The Azores: Europe’s Undiscovered Adventure Islands

April 9, 2017

OK, quick test: do you know where the Azores are?

Perhaps you do, but if you don’t know anything about this far-flung Atlantean archipelago, you don’t need to feel too embarrassed. Even devoted globe-trotters might struggle to pinpoint the Azores precisely on a map.

It’s still not that well-known. But, as I recently found out, its rural charms and dramatic scenery make the Azores the perfect destination for an adventure-filled trip.

Me at a miradouro on Sao Miguel Island during my Azores travel blog trip

Situated in the middle of the ocean far off the coast of Portugal, the Azores have an edge-of-the-world feel.

Once you make it to this outermost point of Europe you will be rewarded with some amazing opportunities for hiking, caving, scuba diving, canyoning, whale watching, and many more adventure activities—not to mention a wonderful local culture that’s proudly different from the mainland.

I recently spent a week on the Azores, exploring the islands of Sao Miguel, Faial, and Pico.

(My trip was arranged in part by the tourism board of the Azores, who assisted with some of my activities and accommodation.)

Salto do Cabrito waterfall on Sao Miguel island

Salto do Cabrito waterfall on Sao Miguel island

Why you should go to the Azores

While the Azores has a few small and rocky beaches, it is generally not known as a beach destination. That’s a good thing, as it has kept mass-scale development at bay.

These islands are best for explorers looking for culture, epic landscapes, and outdoor activities. Here are some the key reasons you should visit the Azores:

  • Volcanic landscapes
    Since the Azores are right at the fault lines between three tectonic plates, they are simply filled with volcanoes, calderas, steam vents, and lava tube caves. The green hilly landscapes are perfect for day-hikes, while its volcanic features turn the islands into a playground for cavers, cyclers, and climbers.
  • Charming rural culture
    During the age of discovery the Azores long served as a key meeting point, and it later developed deep ties with the United States, giving the islands a unique history and character. Situated at the intersection of different climates, the Azores is the only place in Europe where coffee and tea are grown, and it’s a wine-producing region as well.
  • Adventure sports
    The Azores has emerged as a hub for adventure activities, such as kayaking, canyoning, paragliding and cliff diving.
  • Scuba diving
    Rising like skyscrapers from the ocean floor, the islands are an amazing place for snorkelers and divers to meet all sorts of pelagic marine species normally found much further from shore. July to September is best for spotting rays and oceanic sharks.
  • Whale watching
    The islands used to live off whale hunting back in the day, but today the whales are only hunted with cameras. Whale and dolphin watching tours can be booked from any of the islands.
Tea plantations on Sao Miguel island on the Azores islands

Tea plantations on Sao Miguel island

The different islands

The Azores consists mainly of 9 islands.

Sao Miguel is the largest island and it’s the most easily accessible, thanks to the recent introduction of low-budget flights. The central and westernmost island groups remain more remote and much less visited (and are all the more worth it).

Map showing where the Azores is in relation to the rest of Europe

The biggest population centres are on Sao Miguel and Terceira. If you speak to locals, you’ll notice they have quite a bit of competition between these two over which is the ‘best’!

The central islands like Pico and Faial have more of an off-the-beaten-track feel. Pico was my personal favorite of the three islands I visited. I’ve heard many people say that Sao Jorge is a hidden gem in particular for surfers.

Map of the Azores islands showing each of the different islands, with Sao Miguel and Ponta Delgada as a key point of reference

I desperately tried to make it to the westernmost island of Flores but sadly the wind conditions were not in my favor, keeping my flight grounded for several days.

When I come back to the Azores, I will definitely attempt to go to Flores again, as it has some of the most lush waterfall-fringed hiking trails. Many guides told me that Flores can’t be beaten for its beauty, and thanks to its many cliffs and waterfalls it’s known as the best place to go canyoning.

The 2,351m tall volcanic peak of Pico on Pico Island

The 2,351m tall volcanic peak of Pico

How to get to the Azores

Ryanair and Easyjet fly directly to Ponte Delgada airport on Sao Miguel, giving budget travellers convenient access to the islands.

SATA (also known as Azores Airlines) provides many more connections internationally. Within Europe, they fly directly from London, Munich, Frankfurt, Lisbon and Porto. Thanks to the Azores’ historical ties with the US there are also many direct flights from North America, including from Boston, Oakland, Toronto and Montreal.

This means that those travelling from North America could actually visit the Azores as a stopover on the way to Europe!

Travel between the islands

SATA is the only airline flying between the islands. If you’re flying in with Easyjet or Ryanair, you can get combination tickets that give you onward travel with SATA to the islands other than Sao Miguel. You can also book such flights with SATA directly.

Ferries are practical only when the islands are close to each other, which in many cases they’re not. For example, there is a very easy ferry between Faial and Pico, but most of the islands are far apart and so flying is the best way to travel between them. Small 40- and 80-seat propeller planes service these routes.

Sao Miguel seen from the air

Sao Miguel from the air. Red Bull’s annual cliff diving contest is held on small island in front

Travelling on the islands

Travelling by public transportation is just about do-able on Sao Miguel, but remember that it is still a small island and services will be very infrequent.

The best way to get around anywhere on the Azores is to have your own transportation. Renting a car will give you the most freedom to go as you please. There were also bike and scooter rentals on all the islands I visited, which can be a great option if you’re with a smaller group or want to see the most of your surroundings.

Weather on the Azores

The weather can be quite changeable on the Azores. People often joke that you can experience all four seasons in a single day. While that might be exaggerating a little, it’s a good idea to bring a rain coat even if it’s very sunny, just in case.

For live webcam feeds of every island, which let you easily check local conditions before heading out, download the SpotAzores app (Android, iOS) to your phone.

My impressions of the Azores

Check out my Azores travel blog reports from three of the islands:

Orange sunset along the coast of Pico Island

Sunset over traditional coastal villages on Pico Island

I travelled to the Azores with support from the Azores tourism board.

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3 comments

  1. Janet Reply July 2, 2017 at 9:49 pm

    Went to the Azores (Sao Miguel) a few years ago and absolutely loved it! Delicious seafood, friendly people, and lush scenery combined with few tourists make it a place I want to keep for myself.

    • Marek Reply April 12, 2017 at 9:30 am

      Walking/cycling around the Sete Cidades crater lake is good, and climbing up to the rim of the Lake Furnas crater. Several people told me the Faial da Terra hike is great, though I didn’t have time to do it 🙂

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