Roughly halfway between Europe and America, the nine small islands that make up the Azores have emerged from the waters of the Atlantic as a result of volcanic eruptions over the centuries. The last activity, which took place in Faial in the Fifties, lasted for over a year and dramatically changed the landscape of the island. When it cooled, the lava spat out by the Capelinhos volcano had left the island a couple of kilometres longer, the old lighthouse was half buried, and hundreds of farmers had no choice but to emigrate after their crops were totally ruined.
Today, however, amid a landscape of desolate beauty that contrasts with the green of the surrounding hills, the Faial Visitor Centre is a treat for all the family. Its facilities range from 3-D movies to displays and installations that explain and recreate the volcanic forces that have shaped the archipelago, and it's all done in such a way that even the kids will enjoy spending their holiday time learning about the environment.
But this isn't the only lesson in volcanology on offer in the Azores. In Sao Miguel you can take a dip in thermal springs that flow from the bowels of the planet, and even sample a delicious meal cooked in the amazing underground ovens that make use of the natural furnas or furnaces. And on all the islands you can swim in natural pools in the solidified lava, or take walks or bike rides on trails that lead beside the volcano cones, craters and lakes.
The Azores, still unspoiled and off the main tourist track, is a perfect place for lovers of nature. Unless you've got a month or more to spend there, though, you can't do justice to all the islands, so you'll have to make a choice. Wherever else you decide to include in the itinerary, Sao Miguel is almost certain to be the starting point for your visit. At 65 kilometres long and just 16 kilometres wide, the island offers such variety that many visitors decide to stop here for their entire stay, dividing their time between the historic centre of Ponta Delgada, the woods, the rugged coast and the spectacular volcanic landscapes of Sete Cidades, Fogo and the valleys of Furnas.
Although a visit to São Miguel is enough to get an idea of the archipelago, it would be a pity not to visit another couple of the other islands. You shouldn't miss Terceira, with its meadows blossoming with hydrangeas, the plantations, and tiny villages where you'll find the strange architecture of the rural chapels known as imperios. This, too, is the island of the touradas – when bulls are let run in the streets. But above all, Terceira is the home to the prettiest little city in the Azores: Angra do Heroismo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A good place to stop next would be Faial, the archipelago's maritime centre. Each spring, the port of Horta welcomes and offers harbour to hundreds of sailing ships that have made the long journey across the Atlantic. From the port you can also take excursions by dinghy to watch the many whales and dolphins that spend much of the year in the waters of the Azores.
Just half an hour away by ferry is Pico, it's silhouette unmistakable because of the great volcanic cone that crowns it. As well as pleasant rural trails, the island offers other attractions such as its famous wineries and vineyards set in lava fields, and the Whaling Museum and former factory where blubber, whale meat and bones were processed – the hunting of sperm whale being a major activity in the Azores until a couple of decades ago.
If you still have time to spare, there's Sao Jorge, Santa Maria, Graciosa, Flores and Corvo, even more peaceful and remote, where you could hire a cottage overlooking the ocean and completely forget the world outside.
Tips & suggestions
Where to eat:
Don't miss the chance of a meal or a drink at Peter’s Cafe in the port of Horta, Faial, a veritable institution among the sailors and the sailing fraternity.
Where to stay:
In the old district of Ponta Delgada (São Miguel), the Hotel do Colegio, or, in a lovely natural setting, the bungalows of Quinta de Santana, offer a perfect base for many excursions. In Terceira, the delightful Quinta das Merces or the Pousada de Angra do Heroismo – pure style in a sixteenth century fortress – or the Pousada de Santa Cruz, in Horta (Faial). And all around the archipelago there are rural tourism options, with a host of private houses on offer that can be found through the Associacion of Tourism.
Whale watching and diving:
Norberto Diver, is the pioneer of both activities in the Azores and a local celebrity in Faial.