I first heard of the Azores around 2010. Yup, that’s true, I’d never heard of them before. I read about them in an edition of the Lonely Planet magazine and the spread was filled with photographs of glistening azure volcanic lakes and forested mountains. I had to look them up on a map, I had no idea where they were.
When I finally reached the Azores six years later, it was off the back of a 27 day Atlantic crossing. As we rode out a near gale and made landfall in Flores, the most remote of the Azores, I was ecstatic. I hadn’t been in Europe for two years and I needed it. Europe to me is home, regardless of the country.
Flores marina sits at the base of a hill that houses Lajes town and the hillside was covered in seabirds and lush greenery. It a long way from the near-barren nature of the Bahamas where I’d sailed from.
Flores is tiny with a small population and the marina is as provincial as it gets. It was wonderful. The showers were designed for the local fisherman, just tiny concrete cabins with a harsh spray of cold mountain water. It was so fresh it was as though it was brand new. Filtered by clouds, filtered by volcanoes.
Flores is as floral as its name would suggest. In June its hedgerows were shrouded in pink, blue and purple hydrangeas that lined each empty road. The volcano calderas sat peacefully, surrounded by footpaths and cows and the lakes that had formed inside shone in the summer sun.
Flores collected clouds like stamps. Mist hung above the island almost perpetually and entering it was as sudden as a single step. It could be raging sunshine in one part of the miniature island and completely obscured in another.
Everything was lush and green and the walking is fantastic. There is car hire available on the island which is how I got to explore the entire craggy landscape. If you turn up to one of the lighthouses at certain times, you can even get a free tour including walking around the huge bulb at the top.
Reaching Flores without the aid of a yacht is done primarily through the Atlanticoline ferry. From Horta on Faial the journey takes 9 hours. You can also fly from the other islands like Sao Miguel, Faial and Terceria.
A larger island than Flores and 130 miles east, Sao Miguel was one of my favourite islands. It has a strong dairy industry which might conjure visions of huge factories and industrial suburbs but it couldn’t be further from the truth. You could drive past one of its five dairy factories without even really noticing.
The Azorean dairies are run by a co-operative and each farmer, whether they have two cows or twenty, bring their milk every day via tiny little milk drums on trailers and get their share of the profits. The Azores produce unique cheeses that are like an airier version of Port Salut. I turned up to a factory one day and knocked on the door, having heard you could take a tour. Indeed you could, for the grand sum of €1.50.
We stayed in Velas marina with its huge Continente supermarket (can’t take a sailor anywhere without expecting them to spend an inordinate amount of time in a supermarket) and endless little fiestas. The town has a fish market, tiny tourist shops and natural rock swimming pools. Velas also has incredible views of Pico’s volcano directly opposite.
There’s no space wasted in the Azores, although almost the entirety of each island is fields and wilderness. Topo Ihlet, a tiny island of Sao Jorge’s eastern tip even has cows grazing on it every summer, making the most of the islet’s flat field compared to the steep mountains of Sao Jorge proper.
On the northern coast of the island are the majority of the fajãs. These are historic lava flows that ran down the volcano’s peaks and out into the sea. You’d think it was a barren place but the Azoreans know how to use every type of landscape. Isolation will do that to you. Almost entirely inaccessible thanks to the steepness and rugged nature of the north coast, tiny communities have settle on the fajãs and built little farms, low stone houses and even vineyards, sheltered behind black stone walls.
Reaching them can rarely be done by car. Instead its a long switchback footpath filled with some of the most beautiful wildflowers on the island. There are a few ancient zipwires for delivering huge goods to the bottom. It’s an incredible way of life.
Terceira was an island that pulled me in and didn’t let me go. Almost perfectly circular, this little island, like the rest of the Azores, had its own beautiful personality and atmosphere. The Azoreans are a friendly bunch, still isolated from huge tourism and always happy to see a stranger. An American military base has had a large presence on the island for decades, and the Terceirans have a better grasp of English than many other islands.
With festivals throughout the summer – and I mean throughout – Terceira always has something going on. In Praia da Vitoria where I spent about 4 months in total, they spend a third of their annual budget on one festival alone. Pop up festivals seem a weekly occurrence, from street soup festivals to full blown rock festivals where you can watch bands well into the night for free.
Terceira also has its fair share of Tourada a Corda which you can read about in my Sailor’s Guide to Terceira. When an island runs over 200 events where bulls essentially run freely into crowds, and shows tapes of it in the supermarkets while you’re checking out, you know you’re in a pretty unique place.
Away from the tiny towns and beach front coffee stalls, Terceira has phenomenal natural quirks. You can go into volcanoes, walk centuries old lava tubes and hike in the misty green hills endlessly.
Exploring the Azores
With Ryanair now flying to the Azores, it’s inevitable that tourism will increase. But due to the isolation and quiet solitude of the island chain, I think it will draw mostly those who simply love to explore nature. There are nine inhabited islands, each with their own temperament and individual qualities. But the one thing that holds them all in unison is their self-sufficiency. There is nowhere else I’ve found such varied community industry and such a welcoming atmosphere. I felt truly at home there. I hope you visit and I hope you do to.