Portugal. Azores – islands for friends of nature

10 things to do in the Azores

Nina Akimkina

On the southern shore of the archipelago’s largest island, São Miguel, nestles its capital, Ponta Delgrada. Walk through three-arch gateways more than 300 years old, visit the 16th century church of Saint Sebastian and marvel at the splendor of the treasury. Visit the Carlos Machado Museum, where you’ll find unique exhibits such as jewels, ancient paintings, medieval toys, and fine porcelain dishes. Stroll along the waterfront and watch colorful yachts and transatlantic liners dock in the cruise port. Manuelino and Baroque styles dominate the city’s architecture, and volcanic lava is used generously to decorate the facades.

2. Picnic in the middle of the Atlantic

The main attraction of San Jorge Island is the lush nature with many small plains called faijas. Follow the hiking trail to the Fajã da Caldeira do Santo Cristo lagoon, where a local restaurant offers a delicious bivalve snack. Then head to Seti Fontes Park for a picnic on the shores of the clear lake and sandwiches with the local cheese, which, like the island, is called São Jorgey. The cheese with a bright orange crust is made from fresh unpasteurized milk and is considered the most delicious cheese in Portugal.

3. Descend into a volcanic cave

Because of the richness of nature and the uniqueness of the landscape, UNESCO has declared the island of Graciosa as a biosphere reserve. You need to get to its southeastern part, where Caldeira da Graciosa with volcanic caves is located. To enter the famous “sulfur grotto,” or Furna do Enxofre cave, go down the spiral staircase. Expect to have to climb almost 200 steps. At the bottom you will see high domed vaults, a sulfur lake, and bubbling mud geysers.

The cave owes its origin to volcanic lava, which flowed from the crater, made its way straight through the hill. A visit to Fourno do Inchofri is worthwhile and includes an ethnographic museum with exhibits on the history and contemporary life of Graciosa.

4. Catch a trout.

Florish is an island of flowers, volcanic lakes, mountain waterfalls and ancient mills. Due to the perfect purity of the bodies of water, the Portuguese authorities have chosen them for the breeding of rainbow trout. Catch the beauty of the lake on a hook and hand it over to the chefs in the coastal restaurant where they will turn it into a gourmet dish for you.

5. Visit the old town

Angra do Eroísmo, the oldest city in the Azores, has a wealth of architectural monuments. Learn how the islanders of Terceira defended themselves against pirate attacks by visiting São João Baptista Fort. Walk along the over 4 km long wall and imagine that this is only a small part of the former fortifications.

Angra do Eroismo is also home to the main cathedral of the island region. It was erected in the 16th century and is now called the mother of all cathedrals of the Azores. The central part of the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

6. Conquer the highest mountain in Portugal

On the island of Pico stands the volcano of the same name, the highest point in Portugal. Make sure you are well prepared for the ascent to 2,351 meters, a journey that usually takes about 4 hours. At the beginning the path goes through a forested area, which fades into an area of bushes. A little more uphill and you’re standing on the frozen lava in front of the grandiose crater that crowns the summit. Traveling along the mountain roads, you will meet a lot of observation points, from which you can enjoy stunning panoramas.

7. Enjoy the scent of hydrangeas

All the Azores islands are famous for hydrangeas, but on Faiala these flowers are especially plentiful. Lush shrubs grow in front gardens, on hillsides and along roadsides. You can even enjoy the fragrance of hydrangeas if you walk up the volcano to Caldeira Crater. See the size of the crater: it is 2 km in diameter and 400 meters deep!

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It is probably not only one of the largest craters in the Azores, but also the most beautiful, because it is surrounded by a blue necklace of hydrangeas. To see the ocean from above, go to the highest peak of the island, Cape Cabeço Gordo, and admire the islands of Georges and Pico, green in the middle of the ocean.

8. Sunbathe on golden sand

When Santa Maria Island comes into view, you will feel like a time traveler. Tiny settlements, wheat fields and pastures with fat herds look little like the modern European world and more like a medieval pastoral. Endless beaches, encircling the island, add to the idyll. Spread out on the purest bright yellow sand and fully enjoy your beach vacation in a peaceful, secluded setting.

9. See a whale.

The Atlantic waters near the Azores are teeming with a variety of wildlife. There are sperm whales, sei whales, fin whales, dolphins, and aphalins – more than 20 species of cetaceans. Go on a boat ride to hear the cry of “whales on the horizon” and see the gray giants show their arched backs over the waves and slap their huge tails on the water, raising fountains of spray. Come to yourself from the excitement, do not forget to capture this meeting in the photographs.

Organize marine excursions are engaged in hotel operators and tour operators on the islands of Terseira, San Jorge, Piku, San Miguel. If you are on the Azores in spring, you can watch the largest animals on the planet – the blue whales. At this time they migrate through the strait between Santa Maria and San Miguel.

10. Feel the heat of the fumaroles

When you arrive on San Miguel Island, head to Terra Nostra Park. Tropical and subtropical vegetation combined with ingenious landscaping have made this corner of nature the pride of the Azores.

Tired of contemplating camellias and hydrangeas, head to volcanic Lake Furnas. On one side of its shore are boiling fumaroles – boiling hydrogen sulfide springs. Near them you clearly feel that you are on a volcano.

Here, in the hotel restaurant, order the baked fish and multi-meat stew. These dishes are cooked for hours, placing the pot in a deep well and thus using the volcanic heat. As you taste the exotic delicacies, you’ll admire the steep hillsides surrounding the lake with tall cedars and blue strands of waterfalls.

The Azores, Europe’s last wilderness area

There is little untouched nature left on the planet, and even less so in Europe, where every picturesque corner is coveted by thousands of tourists. Nevertheless, 1,500 kilometers from mainland Europe, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, are the Azores, one of the regions of Portugal.

Azores has a significant independence from the mainland. The local authorities for many years strictly control and regulate the flow of tourists. Year after year, the archipelago is on the list of sustainable tourism regions, the last wilderness area in Europe. There are no huge hotels on the islands, cruise ships do not call at the local harbors, and armies of bloggers with cameras do not trample the emerald green meadows. The color of the ocean justifies the islands’ name: “azures” means “blue” in Portuguese.

The policy of the local government and remoteness from the mainland has allowed the Azores to maintain an unhurried way of life that has not changed for centuries. And even a dialect significantly different from Portuguese in mainland Portugal.

The nature of the islands: lakes in craters, rocky bays and forests like in “Jurassic Park

One of the reasons why the islands have preserved their unique ecosystem to this day is the late appearance of humans on them. The fact that all nine islands of the archipelago are of volcanic origin. It is now seismologists can quite accurately assess the threat of eruption. And a few centuries ago, not many people literally wanted to live on a volcano. The first inhabitants of Azores – Portuguese seafarers – settled here in the XV century.

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The nine islands are home to the main settlements of Angra do Eroismo, Horta and Ponta Delgada. But more than half of the Azores live on the largest island, São Miguel. In addition, the archipelago includes several uninhabited, smaller islands.

Azores is located at the junction of tectonic plates, and this determines its landscape: mountainous, with numerous lakes in the craters of extinct volcanoes, rocky bays and sandy beaches.

The Azores climate is warm and humid, with temperatures rarely dropping below plus 18 degrees. Nevertheless, the weather is not stable: the hot sun may suddenly change to milky fog or tropical showers.

San Miguel – the main island in the Azores

Crater Lakes

The main attraction of the Azores is crater lakes. The largest of them are Seti Cidades, Furnas and Lagoa do Fogo. They are located in protected areas, so bathing is possible in strictly restricted areas, and in Lagoa do Fogo is not allowed at all.

Seti Sidades consists of two lakes, one with blue water and the other with green water. According to legend, a beautiful green-eyed princess fell in love with a blue-eyed shepherd. The king father did not appreciate their union and forbade the princess to meet the shepherd. The lakes filled with the tears of the lovers – one the color of the princess’s eyes, the other the color of the shepherd’s eyes. In fact, everything is much more prosaic: the blue lake reflects the sky, and the other lake’s green hue is given by algae.

Until recently, the best view of the lake was from the abandoned Monte Palace Hotel. In 2017, it was bought by new investors, who plan to open the hotel by 2021. That’s why entry is forbidden and you can run into security. I was able to get inside on Sunday when the guards were resting – but that’s at your own risk.

It is safer to admire the Seti Cidades from the official viewpoints: Miradouro Vista do Rei or Miradouro da Boca do Inferno.

In the Azores, be prepared for nature to interfere with your plans. I didn’t make it to Lagoa do Fogo, because the dense fog, typical of the islands, descended while I was climbing the mountains. So instead of a lake around me, I saw a white haze hiding a dangerous cliff.

Thermal springs in the Caldeira Velha Nature Reserve

Azores is famous for its warm thermal pools, which are attributed medicinal properties. Several of them are located in the Caldeira Velha Nature Reserve, where you can walk through a real Jurassic forest with natural pools and a small waterfall. In the hottest of the pools the temperature reaches plus 100 degrees. Swimming in it is not allowed, but the boiling spring is impressive.

Admission to the park costs 3 euros, and a wristband ticket for 8 euros allows you to swim in the springs.

Terra Nostra Park and Hotel – rust pool and endemic plants

During its two-century history, the park at the old Hotel Terra Nostra has planted plants from all corners of the earth. The park is divided into different areas: flower garden, topiary, garden of endemic plants of the Azores and others. In the center of the park is a large thermal pool with high iron content. The temperature in the pool ranges from plus 35 to plus 40 degrees. Water in it is rusty-brown in color, but despite the unattractive appearance, it is very comfortable to be in it. It improves the skin, increases immunity, and helps with headaches and rheumatism. If there are no heart problems, you can swim for hours. Only a new swimsuit is better not to take with you – it will be difficult to wash it after the rusty water.

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The rocky bay of Ponta da Ferraria

Ponta da Ferraria (Ponta da Ferraria – “hot ocean” from Portuguese) is a rare natural phenomenon. A small rocky bay is filled with icy water from the ocean. On the land side, from underground, hot thermal water flows into the bay. When the two streams collide, strong waves form.

The contrast of temperatures between the two streams, everyone can appreciate for themselves – in the bay is allowed to swim. For safety, there are ropes strung across the bay for tourists to hold on to. It is best to come here before sunset, just before the maximum tide, to the contrast of water temperatures felt more strongly.

In Azores natural pools, in which the bathing is allowed, equipped with cabanas for changing, and take your own towels. Usually access to the pools is paid – about 3 euros per person.

Pineapple Farms

Azores is the only place in Europe where pineapples are grown. Portuguese explorers brought the exotic fruit to the archipelago in the XVII-XVIII centuries from Brazil. In the XIX century, the cultivation of pineapples became an industrial scale. They are kept in glass greenhouses, and they are shallower and sweeter than the ones we are used to. Plantation Ananases Augusto Arruda grows pineapples for over 100 years and is open to the public for free year round. You can look inside the greenhouses, see the different stages of pineapple ripening, and taste the local liquor in the store.

Tea plantations

In addition to pineapples, black and green tea are grown in the Azores – and nowhere else in Europe. The plantations are worth visiting not only to look at their impeccable geometry, but also to learn about the production process. It hasn’t changed much in centuries: the workers slowly pick the tea by hand. Two plantations are open to visitors: the oldest Gorreana and Porto Formoso. You can walk around the plantation on your own or join a free guided tour that shows you the stages of the harvesting and processing of the leaves and offers you to taste different varieties.

Tea from the factory is an inexpensive and rare souvenir; surely none of your friends have had tea from the Azores. Call ahead for tour times – the schedule is free and depends on visitor availability.

Architecture of the Azores capital.

Typical Portuguese tiles – azulejo on the chapel of Our Lady of Concord (Ermida de Nossa Senhora da Paz)

Ponta Delgada, the capital of Azores, is a small but pleasant town that has preserved typical Portuguese architecture, Gothic churches and an ancient fort. You can get around the Old Town in a couple of hours.

In addition to the capital, the chapel of Our Lady of Concord (Ermida de Nossa Senhora da Paz) in the village of Vila Franca do Campo is worth seeing. A famous staircase decorated with azulejo tiles leads to the chapel. In the 16th century, a statue of the Virgin Mary was discovered on the site of the chapel. Every time the statue was moved to a more suitable location, it mysteriously returned. That’s why a chapel was built at this very spot, which offers gorgeous views of the island.

Surfing, beaches and whales – what to do in the Azores

Extreme sports

Fans of diving, surfing, and windsurfing are drawn to the Azores. On the beach of Santa Barbara (San Miguel Island), one of the world’s stages of surfing takes place annually. Beginners are better to come from July to September, as the waves reach enormous sizes in winter. In addition, the island has more than 100 places for diving: there are sharks and stingrays. On the volcanic lakes, such as Seti Sidadishe, you can rent a sapboard (board like surfing, but you paddle standing up) or a kayak.

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Beaches

The 40 beaches of Azores are Blue Flag European Standard – a paradise for sun-worshippers. However, the usual golden sand will be only on the island of Santa Maria. On the rest – the gray sand of volcanic origin. The easiest way to get to the beaches of São Roque (São Roque) and Vila Franco do Campo.

See whales and dolphins

Azores is a popular place to watch birds and sea animals. The port of Ponta Delgada is home to companies that organize boat trips to whale and dolphin habitats. You can either go sailing on a small dinghy, Terra Azul Company, or on an antique wooden ferry, Moby Dick Tours. I chose the Moby Dick, the tour cost 40 euros per person. In four hours I managed to see several groups of sperm whales and a couple of packs of dolphins. They say usually there are also big turtles, but I was not lucky.

What to see on the other islands

Stunning views and an abundance of greenery unite all the islands, but each one has unique features.

Terceira

The famous Algar do Carvão (Algar do Carvão) lava tunnels allow you to visit the inside of a volcano. These tunnels, or tubes, were formed because the lava flowing down the slopes of the volcano dried unevenly, creating hollow corridors within the flow. The tunnels are only open to the public in summer.

The center of Angra do Eroismo, the capital of Terceira, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of the colorful houses in the center and the traditional Portuguese architecture.

The island is home to Portugal’s highest mountain, Pico (2,351 meters), which can be climbed. And the volcanic landscape with its 5,150-meter lava tunnels Gruta das Torres and vineyards has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Vila Franca do Campo and other islands

The other islands – São Jorge, Faial, Floris, Santa Maria, Graciosa and Corvo – are even less accessible and sparsely populated. They offer fantastic scenery, but whether it is worth the time is a personal choice.

But from São Miguel you can get to Vila Franca do Campo, an island with a perfectly round bay in a former volcano crater. Some people know it from the Red Bull video – the famous cliff diving competition is held there every year. From the village of Vila Franca do Campo to the island of the same name from June to September, there is a ferry every hour for 5 euros. The earlier you arrive at the pier, the better the chances of getting on the island: 400 people are allowed in every day – so fragile is its ecosystem.

Cuisine of the Azores

The cuisine of the Azores is simpler than that of the mainland, and does not differ in sophistication: meat and vegetables cooked in clay crockery, fish on the grill. But because of the remoteness of the territory, the cuisine has not experienced Spanish influence and is considered more Portuguese.

Cozido das Fournas – a traditional dish that takes six hours to cook

In Azores, people take their time. For example, the traditional dish cozido das furnas is cooked for six hours. Meat, potatoes, cabbage, carrots, and other vegetables are placed in a pot. The pot is covered and buried in the hot earth among the fumaroles – cracks in the ground at the foot of volcanoes, through which hot steam rises. Above the buried pot, a sign is placed with the name of the restaurant to which the cozido belongs.

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After six hours, the dish is dug out and served. It is worth a trip to the town of Furnas to see the cooking and to wander among the smoking fumaroles. I booked an excursion to Viator, 40 euros per person – the price includes lunch with cozidou and local wine.

By the way, cozidou is not a tourist attraction. It is often prepared by locals at picnics – an Azorean alternative to kebabs. For this you have to rent a pit for a few euros.

The people of Azores are proud of their dairy products. Because of the lack of predators, Azores cows walk freely and are happier and their milk tastes better. Half of Portugal’s cheeses are made here. The most famous cheese, the sharp, brackish são georgi, is made on the island of the same name. But each island has several varieties to offer.

Fish and seafood

Azores cuisine is famous for the gifts of the sea – they are of excellent quality and cheaper than in mainland Portugal. The names of many fish and shellfish are not even translated from Portuguese. But the biggest impression was made by the huge tuna steaks, resembling more meat than fish in taste and appearance. I went back to A Tasca several times in a vain attempt to sample the entire menu. Seafood at the elegant Paladares da Quinta was also a delight – book a table in advance. By island standards, it is considered an expensive restaurant – the main course costs about 12 euros, which is still lower than on the mainland.

For dessert

Azores pineapples, bananas, and passion fruit are used to make liqueurs and sweets. Other popular pastries are cakes (Amelia Cakes or Bolo D. Amelie) with ginger, cinnamon and powdered sugar or Queijadas de Vila Franca, sweet cakes baked by nuns on Vila Franca since the 16th century.

Practical information

The Azores are part of Portugal, so an open Schengen visa is required.

The best time to travel is from April to October, when the rainy season ends.

Direct flights are from Portugal, the UK, Norway, the USA, Canada, Cape Verde, the Canary Islands, and in summer from Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany.

Between the islands there is a local airline SATA and ferries – check the schedule in advance, ferries do not operate year round.

Tip: If you fly into Azores from Portugal or fly out to Portugal, you get a free ticket between the islands for each Portuguese segment. For example, if you fly to São Miguel from Porto, you can fly to any of the eight islands for free; if you fly from Terceira to Lisbon, you get a ticket to Terceira. The request for the free flight must be left on the website of the local airline SATA and duplicated by e-mail. For more information on how to make a request, read the “On Earth on a budget” sub-page.

To get around the island, it’s best to rent a car. I took one from a local company, Ilha Verde. Ford Fiesta for six days cost 133 euros. It is difficult to move around the islands without a car. The alternative is day tours, book on Viator or TripAdvisor.

Lodging is easy to find on Airbnb or Booking.com. If you’re planning a trip in high season or want to stay on smaller islands, book in advance. The number of hotels on the archipelago is limited and strictly regulated.

The islanders are friendly and enthusiastically welcome visitors, especially from such a remote country like Russia. Many speak English. The islands are safe: at night, even in the heart of Ponta Delgada is calm and quiet.

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