If you haven’t heard of the Azores, join the club! I only found out about this little cluster of 9 colourful islands sitting out in the middle of the Atlantic recently and didn’t waste any time booking my ticket to Ponta Delgada, capital of the biggest island, Sao Miguel. This insanely green, volcanic island was uninhabited when discovered by the Portugese back in the 15th century. The beautifully maintained mosaic pavements and smart, white buildings trimmed with black, basalt rock retain a Portugese influence, whose flavour can be seen and tasted across the archipelago. Hiring a car is one of the best ways to explore the winding, flower-fringed roads, which offer so many stunning viewpoints, it’s hard to get anywhere without wanting to pull over for multiple photo-stops. I visited in May, and practically had the island to myself, but the best weather can be had during the months of June through August. Here are 6 unmissable adventures to guarantee you’ll have a whale of a time on this Green Island:
1. Whale watching
The deep waters surrounding the islands are swarming with cetaceans, making the Azores one of the best places on earth to catch a glimpse of the biggest animals on the planet, including the mighty Blue whale and Sperm whale, as well as 26 other resident and migratory species. The best way to get up close these fascinating creatures, is to take a boat tour out into the sea with a certified guide. I chose to go with Futurismo, as their guides are trained marine biologists and they promote responsible whale watching, putting respect for the animals as a priority. It was not so long ago (as recent as 1987) that whales were hunted purely for economic gain, but the Azoreans turned this around and the whales still play an important role in bringing in whale watchers from around the world. The same techniques that were used to capture the whales, are now being used to spot the whales. Powerful telescopes on the island are used to identify the spouts the whales make when they exhale at the surface. The spotters then radio the location across to the boats. Sonar is not used as sound is the way cetaceans communicate.
I had the choice of either a small speed boat, which seats 8 people, or a larger catamaran, with two decks, which enables a higher viewing point and the freedom to move around the boat at will. I went with the second option as I didn’t want to sit in the same spot for 3 hours! Our guide, Marina, kept us entertained with interesting facts as we made our way out to sea. We came close to seeing a Baleen whale, but as they can stay underwater for long periods, she decided it would be better to go view a migrating Fin whale mother and her calf, which had also been spotted closeby. We made our way to the location reported by the spotters, and waited patiently, as we kept our eyes peeled for the whale to resurface, usually in a new place close to the original sighting. After 10 minutes of scanning, we got our first view of her spout, which can reach heights of up to 6 metres. We kept our distance and watched 3 times as she surfaced, spouted and gently dived back down. If you plan on taking photos, be sure to have a decent zoom lens.
2. Swimming with wild dolphins
Making a choice to swim with a wild animal in its natural habitat, the open ocean, can feel a little daunting at first, but after a briefing with our guide Mariana from Futurismo (I love how so many of their guides are female!), I knew I was in safe and experienced hands. The waters of the Atlantic are chilly, so we donned a wetsuit and boarded the Zodiac speed boat. After little over half an hour, we encountered a large pod of Bottle-nosed dolphins. Mariana slowed the boat and observed their behaviour before deciding whether we could enter the water. Sitting excitedly at the edge of the boat, we readied ourselves for a splash-free, quiet entry. The dolphins jumped amongst the waves right next to us and can be very curious about the boat. Entering the water, my heart raced as the sounds of whistles and clicks filled my ears and I looked around nervously. Mariana pointed me in the right direction and I watched wide-eyed as several large males glided right underneath me, one of them with his belly facing upwards. Mariana explained that this behaviour can be interpreted as a type of dolphin flirting. Often groups of males will go out to find females, and leaping out of the water is a way of getting attention (it also helps to shrug parasites from their skin). It’s hard to predict whether the dolphins will stay to play or swim away in search of food and their behaviour can differ from day to day.
3. Snorkelling around the Islet of Vila Franca
Vila Franca do Campo was originally the capital of Sao Miguel, but in 1522, an earthquake and landslide destroyed the town, killing an estimated 3-5,000 people. This isn’t surprising, considering the Azores are located close to the join of 3 tectonic plates (known as the Azores Triple Junction). Sao Miguel has the most volcanic activity recorded of all the islands. Close to the coast at Vila Franca there is a small, submerged volcanic islet, which was classified as a nature reserve in 1983 and is just perfect for snorkelling. We took a guided boat tour with Espirito Azul to see the rocks that host the annual Red Bull cliff-diving championship (which takes place on July 14th this year) up close and personal! On closer inspection, the rock formations, which have been beautifully eroded by the waves, show layer upon layer of tightly compressed, stripy rock. As we circled the islet, our guide, Miguel explained that this once served as a great lookout point during the years the Spanish were trying to gain control of the islands. Part of the islet was also known as ‘the kitchen’ since whales which had been caught would be processed here before shipping the various parts for export.
After a short circuit, we entered the clear, shallow waters inside the crater for a spot of snorkelling. Aside from our snorkelling guide Timo, we had the islet completely to ourselves! Well, that’s if you don’t count the hundreds of fish, crabs and a couple of well camouflaged octopi spotted by Timo’s sharp eyes just before the entrance to the crater, where the water is much deeper. One octopus had lost two of its legs, possibly in a recent fight, but luckily the octopus can grow them back. Timo free dived down to get this closeup photo with my GoPro Hero 4. This is a great spot for both beginner snorkellers and divers alike.
4. Hiking around Lagoa do Fogo (Lake of Fire)
If any of the volcanos is likely to erupt, it would probably be this one… even though it’s tranquil, turquoise waters might seem perfectly dormant, no building is permitted around its perimeter, so it remains gorgeously wild. This lake is well known for being covered with dense, foggy cloud so it’s important to check the specific weather forecast for the lake before visiting, otherwise the lake will appear disappointingly grey. This really was the most beautiful lake out of the 3 on the island, in my opinion, with a bonus view of the sea in the distance. For hiking enthusiasts, there is a highly recommended trail that starts south of the lake and takes roughly 2 hours to reach the lake (give yourself another hour to explore the lake and don’t forget the two hours return). For those low on time, there is a shorter trail which starts from the northern Miradouro. The trail down to the lake takes only 30 minutes and consists of deep, rocky steps. Some tour buses stop off here for a few minutes to take in the view and then move on, but it’s much better to be able to bring a picnic and sit down by its silent shores for a couple of peaceful, leisurely hours.
5. Relax in the hot springs at Furnas
If you encounter a rainy or heavily overcast day (which is more than likely to happen), the best thing you can do is head for the hot springs. To the east of the island, is the region of Furnas, which has pools of bubbling waters reaching up to 100 degrees celsius, hot enough to cook dinner! And that is exactly what they do here with a meaty dish known as Cozido, consisting of pork, beef, chicken and two types of sausage, which is all cooked under the ground and served with sweet potato and cabbage. It’s a very filling meal, so make sure you are hungry if you order this dish.
In Furnas, you will find another beautiful lake, as well as two fantastically relaxing thermal spring facilities. The first is called Poca da Dona Beija and consists of 5 steamy pools (39 degrees) surrounded by lush, tropical plants and dissected by a small waterfall and stream, which provides that relaxing background noise of trickling water. Entering the yellow-tinged water, I could feel the aches just melting away from my body. Beware not to wear anything white, as the high iron content in the water will be sure to leave a stain.
The second, is the Terra Nostra garden, which is like a smaller version of Kew Gardens. We took a walk around its bushy, botanical gardens for an hour to enjoy the rare collection of plants and trees which have been collected over the past 200 years from all over the world. The huge thermal pool which greets visitors at the entrance, is full of minerals and deep enough for a swim. There are also a couple of smaller jacuzzi tubs. Not far from the Furnas valley there is a green tea plantation called Cha Gorreana. If you still have room in your belly after the Cozido has taken effect, then you are welcomed to a complimentary cup of green tea to accompany the delicious and popular local pineapple cake.
6. Take in the view at Sete Cidades
This is the third and largest body of water which lies to the north-west of the island. Sete Cidades, which translates as seven cities, is actually a twin-crater with two distinctly different but connected, lakes. On a sunny day, the difference can be seen as one lake reflects blue and the other green. There is a tragic, love story involving a princess and a shepherd boy, who upon hearing that the king had forbidden their marriage, cried so much that their tears filled the lakes, green for the princesses green eyes and blue for the shepherd’s blue eyes. It’s possible to hike all the way up to the Miradouro do Rei, where there is a derelict hotel, whose fateful doors only opened for a few weeks before shutting down due to the view being obscured by heavy clouds most of the time. Although it’s not recommended, its possible to climb the stairs to the roof of this hotel where the view is even more spectacular. We watched the lake for around an hour, as the clouds slowly dispersed to reveal more colour. Once again, I recommend checking the precise weather report for the lake before visiting. This lake can be combined with a trip to the black sandy beach at Mosteiros or the natural rock pools at Ponta da Ferraria, where the best sunsets can be viewed. If you have time, there is also a pineapple plantation closeby where the very juicy and sweet Azorean pineapple is cultivated.
7. Festival of Espirito Santo
An unexpected surprise came in the form of a street party in the rural village of Joao Bom, where we had been staying. The Espirito Santo (Holy Spirit) celebration, which starts in May and runs all the way through to 1st October 2018, promotes solidarity and friendship amongst neighbours and the distribution of food amongst friends and strangers alike. We were welcomed to join the festivities and offered food from the spit roast, cakes and drinks. Musicians played traditional songs while locals danced and sang together as the sun went down.
Speaking of food, the regional produce on the island is a major bonus, with juicy local steaks (Bife), fluffy muffins (Bolo Levedos) creamy cheeses (Queijo), and pineapple cake (Bolo de Ananas) all washed down with a refreshingly light, green sparkly wine (Vinho Verde) or the locally distilled Rocha Negra gin.
A Tasca restaurant in Ponta Delgada, serves a tasty, flaming Azorean sausage, which is much like a spicy, sweet chorizo. Or, for a taste of the sea, Bar Caloura is perched on the edge of the coast at the town of Caloura and offers such novelties as stingray fillet, which was a surprisingly great choice, with soft white meat that just falls off the bone.
The award-winning Queijadas from Vila Franca do Campo, a small, sweet cheese and egg tart, make a great snack to take on a picnic or on a hike or to bring home as a gift.