The Azores: what to see and do on the wild islands

·4-min read
Green peace: caves formed by Faial’s volcanic eruption (Picture: Sefton Samuels/Rex)
Green peace: caves formed by Faial’s volcanic eruption (Picture: Sefton Samuels/Rex)

They exploded out of the darkness like a volley of torpedoes — one, two, three, four — the first just below my feet, the second a few inches to my side. Within moments they had disappeared into the green depths.

Welcome to swimming with dolphins, Azores-style. Forget dubious images of swimmers hitching a ride on Flipper lookalikes in artificial lagoons. These are proper wild animals, up close and in their element.

Our guide, the ebullient Pedro Filipe of whale and dolphin watch company Azores Experiences, had expertly eased his boat into the path of a school of bottlenose dolphins racing across the choppy waters between Pico and Faial, two islands in the Azorean archipelago.

My two teenage sons and I dropped into the water just in time for the 8ft-long creatures to pass all around us at speed. It felt like stepping into the middle of a high-speed aquatic highway.

The Azores — a spectacularly wild scattering of nine mid-Atlantic volcanic outcrops — is one of the best places in the world to view the five species of dolphins and 24 types of whales that pass by. The islands, which were one of the great whale hunting outposts until the last factory closed in 1984, are now a haven for some of the ocean’s most spectacular inhabitants.

They are the most remote and probably least known of Portugal’s territories, 1,500km from the mainland. SATA, Ryanair and Easyjet all have regular flights to the capital, Ponta Delgada.

Although the archipelago is associated with fine weather — the so-called “Azores High” that brings sunny, settled conditions to western Europe in summer — this is no tropical paradise. Indeed, the Azoreans seem to revel in a climate almost, but not quite, as bad as Britain’s, and certainly a lot cooler and wetter than Madeira or the Canaries.

Shortly after landing at Ponta Delgada airport, our guide boasted: “We don’t have the best weather or long sandy beaches.” However, what they do have is utterly wild and unspoiled scenery forged by wind, rain and volcanic fire.

The biggest island, São Miguel, has a touch of the English West Country about it, with tidy fields and hedgerows of azaleas, agapanthus and camelias — Devon on steroids, if you like. At the top of what you think is a pleasant but unspectacular country lane you suddenly find yourself staring down into a volcanic caldera of such vast proportions that there are clouds floating below you.

São Miguel is made up of three of these huge craters, each harbouring a tranquil lake at the bottom. On the banks of Lagoa Das Furnas there are bubbling mud pools; springs and geysers shoot up elsewhere. A local culinary speciality, cozida das furnas, is a rustic but sustaining stew of sausages, potato, cabbage and black pudding that is buried underground for six hours and heated by nothing more than mother nature.

In the gardens at nearby Terra Nostra Park, a bath-warm pool of Tango-coloured water — thanks to the iron in the rock — is the Azores’ answer to the Blue Lagoon. I could have stayed in it all day but even half an hour’s immersion left my skin and trunks with a faint, happily temporary, tangerine glow.

An hour’s flight further into the Atlantic took us to the central group of islands. Faial’s highlight, apart from its cosy Ballymory-like capital, Horta, is the desolate and spectacular moonscape of Capelinhos, a dormant volcano that erupted for 13 months from 1957 to 1958, destroying hundreds of local homes and creating a new peninsula still devoid of plant life almost 60 years later.

The violence of the event was such that a third of the island’s population emigrated to the United States — helped by a rising young senator called John F Kennedy, who co-authorised the Azorean Refugee Act — and local schools began teaching children about it in geography lessons only in 2008.

After a half-hour ferry ride to Pico, dominated by the classic volcano cone of Mount Pico, we were given a tour of the island’s bizarrely stunted vineyards where the vines cannot grow any higher than the volcanic rock walls that divide the tiny plantations, because of the constant exposure to salty winds.

The Azores are unlikely ever to threaten the higher profile flesh-pots of the Canaries or Cape Verde—buffeted by tempests, earthquakes and volcanos, they are the last knockings of Europe when heading west across the Atlantic and retain an edge-of-theknown-world feel—but that is the way the 240,000 or so Azoreans prefer it.

Many we spoke to shook their heads sorrowfully about “overdeveloped” Madeira, let alone mainland Portugal, and said they hoped the islands would never go the same way.

Nature still rules in the Azores — and these extraordinary wild islands are all the better for it.

Details: the Azores

Sunvil Discovery (020 8758 4722, arranges bespoke trips to the Azores.

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