Almost 1,500 km west of Portugal, lying alone in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean is the Azores. This autonomous Portuguese archipelago has long been a favourite with holidaymakers and cruisers, thanks to its Garden of Eden feeling, Jurassic Park-like volcanic landscape, vibrant fishing villages and dolphin and whale watching. The island group is sometimes described as the ‘Hawaii of Europe’, but arrive on its wild shores and you’ll see just how unique it is. On the largest island São Miguel, travellers can visit lake-filled volcanic craters and the Gorreana Tea Planation, while Pico offers vineyards and the eponymous volcano – the highest mountain in Portugal.
Why cruise Azores
Being in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, somewhere between Boston and Lisbon, the Azores is an island frequented by cruise ships – either on Transatlantic voyages or Western Mediterranean and Canary Islands sailings. Large cruise lines like Carnival Cruise Line, NCL, Princess Cruises, Fred Olsen Cruise Lines and Celebrity Cruises all sail to the archipelago, along with more boutique, luxury lines like Azamara and Silversea.
Best Places to visit in the Azores
São Miguel, or ‘Ilha Verde’ (Green Island), is the largest of the Azorean islands a tapestry of lake-filled calderas, emerald green forests and craggy volcanic landscaped. The capital Ponta Delgada is a handsome city with 50,000 inhabitants and a thriving university, boasting old streets with white balconied mansions, local petiscos (Portuguese tapas) bars, art galleries and live music venues. It’s worth spending a day here, starting in the Igreja Matriz de São Sebastião main square and before heading to the former Forte de São Brás fotress and military museum. Make sure to also check out the city’s 16th-centuy Gothic churches before grabbijg a glazz of local Azorean wine at a seafront bar.
Lagoa das Sete Cidades
Lagoa das Sete Cidades is located on São Miguel and is one of the most beautiful spots in the entire archipelago. The twin lake is a painting of greens and blues, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Portugal, and consisting of two lakes connected by a narrow strait. The lakes were formed in the crater of a dormant volcano, but according to legenda came about frm the tears of a shepherd and princess who shared a forbidden love. Despite being hydrologically connected, the lakes are ecologically very different, one (Lagoa Azul) being blue and Lagoa Verde being green. Cross over the bridge, take in their awesome beauty and explore the eerie abandoned hotel on the lake’s shores.
Horta is the capital of Faial Island, one of the prettiest Azorean islands known for being draped in blue hydrangeas. This little city is particularly beautiful, with pastel-painted buildings tumbling down into the indigo Atlantic, historical churches and grand colonial architecture – best displayed in the imposing parish church, Igreja Matriz São Salvador. Most of the action in Horta is had around its marina, packed with yachts and a primary stop for sailors crossing the Atlantic. Street art has been created by sailors and yachties marking their names and the names of their vessel, and Peter’s Café Sport is a firm favourite watering hole. The café also houses Faial’s Scrimshaw museum – housing pieces carved from the teeth of sperm whales.
Terra Nostra Park
The Azores is a geothermal islands group, which is why it’s often referred to as ‘Iceland without the ice’. Like in Iceland, visitors to the Azores can bathe in warm, natural geothermal pools that are dotted all over the island. One of the most beautiful and relaxing spots to enjoy a dip is in the Terra Nostra Park on Furnas island, one of the most beautiful gardens in Europe and home to 2,000 different trees. The park has a thermal swimming pool that is loved by tourists and locals alike, and health benefits of swimming in the pool include improved circulation, the healing of skin conditions and stress relief.
The island of Flores is one of the most underrated in the Azores, known for its off-the-beaten-track aesthetic and incredible array of flora and fauna. The entire island is a Unesco Biosphere Reserve – something to do with the stunning waterfalls, rock formations and lakes that litter the island. This is the island for peace and outdoors lovers, particularly bird watchers, who want to reconnect with nature. The island is actually part of the North American tectonic plate and hiking or exploring will make you feel like you’ve stepped into King Kong or Jurassic Park – just with a lot friendlier fauna.
Terceira is an island quite literally carpeted in luscious greenery and forests, a patchwork of mountains, brilliant green pastures formed in volcanic craters and fields of wildflowers. The island is home to the second-largest population in the Azores, and despite its outstanding natural beauty is actually known as the party island of the archipelago. The island is the location of the oldest city in the Azores, Angra do Heroismo, once the capital city of Portugal during the Liberal Wars and now a Unesco World Heritage Site. Wandering its streets of 16th- and 17th-century architecture will give you a glimpse into the city’s heyday. Come June and the island comes alive with the massive street part of Sanjoaninas, which takes over the downtown of Angra.
Stunning beaches, dramatic coastal paths, charming colonial towns and tropical paradise gardens – the Azores has it all – apart from predictable weather. On the islands four seasons can blow in a single day, but Santa Maria is more predictable than the others. Santa Maria has the warmest and sunniest spot in the island group, emerging from the Atlantic 10 million years ago way before its sister islands. Because of how old it is, it’s a totally different geology, and is home to the best sandy beaches and tidal pools perfect for swimming. Paragliding is also popular as well as diving in its underwater natural caves. Come in August to see the tranquil island come alive with the Maré de Agosto music festival.
Praia da Vitória
Praia da Vitória is the capital of Terceira island, and the best place for whale and dolphin watching in the Azores. There are always opportunities to spot these amazing creatures whatever the season, be it from vantage points near Vitória or by booking onto a boat tour that takes you out into the bay. Praia da Vitória was also one of the first places to be colonised on the island and is rich in architectural sites and history. The old town hides cobbled streets, lovely churches, historical buildings and plenty of bars, cafes and quaint little shops. Top sites include the baroque Mother Church of Praia da Vitória, built in 1456, and the Gazebo Torch monument.
Best things to do in the Azores
There are nine islands in the Azores and most celebrate the colourful celebration that is Carnaval. Held in February, the main carnival is in São Miguel, held in February, and the festivities spill out onto the other islands – particularly Terceira.
Visit a natural geyser
The Azores are volcanic and filled with geothermal energy, which means plenty of bubbling, soothing thermal springs. Make sure to take a dip in a thermal pool when visiting the archipelago, like Terra Nostra or Caldeira Velha.
Hike a volcano
The landscape of the Azores is like something out of a blockbuster movie, something between Lord of the Rings and Jurassic Park. Make sure to go hiking up a mountain for spectacular views of the islands’ incredible scenery.
Try outdoor adventures
From beach horse riding and zipwiring to snorkelling and paragliding, the Azores is a hotspot for adventure and outdoor activities. Praia da Vitória has its own aerial adventure park and São Miguel has plenty of horse riding opportunities.
Visit a winery
Azorian wine isn’t exactly renowned, but the island group does pump out some decent white wine and has a winemaking history dating back 500 years. Top wineries to visit include the Azores Wine Company, Quinta Da Jardinete and Adega Simas.