From undulating, verdant valleys and sheer cliffs to huge craters of black igneous rock in which glistening blue and green lakes nestle, The Azores are a haven for walkers and photographers alike. Like the film set of a bucolic, 1940s melodrama, the Azores is carpeted in flowers: hydrangeas and lilies form hedges over which banana and pineapple trees sway in the warm, coastal breeze.
Whale and dolphin watching here are among the most popular activities. The Azorean waters attract an impressive amount of cetacean activity: 26 of the world’s 80 species have been sighted off the islands’ coast, including pods of pilot, sperm, backed, fin, sei, humpback and blue whales. Setting out in the sunshine with experts from Terra Azul, a whale watching company based at Vila Franca do Campo on the island of São Miguel, it was hard to believe that cetaceans of this size may be navigating the calm waters beneath our boat. Thrilling proof came in the flash of a sperm whale’s tail, just metres from where we sat, a heart-soaring moment to remember forever. The next day, swimming with dolphins, was no less of a thrill as they wheeled and played in their natural habitat, untroubled by us bobbing around them in our snorkels.
As local tour guides explained, the emphasis of these trips is not only to see the mammals in their natural habitats, but also on teaching and conservation. Comfortingly, excursions are led by marine biologists who introduce the cetaceans in detail and explain their habitat, communication and behavioural patterns. It’s fascinating to see how the Azores has embraced its whaling history. For example, the practice only ended on Pico island in the 1980s, and the town bears witness to this legacy today: its pavements are set with a mosaic of whale images and the huge jaw of a sperm whale hangs over the local bar.
Smiling, enthusiastic Jorge, 26, who helps leads whale-watching and dolphin swimming excursions from São Miguel, told me that islanders were now keen to embrace their past and look forward. ‘People here realise how important tourism is to the island,’ he explained. ‘Whales have been a huge part of life in the Azores for centuries, and now we realise how excited and interested tourists are to find out about them. We are proud of the natural world around us here on these islands and I love showing this to people who visit from other countries. It’s great also to help people face their fears of swimming, with the prize of being in the same waters as dolphins. I just love my job.’
Conservation programmes are also part of the story now. The Azores bullfinch, or ‘Priolo’, is the second most endangered species in Europe, and is only found in a few square kilometres of woodland on São Miguel. Over decades, the birds were shot almost to extinction by fruit farmers who considered them agricultural pests, but in recent years a conservation group has been established to protect the Priolo and its environment. Crucially, conservation like this is not happening alongside tourism, but at the heart of it. Travel company Sunvil Discovery arrange day-long birdwatching tours for guests, of which the priolo is a star attraction. As well as offering a unique experience for tourists – immersed in the natural world – it also inevitably also helps protect these birds, stitching their future into the fortunes of the very archipelago and its people.
Filipe Figueiredo, a technical assistant in his 30s who works on the Priolo programme, is passionate about the way this knitting together of tourism and conservation offers opportunities for engagement. ‘Funding bodies are starting to understand that many tourists are interested in finding out about the Priolo project here, and others schemes like it. Not only does it bring money in to the island, but it means the natives are changing their ideas about the value of our wildlife too. The older generation in particular has changed its thoughts on this,’ he remarks. ‘It gives me the chance to have conversations with people about how important these tiny birds are to our natural heritage.’
Given that immersion in the natural world is such a huge theme here, one of the best ways to explore the untouched Azores is on foot. All the islands boast brilliant walking trails, which take in rural landscapes, colourful, welcoming villages and panoramic views. If you’re in the mood for something more challenging, the Pico mountain hike offers it. Mount Pico – on the island of Pico – is actually a dormant volcano and offers breathtaking views from the top. At every step, there are plenty of rare birds and flowers to be spotted, stunning panoramic views of the coastline to gaze at, and even a beautiful natural waterfall in which to cool off.
This is in no way a sparse, back-to-the-land experience though, as the islands offer a range of accommodation choices. The likes of the Hotel Royal Garden in Ponta Delgada, is within walking distance from the sea front, relaxed and elegant with a beautiful Oriental-themed garden at its heart. A truly memorable choice is the stunning, four-star Hotel Terra Nostra Gardens at the other end of from São Miguel in Furnas. It features an art deco wing built in the 1930s and a garden wing which was added in the 1990s, but the hotel’s overriding attraction is its breathtaking views over the Terra Nostra Botanical Park. I treated myself a sublime, early morning run through the park and never before have I seen such a range of exotic plants and birds before breakfast. There is also a hot lake, fed by a geothermal spring, where bathers relax underneath the palms and ferns of the surrounding forest, steam floating up toward the blue sky.
The beauty of the Azores lies somewhere between the romance of island life, the richness of its natural world which is now being embraced more fully and the escapism offered by a relaxing vibe, luminous blue waters and warm skies. Being here is an often surreal experience, somewhere in the realm of fantasy: one to be repeated soon I hope.
This archipelago boosts a wide diversity of opportunities for environmentally friendly leisure and recreation and received the highest sustainability score by GSTR: 8.9/10. It recently implemented an innovative governance system of Protected Areas aiming to improve the management of nature and conservation and ensures the ecological structure and connectivity of the archipelago.
One of the leading operators to the Azores Sunvil Discovery (020 8758 4722) offers a two-centre stay on Sao Miguel from £873 pp (two sharing). The price includes return flights (Gatwick) with SATA International, four nights’ B&B at the Royal Garden Hotel in Ponta Delgada, three nights’ B&B at the Terra Nostra Garden in Furnas, transfer on arrival and car hire for three days. Whale watching is from £48 pp and swimming with dolphins from £65 pp.