No matter the time of year, the mid-Atlantic Portuguese islands of the Azores are teeming with life.
Where lush valley meadows make way to crystal-clear crater lakes on one end, rolling hills merge and proudly rise to form dramatic scraggly cliffs on the other. Wherever you look, the view is a feast; vibrant greens and deep Atlantic navy blues with faint silhouettes of neighboring islands in the distance. Subtropical, wind-beaten vegetation climbs towering trees that hide unexplored waterfalls and an underground network of caves and thermal healing pools.
The constantly comfortable climate draws a slew of migratory birds, sperm whales, nesting sea turtles and British snowbirds. Serious hikers, bird-watchers and landscape photographers know this and flock along. Yet, with all this life around, the islands never feel overrun with tourists.
Of the nine major islands in the archipelago, Sao Miguel is the largest and its capital, Ponta Delgada, is the most populated and receives the most visitors. At only five hours flying time from its Canadian hubs of Toronto and Montreal, Azores airline SATA International operates scheduled service to the islands and continues on to mainland Portugal, offering free stopovers en route. Once on the islands, enjoy a plethora of activities throughout the year.
Here is why the Azores are your best stop-over to Europe and our list of the top five things to do once there.
1. Golf and ‘Pasture Golf’
With only a modest three between all of the islands, the focus here is on quality and the picture-perfect courses are designed for both the beginner as well as the pro. Colourful flowers explode around you as you walk the fairways, surrounded by stunning blue waters, dramatic cliffs and the forever lush greenery of Japanese cedar trees, lilies and hydrangeas. The Azores’ mild temperatures allow the golfer year-round play and whether you’re in Sao Miguel or Terceira, you’re in the right place.
Where purists will find the traditional courses challenging, those looking for a fun day out can have a try at ‘pasture golf’ instead. Played in the islands’ many pastures, surrounded by tall grasses and sometimes even grazing cattle, the rules are the same as traditional golf but encouraging locals and the sheer wilderness of it all adds another element of fun to this growing regional sport.
2. Whale Watching
More than 20 species of whales and dolphins have been spotted in the waters around the Azores, including both residents and migrants. The region is one of the world’s great whale sanctuaries and an ideal place to catch a glimpse. Tours go out throughout the year and the chances of spotting are so good (98%) that many operators offer a money-back guarantee in the event of a fruitless outing.
Different species have different migrating seasons and our summer months are prime time for sperm, sei and bearded whales as well as the spotted dolphin, while the ocean’s largest mammal, the colossal blue whale, is most often seen around the end of winter and early spring. Tours are available from each of the nine islands, some even operated by former whalers.
3. Hiking and Cycling
Head out from any city centre or quaint mountain town and walk out into one of the prettiest, natural gardens on the planet. Bountiful, meandering trails circle and cross each of the islands, all with something new to offer hikers of all levels of fitness. From narrow, relatively flat coastline paths, rolling old-world vineyards and the cow-laden countryside to steep volcanic crater lookouts and secret waterfalls, there is something new at seemingly every turn.
Although designated walking trails are well marked, bilingual local guides are available for hire and add priceless insight into the flora, fauna and history of the area you are trekking. For anyone with reduced mobility, there are even adapted wheelchairs provided by the tourism board to make this experience available to everyone.
Earlier this year, a British plumber/lifeguard (and obvious surfer) caught possibly the biggest wave ever to be ridden. Off mainland Portugal, near Nazare, Mr. Cotton plummeted down an astonishing 80 foot monster, setting the world record in the process. Although the waves don’t get quite as big in the Azores, they are big enough to hold the annual SATA Airlines Pro, a popular World Championship Tour stop for the best in the business, on the north coast of Sao Miguel.
Surfing in the Azores however isn’t necessarily just a spectator sport. Whether you’re suiting up for the first time or you’re a seasoned dude looking for a new place to hang ten, the weather and geography here make it possible for everyone to get out and catch a wave. The calmer seas of the summer months lend themselves perfectly to novice surfers while the fall, winter and spring brings in more challenging, adrenaline driven conditions.
Other popular sea and wind related sports on the islands are windsurfing, kite-surfing, paragliding and sea kayaking.
5. Scuba Diving
There aren’t many places in the world that offer the diversity of dives possible in the Azores. With day and night dives, shore and open water, reefs, walls, caves and shipwrecks, this archipelago has it all. Glide through the open blue abyss alongside majestic manta rays or witness the seldom seen phenomenon of schooling hammerhead sharks. Interesting underwater volcanic rock formations host smaller reef fish and even the occasional docile whale shark makes an appearance in the summers. The warm water and optimal visibility make the Azores a prime dive destination for all experience levels but it’s best to come certified.
If you’re considering a dive or two on a short stopover, keep in mind that flying within 24 hours of a dive is deathly dangerous so it is best to stay at least a week and squeeze in a few more dives. For those not certified, grab some fins and a mask and hit the beach as there are many quality snorkeling spots throughout the islands too.
Need more convincing? Check out our incredibly low SATA International specials to both, Ponta Delgada on Sao Miguel as well as the mainland Portuguese cities of Lisbon and Porto. Book online, visit a Flight Centre store near you or call one of our Airfare Experts at 1877 967 5302 today!