Looking up through the bracken-lined cone of an extinct volcano – just as a droplet of rainwater lands on my nose – it occurs to me that this is a trip full of firsts.
I have never been to such a remote place. The Azores, a tiny collection of nine – lusciously green – volcanic islands sits in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean, 850 miles west of mainland Portugal.
I travelled via Lisbon before arriving on the island of Terceira, but direct UK flights are available to the archipelago – more frequently in summer. Typically, these go to its largest island, Sao Miguel, where the international airport is just 1.2 miles from the Azores’ capital, Ponta Delgada. And with Sao Miguel measuring just 38.5 miles in length, it never takes long to get from A to B.
Unsurprisingly, island-hopping is common, with domestic flights provided by Sata Air Acores, the local airline and, during high season, ferries serve the area too.
Each island is unique and there are no resort areas, but characterful hotels instead. I stay at Terceira Mar Hotel, which while unassuming on approach at night treats me to a stunning view out to Monte Brasil – the remnants of a volcano just off the Unesco World Heritage Site city of Angra do Heroismo – and the sea beyond, come morning. On Sao Miguel, I bed down at Azoris Royal Garden, Ponta Delgada. While more geared towards business guests, it is just a short walk from the hub for whale-watching departures.
The Azores are a big draw for walkers, who can ramble through villages and verdant landscapes – popping into immaculate churches as they go – while wildlife enthusiasts can spot unusual birds, dolphins and whales. But I would argue that there’s something for every type of holidaymaker in this unusual a little part of the world. The sand is soft, the weather fair, the lager cold (I can recommend Portuguese brand Super Bock) and the queijadas (a Portuguese pastry) custardy. While mine is just a fleeting trip to two islands, I leave with unusual sights well and truly etched on my brain.
One such spot is Algar do Carvao – a 90-metre-deep volcanic chimney formed thousands of years ago (€6pp). As I descend the steps into the cavern below, it feels as though I am entering another world. A damp smell fills my nostrils but in a strangely pleasant way. Being surrounded by so much greenery and moisture feels energising. The gentle drip of water can be heard all around as I make my way down to a small lake surrounded by stalactites.
Next I take a walk with guide Tiago around the immaculately kept Angra do Heroismo. The history of the place – including a cathedral built in 1570 – is fascinating. And with beautiful, bright churches; wide, clean streets; murals on the walls; and fantastic restaurants, I can’t believe we are quite so far from the mainland. Lunch at Beira Mar includes seafood soup in a hollowed-out loaf of bread and fresh fish, all washed down with delicious local wine.
En route to the airport for my flight to Sao Miguel – passing fields of bulls and blankets of hydrangea – we stop off at Serra do Cume, where I take in the view over the bay of Praia da Vitoria and the interior of the island, known as “patchwork”. It is like nothing I’ve seen before, flat demarcated squares with a few lumps and bumps, and impossibly green.
The short flight to Sao Miguel itself is something of a new experience. We fly so low that I’m able to spot dolphins below. The next day, on the water this time, I see the creatures up close (a
half-day whale-watching trip costs €55 with Picos de Aventura). As it turns out, along with dozens of dolphins, I watch a sperm whale dive into the deep blue water just a few metres from our vessel. Another first in a series I’ll remember for years to come.
Book it: Sunvil’s seven-night Azores Three Island Tour B takes in the islands of Sao Miguel and Terceira as well as the island of Sao Jorge. The £1,836pp price – based on two sharing – includes full-day or half-day tours and Gatwick flights.