Glance at a world map too quickly and you might miss the small Azores archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Nearly 900 miles from Portugal, the Azores offer a chance to see a very different Europe than the one you’ll find on “the continent.”
Originally a rendezvous point for ships returning from the West Indies, later a place of exile for the Portuguese and an important whaling hub, the Azores enjoy a storied history that has shaped them into the fantastic destination they are today—alive with history, culture and natural wonders.
Just 250,000 people inhabit these nine volcanic islands. Nearly 150,000 of them live on São Miguel, the largest of the Azores and known as “the green island” because of its prairies, lush forests, tobacco fields and tea plantations. São Miguel is a good starting point for your Azores tour because it has so much to offer. For nature lovers there’s whale watching, swimming with dolphins, hiking, diving, fishing, bird watching and jeep safaris. For culture hounds there are monuments and turn-of-the-century architecture alongside a modern marina, night clubs and oceanfront cafés.
Each island offers a unique draw—from Santa Maria, “the yellow island,” with its serene white beaches, to Corvo, the smallest in the archipelago and home to more dairy cows than people. Throughout the islands, visitors and residents alike enjoy the Azores’ sparkling volcanic crater lakes, boiling sulphur springs, volcanic caves and “natural swimming pools” formed from the collapse of small craters. Although beaches aren’t the primary attraction, you’ll likely find a nice stretch of sand from which you can soak in the sun and scenery.
The islands’ rich volcanic soils are ideal for cultivating plants. An orange industry boomed here until disease wiped out the crop. Tea and pineapple crops have since replaced oranges. Today, you can please your palate by sampling tea at two of the islands’ tea plantations.
The best time to visit is April through September. The flowers are at peak bloom in May. Summer is primetime for whale watching. Although the Gulf Stream keeps the water fairly warm and the climate mild year round, it’s best to avoid the rainy season from November through March.
The Azores are a volcanic archipelago located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean approximately 900 miles from the European coast and 2400 miles from the North American coast. The islands represent the very tops of an ancient underwater mountain range that formed slowly over millions of years as lava escaped from faults in the Earth’s crust.
Azores history has been punctuated by earthquakes and volcanic activity. In 1522, a massive earthquake buried the town of Vila Franca do Campo, then the capital of São Miguel. As recently as 1958, a volcanic eruption enlarged Faial Island. Today, the shores of Lake Furnas on São Miguel are hot enough to cook food, making the area a popular picnic spot.
Agriculture is vital to the economy of all the islands. The volcanic soil is ideal for cultivating fruits, vegetables and grains. The locals also produce wine made from grapes grown on the islands. Although farming flourishes, much of the landscape is dominated by volcanic craters. Fishing is also a major industry for the islands.
The Azores appeared on maps as early as 1351, but no one is known to have actually reached them until Portuguese sailors landed there in 1427 (although unconfirmed tales exist of other sailors making land much earlier than this). The Portuguese claimed the Azores for themselves, and colonization began in 1439.
The islands served as a stopping point for ships coming and going from Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. Terceira Island harbored ships for over three centuries. Explorers Christopher Columbus, Vasco de Gama and Captain Cook are known to have passed through the Azores on various global exploits. Pirates also frequented the region, drawn in by the Spanish ships that were often carrying gold, spices and other treasures from abroad. Into the late 20th century, the islands provided ports for whaling ships. After centuries of a booming industry, whaling was officially banned globally in the 1980s.
As a result of all the maritime traffic, port cities in the Azores flourished. Churches, convents, fortresses and homes sprang up as more people settled the islands. Many of these buildings have been restored and can be viewed by tourists visiting the Azores today.
Photos: © WOLFGANG KAEHLER