyards and natural ocean pools sheltered from the crashing Atlantic.

 

São Jorge

One of the most dramatic islands in the Azores, São Jorge is a land of big mountains, deep ravines, white cliffs, and distinctive fajãs (coastal plains formed by lava flows or landslides). This 54km-long finger of an island is a hiker’s paradise with its long spine of peaks peppered with lush craters. There are plenty of trails on offer, including the 10km Fajã dos Vimes, which leads down from wooded hillsides through vineyards and villages to the ocean.

It’s an outdoor adventure haven, with mountain biking, canyoning (with some of the toughest routes in the Azores), canoeing, and spelunking on the cards.

 

Graciosa

Graciosa’s violent volcanic past is evident when you take the plunge down into the depths of Furna do Enxofre, an enormous lava cave with a magnificent vaulted ceiling 50m high (made up of cross-sections of volcanic prisms) and an underground sulphurous lake – it’s only accessible via a vertigo-inducing 80-year-old stone spiral staircase.

 

WESTERN GROUP

Far flung in the western Azores are the islands of Corvo and Flores.

 

Flores

Flores is a biosphere reserve with a profusion of lagoons, waterfalls and blue crater lakes. You can explore the island along the four official hiking trails, or tackle one of the many canyoning sites. Underwater, Flores’ dive spots are characterised by large rock formations with caves, with highlights including big rays and large groupers.

One of the most beautiful sites is Poco da Alagoinha near the Fajãzinha, where 20 waterfalls spill down verdant cliff faces in wispy threads. Another natural icon is the fluted basalt columns of Rocha dos Bordões, carved into an imposing hill.

 

Corvo

Small and remote, Corvo is the tip of a marine volcano with the caldera lake in the middle. There is a circular hike along the crater rim for impressive views over the entire island and the caldera, parts of which are cultivated.

 

EASTERN GROUP

This group comprises Santa Maria and São Miguel, the largest island in the Azores.

 

São Miguel

This island packs in the best bits of the Azores – starting with the capital, Ponta Delgada, with its mosaic cobbled streets and pretty marina.

One of the most active volcanoes on the island is located in Furnas, where a placid crater lake contrasts with spluttering caldeiras (hot springs) and smoking fumaroles.

São Miguel is a hot spring haven. At Furnas, you can head to Poça Dona Beija which is a set of thermal pools and waterfalls in the village, or float in brackish thermal waters at the Terra Nostra estate which is also a botanical garden. If you’re planning a hike to the stunning caldera lake of Lagoa do Fogo, you can enjoy mineral-enriched baths at nearby Caldeira Velha, a warm iron-rich pool at the base of the waterfall surrounded by a wild forest. The Termas da Ferraria is tucked below a cliff where you can enjoy the hot spring in the wild surf of the Atlantic.

Perhaps the most dramatic vista of the island is the twin crater lakes of Setes Cidades – one is blue, and the other green. There is a 2-hour hike from the Vista da Rei viewpoint down to the caldera’s floor. Another interesting hike is one that snakes around the tea plantations of Gorreana (Europe’s only tea plantation which remains unchanged since 1883), boasting gorgeous views.

Paragliding is gaining popularity here, where you can soar over the volcanic craters of Furnas and Sete Cidades. Along the coast, you can catch the surf of the wild Atlantic. Underwater, diving excursions take you to caves, shipwrecks, rocky shores and clear waters rich in marine life.

 

Santa Maria

This the most southerly and sunniest island in the Azores, and is primarily known for its white sand beaches, including the amphitheatre-shaped bay of São Lourenço where terraced vineyards tumble down the hillside to the Atlantic, as well as Praia Formosa which is known for surfing.

Beyond the beach lie villages with lime-washed houses topped with distinctive cylindrical chimneys. Santa Maria was the first island of the Azores to be settled, and Christopher Columbus made a pit stop here on his return journey from the New World in 1493.

The rugged area in the east of the island is characterised by lush vegetation, and is home to the Pico Alto mountain (590m) where a 14km trail to Anjos takes you from lush greenery – and some amazing panoramic views – to the rust-red landscape of the Barreiro da Faneca desert.

As the oldest island in the archipelago, you can see signs of its early volcanic activity at Pedreira do Campo, where basalt columns of over 100m house within them numerous fossils of marine organisms. At Ribeira de Maloás, volcanic activity has shaped impressive waterfalls resulting from the contact of lava flow and the sea.

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