The Azores, a group of nine small islands in the middle of the Atlantic, are surely amongst Europe’s finest hidden gems. In a packed three days in May, I was able to sample enough of what these beautiful, green islands have to offer to make me want to return for a much longer stay. My trip was organised by Sunvil, who can arrange everything – flights, transfers, accommodation and tours (with expert guides if you want them). I wanted an active (but not too active) break and the company’s expertise, using local Azorean specialists, made it a short break to remember. Sunvil discovered the Azores in 1990 and for the last 20 years has been promoting responsible tourism in this verdant and unspoiled paradise. After a 3hrs 40min flight to Ponta Delgado, on the largest island, Sao Miguel, I chose the Caloura Hotel Resort; peaceful and with beautiful sea views. It’s a good base for walking trips and is on the way to Vila Franco do Campo, from where the whale-watching boats leave.
My first day started unpromisingly – wet and windy – but by breakfast the skies had cleared and a full rainbow arched across the ocean. The Azores are like that – they say you can experience all four seasons in one day. My guide for the day, Irene, arrived in the Geo Fun minibus and we drove to a spot near Praia on the south coast to begin our walk to Lagoa do Fogo. Geo Fun is a local company and their specialist guides are able to explain everything as you puff your way along the trails. The round trip to Lagoa do Fogo (‘Fire Lake’) is some 14km and takes about five hours, allowing for photo stops, lunch and so on. It is considered ‘medium’ on the scale of ‘strenuosity’ and, as a far from fit but reasonably healthy 63-year-old, I managed without any problems. The lake we were aiming for is 575m above sea level but the climb is steady. Walkers should take waterproof boots and a rainproof jacket as showers can occur at any time in the Azores – but they never seem to last long. Conversely, you should also take suncream, hat, binoculars and a camera. In the warmer weather, swimming kit could be useful for a refreshing dip when you reach the lake. As explained by Irene, Lagoa do Fogo is a volcanic caldera that has filled with water and the whole area is a nature reserve. It was formed by an eruption in 1563 but there has been volcanic activity much more recently, so it is no surprise to see a detection station near our track where scientific instruments do their best to warn of any ominous rumblings. The way down is mostly by a different route and is, predictably, much easier. We had time to visit the port town of Vila Franca do Campo before I was deposited back at my hotel.
Day two brought a real highlight – whale watching. Melo, Sunvil’s local travel agency partners, delivered me and several other hopefuls to the offices of Terra Azul to sign in. Soon we were off, aboard a rigid inflatable, praying for at least one sighting of a whale or even some dolphins. A clever lookout system alerted our skipper and guided the boat towards something that might be lurking in this vast expanse of the Atlantic. We held our collective breath and soon saw our first sperm whale. We were warned that it was about to dive (the spectacular bit), and a dozen camera shutters clicked as the massive creature submerged, tail flukes in the air. We were accompanied by marine biologists who explained everything and we were fortunate to enjoy further whale sightings and to encounter a school of common dolphins who showed off around the boat.
In the afternoon, we were back on dry land, this time for a city tour of historic Ponta Delgadoawith Anne-Marie, another of Melo’s wonderful guides. On my third and final full day, I opted for a geological tour with Geo Fun. One of the company’s founders, Pedro, a vulcanologist, was our expert and enthusiastic guide, succeeding in making a difficult subject understandable – and never boring. We returned to the Lagoa do Fogo (a lot easier by road!), visited a geothermal energy plant (supplies around 50 per cent of the island’s energy) and finished by donning hard hats to walk through the lava tunnels of the Gruta do Carvao, over a mile long.All too soon my brief adventure was over and I was on my way home. Impressions of the Azores? Their very isolation gives them a unique charm, enhanced by awe-inspiring scenery, abundant, and often unique, vegetation and a special culture that comes from living 1,000 miles from the nearest mainland. There is no noise, no pollution and the pace of life is gentle. The people are friendly and justifiably proud of their island home. This is NOT a destination for those who want to lie on the beach or visit night clubs, but for those wanting plenty to do (walking, horse-riding, fishing, bird-watching, star-gazing, scuba diving, sailing…) it is ideal. Tourism is still small scale – but it may not always be so.
My advice is to go there now, before it’s too late!