The Complete Guide To: The Azores

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Scattered across the North Atlantic lie nine volcanic islands with Portuguese heritage. Each is distinctive. But Simon Calder finds they share one attribute: a totally relaxed atmosphere

An Azores A to Z, please

The farthest-flung outpost of Western Europe comprises nine volcanic fragments peeking out of the North Atlantic. The Azores offer a wealth of wonders: from some of the oldest "New World" cities on the planet, to rich forests and dazzling lakes.

The islands are scattered across the ocean roughly 1,500km west of mainland Portugal and 4,000km east of New York. They form part of Macaronesia, a geographical region that includes the Canaries, although the Azores are much greener than the Spanish islands.

The name Macaronesia derives from the Greek term for "fortunate isles", and is singularly appropriate. While a gentle and unhurried ambience characterises this archipelago, each island is different.Politically they are part of Portugal, as much so as Lisbon or the Algarve; but they differ from the rest of Europe in the unhurried pace of life.

The islands divide naturally into three groups: the eastern islands of Sao Miguel (the largest of the nine), and Santa Maria; the central group consisting of Terceira, Graciosa, Sao Jorge, Pico and Faial; and the western islands of Flores and Corvo, the smallest and most remote.

The best vantage point from which to appreciate the individuality of each island is ground level, as you drive, cycle or walk. But even when flying from the Portuguese mainland to the Azores you can find your flight involves traversing one or two other islands en route to your final destination: sitting on the left on the link from, say, Lisbon to Horta on the island of Faial should enable you to see Terceira, Sao Jorge and Pico on the landing approach – and will show you just how varied are the members of this fascinating family of islands.

Where do I start?

Where human settlement of the archipelago began. Until the 15th century, when Portuguese explorers happened upon an island that they named Santa Maria, and another that became Sao Miguel, the Azores were unpopulated.

Sao Miguel is now the most important island, and most visitors to the Azores make landfall at its main town, Ponta Delgada. By Azorean standards it is a bustling conurbation lacking the calm that is the islands' most appealing feature, but there are some notable attractions.

The three arches in the main square, Praca Gonzalo Velha Cabral, were part of a gate through the original city walls. In front of the square, a road continues along the harbourfront to the imposing fortress of Sao Bras; behind that is an attractive square, Praca 5 de Outubro, whose highlight is the alluring Chapel of Nossa Senhora da Esperanca. In contrast with the ornate gilding around the altar, its walls are covered with blue and white tiles depicting Biblical scenes. From the square, follow the narrow street that runs parallel with the harbour road, lined with two-storey, balconied houses and towers providing look-out points.

The main attractions of Sao Miguel lie beyond the town. Its scenic strong point is Sete Cidades – a name that translates from the Portuguese as "Seven Cities", which is curious given it is a volcanic caldera. Unlike most such craters, this one has a village near the bottom, plus a pair of lakes with a legend. The story broadly goes that a beautiful princess fell in love with a shepherd, but they were forbidden by her father from marrying; he did, though, permit them to meet one final time. Her tears ran blue, to form the larger lake; his were green, and created the smaller.

Europe's only commercial tea plantations are located on the north coast of Sao Miguel; the plants were brought to the island from Brazil in the 18th century.

If white sand is more your cup of tea, head next for the nearby island of Santa Maria. The most southerly of the Azores is the island that has the most conventional beach: Praia do Formosa. Santa Maria also boasts the highest average temperature in the archipelago, and offers the most reliable surfing conditions.

Where next?

If you choose a clockwise navigation of the islands (by air, not surfboard), a massive 500km loop is required to reach the next in line: Flores. If one were to bestow the Azores with human characteristics, this would be the muscular, silent one. Some claim Flores is the westernmost point in the European Union (a point disputed by various French territories in the Atlantic). It possesses a peak that would narrowly count as a Munro (Morro Alto, 974m). In addition, the occidental island has a jewel of a lagoon: Funda, which looks just the place you would expect to find buried treasure. Add in weird basalt structures, vertiginous cliffs and a sprinkling of waterfalls, and you have an absurd amount of scenery packed into an island the size of Jersey.

Corvo, to the north, looks on the map like a human left ear. The lobe, dangling down to Ponta Negra, contains Vila Nova, the only significant settlement. North from here, a half-day hike (happily fitted into a day trip by boat from Flores) can take you to another striking caldera, containing a miniature lakeland speckled with islets.

More of A human touch?

Travel to the central group of islands, which are relatively well-populated, and are as rich in history as they are in nature.

Pico and Faial are almost close enough to touch, and are connected by a frequent ferry service (00 351 292 200 380; transmacor.pt), taking half-an-hour and costing €3.40 each way). But they provide very different experiences.

The shape of Faial approximates to a human eye, and that the iris is the rim of the caldera in the middle of the island. If by now you are cratered-out, the new trick here is the approach: a tunnel through the rim that allows you suddenly to be confronted by a great gash in the u oearth's crust. The rest of the island may look relatively tranquil in comparison, until you visit the village of Capelinhos – or rather what remains of it, following a calamitous volcanic eruption in 1958.

Pico is a masterpiece. It has a shoreline full of character, and an interior that looks forboding – even desolate, at least in the upper reaches of the volcano that gives the island its name, and Portugal its highest mountain (Ponta da Pico, 2,351m).

Even if you lack the time or inclination to climb it, take the high road traversing the island, which gives an excellent view of the summit (Atlantic weather systems permitting).

Sao Jorge, lying parallel to Pico, is a stripe of rock with a mighty central spine and perforated shoreline. Yet the interior could almost be Dorset – pleasantly rolling hills arbitrarily divided by hedgerows – apart from the odd bubble that signifies a volcanic outburst. The low, flat areas are actually formed from volcanic lava and are known as fajas.

Graciosa has the shape of a teardrop, and an air of serenity. It also has a top-grade geological attraction, the Sulphur Cavern. This is a "hole within a hole". The regulation caldera is, in this case, at the far south-east of the island.

Handily, you can drive into the crater and right up to the approach to the cavern. There follows one of the Azores – and Europe's – most spectacular descents. A spiral staircase, looking a little like an offcut from a Disneyland castle, clings to the rock, and leads you down into the floor of the cave: perhaps the occasion when you will feel closest to the centre of the earth.

Have you left the best until last?

The 55,000 islanders of Terceira would say so. From the ribbon of white that attaches itself to the pretty shoreline, through the patchwork of fields in a spectrum of greens, to a heartland of coarse pumice, one of the historic hubs of the Azores packs in a great deal. Even though Ponta Delgada on Sao Miguel has long since taken the Azores' lead in population and commerce, Terceira's largest town – Angra do Heroismo – remains the heart of the archipelago, spiritually and architecturally. Best of all, the urban explorer can get a fix of the great geological outdoors without straying far from the Unesco Heritage List-ambience of Angra do Heroismo; Monte Brasil offers a short walk and great views.

Additional research: Laura Lindsay

Mid-Atlantic miracle

The town of Angra do Heroismo was born in special circumstances. In the late 15th century, Portuguese explorers were in the vanguard of mapping the world. The island of Terceira ("third") was so named because it was discovered after Santa Maria and San Miguel. But thanks to the protection offered by Monte Brasil, it proved to have the best port. Within a few decades, Angra found itself straddling a maritime superhighway, a crucial pit-stop for European vessels on their way home. The island began to make a healthy living, and also started to absorb influences from the Americas and even Asia.

Blessed with equal parts of wealth and vision, the settlers created a town for this new age, in as close to a regular grid pattern as the topography would allow.

The attention to detail on Rua da Se is worthy of a Hollywood set designer. The elaborate iron balconies have the delicacy of embroidery. Now and again you encounter an intricate compilation of azuelhos, the blue tiles familiar from the Portuguese mainland.

You can easily spot the ecclesiastical and governmental highlights – the cathedral, the churches, the palaces. Yet what gives the scene such texture is the ripple of red roofs that drape themselves over the terrain as it slides down to meet the ocean.

Simon Calder

Cooking gently

On the island of Sao Miguel, Furnas is a village of thermal springs and lush vegetation, which sits inside a crater. The best place to enjoy the thermal waters is in the swimming pool in the Terra Nostra Gardens (00 351 296 549 090; bensaude.pt ), which are open 9am-5pm daily in winter, 10am-7pm daily from May to October; admission €5. Eating cozido should be a feature of any visit to Furnas. It is traditional – and this is a custom still observed by the locals – to take food down to the lake and leave it to cook slowly in the thermal waters; someone is there every day to keep an eye on the cooking pots. Typical dishes include cozido do Portugal, consisting of pieces of salt cod, or a meat version with chicken, sausages, yams and carrots; dessert might be a sweet rice pudding. Alternatively, it is possible to request cozido in advance from most of the local restaurants.

Cathy Packe

Azores: when to go, how to go, what to eat

When to go

The Azores are accessible and rewarding all year round. In winter, temperatures rarely fall below 10C, and snow usually falls only on the upper reaches of Pico, Portugal's highest mountain. In summer, your transport options will be much wider, and everything will seem a little busier, but none of the islands can ever be described as crowded. The ideal months, climatically and logistically, are May and September. And whale-watching is available daily from several of the islands between May and September.

Getting there

Between now and October, the quick and easy way to get to the Azores is on SATA (0844 482 1678; sata.pt ), which flies twice weekly until the end of October from both Manchester and Gatwick to Ponta Delgada on the island of Sao Miguel. For the rest of the islands, and during the winter, TAP Portugal (0845 601 0932; tap.pt ) will take you there from Heathrow or Gatwick via its hub in Lisbon. From the Portuguese capital, connecting flights operate at least daily for Ponta Delgada on San Miguel; there are less frequent departures to Terceira, Horta on the island of Faial, and also Pico.

If you prefer to buy a package rather than making individual arrangements there are a number of operators offering trips to the Azores. One of several specialists is Sunvil (020-8758 4722; sunvil.co.uk ), which has a range of options such as a 14-night tour of all the islands starting at £1,803 in June, departing on Saturdays and Tuesdays; the price includes all transfers, bed and breakfast accommodation, and flights to and from Gatwick.

For a briefer stay, Explore Worldwide (0870 333 4001; exploreworldwide.com ) offers a four-night whale-search tour, taking in Faial and Pico, from £955 including flights, bed and breakfast and transfers.

Eating and drinking

Few people go to the Azores specifically for a gastronomic experience, although the islands have some interesting local specialities such as alfenim. These are small shapes, usually of birds, which are made out of sugar paste. They are widely available in Angra do Heroismo, for example at the Pastelaria Athanasio on Rua da Se opposite the cathedral.

Beef and chicken are plentiful. Alcatra is a casserole of beef which is cooked in a big pot; it is served with a thin gravy and accompanied by sweet bread. The locally-caught fish and seafood is excellent: tuna, swordfish, limpets and crab feature on many menus, as does wreckfish, a white fish resembling halibut.

Several islands have vineyards; those on Pico are an attraction in their own right. Vines here are grown among the volcanic rock, pruned so that they sprawl along close to the ground.

Food and drink are cheap, at least by euro-zone standards.

Azores: how to get around the islands, and where to stay

Air

Services between the larger islands tend to be daily or more frequent; between Ponta Delgada and Terceira there are three or four a day. Smaller islands are served much less frequently – in winter, only a couple of times a week.

Because of the position of the islands, services are susceptible to weather; delays and cancellations happen more often than in most locations. It is worth building some flexibility into your schedule, particularly for your flight home.

Most flights are operated by SATA (0844 482 1678; sata.pt). TAP Portugal (0845 601 0932; tap.pt ) also has a few hops as part of routes to and from Lisbon. Through SATA, international passengers can buy the "Azores Air Pass" – not an unlimited-travel deal, but a system that allows you to book additional inter-island flights at reduced rates, as long as you buy in conjunction with your international flights. Fares start at £55 for the first additional flight and then £32 for each flight thereafter.

Sea

During the summer, boats operated by Atlantico Line (00 351 296 288 933; atlanticoline.pt ) connect all the islands, although some routes don't have daily connections. Sailing times are usually long; the crossing from Terceira to Sao Miguel, for example, takes five hours. Flores to Corvo takes 40 minutes, but costs €10 one way. Boat schedules, like flights, are subject to the weather.

Intra-island travel

Hiring a car is the most flexible option (except in Corvo, where the only way to get around is by foot; at 6.5km by 4km this shouldn't be too much of a hardship). Be warned that many of the islands' roads are little more than bumpy, unmade tracks, signposting is vague or non-existent, and maps lack detail. But it is difficult to get completely lost given the small scale of the islands.

Ilha Verde Rent-a-Car (00 351 296 304 891; ilhaverde.com ) operates on all the islands, and has rates starting at €42 per day in June, including unlimited mileage (note that there is an additional charge of €23 to pick the car up from an airport).

Buses operate on most islands, although the infrequent services can make them impractical if you have a tight schedule. But sometimes they can provide a good way to get an overview of an island: take a tour around the coast of Faial, for example, on the bus which leaves from near the tourist office each day at 11.45am. An alternative, particularly on the smaller islands, is to hire a taxi to take you on a half- or full-day tour; typically you could pay around €75 for four hours, €100 for six hours, in a taxi that will comfortably hold four passengers.

Staying there

You will look in vain for five-star accommodation on the islands, but there are plenty of less grand hotels and plenty of cheaper places to stay. The Bensaude chain (00 351 296 301 880; bensaude.pt ) has hotels in several of the main towns, including Ponta Delgada, Furnas, Angra do Heroismo and Horta

An excellent example of environmentally sensitive accommodation is the Quinta das Buganvílias (00 351 292 943 255; quintadasbuganvilias.com ) in Horta, which was also awarded the Green Key award last year; summer rates start at €85, including breakfast. In the same town, Quinta da Nasce-Água (00 351 295 628 500; quintadanasce-agua.com ) has comfortable double rooms in a lovely rural setting for €144, including breakfast.

Horta and Angra do Heroisme each have a pousada located inside a fort, part of a network of notable Portuguese hotels (00 351 218 442 001; pousadas.pt ). Horta's is the Pousada de Santa Cruz; Angra's is the Sao Sebastiao. Rooms at either start at €120 including breakfast.

For a rural stay on San Miguel, but with facilities close to hand, the Quinta da Abelheira (00 351 296 630 180; quintadaabelheira.com ) is the perfect spot, 4km from the centre of Ponta Delgada, but still with a rural feel; doubles from €82.50, including breakfast. Also on San Miguel, the Bahia Palace (00 351 296 539 130; hotelbahiapalace.com ) provides four-star luxury perched atop Água d'Alto Bay on San Miguel; doubles from €125.

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