18 May The Azores
Volcanic, remote and an abundance of green: The Azores are the Hawaii of the Atlantic. The difference: Less beaches, more whales.
On the Azores, a small group of islands in the Atlantic Ocean, you can see more than 30% of all types of whales and dolphins worldwide. This is the main reason to come here for many tourists.
The Azores belong to Portugal and are about 1.500 kilometers away from the mainland, almost halfway to Canada. This location, in the middle of the Atlantic, made it an important starting point for whalers in former times. Today, you can spot about 30% of all types of whales from all over the world from here, including blue whales, finbacks and sperm whales.
Whale watching is one of the main attractions for tourists to visit the Azores, some explicitly coming just for the whales. Most tours start at the islands of San Miguel, Faial and Pico, and are usually done by high speed-zodiacs for up to 12 persons. There are also multi day trips of up to 15 days.
»You are most likely to see sperm whales. The chances for blue whales and finbacks are pretty good as well on the Azores.«
Spotting can also be done from the island itself. Even the tour operators use that possibility by placing lookouts with binoculars on the most suited vantage points, who then scan the ocean for whales and forward any sightings to the boats via radio.
Some whales stay in these waters permanently, some just travel past the Azores when migrating. The most common whales to be seen are sperm whales. The males are here all year long, the females can be seen mostly from May to October with their calves.
The second most common type of whales are pilot whales, which stay here for the whole year, too. Chances to see blue whales or finbacks are pretty good, too – best in April/May on their way north and September/October on their way back south.
Also, some kinds of dolphins stay here all year round.
What Hawaii is for the Pacific, the Azores are for the Atlantic: An extremely remote group of islands of volcanic origin. There might be neither tropical beaches nor flowing streams of lava here, but instead you get endless hiking trails, where you won’t meet a soul.
The Azores are in the middle of the Atlantic. It’s more than 1.400 kilometers to the European mainland and about 2.400 kilometers to North America. Even though they are located on the Northern American tectonic plate, geographically, the nice major and four minor islands belong to Portugal.
The most important islands for touristic activities are Faial, Pico, Terceira and Sao Miguel with the capital Ponta Delgada (approx. 45.000 citizens). In the other towns of Horta, Madalena or Vila Franco do Campo, population is usually just a few thousand people.
Due to location, the subtropical climate is rather balanced all year long. The winters are very mild, the summers not extremely hot. This makes them a comfortable place to visit all year round. The best time for whale watching is the summer from April to October, though.
More than 30% of all the world’s types of whales and dolphins pass the Azores on their annual travels between arctic and tropical waters. Located right in the course of the Gulf Stream, the Azores are also one of the areas richest with fish worldwide. Many seabirds also use the islands for a rest on the way to their winter quarters and on their way back.
»The highest volcano is the Ponta do Pico – with 2.351 meters it’s also the highest mountain of Portugal. Hiking up to the peak demands some skill, though.«
Other than Hawaii, the Azores can’t offer world famous dreamlike beaches. But if you go to the Azores, you aren’t looking for a place to swim or surf but for remoteness, nature and tranquility. You can go hiking, climbing or mountain biking. With its many fish, grottos and shipwrecks, the Azores are also a very popular destination for divers, both beginners and skilled ones.
Just like Hawaii, the Azores are home to many endemic species – animals and plants that only exist here. Having come here from the mainland a long time ago, they evolved in a completely different way than their relatives on the mainland. Therefore, huge parts of the islands are natural reserves. The flora is similar to Hawaii: lush green areas take turns with scant volcanic landscapes.
Other than on Hawaii, there are no more active volcanoes and no flowing streams of lava on the Azores. The volcanic origins are well visible, though and can also be smelt in places like the Lagao das Furnas with its hot sulfuric vapors. 2.000 years ago, erupting lava created a funnel in the 100 meters deep volcanic vent of the Algar do Carvao and today you can climb down there past stalagmites and stalactites. The Lagoa de Fogo (Lake of Fire) on San Miguel is surrounded by lava hills and a very popular hiking trail. The highest volcano is the Ponta do Pico – with 2.351 meters it’s also the highest mountain of Portugal. Hiking up to the peak demands some skill, though.
One of the most popular (and also one of the easier) hiking route follows the rim of the Crater of Sete Cidades, offering a beautiful view of the Lagoa Verde and Lagoa Azul – one usually shining green as it reflects the landscape, the other one shining blue as it reflects the sky. This only works on clear days, though. A good collection of the trails on the islands can be found here.