23rd November 2017
Travel as far west as you can in Europe, and you arrive at the Azores. The next landfall is America, but once you see this enchanting little archipelago, you won’t want to go any further.
Winner of dozens of sustainability awards, a Global Top 100 Destination, whale-watching legend, and one of the most naturally adventurous places on earth, the nine-island-strong Azores captivate without even trying. Just ask the Portuguese; they first set eyes on this paradise in the 15th century, and haven’t left since.
It’s a lot easier to reach these days: direct flights from the UK to São Miguel take less than four hours, year round. Although, all unspoiled loveliness coupled with the far westerly reaches of the magnificent North Atlantic, tend to make kids feel like intrepid explorers anyway – even when they’re staying in luxury eco-resorts.
Time for a voyage of discovery? Here’s why the experts at Visit Azores think you should definitely have your next great family adventure on their amazing archipelago.
The Azores have soaring volcanic peaks, immense lava tubes, lakes and forests, pretty beaches, seaside towns and elegant colonial cities.
Kids can swim in thermal pools, and dive, snorkel, sail and surf the North Atlantic. And still, even with every single one of those adventure boxes ticked, nothing compares to whale and dolphin spotting when you’re this far west in Europe.
Named one of the most beautiful destinations in the world for cetacean watching, it’s even possible to see flukes of resident Sperm and Pilot whales from the shore in some parts of the Azores, along with cheerful pods of Common, Bottlenose and Risso dolphin.
All of which is very exciting, but doesn’t beat sailing out on the deep, blue yonder to within metres of breaching whales or actually swimming alongside wild dolphins.
Catch any cruise in the Azores and you’ll be guided by experts who know the best time of year to spot Blue, Fin, Minke and Humpback migrating along the coast; when kids have the highest chance of encounters with Loggerhead Turtles; and if the conditions are prime for getting right into the water with dolphins.
And if you’re in any doubt at all about how truly cetacean-rich Azorean waters are, there’s a powerful hint in the fact that most cruises will take you out again for free, if you don’t see whales or dolphins first time round.
Locals occasionally get lost for words when it comes to describing the Azores. Visitors usually opt for a direct comparison to Hawaii. The archipelago’s share the same volcanic drama and lush green-blue colour palette, but you could just as easily say the Azores’ astonishing caldera lakes remind you of Iceland, or São Miguel’s tea plantations are like eastern Sri Lanka.
Even each individual island is distinctively it’s very own self. There’s a common theme of loveliness and astonishing natural phenomena, but personality-wise, they’re all very different; probably why it’s almost impossible to resist at least a little bit of hopping about while you’re here.
São Miguel is the largest of the Azores and you can’t miss the Portuguese influence in the capital, Ponta Delgada. It’s everywhere from the graceful colonial architecture and elegant city squares to its warm, friendly atmosphere and an undeniable passion for good food, pretty restaurants, and eating outside on warm summer evenings. This is also the island for the legendary Sete Cidades caldera lakes; one of Portugal’s seven natural wonders. It’s where to go exploring in densely forested Terra Nostra Park and test the soothing powers of its natural thermal swimming pool. Or you can trek the incredible walking trails all over, take each spectacular new sight as it comes, and catch a breath on the peaceful beaches, every now and then.
Pico Island is where to hop if kids want to attempt the Azores’ tallest volcanic peak, Montnha do Pico. Gruta das Torres is here too. At five kilometres long, it’s the lengthiest volcanic tube in the world, guided tours are phenomenal experiences for kids, and the award-winning visitor centre is worth a visit. Young whale watchers will appreciate Faial Island. It’s famous for spring sightings of migrating Blue, Sperm and Humpbacks, and the Fabrica de Baleia Porto Pim Whaling Museum, gives kids an insight into these fascinating creatures.
You can’t avoid history on Terceira Island either, and you wouldn’t want to. The capital, Angra do Heroismo is considered to be a Renaissance masterpiece, and its entire historic centre holds UNESCO World Heritage status. Come by ferry, or fly from São Miguel, and plan to stay a while. Terceira treats kids to fabulous rock-pool swimming; hiking in Serra de Santa Barbara; and the might of Algar do Carvão, a 90m deep volcanic chimney.
Most families these days, pause on hearing somewhere in the world is an unspoiled paradise, waiting to be discovered. The idea’s tempting, but there’s ever more awareness of responsible travel and the need to protect fragile environments from high-impact tourism.
The Azores are way ahead of you there. They live and breathe conservation, and have rafts of international awards to prove how good they are at taking care of each and every one of their nine stunning islands, as well as the ocean, marine life, wildlife, intangible culture, and built heritage too.
The Sustainable Global Top 100 Destinations league was established in in 2014, in 2017 the Azores ranked third top, for the third year running.
They also hold a prestigious Quality Coast Platinum award for, yet again, meeting an astonishing 96% of Quality Coast’s rigorous criteria.
And, on the pretty side of responsible, European Best Destinations recently named the Azores as one of Europe’s most beautiful destinations for whale watching, and placed them in the top eight ‘most beautiful landscapes in Europe’.
So you don’t have to fret about your negative impact here.
Just have an unforgettable family holiday, while the Azores takes care of the Azores, and makes sure you leave no trace and take nothing away from paradise, except wonderful memories.