The Azores Islands are a fascinating island archipelago belonging to Portugal. A stepping stone for Americans who don't like long flights, the islands lie in the Atlantic, under five hours flying time from the East Coast of the U.S. and two hours flying time to Lisbon.
You may not expect the tropical conditions you find on the Azores. Small and intensely flavorful pineapples can be found as well as tea plantations on the island of São Miguel. Flowers are everywhere, especially in spring.
The islands' volcanic origin leaves unmistakable marks on the landscape and even in the cuisine. Steaming hot pools are everywhere, and the iconic dish of the Azores, a stew called Cozido is cooked by placing the pot in a hole in the ground near the famous caldeiras of Furnas, a town between Villa Franca and Nordeste on the map.
Getting to the Azores Islands
The nine Azores Islands are served by Azores Airlines. International flights arrive at the major settlement of Ponta Delgada on the Azores largest island, São Miguel or San Miguel. During the high season, Azores Airlines flies to the Azores from Boston, Oakland, Toronto, Montreal, Porto, Lisbon, Frankfurt and Las Palmas. If you are coming to the Azores from Lisbon, you can get direct flights to Horta, Terceira, and Santa Maria as well as to Ponta Delgada. In the off-season, check Azores Airlines for the latest information, as these departures change frequently.
Ease Your Jetlag With a Stop in the Azores
The Azores are only four and a half hours from Boston. A trip to the Azores can be the start of a series of short budget-airline hops that will ease the specter of jet lag: less than five hours to the Azores, two hours to Lisbon, three hours or so to Italy.
The Azores provide a whole different European experience for the traveler who would like to experience cultural and environmental contrast to "The Continent."
The flight from Boston will take you to Ponta Delgada on the Island of San Miguel. It's the largest island in the Azores chain, and there's plenty to do. From there you can go on to other islands or continue on to the continent by flying to Lisbon.
Getting Around the Azores Islands
During the high season, there are flights between the islands. Ferry services can be spotty, and many boats only run for a limited time around the summer season.
If you wish to travel to two islands from the U.S., it's best to make your airline reservations at the same time. In other words, the frugal will want a Boston-Ponta Delgada-Terceira ticket rather than separate Boston-Ponte Delgada and Ponta Delgada-Terceira round trips.
Major cities like Ponta Delgada, where you are likely to arrive in the Azores, have a variety of hotels, but getting out in the rural spaces of the Azores is the big draw. There are a variety of options within the program of Rural Tourism. If going rural appeals to you, you might try looking for lodging at Rural Tourism in Portugal.
While the resort hotels of the Azores offer good value for the money compared to other European destinations, many rural accommodations—restored farmhouses and manor houses—could be your first choice for lodging in the Azores. Most offer a real feeling of the genteel life and offer fine food (if you wish) and a leisurely lifestyle. The owners are often very interested in seeing you get the most out of your visit. For romantics, renting an isolated cabin with a view of the sea is the private way to go.
Getting Around within an Island in the Azores
Public transportation is aimed at Azoreans going to work and many of the public transport timetables are probably inconvenient for most tourists to the Azores. Hiring a taxi for a half-day tour is reasonably inexpensive, and gets you exactly where you want to go. Rental cars are available and are good to have on larger islands such as San Miguel.
There are many walking paths on the islands as walking is one of the attractions enjoyed by tourists in the Azores.
When to Go
The Azores' stable, subtropical climate makes the islands the ideal place to go in the off or shoulder seasons. It's also ideal for folks who want to vacation in summer but don't like intense heat. Go in spring for the flowers.
Travel Safety in the Azores
There is little sign of poverty in the Azores, and there are few recorded crimes against tourists.
During the lean the years, many Azoreans immigrated to the US and then returned, so there tends to be a more sympathetic view of the politics embraced by the current U.S. administration than you'll find in other European countries. This also means that many citizens and visitors to the Azores speak English fluently; a benefit to tourists who don't speak Portuguese.
When to go to the Azores Islands
The Azores are awash in flowers in the spring, so May might be the ideal time to visit. Ferries start running in earnest in June, so that might be a consideration for you. April to September is the peak season in the Azores. You might want to avoid the rainy season, November to March. The gulf stream keeps the water fairly warm all year round, and Nordic visitors like to come to the Azores to swim in the winter. Summer is prime whale-watching time.
Island Hop to Madeira
If you like tropical islands, you might try a little Gulf Stream Island Hopping by flying from Ponta Delgada in the Azores to Funchal on Madeira Island. The flight takes only a little over two hours.
Who Should Go to the Azores?
Active travelers interested in island culture and activities will find a match here. Activities include trekking, boating and kayaking, golfing, paragliding, and diving. Here you'll find islands with tropical characteristics but European character. You can swim and boat during the day, then sit down to a typical meal with fine (and sometimes local) wines at night. The Azores aren't one of those places where you're plopped down in a glamorous resort walled off from a poorer population.
What's Not in the Azores That You Might Expect
It may surprise you to know that beaches aren't the primary attraction in the Azores. That doesn't mean that there aren't sandy stretches that attract bathers, but we're not talking about Hawaii here, either. Still, swimmers (and divers) can make quite a time of it in the Azores; the water is warmed by the gulf stream, and there are many opportunities to swim in the "natural swimming pools" formed from the collapse of small volcanic craters.
And you won't find many backpackers in the Azores.
What Might Surprise You on the Azores
The Azores used to be a prime supplier of oranges to the mainland. After a disease wiped out the crop, tea and pineapples were introduced. Today you can tour two tea plantations with tasting rooms on the island of San Miguel. You can also tour a pineapple plantation. Pineapple has become part of the cuisine of the Azores, most folks have a large slice after dinner, but it's also served with small, grilled blood sausage as a typical appetizer. Cows, milk, and cheeses are famous as well.