The Azores are a group of nine islands in the Atlantic Ocean. They are administered as an autonomous region of Portugal and the regional capital is Ponta Delgada on the island of São Miguel which is about 1500km west of Lisbon. On my recent trip I visited three of the nine islands, namely São Miguel, Faial and Pico. This post is about the first of these.
São Miguel island is the largest in the archipelago but is still only 63km long and 16km wide at its broadest point. Around 150,000 people live on the island, more than all the other islands put together.
A 15th century mariner, explorer and monk called Gonçalo Velho Cabral is credited with having discovered the uninhabited São Miguel in 1432 and settlement of the island began a decade or so later. On his first visit he brought a herd of cows to release on the island. Their descendants are still there!
Being in mid-Atlantic, the Azores are affected by the gulf stream, producing a mild but changeable climate with temperatures seldom exceeding 25°C in summer or dipping below 11°C in winter (record high 28, record low 3). It rains all year round with more in winter.
The islands are of volcanic origin and the landscape is peppered with craters or calderas evidencing the explosive eruptions which formed the islands.
Sete Cidades, in the western part of São Miguel, is the name given to a parish and village located inside a massive caldera containing two adjoining lakes known as the Blue Lake and the Green Lake. There is a hiking trail around the rim of the crater and footpaths through forest and fields at the water’s edge.
Another spectacular caldera is at Furnas towards the east of the island where a major dormant volcano slumbers inside a massive 8 x 6 km crater. It has erupted twice since São Miguel was settled; in 1444 and in 1630. On the edge of the small town of Furnas, bubbling mud pools, boiling hot springs and fumaroles emit steam and sulphurous, rotten egg gasses.
In the town’s beautiful Terra Nostra park there is a thermal pool where you can take a relaxing warm soak in the rather muddy mineral waters said to bring health benefits.
With a write-up like that how could I resist a soak in the pool? What the park’s management don’t say is that the water will stain your swimming trunks a rusty iron colour!
The Azores are reckoned to be one of the best places in the world to go whale and dolphin watching, though with unpredictable weather and frequently rough seas, the whale watching tour boats may not always be able to sail, especially outside the summer months.
The town of Ponta Delgada is by far the biggest settlement in the Azores although small by world standards with a population of around 50,000. The historic town centre contains many fine old buildings and churches, mostly in a uniform white and grey colour scheme.
Tourism to the Azores is picking up. There is an international airport at Ponta Delgada with flights to UK, Germany, USA and the Portuguese mainland among other places. Azores is also a convenient stopover for transatlantic cruise liners.
With no white sandy beaches (only black volcanic sand beaches) and a somewhat rainy climate, this place does not appeal to the sun-worshipping younger crowd. Nightlife is tame to non-existent. But for those more interested in cultural pursuits, hiking, parks, nature, volcanos, whales, superb scenery and some of the most unpolluted air in the world, Azores is hard to beat.