I was fortunate enough to visit the Azores in September 2004, on an educational trip arranged by Sunvil Holidays. It is a truly spectacular destination with a variety of stunning scenery and activities. There are common themes linking the islands such as being uncommercialised, the friendly unhurried culture, food and folklore. However, each of the 9 volcanic islands have their own character, mainly due to the geography of the land. For example, a huge volcano dominates Pico, but Terceira has rolling hills.

The islands are a real "get away from it all" destination, but without a long flight. Active people, and those who want relaxation, are equally catered for. The islands are good for walking, cycling, botany and wildlife (especially birds). Whale and dolphin watching is popular, with a very high potential of spotting marine life. Sao Miguel and Terceira offer the best selection of golf courses. The majority of hotels have gyms and swimming pools and some even have spas or wellness centres. As well as hotels, there is also the option of staying in a Quinta, which are small-scale residences, often converted from old manor houses.

I flew Air Portugal from Heathrow via Lisbon, but direct flights from London Gatwick to Ponta Delgada on Sao Miguel island will be starting in April 2005, operated by SATA during the summer months (to end October), taking three and a half hours. It is simple to travel between the islands on internal flights or ferry services. A flight from Sao Miguel to Terceira only takes 40 minutes, Pico to Faial ferry 30 minutes. The flights and the ferries run to time, despite the laid back feel of the islands.

Food on the islands is mostly seafood, beef, dairy produce and fruit. There is a wide variety of local fish including grouper, swordfish and tuna. Several of the islands produce cheese and wine, the most well known of these are Sao Jorge and Pico respectively. Sao Miguel is the main producer of tropical fruits, and some of these go into the delicious local liquers. Eating out generally is good value - a three course a la carte meal with wine is around 20 Euros (14). Alcoholic drinks are rarely more than 3 Euros (2), soft drinks are around 1 Euro (69 pence). (Exchange rates based on 13 October 2004)

Climate wise, the weather on the Azores is mild, the closest comparison would be Madeira. The weather is very localised - it can be hot with bright sunshine on the coast, whilst up in the hills and mountains only a few miles away it can be several degrees cooler with rain and mist. It is not unusual to experience four seasons in one day. Rain can suddenly start and as just as suddenly stop. The best approach to take is to dress in layers and add on or take off as necessary.

Temperatures are hotter and more humid during the summer months (June-October) when it can reach 25 degrees Centigrade. Rain never lasts long in the summer months. Winter (December to March) is cooler and this is when storms occur, however January can be mild (16 degrees daytime on the less exposed islands) and a good month for walking. In February and March it tends to drizzle. Spring and Autumn can be pleasant, with less humidity.

I visited five of the islands which included Sao Miguel, Terceira, Sao Jorge, Pico and Faial.

Sao Miguel is the largest island in the group, with the most variety of features, facilities and hotels. The whole island is very lush and green with sub-tropical foliage such as palms and giant ferns, with many flowers well into autumn. The interior of the island feels similar to the Auvergne region of France. This island has many volcanic features including hot springs, lakes, craters, mountains and rocky outcrops. There are also several tropical gardens. A local speciality is the Cozido, where food is cooked by volcanic heat. A large pot containing beef, pork, chicken and vegetables is buried in the earth near the hot springs.

Ponta Delgada is the main town on the island of Sao Miguel, and the largest town in the archipelago. It is a lovely old town to stroll around and has a long promenade at the seafront. Roads are cobbled (as are most towns in the Azores), narrow streets with a good selection of shops, cafes and restaurants, but no fast food outlets. Nightlife is low key and cafe-based, people stay out late, especially at weekends. Most buildings are made from local black pumice stone, mostly painted white with some details left black. This is a typical Azorean style used throughout the islands.

The majority of hotels on Sao Miguel generally have a Scandinavian feel, being light and airy with pale colours. The Avenida, Sao Miguel Park and the Vila Nova in Ponta Delgado are all smartly furnished in the modern way, but the Sao Miguel Park has a slightly African feel with wicker furniture, animal sculptures and indoor plants. The Royal Garden is one of the newest hotels in the town, but has been cleverly designed to feel luxurious and established. The theme is smart oriental, including a Japanese garden, which most rooms look out onto. The Caloura has a fantastic oceanfront setting 20 kilometres from Ponta Delgada and appears modern, yet the hotel is over 25 years old. A recent refurbishment gave the hotel the modern feel, but also incorporating the local black pumice stone.

There are a few more traditional properties such as the Terra Nostra Garden, set in the spa town of Furnas. This hotel dates back to the 1930's and is more classically styled with dark wood, and blues and greens in the bedrooms. There are extensive botanical gardens behind the hotel. The Du Collegio has plenty of character, being set in a former school. I saw two Quintas on Sao Miguel which despite both being traditional, feel quite different. The Quinta de Santana is cheerful and colourful, and has a rural farm setting. The Quinta da Abelheira is a converted manor and feels like staying in a private house.

Terceira is so called as it was the third island to be discovered by settlers, it was however the second island I visited. The island is oval shaped and quite compact as it takes no longer than an hour to drive from one end to the other. The inland countryside feels somewhat like the Yorkshire Dales with grassy rolling hills and with pumice drystone walls. Dairy farming is the main industry. There are some impressive features on the island such as the panoramic views from Serra do Cume and the volcanic cone Algar do Carvao. Swimming is also a popular activity in the natural seawater pools, formed by volcanic rock.

Terceira is known for its colourful chapels and bullfights. Each church on the island has a separate chapel close by, and they are all uniquely decorated in bright colours. Bullfights take place every day in the summer but the bull is not killed or intentionally harmed. The bull is tethered with a long piece of rope, and people step in to tease the bull. The bull can also be free, running through the streets.

The largest town on this island is Angra de Heroismo, a dedicated UNESCO World Heritage site with colourful buildings and wide cobbled streets. There are pretty squares with pavement cafes, and a handful of shops. There is also a town centre and a black sandy beach.

Hotels on Terceira are a good mix of 2, 3 and 4 star. For staying in Angra, there is the option of hotels or Quintas. The Terceira Mar is a new hotel (opened May 2003) with panoramic sea views and plenty of sports and leisure facilities, yet only 10 minutes walk from the town centre. The Do Caracol Hotel is close to the Terceira Mar and also offers panoramic views, but has a nautical theme. There is also the Angra Garden which has a great location in the centre of the town, and garden view rooms overlook the Botanical Gardens. The Quinta da Nasce Agua is situated on the outskirts of Angra and offers a high standard of accomodation in a lovely restored 19th century manor house.

Praia da Vitoria is the other town on the island and offers the Varandas do Atlantico or the Quinta dos Figos. Varandas is a cheerful boutique hotel decorated in shades of blue and white with a marine feel. The black sand beach of Praia is just across the road. "Figos" is a 20 minute walk from Praia and has a rustic, rural feel. Again, it is a converted manor but has been decorated in 19th century farmhouse style which gives the property plenty of character.

Sao Jorge was the next island I visited, and offers very dramatic scenery, a real contrast to Terceira. This island is long and thin, often described as being cigar shaped. There are high cliffs as the "spine" of the island with the settlements and farmland on flat areas (known as fajas) at the foot of the cliffs. Eucalyptus, pine trees, dragon trees and jacarandas grow wild throughout the island. The island is popular with walkers and offers amazing views on the many walks and nature trails available. Sao Jorge is known throughout the archipelago for its music, handcrafts and cheese. There are fantastic views of the neighbouring islands of Pico and Faial from the south coast, and Graciosa from the northwest. On a clear day, Terceira can also be seen from the north coast.

Velas is the main town on the island, but it is small and is more like a village. It feels quite Andalusian in the way it clings to the mountains, with whitewashed buildings and decorated pavements. The port is the main focus of activity, with ferries over to Pico.

There are few accommodations on Sao Jorge, but there is the Sao Jorge Garden offering comfortable accomodation in Velas. This small hotel has plenty of personality, and offers amazing views over to Pico and Faial, especially dramatic at dawn when the clouds are less likely to obscure the high peak of Pico.

Moving on to Pico, this is probably the island with the most imposing scenery, with a huge intact volcanic mountain 2351m high. It shoots practically straight up from the ocean and is visible for miles. The island is wild and rugged with heather, grassland and cedar trees. The island is one of the most rural, relying mostly on fishing for income, and whaling was the main industry until it was banned in the 1980's. There are whaling museums dedicated to this grisly part of their history. Ironically enough, the shape of Pico island looks somewhat like a whale. Whale watching can be done from any of the islands but Pico has the best potential. Pico also produces its own wine - white, red and fortified (like port or sherry).

Hotels on Pico seem to be extremes. There is a 4 star property, and some hotels equivalent to a 2 star, but nothing in between. The 4 star in question is the very sophisticated Aldeia da Fonte which has been sympathetically designed to fit in with the landscape. Local and recycled materials give the property a close to nature feel. The Hotel Pico is much more traditional and is sold as a 2 star by Sunvil. This hotel has a 1930's theme (from when it was built) with pale pastel colours and art deco detailing.

The last island I visited was Faial, a short boat ride from Pico. Inland, this island also feels rural but less rugged than Pico. There are amazing volcanic features. The Caldeira is a giant crater almost in the centre of the island, and the Capelinos Volcano feels like you are on the moon! The volcano formed in the 1950s and was the scene of the most recent fierce eruptions on the archipelago. The island has had Flemish settlers, which explains the windmills and some fair-haired locals.

Horta is the only town on the island, the other settlements are villages and hamlets. It has a nautical, cosmopolitan feel with a large marina, several shops and cafes, and a good choice of restaurants. There is a local sailing superstition that sailors have to paint a picture on the marina walls before they leave, otherwise they will have bad luck on their voyage. Hence, the walls of the marina are festooned with colourful paintings. A visit to Horta is not complete without the local speciality, gin and tonic at Cafe Sport. Cafe Sport (also known as Peter's Bar) is lively without being rowdy, and open until the small hours at weekends.

The island has a good variety of hotels, including the only Pousada on the islands. All the hotels in Horta have a stunning view over to Pico. Pousada de Santa Cruz is in the centre of Horta, and set in a converted 16th Century fort. The entrance even has a portcullis! Inside, decoration is olde-worlde with red tiled floors and handcrafted wall tapestries. The other options for central Horta are the Hotel Fayal and the Do Canal. Hote Fayal is set on a complex of distinctive buildings with beige walls and red roofs. Its elevated position above Horta offers good views of the town and Pico, yet is only a short walk into town down steep steps. The Do Canal is the newest hotel on Faial and has a great location by the Marina.

The is also a Quinta 3 kilometres from Horta, the Quinta do Vale. This is a very sweet little property with only 8 bedrooms. Each room is named after the other eight islands, with Faial being the lounge and breakfast room! The Quinta is decorated in traditional Portuguese style and feels comfortable and cosy.

I hope someday to return to the Azores and visit the islands we did not have time to see, which are Graciosa, Santa Maria, Flores and Corvo.

Details of flights to Azores

 

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