While Pico is often called the black island of the Azores, Failal is known as the blue island—thanks to the many blue hydrangea hedges bordering the fields during the season.
Mostly though it’s very green, apart from only the westernmost corner (pictured in the header image) where a volcano erupted just some decades ago.
It’s an island where you can find both dramatic landscapes and quiet rural lands, and where the pace of life seems wonderfully slow.
Like the comings and goings of the tide, Failal has seen many industries come and go.
It used to be an important whaling base, until the practice of whaling came to an end in the 1970s. It was also once a key strategic location for telegraph companies, whose undersea cables required a relay station on the Azores to connect the European mainland and the US. That, of course, eventually came to end as well.
A couple of small museums near the town of Horta give you insight into these histories.
The Porto Pim Whale Factory Museum is arguably the most interesting one, as it shows you the particular ways in which whaling took place back in the day. As a point of honor the whalers didn’t use guns or harpoons, so they chased whales in small boats and attacked them from within arm’s reach. Just one unexpected move from a whale could easily capsize the boat or kill any of the hunters.
There is also the Porto Pim Aquarium nearby, which is a little different from your usual aquariums. The tanks are owned by a highly specialised company that collects specimen of fish to be sent off to aquariums around the world. There are only a handful of these companies around the world. They also manage a submersible used by marine biologists as well as documentarians from the BBC and National Geographic.
The facilities may seem uninviting at first (as this is very much a working aquarium), but ask for a tour from one of the staff and you may learn a few fascinating things about the marine life around the Azores, or the elaborate airlift operations required to supply fishes and sharks to some of the world’s most famous aquariums.
Failal has two key natural attractions. One is the dormant crater at the center of the island, which I sadly was not able to see due to cloud cover, though on a clear day the caldeira offers beautiful views.
The other is the eruption site at Capelhinos on the western coast, where a whole new part of the island emerged after an eruption in 1957. The nearby lighthouse became submerged in layers upon layers of dust and rock, with only its tower ultimately still standing above ground. This lighthouse was turned into a museum that covers the events of the eruption as well as the formation of the Azores islands in general. Part of the building still remains underground.
Capelhinos has a fascinatingly barren landscape that will make you think you’ve landed on the moon. It’s worth climbing the lighthouse to the top for a panoramic view of the barren rocks and swirls of hardened lava.
The town of Horta is rather picturesque as well, with several old churches poking up from its quayside roofscape.
In summer, yachts from all over the world make anchor in the marina, taking a break from their travels across the Atlantic. The marina barriers are completely covered in colorful paintings, as sailors believe they must paint a mural to bring good luck to their voyage.
I had lunch at Peter Sport Cafe, which is a somewhat legendary spot among sailors who come here. It is filled wall to wall with sailing memorabilia, flags left by sailing crews, and historical photos.
Faial has several key attractions that call for a visit, with the eruption site of Capelhinos in particular giving great reason to add it to your Azores island hopping itinerary. The ferry from Pico Island takes just 30 minutes, making these two islands easy to combine!
Tips for visiting Failal
- Scooters can be rented from a company right next to the tourist information office in Horta. Car rentals are best booked in advance. There is barely any public transportation, so it’s best not to rely on this.
- If you want to get away from it all and just rent a wonderful cottage in nature, the areas just before Capelhinos seem like the perfect place. Quite a few cute townhouses have been converted into B&Bs here.
- In summer, Failal becomes a key departure point for scuba divers looking for sharks and other pelagic species. June to August are best for spotting these migrating creatures as well as offering the best visibility and water temperatures.
I took this trip with support of the Azores tourism board.