Maybe you’ve heard a bit about the Azores or seen Ann’s blog post about her epic adventure. You know they are a stunning archipelago off the coast of Portugal, with lush green scenery, incredible waterfalls, and crater lakes that pop up on every Instagram feed. A perfect balance between the lush awe-inspiring landscapes of Hawaii with the volcanic roots and slightly unpredictable weather of Iceland. Plus, a little something extra. You’ve done some research and looked at Ponta Delgada, the Sete Citades, the thermal baths, and the whale watching, and your bag is practically packed already!
Now, what might surprise you about these islands, and what’s important to know before you step on a plane? Here are our Top 8 Tips:
First a little primer on the Azores. It is a nine-island archipelago off the coast of Portugal, about a 2hr flight from Lisbon and a 5hr flight from Boston. The islands are distinct for their incredible nature, above all else. These volcanic islands boast beautiful black sand beaches, gorgeous pastoral valleys, and luscious impossibly green, hilly countryside. The official language is Portuguese, but English is widely spoken and the official currency is the Euro.
The nine Azores islands divide into three groups based on proximity. The Eastern Group comprises São Miguel Island and Santa Maria Island. The Central Group is the islands of Terceira, Graciosa, Faial, São Jorge, and Pico. Finally, the Western Group consists of Corvo Island and Flores Island. Because of their configuration, you’ll either need to take a ferry or an inter-island flight to go island hopping.
Top activities in the Azores
The Azores are made for nature adventures and take sustainability seriously. The primary activity on any of the islands is hiking. These verdant hills offer beautiful trails that open up to stunning views. For the super adventurous you can also go canyoning – sliding down waterfalls and rappelling into the extinct lava tubes. The Azores are also famous for their whale watching, thermal hot springs, and natural pools.
Staying in the Azores
You can find everything from campsites and eco-lodges to high-end hotels on the Azores. But to retain the natural and cultural beauty that makes these islands so special, you won’t find any high-rises or large beach resorts. Room counts are low, so booking ahead is crucial.
While you can get a taste of a single island and see the main highlights in 2-3 days, spending a week or longer will allow you to do some in-depth exploration and a little island hopping.
Top 8 Tips
1. The Azores have an amazing Foodie scene
Often remote islands have to ship in food from the mainland, making it quite expensive and not the best quality. But the Azores is a Foodie’s paradise! With rich, fertile, volcanic soil they grow some incredibly delicious fruits, vegetables, and wine. In addition, they have herds of free-range cattle happily munching on the green grass and producing incredible dairy products. Trying the cheeses on the Azores is a must. Since they are islands in the middle of the Atlantic, several of their most famous dishes involve fresh seafood. You’ll also find some soups, stews, and steaks are part of the cultural cuisine. The Cozido das Furnas is particularly unique, a stew cooked inside thermal vents. Also unique to the islands are the locally grown pineapples, which rarely leave the island and are often served for dessert!
If you’re visiting in the high season, it’s advisable to book a few restaurants ahead of time to ensure a table. Between tasting the local wine and enjoying the fresh food, you could spend all your time eating your way around the Azores.
2. The weather is constantly changing – but the webcams will help
The Azores can be beautiful sunny islands….sometimes. Locals like to say they experience four seasons in a single day. While there are some beautifully clear, sunny days, you’ll also likely experience wind, thick fog, and driving rain. The weather is best in the summer months, but don’t be surprised if one side of the island is entrenched in thick fog while the other side has blue skies. The temperatures are always moderate, rarely dipping below the low 50s in winter or rising above the high 70s in summer.
Because of this unpredictability, the Azores has set up webcams of the major sites. If you’re driving yourself around the island you can use these webcams to decide where to go when and stay one step ahead of the weather! But changes can happen throughout the day, so be sure to pack both a raincoat and a sunhat.
3. Resources for Hiking
Hiking in the Azores is a beautiful and jaw-dropping experience. It’s one of the main attractions of these pristine islands! You can find a list and description of all the trails on the Azores site.
The trails are generally well-maintained and very well-marked. Wooden signage indicates which way you should be going and if you’re going the right way. There are often picnic areas dotted along the footpaths and plenty of opportunities to take a dip in the pool of a waterfall.
It’s important to keep in mind that the Azores are mountainous, hilly islands. So, even the easiest of paths will have a few steep accents or descents to contend with. Good hiking shoes are recommended – especially if they’re waterproof. You don’t necessarily need a guide for hiking. But, if you have limited time, a guided tour will help you see the best views and can’t-be-missed spots to make the most of your time.
4. Even if you rent a car- you still need the Taxi’s phone number
It’s not necessary to rent a car to discover the islands. But it will give you a lot more freedom to explore the island at your own pace and make spur-of-the-moment decisions about which trails, pools, and viewpoints to visit. If you’re not comfortable driving on hilly roads or narrow town streets, taxis and tours are always good options. We recommend using a combination of the two to see as much as possible.
However, even if you do rent a car, many of the hiking trails are linear and will not circle back to your parking space. It is for this reason that everyone should stop in the tourist information center – Delegação de Turismo. (located in the airports and near the ports). They will give you the phone numbers of all the different taxis and, more importantly, they’ll tell you which taxis are best to call in each area. This way you can arrange for a taxi to pick you up at the end of a linear hike.
5. Hikes and Drives will always take longer than listed on the websites
The beauty of the Azores is best appreciated from the countless Miradouros or viewpoints. Around every corner, on most of the hikes and roads, you’ll want to stop for an awe-inspiring view. This is one of the best parts of the Azores. Stunning. Therefore, it’s important to keep in mind that when google maps or the Azores hiking trail tells you a drive or hike will take a certain amount of time, you need to add at least an extra half hour. Be sure to give yourself time to take it all in.
6. It’s always whale-watching season
As with many whale watching places, you can see the most variety of species in the Spring. However, Sperm Whales live around the Azores year-round, meaning it’s always whale-watching season! In fact, the Azores is one of the biggest whale sanctuaries in the world. When you take a whale-watching tour you know the companies are committed to sustainability, education, and conservation.
[Photo Credit: Andrea Zanenga via Unsplash]
While Sperm whales can be elusive, your chances of an encounter are good as they still use whale spotters or Vigias. Once used by the whaling industry to help them hunt the whales, whale-watching tours now use these talented individuals to help direct them to a sighting. An experienced spotter on land can see the blow of a whale up to 50km out to sea, and they can tell what type of whale it is by the blow!
7. While not known for its beaches – still bring your swimsuit everywhere you go!
If you’re expecting a white-sand-beach tropical island, the Azores don’t fit the bill. That doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of opportunities to swim in incredible waters! Being a volcanic island, most of the beaches are black sand or pebble beaches. (Except for Sao Lourenco bay on Santa Maria Island). Additionally, the Atlantic Ocean can be tempestuous. Perfect for surfing but with strong rip tides and currents it’s not recommended for inexpert swimmers. What gives you that island paradise vibe are the incredible waterfalls with inviting pools at the bottom. After taking a long hike through the tropical hills, dive in.
There are also Picenes Naturales formed from lava hitting the cold ocean and creating little enclaves that are safe for swimming. Natural pools like Simao Dias and Varadouro are stunning in their own right. It’s recommended to bring water shoes so you can enjoy the rockier shores along the coast.
[Photo Credit: Annie via Shared Adventures]
8. Bring a dark-colored swimsuit for the hot springs
Like neighboring Iceland, the Azores are full of delightfully warm and rejuvenating thermal hot springs. São Miguel is the best island for hot springs — particularly around the town of Furnas. It’s a perfect activity to do on those foggy or chilly days since the waters are always warm and welcoming. The springs range in size and style. From the largest and most famous Terra Nostra, which has an entrance fee, changing rooms, showers, and other amenities. To the smaller Ferraria which offers changing rooms and a unique natural experience. It’s one of the only thermal springs connected directly to the ocean! (Make sure to go at low tide for the warmest water)
The thermal pools are full of iron and have a reddish color that can stain swimsuits and towels. So it’s highly recommended to bring dark-colored suits or even a spare old suit specifically to enjoy the hot springs.
Are you ready to go to the Azores? Let us know and we’ll help you plan the perfect adventure!