The Azores: An extraordinary Atlantic archipelago

In May 2012, my two friends and I took a transatlantic cruise from Miami, Florida to Southampton, U.K. Our first stop after about seven days at sea was São Miguel, Azores – the main island of nine in a Portuguese archipelago.

We spent a day in the company of tour guide Rui Medeiros, who showed us beautiful lakes, hot springs, a legendary tea estate, and one incredible vista after the next. I vowed to return one day, and so earlier this month I flew to the capital city of Ponta Delgada direct from Toronto to spend five days getting to know the Azores a little better.

I once again hired Rui of Azores Private Tours, whose fantastic grasp of English meant I didn’t have to embarrass myself with my mix of Spanish, Italian and insultingly bad Portuguese.


It is impossible to describe the landscape of São Miguel without the rampant use of superlatives. The island is simply breathtakingly beautiful and impossibly lush and green, thanks to its volcanic origins. In fact, it is locally known as “The Green Island.”

As we drove along one of the many roads through the countryside, it almost seemed as though a band of gardeners had been hard at work, trimming hedges, planting trees and tending flowers on a nightly basis. Even open fields or forests appeared to be professionally landscaped, with full bushes of blossoming hydrangeas as far as the eye could see.

São Miguel is known for its natural assets, particularly its lakes. Three of the best known stops on the island are Lagoa do Fogo (Fire Lake); Furnas Lake, where the hot springs can also be found; and the extraordinary Sete Cidades – two lakes created by two separate craters. The larger, deeper lake is a dark blue, while the smaller, shallower lake is a light green color. The effect is quite spectacular, and makes for some terrific photographs from the right vantage point.

The Furnas Lake is very accessible, with visitors able to walk easily to its edge. A strong smell of sulphur emanates from the nearby hot springs, and locals take advantage of the steaming ground by using it to cook a unique dish: “Cozido das Furnas.” Ingredients are layered in a large metal pot, which is then lowered into a purpose-built hole and left for about five to six hours. Once it is removed, it’s time to eat!

When you visit Furnas, prepare to be enchanted by some very savvy ducks, along with an equally shrewd businessperson selling food for both the ducks and nearby feral cats. The moment I went up to the trailer to buy an insane number of bags of feed, all the animals could sense that they had a live one here, and descended upon me. It was like “Snow White” meets “The Birds.”

Beyond the topographical blessings that São Miguel enjoys, it is also home to some enchanting villages with old churches, cobbled narrow pavements (I felt like an extra-wide trailer walking along some of them), and residences that had me longing for a holiday property in the Azores.

Whale watching

With the islands positioned nicely in the Atlantic Ocean, there is no shortage of wildlife to be seen under and above the dark blue waters that surround them. They are known for their whale watching experiences, and as some of the species are non-migratory, there is always the chance of spotting a cetacean, no matter what time of the year you visit.

I booked a tour with Terra Azul, a company in Vila Franca do Campo, about 20 minutes’ drive from Ponta Delgada. It was very convenient for me, as I was staying in an apartment a stone’s throw from their shop, but there are a number of companies on the island that offer similar tours. These can range from a few hours to a week-long live aboard expedition.

My trip was just over two hours, and honestly I don’t think my nether regions could have handled much more than that. The pontoon boat the 10 of us mounted seemed comfortable at the time, but after bouncing around at speed to follow one marine mammal after the next, I questioned my ability to walk if we made it back to the dock.

Despite my tenderized “muscles,” I have to say that the sights were worth it all. We hadn’t long left the marina before we encountered a pod of common dolphins. There had to be about 50 of them, spread out around the boat and flying through the waves. There was no bad seat on board, and we were all able to see the happy creatures as they frolicked in the sun.

Once we’d got our pictures, the captain decided to take us out away from the island. Apparently the spotter on shore had seen whales in the distance, and we were heading out to find them. I wasn’t sure whether to believe the initial story of a lone person in a tower with only a telescope to keep them company; spending their days scouring the horizon for tails or telling sprays of water. It looked like it was true, however, as sure enough, we came across three humpback whales – two parents and a baby.

It was incredibly exciting stuff, just to see their humps as they moved along the surface. Little did we know that we were in for a real treat. The male moved forward, and then, out of nowhere, threw his multi-ton frame into the air like it was nothing. He breached several times in the space of about 20 minutes – an amazing sight to behold. We kept a very respectful distance, and just sat there, awestruck at the majesty of that beautiful creature.

On our way back, we took a small spin around Ilhéu de Vila Franca do Campo, a tiny island just off the coast with its own natural swimming pool, courtesy of another volcanic crater. It has been designated an official nature preserve, as it is home to many species of birds, and also happens to be one of the stops for the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series. World class divers will be showing off their skills here on July 18, 2015, following Colombia, France, the U.S. and Denmark.

I highly recommend a whale watching tour in the Azores, as they pretty much guarantee that you’ll see something spectacular on your trip.


The official currency of the Azores is the euro, and as it is almost on par with the CI dollar, this is a pretty good time to consider visiting. Accommodation ranges from upscale hotels, like the Marina Atlantico in Ponta Delgada, to smaller, boutique properties in the city and elsewhere, and private apartments, such as the one I was lucky enough to rent.

My biggest piece of advice would be to do as much research as you can to make sure the accommodation you’re considering has all the amenities you require. WiFi in the rooms, a restaurant on-site, and even air-conditioning are not always givens. I always find TripAdvisor to be very helpful under these circumstances, and Rui was able to give me advice too.

When I visited São Miguel, the SATA Rallye Açores – an annual car rally race – was in full swing, and therefore the city of Ponta Delgada was incredibly busy. I was happy to stay in Vila Franca do Campo with a beautiful view of the ocean, the village within easy walking distance, and a three-bedroom apartment at Marina Mar II for amazing money. It all depends what you’re looking for. Regardless, it will definitely be less expensive than many other vacation destinations.


This place is a mecca for seafood lovers, for obvious reasons. On one evening I went to a fantastic seafood restaurant overlooking the marina, as recommended by my tour guide, and had a wonderful meal of mussels and tuna steak.

The server, Michael, spoke excellent English and was really funny. I had a great time and the food was delicious. No matter what, you must always save room for either locally grown pineapple, or the local delicacy – a pastry with a sweet dense filling, often covered in enough powdered sugar to make the diner look like they’ve got a serious cocaine probl

If seafood isn’t your thing, however, never fear. This is a farming island, so you’ll never be short of fantastic bread, tasty cheese (for which the Azores are known) and steak. Did I mention that they also make their own wine? Yup, I could definitely live there.

Getting to the Azores

Okay, so you may look at the map and think “Those islands are in the middle of nowhere!” But actually, they are quite accessible, and are becoming more so as people begin to recognize what they’re missing and airlines respond to the demand.

Beyond SATA and TAP Portugal, the main airlines to fly in and out of the Azores, other companies are joining in the fun, including the cheap-and-cheerful Ryanair. In the busy season (mainly the summer months), there are regular direct flights to Ponta Delgada from Toronto, Boston, London and Lisbon. It’s about five hours from Toronto and Boston, and is even closer to London and Lisbon.

Of course you can always go the cruise ship route, as I initially did, but to really appreciate the Azores, you need to spend a good few days there.

I conclude this piece by unequivocally recommending Rui Medeiros of Azores Private Tours. His extensive knowledge of the history of the islands, his pride in his home country, and his willingness to make your trip an unforgettable one is very impressive. His grasp of the English language is also a priceless asset if your Portuguese is as rubbish as mine.

Even if you rent a car, it’s worth it to take a day’s tour with him as he’ll give you insight that you might not get otherwise. Don’t forget to ask about the Gorreana Tea Estate, the pineapple plantation, and the ceramics factory. There’s lots to do in the Azores!

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I highly recommend a whale watching tour in the Azores, as they pretty much guarantee that you’ll see something spectacular on your trip. 


Common Dolphin