With good beaches, great seafood and being a lot of fun to explore, the Azores are Portugal’s little bits of island paradise. They are a great escape for anyone who wants to get away from the European mainland.
Islands of the AzoresThe Azores is a group of volcanic islands roughly 1,000 miles (1,600 km) from the Portuguese mainland. At one time considered to be relatively remote, the Azores today are relatively easy to get to (there are several flights a day leaving most major Portuguese cities).
São MiguelAlso known as ilha verde or the “green island,” São Miguel is the largest and most densely populated island of the Azores. It’s principal town, Ponta Delgada, was once a major staging post for ships traveling between Europe and the New World. In a sense it still is, but for visitors who come to experience the island’s natural beauty. While the coast’s beaches are peaceful and pristine, it’s São Miguel’s interior, with volcanic crater lakes, hot springs and mountain scenery, that are the real attractions of the island.
Santa MariaJust over 50 km south of São Miguel is the island of Santa Maria. It was the first island of the Azores to be discovered by the Portuguese in 1427. Christopher Columbus also visited the island in 1493 on his way back from the new world. Along with its sandy beaches and beautiful, hilly interior, Santa Maria has the best climate of any island in the Azores.
There are several things to do here including hiking, taking a stroll through the streets of the island’s seaside villages or just hanging out on one of the island’s beaches, the best one being Praia Formosa.
TerceiraDue to a World War II-era airbase that’s still in operation (run by Americans), Terceira is the most developed of the Azores. It’s name means “third” because it was the third of the Azores to have been discovered. Like the other islands, Terceira is quite beautiful with a lot of green, forested hills, farmland and several nice beaches. One thing though that is unique to Terceira is a special form of bull fighting known as tourada ó corda. This is a style of bullfighting where teams of men hold a bull back with a rope.
Terceira’s main town of Angra do Heroismo is the historical center of the Azores and showcases some truly awesome colonial churches and architecture. Also worth a visit is the Museu do Angra Heroismo, a small but good museum with exhibits relating to the history and art of the Azores.
PicoPico’s claim to fame is that it’s the home of Portugal’s highest mountain, Mt. Pico. It takes about 2 hours to climb to the top of Pico’s 2,350 summit, but the hike is worth it. From that vantage point, one has the best views of the neighboring islands of Faial and São Jorge.
Pico and the islands surrounding it were at one time a popular center for whaling (whale hunting), something that one can learn more about at the island’s Museu dos Baleeiros. Thankfully, this industry has been put to an end with the whales and dolphins now free to swim the waters without any danger.
São JorgeSão Jorge is known for it’s slow pace of life and steep, 500-meter green cliffs. While the relatively hilly island has plenty of places to hike, one should check out the Montoso and Bocas do Fogo caves which are reportedly 140 meters deep. São Jorge also has many maritime activities, with surfing being the most popular of these. The best place for this among the waves of Fajã da Caldeira de Santo Cristo, one of the island’s best beach spots.
Såo Jorge is legendary for its local cheese known, as Queijo de São Jorge. It’s a special unpasteurized cheese made from the milk of the island’s grass-fed cows.
FloresNot having optimal weather can prove to be an advantage sometimes. The island of Flores, meaning “flowers,” was historically a sparsely inhabited place where pirates used to hide after raiding Spanish ships. It was also the sight of a great sea battle between the famous English captain Sir Richard Grenville and a fleet of Spanish war ships. While these buccaneering days may be over, their influence on the character of Flores can still be felt. The island’s Museu das Flores, a former Franciscan convent, documents this interesting period of history. It’s here that one can find artifacts and treasure from various shipwrecks as well as odd items such as a playable guitar made of whalebone and old Azorean pottery.
Southern Flores is the more scenic part of the island. It is here that you’ll find beautiful volcanic cliffs and Lagoa Funda, a lake formed from what was once the mouth of a large volcano.
FaialKnown as the Blue Island of the Azores, Faial is famous for it’s volcanic craters and calm beaches. The island’s capital is the town of Horta, a popular docking spot for yachts. Historically, Horta was a place where Portuguese caravels would stop and rest before making their long voyages across the Atlantic.
One of the island’s main attractions is Caldeira, a vast 2 km crater that is 400 meters deep. The other is Vulcão dos Capelinhos. This is a volcano that erupted as late as 1958 and left a local lighthouse (which can be seen) covered in ash. It’s pretty intense!
GraciosaGraciosa is one of the more peaceful islands of the Azores. It’s similar to the other islands in natural beauty, though there are several things that make it unique. One is the Serra Branca, a 7 km trail that crosses Graciosa from east to west. The others are the red-turreted windmills and the Azorean dwarf donkeys (supposedly there are only 20 of these left). However the main area to be seen is the Furna do Enxofe. This is a volcanic crater with a deep sulfuric lake at the bottom. There are actually steps that can take you close to this lake’s edge.
The town of Santa Cruz is the island’s base for dolphin and whale-watching boats. You can also learn more about the Graciosa and the Azores by visiting Santa Cruz’s the Museu da Graciosa.
Also of note is Santa Cruz’s pretty little 16th-chapel, Nossa Senhora da Ajuda, whose beautiful tiles make it worth a visit.
CorvoFinally we come to the smallest of the Azores, Corvo. If you really want to get away from everything, this is the place to go. The island is so small (about 6.6 square miles) that it has only one settlement, Vila do Corvo, and just one hotel. One interesting fact is that the people who live here (all 400 or so) speak in a medieval Portuguese dialect that has since been extinct everywhere else in the Portuguese-speaking world. Corvo is the place for birdwatchers, many which come every fall to see various migratory birds such as the American heron.
And there you have it, a quick introduction to the Azores!
Sources and Further Reading
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