The Complete Guide To: The Azores

Europe's westernmost territory is a collection of volcanic specks in the vast Atlantic Ocean. Cathy Packe explores these beautiful islands, whose multicoloured lakes and lush forests feel a world away from the Continent

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The Independent Travel

WHY GO?

Because the farthest-flung outpost of Europe offers a wealth of wonders, from twin lakes that sparkle with different colours to meals cooked in thermal pools. Best of all, sampling the gentle and unhurried atmosphere of this Portuguese gem will soon be much easier: non-stop flights from Britain start on 5 April.

SO WHERE ARE THE AZORES?

These nine volcanic islands are scattered across the mid-Atlantic, about 1,500km west of Portugal and 4,000km east of New York. They form part of Macronesia, a geographical region which includes the Canary Islands, although the Azores are greener than the more southerly Spanish isles. Politically they are part of Portugal - the Azoreans speak Portuguese, have adopted the euro, send deputies to the Portuguese parliament and are represented in Brussels by their own MEP. Where they differ from the rest of Europe is in the pace of life, which feels rather like stepping back to the 1950s.

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. There were no inhabitants at all until the 15th century, when the Portuguese explorers happened upon Santa Maria and Sao Miguel.

HOW DO I GET THERE?

Non-stop from Gatwick, at least from next month, when SATA International Air Azores (08706 066664; www.sata.pt) starts flying every Tuesday to the main international airport at Ponta Delgada. The journey will take just under four hours and prices start at £238 return. On other days - and during the winter, according to current plans - the route involves a flight via Lisbon with TAP (0845 601 0932; www.flytap.com), which operates several services a week from both Heathrow and Gatwick to Lisbon. From the Portuguese capital, connecting flights leave daily for Ponta Delgada, and several times a week for Horta, on the island of Faial, and Lajes, on Terceira.

If you prefer to buy a package rather than make your own arrangements, a number of operators offer trips to the Azores. These include Sunvil (020-8758 4722; www.sunvil.co.uk), which has options that cover all the islands; Simply Travel (0870 166 4979; www.simplytravel.co.uk) and Explore Worldwide (0870 333 4001; www.exploreworldwide.com).

IS PONTA DELGADA A GOOD BASE?

Sao Miguel's main town is attractive, although it is a bustling conurbation lacking the relaxed atmosphere that is the islands' most appealing feature. But as it is the main gateway to the Azores, it is worth a visit. The three arches in the main square, Praca Gonzalo Velha Cabral, were part of the gate through the original city walls. In front of the square, a road continues along the harbour front as far as the imposing fortress of Sao Bras; behind that is an attractive square, Praca 5 de Outubro, whose highlight is the charming little 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. This was once Ponta Delgada's main thoroughfare and is lined with two-storey houses with iron railings round their balconies and towers providing look-out posts. But the main attraction of Sao Miguel is its scenery.

WHAT WILL I SEE?

The highlights of the island are its lakes, at Sete Cidades to the west and at Furnas to the east. Near Sete Cidades lie two lakes separated by a narrow causeway, and the Vista do Reivillage viewpoint in the village is a great place from which to view them from above. The water in one lake is blue while in the other it's green - legend links the hues to a tale of unrequited love between a princess and a shepherd.

On the other side of the island, Furnas is surrounded by thermal springs and sits inside a crater. The best place to enjoy the waters is in the swimming-pool in the Terra Nostra Gardens (Rua Padre Jose Jacinto Botelho), which are open 9am-7pm daily in winter, 10am-7pm daily from May to October. Entrance costs €3 (£2.15). Eating cozido (the local stew) should be a feature of any visit to Furnas. It is traditional to take food down to the lake and leave it to cook slowly in the warm waters - someone is there every day to keep an eye on the cooking pots. Typical dishes include cozido do Portugal, which is made from pieces of salt cod, or a meat version with chicken, sausages, yams and carrots. It is possible to request cozido in advance from most restaurants.

IS IT ALL RURAL?

The main attractions of the Azores are their lack of urban sprawl and their natural assets, such as the lakes of Flores and Sao Miguel; the caldeiras (craters) of Corvo, Faial and Graciosa; volcanic peaks like Pico mountain, the highest in Portugal at 2,351m; and the cliffs of Sao Jorge, which have fajas or "flat areas" at their base.

All the islands offer some excellent walks. Maps and information are available from the local tourist offices, although the smaller the island, the less detailed the maps are likely to be. One of the highlights for serious walkers is to go to the summit of Pico mountain, but there are plenty of less demanding trails, such as around the crater on Faial, or along the coast of Flores.

ANY GOOD BEACHES?

Despite the islands' extensive coastline, this is not a destination for a beach holiday. Most of the coastline is made up of black volcanic rocks, although there are a few white sandy beaches, including Praia de Formosa on the south coast of Santa Maria. Saltwater swimming-pools have been created at various points along the coast to make swimming more appealing. Usually some kind of jetty has been built so that it is easy to get into the water, and the pools are sheltered from the waves.

A more popular marine activity is whale-watching, which is available daily from several of the islands between May and September. Whaling was an important component of the Azorean economy until it was banned by Portugal in 1979. A small museum, the Museu dos Baleiros at Lajes on Pico (Rua dos Baleeiros 13), explains the history of the trade. Now, open boats similar to those used by the whalers take visitors out in search of whales. A three-and-a-half hour trip from Lajes with Futurismo on Avenida Marginal (00 351 292 672000) costs €45 (£32), and there is a full refund if no whales are sighted. Whale-watching trips are also available from Ponta Delgada, Horta, and Santa Cruz on Graciosa.

ANY CULTURE?

Angra do Heroismo, the main town on Terceira, is a neat little place built on a Renaissance plan in the 16th century. The town has been granted World Heritage status by Unesco, and its grand buildings are a relic of the days when the island was an important staging post between Europe and the New World. At the centre of Angra is an attractive square, the Praca Velha, which is best appreciated from the Great Hall of the Town Hall. The hall is usually open 9am-5pm on weekdays and sometimes during the weekend. Not far away is the former royal palace, the Palacio dos Capitais Generais, which is now the official residence of the governor of the Azores when he visits Terceira. It is possible to wander around for free during working hours.

Elsewhere on the islands, look out for the imperios that are dotted around the villages and countryside. These are small chapels or shrines that could easily be mistaken for a summer pavilion or small house. They usually have net curtains and are often very ornate. The imperio in the village of Sao Sebastiao, on Terceira, is decorated on the outside with paintings of local food, including a pot of alcatra.

DO YOU PAINT WITH THAT OR EAT IT?

Alcatra is a beef casserole served with a thin gravy and accompanied by sweet bread. Beef and chicken are plentiful on the islands, as are the locally-caught fish and seafood. Tuna, swordfish, limpets and crab feature on many menus, as does the less familiar wreckfish, a coarse white fish that resembles halibut.

It would be fair to say that most people don't go to the Azores for the food, although there are some interesting local specialities. These include alfenim, small shapes, usually birds, that are made out of sugar paste and were originally connected with the festival of the Holy Spirit. They are widely available in Angra do Heroismo, at places like the Pastelaria Athanasio on Rua da Se opposite the cathedral. At Furnas, on Sao Miguel, the speciality is a soft, sweet bread roll that can be bought at the village fruit shop or any house displaying the sign. Just ring the bell, whatever the time, and ask for "bolos levedos".

HOW DO I GET AROUND?

The easiest way to get from one island to another is to fly; each island, even tiny Corvo with its single village, has its own airport. Fares vary, but an Azores Air Pass is available. This costs around £150 for flights to two islands, and can be booked through SATA (0870 6066 664; www.sata.pt). There are daily ferry services (00 351 292 200 380; www.transmacor.pt) between Faial and Pico, which take half an hour and cost €3 (£2.15). Several days a week these connect with crossings to Sao Jorge, and there are daily sailings on this route from mid-June to mid-September.

During the summer, boats operated by Tur Angra (00 351 295 216 898; www.turangra.com) connect all the islands except Corvo, although some routes don't have daily connections. Sailing times vary; the crossing from Terceira to Sao Miguel, for example, takes six hours. Weather permitting, there are boats during the summer between Flores and Corvo, although the timetable is variable.

Hiring a car is the best way of getting around the islands, although many of the roads are little more than bumpy, unmade tracks, signposting is vague or non-existent and maps lack detail. Ilha Verde Rent-a-Car (00 351 296 304 891; www.ilhaverde.com) operates on all the islands, and has rates starting at €45 (£32) per day including unlimited mileage.

Buses operate on each island, although services are often infrequent. Despite this, they can be a good way to get an overview of an island: take a tour around the coast of Faial, for example, on the bus that leaves from near the tourist office every morning 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 €50 (£35.75) for four hours, or €70 (£50) for six hours, for a taxi that will take four.

The only way to get around Corvo is on foot, although given its size - 6.5km by 4km - this shouldn't be too much of a hardship.

WHERE SHOULD I STAY?

There is a good choice of accommodation on the islands, although so far they do not have any five-star hotels. The Bensaude chain (00 351 296 301 880; www.bensaude.pt) has hotels in several of the main towns, including Ponta Delgada, Furnas, Angra do Heroismo and Horta. Double rooms are likely to start at around €90 (£64), singles at €80 (£57), with breakfast. Horta also boasts the Pousada de Santa Cruz, one of a national network of historic hotels (00 351 218 442 001; www.pousadas.pt). Rooms here start at €105 (£75). Another pousada, the Sao Sebastiao, will open this spring in Angra.

An alternative is rural tourism, a scheme that offers self-catering or bed and breakfast accommodation in the countryside. Prices vary according to location and facilities, but double rooms typically cost around €70 (£50). There is no single organisation covering rural tourism, but information is available from the Portuguese National Tourist Office at 11 Belgrave Square, London SW1X 8PP (0845 355 1212; www.visitportugal.com or www.drtacores.pt).

WHEN SHOULD I GO?

The Azorean tourist industry, in so far as there is one, is geared towards the summer, but the islands are a good year-round destination. Temperatures are stable, usually around 12-13C in winter and 22-24C in summer. As is common in places where the climate depends on the moods of an ocean, the locals say that you can get four seasons in one day. So don't be surprised to experience heavy rain, hot sun, low cloud and a breeze.

A GLASS OF AZOREAN WINE

Several of the islands have vineyards, but those on Pico are an attraction in their own right. Vines have been grown here among the volcanic rock for centuries, pruned so that they sprawl along close to the ground. They are planted in small beds, each surrounded by low basalt walls. The local wines are extremely drinkable but little-known outside the Azores, as hardly any are exported.

A wine museum at Biscoitos, on Terceira, has a small vineyard attached, and visits end with a tasting. The museum opens 10am-noon and 1.30-4pm Tuesday to Saturday, and visits are free. Wine is on sale from €5 (£3.60) a bottle. It is also possible to buy from the wine co-operative, or Cooperativa Vitivinicola (00 351 292 622 262), at Areia Larga, near the main village of Madalena on Pico, where the prices are much lower than in the local shops.

TAKE TEA WITH THE LOCALS

Europe's only commercial tea plantations are on the north coast of Sao Miguel. The bushes were brought from Brazil in the 18th century and were originally grown as ornamental plants, but a tea industry developed later after a visit from a group of Chinese experts.

Cha Porto Formoso (00 351 296 442 342), on the main road between Ribera Grande and Sao Bras, is a factory (producing three tons of tea a year), a museum and a tea shop. Visitors are shown a film about the production process, and then have the opportunity to taste a cup of locally-grown tea; there is a choice of pekoe, orange pekoe, or the more delicate broken leaf tea. It is open 10am-5pm from Monday to Saturday, and entrance is free. A short way along the same road is Cha Gorreana (00 351 296 442 349; www.azores.net/gorreana), an older and larger operation, which opens 9am-6pm daily. Entrance is free.

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