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Adventure / June 25, 2017

The 5 best adventures in the Azores

Written by: Justin Park

Most Americans have never heard of Portugal’s Azores. And we don’t totally understand why—with white-sand beaches, active volcanoes, and plentiful surf, the island chain is basically the Hawai’i of the Atlantic. And they’re just a four-hour flight from east coast.

The islands are a bounty of adventure options. But these five are the best.

 

1. Hike Mount Pico, then drink wine

At 8,303 feet above sea level, Mount Pico is no anthill. It’s the tallest peak in the Azores by more than double, and it’s possible to view pretty much the entire island chain from its summit. Getting to the top of the mountain’s summit crater is a full-day expedition, though, and often takes hikers above the clouds.

The surrounding Pico Island (named for the peak, obviously) is renowned for  vineyards. The Criação Velha wine region is the island’s best known, and is preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The vintners there protect their crops with walls of basalt—a technique that is endemic to the island.

A guided hike of Mount Pico is included in a guided seven-day Azores hiking tour from our friends at Exodus Travels. The trip also spends time at a Pico Island vineyard.

Pico Island's eponymous peak towers over a mostly pastoral landscape. Photo by David Stanley.

The vintners of Criação Velha have used the same peculiar technique since grapes were first brought to the island in the fourteenth century. Photo by Jose Luis Avila Silveira.

2. Surf Ribera Grande

Hawaii is synonymous with surfing for a reason, but the Azores boast some serious breaks of their own. Unlike the exhaustively mapped and crowded breaks of Oahu, though, surfing in these islands can require some hunting.

Sao Miguel, the chain’s largest island, features several breaks that work more regularly on both the north and south shores. With season storms in the fall, the breaks at Ribeira Grande can regularly reach 10 feet. Small-to-mid-sized waves are the norm on the island, though, and beginner waves can be found no matter how big Ribeira Grande gets.

Serious wave hunters might want to travel with their own board, but affordable rentals are available in the surf shops near each shore. Most local rental car companies offer surf racks for an added fee.

 

3. Bike a volcano

Mountain biking is popular with locals—it’s not unusual to see roof-racked full suspension bikes on weekends, driving to one of many local trails. There’s enough interest from visitors to support several guide services in the islands as well. Sao Miguel boasts the most trails thanks to holding most of the year-round population, but Terceira also has a decent local trail network.

Andre Raposo of Azores MTB Holidays leads groups on day tours as well as week-long packages, all on Sao Miguel. He says the trails are best suited to downhill/enduro riders with some experience.

“The trails in the Azores are a bit extreme so you need some skills to ride here,” says Raposo. “We ride down volcanic craters for the most part and it gets muddy and rocky. Here we just have a few man made trails and many are just wild trails. But most of them have one thing in common: the best views in the world.”

Surfers paddle out at Sao Miguel's biggest break: Ribeira Grande. Photo by Justin Park.

A view of a caldera from Sao Miguel's Mata do Canário Trail. Photo by Justin Park.

4. Soak in the hot springs of Furnas

The Azores basically are volcanoes, and many of them are still active. Eruptions are rare (the last above-ground eruption was in 1958), but the geothermal activity fuels dozens of hot springs.

The enchanting town Furnas sits at the bottom of a lush crater and is draped with steam from its lake and several hot springs. My favorite developed option there is called Rue da Agua Quente, and offers a downright spiritual experience with tasteful lighting along stream-fed pools. Several restaurants in town offer “cozida das furnas” a stew of meat, beans and veggies cooked in large pots buried in geothermally heated earth near the lake.

For an even more natural setting, Caldeira Velha offers several stream fed hot spring pools for soaking set within a park and educational center that offers fascinating information about the natural history, flora and fauna of the islands. All for just a few Euros admission.

A stop and soak in Furnas is part of the outstanding 14-day “island hopping tour” from Explore!

The naturally-heated pools of Caldeira Velha are basically the definition of "idyllic". Photo by Justin Park.

Like Hawaii in the Pacific, the remote location (and position along the Gulf Stream) of the Azores attracts at least 20 different cetaceans including sperm, blue, pilot, beaked, and false killer whales. The region is also home to several varieties of dolphin.

While whale and dolphin watching is possible year-round in the Azores, spring and summer months are the best bet. This is especially true for migratory species like blue whales. Guided tours are the only available option.

 The eight-day whale and dolphin watching trip from Exodus Travels visits two islands and mixes boat trip with hiking excursions on the islands of Faial and Sao Miguel.

Do you have questions or comments about this piece? Email them to [email protected].

Featured photo by Enric Rubio Ros. 

 

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about the author

Justin Park

Justin is a Breckenridge, Colorado-based videographer and writer with strong roots back home in Upstate New York. His passions alternate between the shamelessly frivolous and the ruthlessly practical. There’s backcountry skiing and mountain biking for the sheer thrill of it. There’s hunting, foraging, spearfishing and cooking to put food on the table.

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