Philip Gilbert is a true specialist, having spent the last nine years leading tour groups to the Azores. He and his partner Ann still return from time to time for walking holidays. He says: “The spectacular scenery, the tranquillity, and the friendliness of the island folk make it a superb holiday destination for the adventurous over 50s”.
A visit to Sao Miguel – the largest island in the Azores Archipelago
Just over a 3 hour direct flight, weekly from Gatwick, we are landing on Sao Miguel island – the largest of the 9 islands that make up the Azores archipelago, and it soon becomes clear why it is locally known as the ‘Green Island’. Once one leaves the capital city of Ponta Delgada, there is a wonderful mix of lowland green fields, housing a population of dairy cows which are as numerous as their human counterparts and the more rugged volcanic scenery of spectacular viewpoints, lakes and steaming, bubbling hot mud.
More than 50% of the population live in the main town of Ponta Delgada, which is an attractive port that on occasions attracts visits from the cruise ships that are returning from the Caribbean. The town itself has a safe and ‘laid back’ feel, enabling visitors to stroll with confidence in the streets of the old town and to explore the three superb botanical gardens sited within the city boundary. Perhaps make a visit as well to the old 17th century fort on the seafront, built originally to protect the island from the constant threat of pirate attack, but now operated as a military museum by the Portuguese army.
However, for those who love beautiful green scenery, the joy is to explore the outreaches of the island. Over 1 million years ago, there were originally 2 islands that became joined together by further volcanic activity, so the visitors will see a clear difference when visiting the East and the West. For those who prefer to be independent, rather than joining an organised tour, hiring a car is easy (your hotel reception will help) and the quiet, well maintained roads make driving a stress free experience.
Our first trip out was to head east towards the village of Sete Cidades which sits on the shores of 2 magnificent volcanic lakes. To fully appreciate the beauty, and to see the phenomenon of seeing one blue, and one green lake, head for the viewpoint of Vista del Rei and soak up the ‘wow’ factor of looking into this giant volcano. This area is the Lake District of the island and has many hidden volcanic lakes, not all visible from the road, so for those who love walking, take your rucksack and boots and explore on foot, the paths being generally well marked. We tackled the 3 mile circuit that starts adjacent to Canary Lake (Largo do Canario) and were rewarded by views of 6 hidden volcanic lakes, plus panoramic coastal views, so this is one of the many walks to ‘go slow’ and savour unspoilt, natural beauty at its best. If planning to walk, always take local advice about cloud, which can, on occasions, sit on the high ground, even when the weather is clear on the coast.
Heading to the east of the island is another enchanting experience and must rate as one of the ‘not to be missed’ occasions! In the middle of the sleepy town of Furnas, a mild smell of sulphur hangs in the air and one comes across the fumeroles, boiling water and bubbling mud, that emphasises the volcanic nature of the land. Furnas is also home to the renowned Terra Nostra Gardens, where visitors can see one of Europe’s most comprehensive displays of trees and shrubs from around the world. Be sure to pack your swimming costume and try a dip in the volcanically heated natural pool, which is in the garden. The water is a delightful ‘hot bath’ temperature and the high mineral content leaves you feeling both relaxed and rejuvenated at the same time! If you want a special treat, spend a night in a garden-view room at the Terra Nostra Garden Hotel, arguably one of the best hotels on the island. In the afternoon, head towards the town of Nordeste, and you will drive through some lovely forested coastal areas, stopping perhaps at the gardens of Sossego to admire the flowers in this lovingly maintained garden and to see some impressive coastal views. Nowhere on the island is too far away – the total length of S. Miguel is just 63km – so we were able to fit in a lot of sightseeing yet still be back in our Ponta Delgada hotel comfortably well before the sun set over the yardarm.
No Azores experience would be complete without a boat trip to see the whales and dolphins that abound in these waters, and there are several companies that offer well informed trips, with high safety standards and an agreement to work within the regulations that ensure that the animals are not stressed or disturbed by the whale watch boats. The better companies offer a pre-departure briefing and the on-board presence of a marine biologist to explain the characteristics of the particular whale or dolphin that has been seen. Luckily for us, the day we chose had calm seas, warm sunshine and, most importantly, the whales and dolphins decided to be out and about – especially the ‘showmen of the seas’, the dolphins!
With the promise of clear weather in the mountains, our final trip of this holiday was to the majestic Fire Lake – another ‘must see’ for any visitor. Leaving the town of Ribiera Grande, on the north coast, the drive takes you up the mountain road which offers several spectacular viewpoints and passes the pollution-free geo-thermal electricity generating plants. Near the summit the reward is a magnificent view of this dramatic lake, seen from the roadside viewpoint. Even better, if you are feeling up to the physical challenge, you can climb down the steep path and find perfect tranquillity with a stroll on the lakeside.
All our friends have heard of the Azores, nobody, however has a clue where it is! Thankfully for us the islands have escaped the tourist masses and remain a green and unspoilt destination for the visitor who seeks peace and beauty, as opposed to the ‘disco lights and glitz’ of some mainstream holiday destinations.
- Best time to visit: May to October.
- Flights: SATA (The Azorean airline) offers weekly, direct flights from Gatwick.
- Climate: Variable weather conditions. Sub-tropical, e.g. June temperatures approximately 22 degrees.
- What to pack: Comfortable footwear as many of the roads are cobbled and lightweight rainjacket.
- Language: Portuguese.
- Currency: Euro.
- Island dimensions: 40 miles by 10 miles.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Sunvil
Or, for group visits contact [email protected]
Agencia Acorianna de Viagems
Rua de Lisboa
9500 – 216 Ponta Delgada, Sao Miguel, Azores