With UK visitors up by nearly 40 per cent this year*, the Portuguese archipelago of The Azores is set to be a top travel destination for 2016. It’s not hard to see why these nine unique volcanic islands, located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, have become such a hit with British travellers. Stunning scenery, amazing wildlife, a long list of action-packed sports and activities and a mesmerising history make these islands as fascinating as they sound. Here are our top five reasons to visit the Azores in 2016…
Whale watching is a must and with over 25 resident and migratory species of whale in Azores waters, there’s a high chance visitors will get to see one of these incredible mammals. Thrill-seekers can take an exhilarating RIB boat ride out in search of the blue whale and other species such as the sperm, pilot, orca and false-killer whales, as well as the common, bottlenose and spotted dolphin species and even blue sharks. March 2016 is the peak time to spot the mighty Blue Whale as it migrates, best observed from the islands of Sao Miguel, Terceira, Pico and Faial. For those who prefer to stay on dry land, the Azores is also a popular destination for bird-watching. Lucky birdwatchers in São Miguel may even spot one of the rarest bird species in Europe, the Azorean Bullfinch.
2. ACTION AND ADVENTURE
From Canyoning down waterfalls on the islands of São Miguel, São Jorge and Flores to kayaking or canoeing on open water or on one of the islands’ beautiful lakes, the Azores has an abundance of activities for the adventurous outdoor enthusiast. The islands are famous for world-class surfing conditions with a number of hotspots boasting perfect waves, especially in Ribeira Grande on São Miguel. The Azores attracts top class surfers and holds the annual Azores SATA Pro Surfing Championships. As well as surfing, Stand-Up Paddleboarding, Paragliding and big game fishing are also popular outdoor pursuits. The geographical location of these islands has also made it a big sailing destination as it serves as a half-way point for sailings across the Atlantic and holds annual regattas. However, those wanting to take a more gentle boat trip can charter yachts for a leisurely trip around the islands alongside pods of dolphins. Additionally, there are many boat companies offering trips for a wide variety of interests.
3. SCENIC VISTAS AND VOLCANOES
Visitors won’t be able to move for stunning scenery in the Azores. Breathtaking sea views are frequent, while the geological make-up of the islands provides very interesting landscapes. Whilst they are volcanic islands, the Azores are incredibly lush and verdant. The beauty of the islands extends to include a wide range of stunning flowers, vibrantly coloured lakes and a stunning coastline of cliffs and bathing rocks. Hills and mountains, natural thermal pools and numerous ‘calderas’, which are stunning valleys and lakes created by ancient volcanoes, are also found at every turn. This unique landscape with its geodiversity provides the perfect backdrop for outdoor activities and is a photographer’s dream. Furnas on São Miguel Island is a village inside a volcano with hot springs where locals cook hearty stews underground, heated by the caldera. In Grutta das Torres in Pico visitors can take tours of underground magma tunnels for a truly exceptional experience. There are more than 120 geosites scattered around the islands making up the Azores Geopark which is included in the European and Global Network of Geoparks, sponsored by UNESCO.
The Azores offers an abundance of inexpensive local produce including pineapple and melon as well as beef and dairy. A must for any food aficionado is to sample the ‘Cozido das Furnas’, a traditional stew with local sausage, beef and vegetables, cooked underground by the heat generated by a volcano. Fresh fish and seafood dishes are also in huge supply. Each region produces its own local cheese and these can be enjoyed at most meals, often as an appetiser. In terms of drinks, wine has been produced in the Azores since the time of the early settlers. Pico is renowned for its walled vineyards (classified a UNESCO World Heritage site), growing the Verdelho grape, which was first imported from Sicily around 1500. Surprisingly, São Miguel is also home to the Gorreana tea estate (now the only tea plantation in Europe), where visitors can tour the tea factory before sampling the deliciously light Azorean Green and Black teas. The Azores has a growing culinary scene with highlights including 10 Fest, one of Portugal’s most popular food festivals, running each summer and attracting acclaimed and Michelin star chefs who cook their own dishes and interpretations of Azorean cuisine at the cooking school in Ponta Delgada Marina.
The islands are steeped in history with early settlers arriving from Portugal and other European countries as early as 1430, reflected in the architecture, religion and culture. The Azores islands are predominantly Catholic, and celebrate in a big way with the Holy Ghost festival in the spring, where locals pave the streets in patterned carpets of flowers and petals. The festivities take place during a seven week period and takes on different forms from island to island. On Terceira Island, the Sanjoaninas (Saint John) festival is well-known for its parades in the main streets of Angra do Heroísmo and runs for 10 days in June. Once the only Portuguese territory in the Azores, the city of Angra do Heroísmo took on an important role in the Discoveries Era, and is now recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The practice of whaling, hunting whales for their oil, was once vital to the Azores’ economy and Pico and Faial have a big whaling heritage and each island has its own museum for visitors to discover. Peters Café in Horta, Faial is a famous sailing bar which was once a haunt of the old whalers. The café is today, as it has been for years, a popular meeting place for passing international sailors and seamen. 2016 will mark the 30th anniversary of the international ban on commercial whaling which the Azores completely embraced and are now considered a world leader in responsible whale watching.
Archipelago Choice is offering a 14 night package staying on the islands of São Miguel, Flores and Faial including accommodation, airport transfers, car hire on São Miguel, one 3 hour whale and dolphin watching trip on São Miguel, two full day jeep tours (one on Flores and one on Faial), inter-island flights and return flights from London Gatwick from £1,579 per person. Price based on two people sharing and for travel in May 2016. To book, visit azoreschoice.com or call 017687 75672.
To find out more on the Azores, visit www.VisitAzores.com
9 December 2015
*based on visitor numbers January to September compared to 2014