Azores, garden of Eden in the Atlantic

Pico ©T. Joly
Get close to whales and dolphins. Look at the driving forces of the Earth. Hike through imposing landscapes. In the Azores nature is queen. A haven of greenery and flowers speckled with picturesque villages and colonial towns.

[ Practical ]

- Getting there
Portuguese airlines, TAP has daily flights to Sao Miguel, Terceira and Faial, all via Lisbon.
www.flytap.com
- Weather
The islands enjoy a mild temperate climate throughout the year. Temperature go rarely over 25°C in summer and under 12°C in winter. Average rainfall is 1 000 mm per year with showers all year round. Storms are more common in January – February.
- Time difference
2 hours ahead
- Best period
April to October
- Lodging
Sao Miguel, Terceira, Faial and Pico islands have excellent 3 and 4* hotels as well as charming hotels set up in former castles and fortresses. Most are located in the main towns. There are also bed and breakfast, list on www.casasacorianas.com
Horta : Hôtel do Canal, Pousada da Forterezza
Ponta Delgada : Hôtel Avenida
Angra do Heroïsmo : Hôtel Angra Garden, Pousada Forte Sao Sebastiao
Pico : Hôtel Aldeia da Fonte
- Gastronomy
Azores offer tasty seafood and meat dishes as well as numerous cheeses.
- Getting around
Flights and ferry connections to all islands
To visit the islands it’s better to rent a car.
- Good to know
English widely spoken.
- Tour Operators
Estrela, Donatello, Euro Pauli, Club Aventures, Allibert, Terre d’Aventures, Nomades.
Allow 1 300 to 1 400 € per person for a 8-9 days tour.
- Information
Office de Tourisme du Portugal
135 bld Haussmann, 75008 Paris
Tel : 0811653838
www.visitportugal.com
Rising from the Atlantic waves, 1 200 km away from Lisbon and 2 400 km from the United States, the Portuguese archipelago of the Azores is Europe’s most Western territory. Made up of 9 islands, it was born from volcanic activity still manifest in geysers, boiling mud, hot springs and fumaroles.


Siete Cidades © T.Joly
 Spectacular landscapes
Phenomena that have created spectacular and sometimes wild landscapes. Cliffs up to a hundred meters high, rocky coves and a rugged coast on the seaside. Bare and steep mountains, flows of black lava and crater lakes inland. A harshness softened by a plentiful and colored vegetation which mixes endemic and imported species. The weather is neither very cold nor very warm allowing a wide variety of plants to grow easily. Thus you can find vineyards as well as tea plants, hydrangeas, azaleas and Japanese cryptomeria. Everything to please nature lovers and hikers. But bon vivants will also enjoy it a lot as the people are very welcoming and the cuisine is hearty and delicious.


Teirceira © T.Joly
 Detached from the world
However, due to its geographical situation, the archipelago remains a little detached from the world and not yet very touristy. But it hasn’t always been like that. For centuries these islands were a compulsory supply point for ships crossing the ocean. Moreover yachtsmen still stop there. More recently, up until the 1950s planes flying over the Atlantic also had to stop there. Indeed it was here that the plane bringing Edith Piaf’s lover, the boxer Marcel Cerdan, back to France crashed. A story told in the Oscar winning movie “La Mome”. Moreover, from the 18th century English and Americans came here to hunt whales quickly followed by locals who only ended this activity in 1984.


Faial © T.Joly
 Picturesque villages
Nowadays it is only tourists who pursue these animals and the dolphins passing by. To observe them and take pictures. But it’s not the only highlight of the sea. Underwater, shoals of colourful fishes, grottos, and rugged ocean deeps await scuba divers. As for the coastline it shelters a few sandy beaches and curious natural swimming pools nested in the middle of the rocks. Not really enough to plan a beach stay, but adequate for a day or a few hours of bathing and tanning between two hikes or cultural visits. For there are a great numbers of monuments and picturesque villages reflecting past influences and the origins of people who settled on each of the islands. However, most tourists don’t visit the whole archipelago and go mainly to four of the islands.


Furnas © T.Joly
 Crater lakes
Sao Miguel is the largest one. It is also the most populated with half of the archipelago’s 240 000 inhabitants. Its particularity is to have superb crater lakes.
Lagoa do Fogo, nested at 900 m of altitude amid bare and rugged summits often wrapped by mist. The twin Lagoas de Sete Cidades, one blue turquoise, the other emerald green shining like jewels under the sun. Lagoa das Furnas, located in an area full of geysers, pools of boiling mud and hot springs with sulphur smell. This is also one of the key spots for Azorean gastronomy as local restaurants slowly stew their stockpots for 5-6 hours within the burning earth. A delight. In addition there are thermal springs you can enjoy in the Terra Nostra park‘s pool of warm and ferruginous water surrounded by tropical vegetation.
Mountainous and rural, the interior somewhat resembles Switzerland with its green pastures and dairy cows. But this traditional European farm activity goes along with more exotic productions like bananas, oranges, tea and pineapples, the two last ones being unique in Europe.



Ponta Delgada © T.Joly
 Azores main town
Made of a succession of cliffs, sheltered bays, rocky coves and rare beaches, the coastline concentrates the majority of the population who live in agricultural villages and tiny fishing ports. Two towns dating back to the earliest times of colonization have many historical buildings. Ribeira do Grande and Villa Franca do Campo, the first capital of the island. A distinction which, in the 16th century, was given to Ponta Delgada as its harbour had became a supply post for ships going to the New World and a major export outlet. Having 60 000 inhabitants, it is the Azores only big city and the headquarters of the regional government. Nevertheless, it keeps a provincial and relaxed atmosphere as well as a beautiful historical centre boasting palaces, noblemen’s houses and religious buildings from the 17th – 18th centuries. Among it, the Esperança convent holds the Santo Cristo dos Milagros. A wooden statue of Christ wearing a red coat adorned with diamonds and golden threads. On the fifth Sunday following Easter, a procession taking him through the streets is the Azores’ main religious festival and it shows how important Christianity is to the islanders.


Angra do Heroismo © T.Joly
 Historical city
The third island to have been colonized, Terceira is home to the archipelago’s oldest town, Angra do Heroïsmo, once the most important and without contest the most beautiful. To get the best view of it, it’s best to go to Monte Brasil peninsula where an impressive fort protects and overlooks the harbour. Classified as a Unesco World Heritage Site, the city centre has kept its 16th – 17th century appearance, and the buildings with wooden and iron balconies show both Portuguese and Brazilian architectural influences. Another example of these exchanges over the ocean lies in the cathedral with a solid silver altar coming from South America. Particularly lively around Saint John’s Day, the epicentre of a week’s festivity, Angra, like all the other towns and villages on the island, has one or several imperios. Often featuring colourful and richly decorated facades, these are chapels dedicated to the Holy Spirit. A specificity of Terceira is the Sao Sebastiao gothic church, which still has some of its original frescoes.


Sao Matteus © T.Joly
 Fishing villages
Near by, the second most important town Praia da Vittoria combines a rich architectural heritage with one of the most inviting beaches of the Azores. Punctuated by tiny fishing villages like picturesque San Matteus, the seashore is mainly made of cliffs and a rocky coast where some natural pools allow for safe swimming. In Biscoïtos, one of these pools faces a vineyard planted between walls made of lava blocks which produces excellent wines. One of the very few remaining wineries and the only wine museum offers tastings. Sparsely populated, the interior is dedicated to dairy cows and bull breeding, the herds being kept in small pastures. Scenery that becomes like a modern painting with mosaic of greens when viewed from the summit of the Serra do Cume. Lastly, the other curiosity of the island, at Algar do Carvao it’s possible to descend 100 metres below the earth by going through the former chimney of a volcano. A very unusual site as normally they remain blocked by lava or collapse.


Capelhinos © T.Joly
 Young volcano
Faial is the last island to have experienced a major volcanic eruption. It was in 1957 – 1958 when the Capelhinos rose out of the sea after months of seismic activity while ash and stone projections destroyed nearby villages. A cataclysm that led numerous inhabitants of the archipelago to emigrate. Mainly to the States where hundreds of thousands of Azoreans live on the Northeast coast. Fifty years later, plants are still sparse around the volcano and it’s a deserted and lunar scenery you see with the blue ocean as background. A huge contrast with the remaining parts of the island where gentle hills are covered by grass pastures and divided by hydrangea hedges. Here and there emerge Nordic style windmills, a tribute to the Flemish origins of the first settlers.


Horta © T.Joly
 Open air art gallery
But its worldwide fame comes from its port, Horta, a mythic stopping point for yachtsmen sailing across the Atlantic. According to tradition, they must immortalize their passage by painting a fresco on the marina’s wall that over the years has become an open-air naïve and ex-voto art gallery. All these skippers meet for a drink at Peter’s bar which also serves as a general store, bureau de change and poste restante service. It also has a small museum with a stunning collection of sculpted and engraved sperm whale teeth called scrimshaws.


Pico © T.Joly
 Wild island
From Horta, it’s only a 30 mn trip by ferry to get to Pico, the Azores’ wildest island. Bearing the same name, the volcano topping the island is Portugal’s highest peak at 2 351 m. Covered by a thick forest up to 1 500 m, then by shrubbery, bare lava soil sometimes capped by snow takes over as you near the summit. On the narrow coastal plain, successive black lava flows have created an uneven ground as well as caves and tunnels extending into the ocean. A dark and dramatic scenery when the sky is cloudy. Especially as this basaltic stone is also used as material for building houses and walls dividing the vineyards in tiny plots to protect it from the wind and ocean spray. This is such an extraordinary agricultural creation that part of the vineyard is listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site. This doesn’t prevent farmers from continuing to produce an excellent sweet wine, once known all over the world, verdhelo.


Pico © T.Joly
 Rocky coastline
Having a rocky barely hospitable coastline and a mainly unprofitable land, Pico is also the island where whale hunting continued the longest, until it was forbidden in 1984. An activity commemorated through two places. The former Sao Roque factory where the huge tank where whale fat was transformed into oil still stands and the Lajes Museum of Whalers which depicts their life and work. As for the lookout towers once built along the coast to spot the cetaceans, they are now only used by boat owners taking the tourists to the sea to watch these animals.


Sao Matteus © T.Joly
 Oases of tranquility
Those with a bit more time can go and explore the other islands, Corvo and Flores, isolated and wild and once the haunts of pirates. Two paradises for hiking, as is Sao Jorge, famous for its cheeses. As for Santa Maria and Graciosa they are both oases of tranquility with a timeless atmosphere and the first one owns the nicest beaches of the archipelago. But, if the Azores’ climate is mild, it can also changes quickly and the four seasons can come in one day. Likewise, storms and strong winds can occur at any time of the year, except in summer. So it’s possible to get stuck on one island for one or two days. The opportunity for unexpected encounters and to immerse yourself more in the local atmosphere. That’s what travel in the Azores is all about.

Mars 13, 2012
Thierry Joly 



[ Whales ]

The Azores are often listed by specialists as among the world’s ten best spots to watch whales and sometimes among the top three. The best season runs from mid April to September and the chance to see one of these enormous mammals is mostly dictated by the weather. The calmer it is the better. Sperm whales are the largest and most numerous in the waterways around the islands but there are many others cetaceans as 24 of the 80 whales species in the world are frequently sighted. Moreover it’s also possible to observe many dolphins. Islands offering day or week watching tours are Sao Miguel, Pico and Faial. Tours are done on rigid inflatable boats getting as close as 50 m to the animals. People surveying the sea with binoculars from lookout towers guide them from the coast.