Steve’s Sojourns: The Azores, Portugal’s Atlantic gem.
Put quite simply the Azores are stunning. I had never visited before and I guess like most people I only knew about them from the weather forecast with the usual “High over the Azores” announcement. Only a three and a half hour flight from the UK the nine islands that rise from the middle of the Atlantic are bathed in the warmth of the Gulf Stream and so have good weather all year around.
An autonomous region of Portugal the islands are characterized by dramatic landscapes, fishing villages, green pastures and hedgerows of blue hydrangeas but each one is totally different. With the people being so friendly and food so cheap, I frequently had meals for less than 12 Euros with wine. With relatively few tourists the islands reminded me of Mallorca fifty years ago.
I went with Sunvil who I found offered excellent service from organising inter island flights to car hire and representatives who I found to be extremely helpful. I was just there to visit two of the islands but I met couples who Sunvil had arranged for them to visit five or even six over a two-week period.
Landing on Sao Miguel, the main Island, the capital Ponta Delgada reminds you of Lisbon with its mosaics patterned pavements and squares and white colonial buildings that seem to have been plucked from the hillside above Oporto and dropped here.
Sao Miguel is the biggest island of the archipelago, some 40 miles in length and 9 miles at its maximum width it is dominated by beautiful highlands. All the islands have so much to offer from casual exploration of their incredible volcanic scenery, history and culture to special activities such as birdwatching, riding and walking. In fact, the islands give amazing walking whether it be on the clifftop paths or looking down on the tree lined lakes that now fill the old volcanic craters. They are also a popular destination for cycling/mountain biking and whale watching.
That night I strolled out in the streets of the capital for a beer and a meal in the bars that line the old area around the centre. As a general rule, Azorean cuisine tends to be much more country rustic than mainland Portugal’s (this is not a hard and fast rule, but is generally true).
The cheeses are superb and there are different types all of which you have to try. Pineapples, are grown on Sao Miguel, you can get a really good tour of the plantation, and they are frequently seen on the menu of restaurants for dessert and are a nice alternative to to the richly sweet flans and tarts that are very yummy!
The next morning, I was taken to the airport to board my flight to stay on the western most island, Flores some ninety minutes away. Top tip here, do get yourself a window seat, you can’t book one you just have to get near the front of the queue, as you fly over the five islands that form the central group of the archipelago and it’s an amazing sight.
Flores is truly beautiful island, its name means flowers and if you come here in June or July you’ll see why. Even in September I was amazed by the colours and indeed I can only image what the Hydrangea hedgerows must be like. Only 9 miles long and seven miles wide this tiny speck in the Atlantic has a population of about 3,000 and very few cars!
The capital Santa Cruz is the size of a large UK village and has a fascinating whaling museum, once the mains source of income for the island. There are one to two bars and restaurants but the gems are there if you look. We found a restaurant tucked away behind a supermarket which you approached by a long alley. With its Formica tables and metal chairs it reminded me the roadside cafes of my youth but the food was outstanding and so cheap.
There are boat trips you can take with the local fisherman and hotels who will take you round the island and a ferry goes to the neighbouring island of Corvo, essentially the top of a volcano that is peeping out of the ocean, for the day. Sunvil can organise a jeep tour or taxi of the island for you which is amazing as the views and waterfalls are something else.
Flores and Corvo are very popular with birdwatchers in autumn and spring especially as the wind can bring America species. However the beauty of this place is that it is the most westerly point of Europe and still isolated and underdeveloped from the tourist point of view. The same is true of all the other islands so do and go and visit before it’s too late and they catch up with.
Steve Newman was a guest of Sunvil www.sunvil.co.uk