Despite being heralded as Europe’s answer to New Zealand, the Portuguese archipelago of nine small, volcanic islands that sit at the most westerly point of Europe have yet to be truly celebrated on the silver screen. It seems strange, when their spectacular landscapes, paradisiacal panoramic views and abundant flora and fauna easily set the backdrop for your own fairytale adventure.
Most recently you will have seen the largest island, Sao Miguel, on your screens as one of the most dramatic stops in the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series. For the last three years, the world’s best divers have gathered to jump from an impressive monolith of volcanic stone, which is part of an age-old volcano islet in the sea, in Villa Franca do Campo. It’s a sport that’s proliferating in popularity, especially since the current world number one is British, and it helps set the scene for the dramatic adventures you can have in this country.
With year-round mild temperatures – in summer they reach 26ºC and in winter average around 16ºC – the Azores is a very fertile, vivid-green land. Crowds gather to spot its diverse wildlife, especially birds and whales, get active in its varied landscape, and learn about its rich history, dating back to the 15th-century colonisation by the Portugese.
Here’s how to make the most of your stay…
One of the main attractions of these amazing islands are the several species of whales that reside in its waters. Sperm whales are the most common, with females of up to 10m living there all year round, and males of up to 18 million, coming back to mate in the summer months, between May and October. There are 24 species in all to be sighted here, including the blue, humpback and killer whale. The bottle nose and common dolphin are easily spotted, too. Tourism is responsible, and companies have a strong code of ethics. Set off from Sao Miguel, booking with Picos de Adventura.
The amazing volcanic landscapes, calm lakes and miles of coastline provide untapped opportunity for adrenaline junkies (or adrenaline toe-dippers). Explore Sao Miguel’s two beautiful crater lakes – Furnas and Sete Cidades – in a canoe, or hike around their rims. There are mountain-bike routes for anyone from leisure cyclist to professional. The miles of shorelines also offer great surfing conditions, and the World Championship Tour always makes a stop on the north coast of São Miguel Island. Horseriding, canyoning and so much more will give you an even better understanding of the amazing Azorean landscape.
Eat and drink
The vivid green scenery and fertile soil, created by the Azores humidity and mild seasonal temperatures, mean the produce is second-to-none. The island has a rich dairy farming history, and tasty cheeses that rival the French. The wine is good (but steer clear of the local grappa), and the seafood fresh and abundant. The Azoreans claim they have the only tea plantation in Europe (they don’t, there’s one in Cornwall), but the three different types of tea Gorreana Tea (black, broken leaf, green and orange pekoe) are delicious. When dining out, you’ll get value for money with a first-rate local buffet at Hotel Talisman, or try a fabulous steak at what the Azorean’s claim to be John Wayne’s favourite steak restaurant in the world, Alcides, both in Ponta Delgada and Sao Miguel.
If you’ve never been on a propeller plane, this is definitely the place to take your first flight. The nine islands of the archipelago are well connected by SATA Air Azores’ routes. Jump on one of their Bombardiers and be at your new destination in just a short hop.
Terceira is the second most-inhabited island of the Azores. It’s home to the port Angra do Heroismo, a world heritage site that has a rich military history and is exceptionally beautiful. Then head to Biscoitos to swim in lava-rock bathing pools. Pico is renowned for its perfect volcanic hike, up Montanha do Pico, and is a spot from which admire the Unesco-listed volcanic vineyards.
Need to know:
There are three international airports in the Azores with João Paulo II Airport on Sao Miguel being the largest. The others are Horta airport in Faial and Terceira Lajes in Terceira.
TV and films shot here
Knight and Day, Volcanoes of the Deep Sea, It’s the Earth not the Moon
Cozido is a stew made from beef, pork, chicken, root vegetables and blood sausage slow-cooked underground by the geothermal heat. Kale soup and steamed limpets with garlic are traditional starters. Pineapples grow locally and often feature as pudding. The dairy industry is large and the Azorean cheese makers are outstanding, so indulge in tasty local ones like Vaquinha, St George cheese, Castelinho and fresh sheep and goats’ cheeses.
The Royal Garden Hotel [hyperlink to review] is a comfortable, Asian-themed hotel in Ponta Delgada, the capital of Sao Miguel Island. Or try the Angra Garden Hotel in Terceira.
Getting there and around
Radio Times flew direct from London Gatwick to Sao Miguel with SATA International SATA International flights will be operating every Saturday until 17 October 2015. Weekday flights are also available, flying from London Heathrow via Lisbon. SATA International offers inter-island connections throughout the Azores archipelago, with prices starting from £68 pp one-way (including taxes and charges).
Radio Times was hosted by SATA International, all of our contributors maintain editorial independence at all times and conduct first-hand research.