Some 900 miles west of the coast of mainland Portugal are the Azores, an extraordinarily beautiful group of islands. The archipelago is often labelled 'the Hawaii of Europe' but these islands, which boast many of their own treasures, are still off the tourist trail and truly unspoilt. Positioned between the tectonic plates of Eurasia, Africa and North America, the Azores rose 20,000 feet from the depths of the Atlantic as a serendipitous result of spectacular volcanic activity. At every turn you'll encounter awe-inspiring reminders of the power of nature: majestic volcanic peaks, immense crater lakes, flora-filled calderas and steamy thermal springs.
These emerald islands are largely covered in vegetation, as so much thrives in the subtropical climate and fertile soil. With about 60 endemic plants and over 700 varieties introduced from across the world, the Azores have become a garden paradise with enchanting blooms all year round. Numerous species of birds and marine life are found here, making the archipelago one of the best destinations for spotting a staggering variety of splendid creatures, from pint-sized sandpipers to gargantuan blue whales.
No one knows the actual date the archipelago was originally discovered, but it was first settled in the 15th century during the golden age of exploration, first by the Portuguese and Flemish, then other Europeans and the Americans. Along with Madeira, the Azores are an autonomous region within Portugal.
Our tour explores three of the nine major islands and their many highlights. SÃ£o Miguel, the largest, is renowned for its beautiful crater lakes, hot springs and the Terra Nostra botanical wonderland, as well as Europe's only tea and pineapple plantations. On Faial, we delve into the origins of the Azorean volcanoes and explore the barren, alien-like Capelinhos landscape created as recently as 1957. We travel to Pico, whose eponymous volcano was described by author Mark Twain as 'a stately green pyramid, which rose up with one unbroken sweep and thrust its summit above the white clouds like an island adrift in a fog.' We'll see Pico's astonishing UNESCO-listed vineyards, an impressive testament to the ingenuity of the hardy Azoreans. To make the most of the land, Azorean crops are grown by altitude and even flowers are used in original ways - we'll see hydrangea hedges doubling as windbreaks, and pretty azalea and camellia borders lining the roads. The Azoreans take conservation very seriously, and the archipelago is the first destination to win a Platinum Quality Gold Coast Award for sustainability.
When it comes to food, the islands' edible bounty is tremendous. The many microclimates yield an impressive variety of some of the healthiest fruit and vegetables you'll ever see, and the endless pastures provide plenty of nourishment for healthy cows, from which come the most succulent beef and creamy dairy. And of course, all around the islands are the mineral-rich waters of the Atlantic Ocean, teeming with tuna, lobster, crab and so much more.
A visit to the Azores is a treat for your senses, and on our tour, you'll get fascinating insights into the myriad marvels of these paradise islands.
Explore the incredible natural and man-made wonders of São Miguel, Faial and Pico
Marvel at the beautiful crater lakes of Sete Cidades and Furnas
Be awed by the mighty peak of Pico volcano, the highest point in Portugal
Experience the otherworldly landscape of Capelinhos and learn about the Azores’ fascinating volcanic origins at its superb museum
Discover Faial, nicknamed the ‘blue island’ for its profusion of hydrangeas
Stroll through Terra Nostra, a botanical wonderland, and take a dip in hot springs famed for their healing powers
Discover the UNESCO-listed volcanic vineyards of Pico and visit a wine museum
Tour the only tea plantation and pineapple greenhouse in Europe
Return flights from a selection of UK airports, plus all hotel transfers
Seven nights in four-star accommodation inclusive of all local taxes, with breakfast and one dinner
The services of our experienced and insightful tour manager throughout
Selected departures from September to November 2019
DAY 1 Arrive at the airport for your flight via Lisbon to São Miguel, the largest of the nine Azorean islands. On arrival, a short transfer by coach takes us to Ponta Delgada, the capital of São Miguel and where we stay for two nights, with breakfast, at a four-star hotel located a short walk from the harbourfront boulevard and the heart of the old town. Depending on your departure you will stay at the Azoris Royal Garden Hotel, Hotel Marina Atl-ntico, or Grand Hotel Açores Atl-ntico. Dinner is included on the first night at the hotel.
DAY 2 An elegant affair in monochrome, Ponta Delgada bears the fine features of a capital city: attractive squares and leafy gardens dot the compact network of cobbled streets, lined by handsome 18th-century mansions. We start the day with a guided walking tour of the old town to get acquainted with its main sights. Watching over Gonçalo Velho Square is a trio of graceful black-and-white arches, part of the city gates that once stood by the harbour, and a statue of the man who discovered the island. Nearby the Baroque São Sebastião church welcomes visitors through its elaborate Manueline doorway to an interior decorated with ornate wood carvings. Navigating the narrow, cobbled streets, we’ll see grand buildings with arched windows and tiled façades, some featuring interesting murals, on our stroll along the harbour’s edge to the historic São Brás fort. During spring and even winter, you’ll notice a vivid prevalence of delightful bird-of-paradise flowers.
This afternoon you are free to explore. Take a leisurely stroll along Ponta Delgada’s lively marina and admire the lovely views over the Atlantic. With so many waterfront restaurants serving excellent local dishes, you’re truly spoilt for choice. The sparkling azure waters of the Azores draw over a third of the world’s whale and dolphin species: majestic sperm whales and bottlenose dolphins inhabit the archipelago year-round, while numerous other migrating species pass through during different seasons, such as the mighty blue whale, the largest animal ever known to have existed. These gorgeous islands offer exceptional sighting records, so if you’d like to seize the opportunity to see them for yourself, please refer to our Personalise Your Holiday section for details.
DAY 3 Today we experience some of the marvellous natural wonders for which the Azores are renowned. During our drive this morning, we are treated to sweeping views of rolling green fields, with glimpses of the shimmering Atlantic in the distance, and stretches of road bordered by bouquets of bright-pink azaleas and lilac-blue hydrangeas. We enter Furnas ‘valley’, which is actually a crater and the remains of a long-extinct volcano. Rows of towering trees guard the entrance to Lagoa das Furnas, one of São Miguel’s primary crater lakes. As we drive around the lake, the beauty of nature will astound you: the magnificent expanse of startlingly blue-green water is fringed by grassy banks and forested hillsides. In the distance you’ll see clouds of steam rising from the northern shores, marking the presence of volcanic features: hot springs, smouldering fumaroles and bubbling mud pots. The hot earth here has been hollowed out to form underground ovens, which Azorean cooks use to slow-cook a local speciality called ‘cozido’.
We arrive at Furnas, a small typically Azorean village reminiscent of mainland Portugal, with whitewashed buildings, decorated churches and charming streets. There is free time to explore and take in panoramic views of the emerald-green forests surrounding the area. Look out for the quirky ‘upside down’ house, which appears to have been uprooted and now rests on its roof, but is really an imaginatively designed electrical substation! Perhaps try Furnas’ famous ‘cozido’ or furnace stew, made with a generous mix of meats and vegetables.
This afternoon we visit Terra Nostra, one of Europe’s most incredible parks and botanical gardens. Set amidst Furnas’ hot springs and streams, this 30-acre gardener’s paradise boasts an unbelievable variety of plant species; some are native, but many were imported from countries all over the world with completely different climates. Hundred-year-old evergreens and Pacific trees thrive in the volcanic soil alongside innumerable plants, such as rhododendrons, kaffir lilies and camellia – an English oak planted in the 18th century can still be seen today. This extraordinary collection has flourished under the meticulous care of many esteemed gardeners, including several Kew-trained experts. With thousands of species to discover, Terra Nostra is wonderful to visit any time of the year.
No trip to Furnas would be complete without a dip in its famous hot springs. Should you wish, you can head to the fern-filled garden of the Terra Nostra Garden Hotel to bathe in the iron-rich waters of its geothermal pools.
During our drive back towards the hotel later, we enjoy more superb views of the coast. The undulating hills swathed in greenery soon transform into a mesmerising landscape of rippling stripes as we approach the Gorreana estate, where we stop for a tour of Europe’s oldest and, currently, only tea plantation. Since 1883, the family-owned plantation has been producing fine green and black teas. The tea leaves of Gorreana are hand-picked and free of chemicals, as the diseases that normally plague the tea plant don’t survive the lovely subtropical climate. Amazingly, the factory still uses machines that date back to the 19th century.
DAY 4 This morning we fly to Faial, called the ‘blue island’ for the abundance of hydrangeas found everywhere. These pretty pastel blooms in season are a sight to behold, but it’s the island’s volcanic features that are the most striking of all. Taking centre stage like an all-seeing eye is the remarkable Caldeira crater, while the Capelinhos volcano, which rose from the depths of the Atlantic as recently as the 20th century, has forever changed the island’s landscape. We transfer to Horta, where we stay for two nights, with breakfast, at a four-star hotel. Depending on your departure, you will stay at the Hotel do Canal, Hotel Horta or Azoris Faial Garden.
Faial was an important port of call and refuelling station for seaplanes in the 1930s. Its capital, Horta, is spread out along a sweeping bay and enjoys superb views of the perfectly symmetrical cone of Pico volcano on the neighbouring island. The naturally sheltered harbour is a popular stop for yacht owners on their transatlantic sailings, and doubles as an open-air gallery filled with colourful paintings left by each crew as a visual reminder of their stay, as tradition dictates. We spend the day exploring Faial and follow the coastal road, flanked by green mountains and the brilliant-blue Atlantic, to the white cliffs of the Castelo Branco headland. At Varadouro we take a short walk around the magnificent bay, where fossilised lava has shaped natural pools, creating a spa retreat in the middle of the ocean!
As we approach the western tip of Faial, we pass through Capelo, which has been decimated not just once, but twice by volcanic eruptions. The lush vegetation abruptly disappears, replaced by a lunar-like landscape punctuated by a lonely lighthouse. In 1957 a series of underwater explosions, lava flows, eruptions and ash showers lasting 13 months formed the Capelinhos volcano, enlarging the island by nearly a square mile and creating one of the most westernmost points of Europe. With every crash of the Atlantic waves, a little more of Capelinhos is swept away, revealing traces of red, ochre and black minerals in the craggy terrain. It’s the only volcano to have been observed and documented from eruption to dormancy, and we delve into its fascinating history during our visit to the museum here, which was built underground to blend in with the landscape.
We continue from one highlight to another: Caldeira, the spectacular almost-circular crater of the extinct volcano that formed Faial hundreds of years ago. A great lake once filled the 1,312-foot-deep basin but diminished with the rise of Capelinhos, leaving behind a lush nature reserve almost a mile wide, now blanketed by cedars, ferns and junipers. On a clear day, the views over the crater floor and across Faial are simply astounding.
For more superb views, we stop at the Espalamaca lookout on our drive back to the hotel. Look out for Horta’s yacht-filled marina and the surrounding mountains. We return to Horta with time for a nice relaxing evening.
DAY 5 There’s still so much to discover, so this morning we take a 30-minute ferry ride to the town of Madalena on Pico, the youngest and second-largest island of the Azores. Nicknamed ‘black island’ for its ubiquitous rocky volcanic soil, Pico offers a very different but no less extraordinary experience. The scenery is unabashedly dramatic: emerald and ochre fields and colourful flowers stand out vividly against the black earth, dominated by a 7,713-foot volcano, whose perfectly shaped peak marks the highest point in Portugal.
During our drive, the view to the horizon becomes a sea of black stone walls, laid out in a hypnotic grid pattern parallel to the nearby coast. We stop for a short walk, during which you’ll notice that the plants clinging to the walls are grapevines, cleverly sheltered from the harsh winds and salty seawater of the Atlantic. This unique walled vineyard is recognised by UNESCO as an outstanding example of the ingenuity of the 15th-century settlers, who, despite the odds, triumphed over the hostile environment.
It’s difficult to explore Azorean culture without mentioning whaling, once the main livelihood for generations of islanders, who engaged in the practice purely for economic reasons until it was banned in 1984. Azoreans today are focused on promoting whale-watching and sustainable tourism, and although there is no desire to revive the practice, many hold a great respect for the old whalers. To get a better understanding of the local perspective, we visit the Whalers’ Museum in Lajes. There is free time after for lunch at your leisure. Should you prefer not to visit the museum, Lajes is an attractive fishing town with several charming churches.
This afternoon we drive through Pico Natural Park, the beautiful leafy moorland that runs along the central spine of the island, for a closer look at Mount Pico, a beast of a mountain nearly twice the size of Mount Vesuvius. The symmetrical peak is often accompanied by clouds, even on a sunny day, and an ascent offers breathtaking views. Small and shallow lakes dot the park and mirror the sky, providing locals with scenic places to hike and enjoy a picnic. It’s also a birdwatcher’s paradise, home to countless bird species, such as Atlantic canaries, green heron and tiny sandpipers.
Continuing along the rugged northern coast, we see fascinating lava rock formations and natural pools shaped by time and the unrelenting Atlantic – at Arcos do Cachorro, one of the formations looks remarkably like the head of a dog! Back in Madalena, we visit the wine museum, which is housed in a former Carmelite convent, to learn more about Pico’s unique wines and the traditional production techniques still used today. Considering the proximity of Pico’s vineyards and exposure to the Atlantic, it may not come as a surprise that these wines contain subtle notes of the salty sea! You can also see enormous dragon trees, said to be centuries old and resembling giant umbrellas with dozens of neatly packed twisting branches. After a wonderful day exploring Pico, we take the ferry back to Horta.
DAY 6 After breakfast we fly back to Ponta Delgada, where we stay two more nights at the four-star Azoris Royal Garden Hotel, Hotel Marina Atl-ntico or Grand Hotel Açores Atl-ntico. The entire day is yours to do as you wish in the charming capital of São Miguel. For a glimpse of local life, head to the bustling market where stalls groan under the weight of a rainbow assortment of produce, from cheese and shellfish to pineapple and passion fruit. Or simply wander where your feet take you and when you need a break, the city’s many leafy gardens provide welcome shade.
Take the opportunity to try the Azores’ hearty cuisine, whose vibrant flavours sing of fresh seafood, spicy stews, tropical fruit and rich cheeses. The Atlantic serves up an impressive array of seafood, from giant tuna to tiny limpets, while the cheese produced in the Azores is of such excellent quality it’s popular in mainland Portugal. Locally grown fruit are said to have a tart sweetness and succulence, due to the soil and climate, so why not sample some and see for yourself?
DAY 7 This morning we uncover the western end of São Miguel and for many, the highlight of the tour. Throughout this trip you’ll have witnessed many stunning sights, but few can compare with the breathtaking beauty of the twin lakes of Sete Cidades. Set in the verdant crater of a dormant volcano fringed by Japanese cedar, junipers, and when in season, blooms of hydrangeas, the pristine lakes seem to sparkle in two different colours: blue and green. Legend has it the lakes were formed by the ceaseless tears of star-crossed lovers, a green-eyed princess and a blue-eyed shepherd. The real reason is perhaps less romantic: the larger and deeper lake mirrors the sky, while the smaller and shallower of the two reveals the algae within and reflects the surrounding greenery.
Have your camera at the ready to capture the beautiful scenery before we descend the crater to the sleepy village of Sete Cidades for more wonderful views. Translated as ‘seven cities’, Sete Cidades is a historical reference to the fabled islands to which a group of bishops supposedly fled in the 8th century. We have time for a coffee and a stroll along the tree-lined avenue leading to the heart of the village, the neo-Gothic São Nicolau Church, which is surrounded by pretty gardens.
The swells and dips of the island’s richly carpeted mountains are mesmerising as we continue across the central range, passing traditional villages attractively adorned by flowers and vines. A staggering variety of plants grow in the Azores, including the king of fruits – in fact, São Miguel is home to the only pineapple plantation in Europe. Originally brought to the island from Brazil, Azorean pineapples are grown in greenhouses, which maintain the high temperatures and humidity level needed for this prickly plant to flourish. With a petite crown but intense flavour, the Azorean pineapple has a unique taste that makes it excellent in a variety of products, from juices and liqueurs, to jams and even a garnish for meat. We have a guided tour of one of the many pineapple plantations on São Miguel to learn more about this versatile fruit before returning to the hotel.
DAY 8 Transfer to the airport for your flight home.
Bed & breakfast plus 1 dinner
The price of this holiday is per person, based on two people sharing a twin room. Single rooms are available at the relevant supplement. The price includes return flights, seven nights' accomodation with breakfast and one dinner, all local taxes, transfers and internal flights, all tours as mentioned, entrances to Holy Sacred at Carlos Machado Museum, Terra Nostra Park and garden, Capelinhos Volcano Exhibition, Whalers Museum, Whine Museum and the services of a Riviera Travel tour manager.
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