If a holiday on one of the world’s most eco-friendly destinations is something you have on your bucket list, then a trip to the Azores is something you must experience. A 90-minute flight from Lisbon or a 5-hour direct flight out of Toronto or Boston through the islands carrier Azores Airlines, which has been the region’s national carrier since its founding in the 1950s, is all it takes to experience these nine remote islands in the mid-Atlantic.
Here it’s as if time stands still, and this is how the locals like it. Time does not work as it does on mainland Europe but more as an “island style” with a very relaxed but still efficient way of living. The dramatic coastlines, green pastoral settings, and unique flora and fauna are only some of the enchanting characteristics the region has to offer.
The largest island in the Azores and the 2nd of the nine islands to be discovered in the 15th century is the island of Sao Miguel “Saint Michaels Island,” known as the “green island” ever since the Portuguese first arrived here 500 years ago. Historians had recorded that when Goncalo Velho Cabral, the renowned Portuguese explorer, and his crewmates first made contact with the island, they were shocked at all the exotic vegetation that overwhelmed this isolated volcanic rock in the Atlantic. Since then, the Azores has experienced steady boom and bust periods like any small economy that is relatively isolated from its trading partners—resulting in an eco-friendly and sustainable way of living with dairy farming, cattle raising, and fishing being predominant on these nine islands.
- The Cha Gorreana Tea Plantation; a historical 19th-century tea estate located in Maia on the North Coast of the island. This is the only place in Europe to produce Green tea and is one of the most visited destinations in Portugal for that and many other reasons.
- The Hot Springs and Bubbling Geysers in Furnas. A favorite with European aristocrats in the 18th and 19th centuries due to the supposed health benefits of the volcanic water for ailments. Here you are surrounded by a breathtaking 200-year-old garden while you swim in the various hot water natural pools the small town has to offer.
- Ilha Vila Franca do Campo located 1 km off the coast of Sao Miguel’s original capital city which also bears the same name Vila Franca do Campo. Here on this small islet is a sunken crater that has formed to create an ideal sunbathing and relaxing spot overlooking the big island of Sao Miguel.
- The Lake of Seven Cities or otherwise known as Sete Cidades. This is by far one of the most famous landscapes in all of the Azores and to be honest one of the most beautiful as well. This is the glorious green and blue lakes that merge yet still due to many theories remain separate colors. This is the location that put the Azores on the international map with its constant beautiful photographs being published in magazines, travel brochures, and of course postcards.
- The Jose do Canto Palace and Botanical Garden which is located next to the Presidential Palace in the heart of the island’s capital; Ponta Delgada. Here you can admire and explore the hundreds of varieties of endemic and native plants of the region. One of the most famous botanical and private gardens in Portugal and regarded as one of Europe’s finest due to its expansive collections of Camellias and various other exotic plants.
- Explore one of the 50 official marked trails the island of Sao Miguel has to offer. Here you can walk, hike run, or bike in a variety of settings, from quaint pastoral terrains, deep into ancient forests or along the majestic coastline which offers sweeping views of the Atlantic and the island. This is one of the island’s most popular outdoor activities for tourists and locals alike and you are sure to have a truly authentic Azorean experience trekking through some of the island’s most unique locations.
- Go for a swim at one of the islands various picturesque beaches. The small island of just 140,000 residents in the middle of the North Atlantic ocean makes this the ideal spot to relax in the summer sunshine while catching a wave at one of the more than 10 public beaches the island has to offer. Here each beach has its own unique charm and all vary in size, accessibility, and of course wave size.
- Take a stroll through Azorean history at the Carlos Machado Museum located in the heart of the island’s capital; Ponta Delgada. Open daily for a minimal fee for admittance to help keep the museum operating and able to host the various exhibitions they showcase throughout the year representing different eras in Azorean history. This is a great piece of history to absorb and to get a better understanding of the unique culture and traditions of the Azorean people. Many of the island’s wealthy landowners and inteligencia over recent decades have donated and lent many of their exclusive paintings, sculptures, and memorabilia some dating back to the 16th century. I was lucky enough to view some original Domingues Rebelo paintings here at their annual summer exhibition my favorite being his pastoral painting from the 1930s most notably D. Lili of Sao Bras‘ “Cows in the Fields” painting which she had graciously lent out to the museum for their exhibition.
- Enjoy some “Volcano Food” at the famous Furnas geysers and experience a timeless ancient tradition here on the Azores that has been popular with locals and tourists in the Azores for over 150 years. This is definitely a bucket list ‘must-do’ if you are visiting the island of Sao Miguel. Early in the morning usually just after sunrise you rent one of their wooden barrels and you add all your raw ingredients such as pork, onions, carrots, potatoes celery spices, etc, and a small amount of water and then presto you drop it in and 6-8 hours later the magic of the volcanic thermal activity perfectly cooks your food. This process is more detailed and a lot more fun when you get to experience it so make sure you arrange with your guide a meal at the famous Furnas geysers and enjoy the quality only the Azores can offer.
- Experience a deep-sea fishing experience or a whale and dolphin encounter just minutes off the coastlines of Sao Miguel. The Azores are recognized as one of the safest places for whales, dolphins, and various sea turtles due to the regulations imposed over recent decades by the local government to enhance and preserve the delicate Ecosystem that the Azorean coastlines offer. Here you can see dozens of varieties of sperm whales and bottlenose dolphins swimming alongside your boat and most likely entertaining you with their majestic water shows. This is very affordable and one of the most sought out excursions when visiting Sao Miguel or the Azores in general.