Describing the fascinating Atlantic islands of the Azores involves a lot of saying what they are not. The Azores are not the tranquil winter sun escape of Madeira, nor are they the package-holiday beach-bar Canaries. Instead this lush Portuguese archipelago offers ocean scenery in the raw, and some memorable island-hopping opportunities.
The Azores don’t enjoy the wealth of direct flights that connect the other Atlantic island groups. There are direct flights to São Miguel from Gatwick, but the cheapest options are often to take a budget flight to Lisbon and make a connection to São Miguel, Faial or Terceira with Tap Air Portugal or SATA.
The islands offer a variety of experiences. They are volcanic islands, but lashed with enough ocean rain to ensure they are green and characterised by lush pastures rather than arid crags.
Ponta Delgada on São Miguel is the closest the Azores get to a substantial town, very pretty and elegant in the centre like a provincial Portuguese settlement. To the north-west of the island the lakes at Sete Cidades are one of the most popular tourist sights in the Azores, simply because one lake appears to be green, the other blue. It’s something to do with the volcanic rock.
Tourists also gravitate towards the volcanic springs at Furnas to the east. The springs are hot and the soil is sufficiently heated by volcanic activity to make it possible for local restaurants to offer a meat and vegetable stew cooked entirely in the soil. They put their pots into the ground first thing in the morning and the dish is ready by lunchtime.
Other islands in the group offer contrasting experiences. The rugged landscapes of São Jorge recommend themselves to adventurous hikers. From the ferries to Pico and Faial it’s possible to spot whales and dolphins rather more cheaply than on the tourist excursions. On Faial, the little village of Horta is a regular stop-off for transatlantic yachtsmen, each of them marking their crossing by leaving a painting or insignia on the harbour wall.