Not of too long ago, even seasoned travelers would have struggled to pick the Azores out on a map. For years, this isolated scattering of nine Portuguese islands remained a well-kept secret, a geological and horticultural oasis awash in the mid-Atlantic. Yet with Unesco recognition of its historical and biological attractions, and new flight paths putting it within easy reach of the UK, there’s never been a better time to visit.
And what a place you’ll find. Sat at the meeting point of three tectonic plates, the Azores have the kind of gasp-inducing activity. Magma still flows below the surface and it plays a prominent part in Azorean life. For example, the delicious local stew, Cozido das Furnas, is slow-cooked beneath the ground by volcanic heat.
The Azores are ideal for fly-d rive breaks. Roads are well maintained and quiet (though you may see the occasional cow) and it’s easy to drop off your car, hop on a ferry or plane and pick up a new one on the other side. Book with Regent Holidays and everything will be taken care of, from your flights and car to your choice of hand-picked hotels. Here’s an idea of what you can expect.
You’ll arrive at the airport on Sao Miguel, the chain’s biggest island — and its greenest. Spend a few days wandering the prettily mosaicked streets of the capital Ponta Delgada, eating in excellent seafood restaurants and heading out for day trips. Nearby Lagoa da Fogo, or fire lake, is an aptly-named highlight, avast crater lake surrounded by boiling springs and smouldering holes in the ground, while to the southwest you’ll find Ferraria, a haven of thermal springs and spas where you can soak away your stresses in warm, volcano-heated water. Brave a descent into the Gruta do Carvao, a 10,000 year-old lava tunnel measuring almost 2km end-to-end, before visiting the Volcanology Centre in Lagoa to learn about the awesome forces that created it.
Next up is Terceira, home to Angra do Heroismo, a Unesco World Heritage site and a 15th-century city that’s barely changed in 500 years. It’s the oldest settlement on the Azores, and its colonial Portuguese architecture includes a charming cathedral and quaint cobbled boulevards. Take a car and climb the nearby extinct volcano, Monte Brasil for stunning views across the bay, or descend to the island’s core at Algar do Carvao, a 90m-deep volcanic chimney. Don’t miss the bathing pools on the northwest coast either: ancient lava formations provide a tranquil shelter from the Atlantic swell.
Drop off your car and board the ferry to Pico, the youngest of the Azores and a fertile island dominated by a 2,351m-high active volcano, Mt Pico. The hike to the summit is a must: allow around seven hours for the full trip, and consider booking a hiking guide unless you’re an experienced mountaineer. On the north coast you’ll find Currais, an ancient vineyard and Unesco World Heritage site. Sometime around the 15th century, Portuguese settlers built thousands of small rectangular plots here to protect their grapes from the sea and wind. It’s hardly changed since, and the local wine is delicious. The Azores is known for licoroso (fortified wines, not dissimilar to port) but these days they also produce some top-class table wines.
Your final island is Faial. This is the best spot to check out the Azores’ other awe inspiring natural attraction: the pods of whales and porpoises that call these waters home. Boat trips depart from the marina in Horta throughout the summer months, and on any given trip you’ve got a great chance of spotting migrating humpback and sperm whales, orcas and, if you’re lucky, the elusive blue whale. Back on dry land, you can visit the site of the Azores’ last volcanic eruption in 1957, Capelinhos. It’s an ashen landscape that drops suddenly to the ocean: testament to the powerful forces that continue to shape this fascinating region.
The Azores enjoy steady temperatures all year round but are best seen in summer. And there’s far more than could be mentioned here: the other islands, Santa Maria, Sao Jorge, Flores, Gradosa and Corvo, each have their own charms to discover. Speak to Regent Holidays today to learn more about their packages, including the Beyond the Volcano itinerary detailed here, available from £1,450 per person.