Impressions Of The Spectacular Azores Islands

The first stop on my four month trip was São Miguel, which is the main island of the Azores, which are part of Portugal.

I hadn’t ever thought of visiting the Azores until Ben visited last year. He wrote a full trip report, including:

The photos looked great and it seemed like a really unusual destination, so I did some more research and decided to book a week there. Ben didn’t write a full separate ‘Impressions’ post, but did say the following at the time of his general impression of the Azores:

We had a great two days in the Azores. When we first landed the weather wasn’t very nice and we didn’t have great interactions with a few people, so I was prepared to be disappointed. However, after taking a nap the weather got nicer and we drove around the island, and just fell in love with the landscape.

I will say that based on my research, the Azores (or more accurately, São Miguel Island) doesn’t have that much to offer in the way of traditional tourist attractions. However, that was fine by us, because what we enjoyed most was just taking in the nature. I felt like our two days there was perfect given the pace at which we travel, but I could have easily spent another couple of days there, and would love to return.

Now this was over a year ago and I feel like the place has changed a bit already since Ben was there, so I both agree and disagree with his thoughts on the place. I don’t plan to write many destination articles, especially places one of the OMAAT team has already visited, but having just spent a week there, and after discussion with Ben he has encouraged me to share my thoughts.

Before I begin, a couple of definitions. The Azores Islands are a series of islands that are part of Portugal. São Miguel is the biggest and most visited of these islands. Ponta Deldaga is the capital of São Miguel (and the Azores I believe).

So, in no particular order…

The weather in September was perfect

Most of the photos of the Azores I had seen featured very overcast skies and people wearing windbreakers. I expected because it was such a remote location in the Atlantic that the weather would be all over the place. But we experienced perfect weather everyday, around the 26C/79F degree level, which is my favourite temperature for doing just about anything.

There were blue, clear, sunny skies each day. Over the whole week there was only an hour or two when it rained lightly before quickly clearing again.

I was told by locals that September is probably the best month to visit, but that anytime between May and October is usually great weather.

It was definitely warm enough to go to the beach each day, which brings me to my next point…

The beaches are beautiful

The beaches were black/dark sand as expected but what I wasn’t expecting was how fine and soft the sand was, how clear the water was and how pretty and deserted the beaches were.

Each person on the beach had at least 20 square metres of space each, which was very relaxing and comfortable.

It is extremely affordable

Compared with Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, and the next stop on the trip, the Azores was REALLY cheap (and Lisbon is an affordable destination by Western Europe standards). I’m talking €2 for a pint of beer, and a two course meal for two people including a bottle of wine at the very best restaurants in Ponta Delgada (which were fantastic meals) for under €50 total for the two of us.

We had a beautiful three bedroom airbnb that was only €60 per night.

I would say its definitely the cheapest place I’ve been in Western Europe.

And I’m happy to say tipping is not normally done in the Azores.

Its a combination of some of my favourite other countries

I would say if I had to compare São Miguel to anywhere else it would be in equal parts:

  • Iceland — for its dramatic volcanic scenery, black sand and very laid back locals
  • New Zealand (South Island) — for its extremely varied scenery in such a small area
  • Samoa — for its lush greenery, warm climate and strong religious influence

Ponta Delgada is the perfect base for exploring São Miguel

I was told by some locals that the scenery on the neighbouring Azores Island of Terceira is even better than Sao Miguel but Ponta Delgada has the main airport of the Azores so its most likely you’ll be flying into there. Its located on the south coast of the island, which I did slightly prefer to the north coast because the beaches were more sheltered and relaxing.

Most places on Sao Miguel are only a 30-45 minute drive away, and we managed to visit 17 separate sights in four days — everythings really close.

I wasn’t a bit fan of the port area of Ponta Delgada but the old town is lovely and it was wonderful wandering  through the cobbled streets each evening to find another fantastic place for dinner.

The Azores is the greenest place I’ve ever visited

I’ve been to some pretty lush places.

But the Azores were brilliantly green every turn we took. There was so much beautiful scenery everywhere, sometimes we simply would just follow random roads and go exploring.

You’ll definitely need a car to explore the Azores and most of the attractions are natural wonders — lakes, rain forests, stunning look outs, rain forest walks, volcanoes etc.

Tourism is rapidly increasing

The Azores was in many ways like a much more affordable Iceland with much better weather. International tourism is increasing 20% each year and I expect this rate will increase.

When I read trip reports that were written a year or two ago when plotting exactly what to see there were consistent comments about the lack of tourists on the islands saying ‘we didn’t see another car on the road/had the whole place to ourselves’ etc.

We found from Day 1, the road and attractions were PACKED with hire cars. The problem with this is when stopping at an attraction these were often on the side of a hill or mountain and while a car park had been carved out on the side every car park was full of hire cars.

There was no more room to build more car parks in these remote locations. I expect the tourism infrastructure will not keep up with the increase in tourists.

Fortunately the tour groups and buses haven’t discovered the Azores yet, god knows how anyone will park when they do!

Bottom line

You’ve probably guessed I was pretty impressed with the Azores. I’ll go as far as to say it was the best nature destination I have ever visited.

And that includes Iceland.

The unexpectedly excellent weather and beautiful beaches were really what tipped it over the edge.

But even with all the hire cars at each look out, the island was incredibly relaxing to the point where if I wanted an affordable week at a beach destination in Europe in summer I would just head there rather than the usual suspects like the Balaeric or Greek Islands.

But I expect tourism will explode in the next few years, so if you want to be able to get around easily I’d definitely recommend visiting in the next 12 or so months.

If anyone has been to the Azores I’d love to hear your thoughts as you can tell I loved it!

Comments

  1. James great post though you didn’t once talk about the locals and friendliness etc which is a key component of a holiday destination and that many people look out for. Also you spelt Ponta Delgada wrong the first time you mention it.

  2. For nature that is way more dramatic and much less touristed than São Miguel, head to Flores (the westernmost of the Azores). Every tourist I met who had been there said it was by far their favourite of the Azores, and I would concur.

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  4. James, I have been to Terceira twice. I plan to keep going back. I was there for 11 days the first time and a week the second time. On Terceira, there is a volcano that blew its top off, so you can see outside-there are only two others like it in the world-it is simply amazing. The hiking there is simply amazing, and there are all kinds of hikes to do. The beaches there are normal sand. It is absolutely beautiful and it is not crowded in the least. You don’t see many cars in the countryside, and the only time there is trouble parking is in the main town, Angra de Heroisima, which dates back to the 14th century. Food and drink is really inexpensive, and the people are super friendly. On Terceira, you can bike, hike, whale watch, snorkel, horseback ride, rock climb, cave or just enjoy the beautiful countryside. Lilac bushes and calla lilies grow wild all over the island. SATA Air has nonstop flights from Boston to Terceira-it is a 4 hour trip. Azores Getaways offers packages starting as low as $499 a person for a week to the Azores including flights, hotels, breakfast and transfers.

  5. It seems to be a sport on this website to attack James for anything and everything – even trivial spelling/grammar.

    I want to say this was a very helpful article with some great pictures to match.

    People should grow up!!

  6. My husband and I went to São Miguel for our Honeymoon in August, flying 4.5 hours direct from JFK on Delta’s seasonal non-stop. It’s a stunning island and I would agree with everything in James’ post. I would definitely recommend at least 4 days on the island to thoroughly explore the beaches, hiking, hot springs, waterfalls, and the wonderfully warm Azorean culture. We stayed at Azor Hotel in Ponta Delgada, which was the perfect base to wander around town in the evening and only about a max 45 min drive to the furthest reaches of the island.

  7. Spent a week on the island of Madeira in February, 2017 and loved it. We changed planes in Ponta Delgada and wish we had made time to explore the island. We will definitely make a trip there in the future.

  8. @ James – Love the article. The South Island of New Zealand is great and Iceland is on my list. So when you tell me that this is ranked above them (from your perspective) you have been very helpful.

  9. James thanks so much for sharing the beautiful pictures and your impressions/emotions… I was encouraged to visit by a friend who spent 10 days across a few of the islands this year… your review definitely convinces me to go … I guess it will be September 2019 🙂

  10. We have gone to São Miguel twice and have already booked again for next year. We rent a house, which makes it really feel like you live there. Everything he said is true – gorgeous scenery, lovely beaches and coves, great food, inexpensive prices and pleasant people. I do recommend renting a house or apartment. You can cook when you want to or eat out when you don’t, and lie in your own hammock on your own terrace with a glass of the local wine and watch the sea. You do indeed need to rent a car, which is the one thing that is fairly expensive. And get ready for some hairy driving – the roads can be very steep and curvy. Very. But except for the smallest of the back roads they are well-cared for, and loaded with hydrangeas everywhere. I keep trying to figure out if I could just move there.

  11. Dear James,
    P L E A S E. say no more about the Azores. “Keep it to yourself”, as they say.. and enjoy their magic. But as soon as it gets “discovered” it will be gone….
    I bought a small house on Terceira, which I adore. I am SO hoping that it is not destroyed..

    Obrigado– Stephen Brown, Cape Cod

  12. Before we went we were told the scenery is a combination of Hawaii and Scotland. And it was! We enjoyed our trip there 8 or 9 years ago, flew from Boston. Practically everyone else on the plane was speaking Portuguese. I enjoyed your pics!

  13. I was under the impression tourism had plunged. There are quite a few unfinished hotels and other buildings around the island.

  14. I am a native of the Azores. And as much we love to have people over to enjoy our beautiful islands , we are worried about protecting our ecosystems. The Azorean people have maintained and protected their environment with the most respect for the land and surrounding ocean. We will fight to reduce mass tourism. The Azores do not need tourist money. In our islands there is no poverty or homelesness. We are wealthy people.

  15. The Azores don’t have hotels (or at least on Terceira) that are Hilton, SPG, or belong to any chain I have ever heard of. However, the three hotels I have stayed at (two in Terceira-one for 1o days, one for a week) and one night at a 4 or 5 star beach resort in San Miguel were all very lovely hotels. The two in Terceira were right outside of Angra, so you could walk into town, but avoided the noise of the town. Both were right by the ocean, and both times I had an ocean view room with a balcony so I could look and listen to the ocean at night. The rooms were smaller than an American hotel, the mattresses are firmer, and you must put your key into a fixture on the wall for the lights to work, but they were very nice. At one hotel the TV channels were all Spanish, the other hotel had a few English ones. But they both had very nice bathrooms with plenty of hot water, extensive breakfast buffets, nice sheets, and very friendly staff. I stayed at the Hotel de Caracol once and the Terceira Mar the second time. The Terceira Mar had a better breakfast buffet, but I liked the view at the Caracol better. They both seemed reasonable in price, although I was there as part of a package. The beach resort in San Miguel was amazing, although I arrived about 8pm, and left in the morning (my plane broke and I was stuck overnight.) The hotel was right on the beach with an infinity pool. The jacuzzi was large enough to do laps in. The hotel had gorgeous robes, and the buffet was to die for. I am in love with Terceira, but haven’t gotten to the other islands yet. The Azores truly are an undiscovered paradise. I was there in the end of May/early June and the middle of March. The climate is very mild, at least in Terceira. In March, it was in the 60s and 70s with some rain.

  16. Loved the article as usual James. Well done. Please please add as many trip reports as you can when on your trip as it’s wayyyyyy more interesting than another US credit card article.

  17. Glad you loved it!
    I’m portuguese from Lisbon but I do love de Azores. Already visited 5 islands and want to visit the other 4. Of those 5 all are diferent from the others.
    And yes, you should visit Terceira.

  18. One problem with Azores is the pirates. It has long been a have for such sailors of fortune They will attack ports in the A-snores looking for booty. You’ll know the pirates because they have eye patches and use words like “scurvy mate” and “avast ye landlubber”.

  19. On my last taxi ride back to Faro Airport I noticed that there is a huge arch near the Airport advertising Ryanair and asked the driver what he as a Portuguese national thought of them versus the Uk view. He couldn’t have been more positive and specifically highlighted the boost they have given to the Azores. There used to be a US airbase in the Azores which has been closed but the Ryanair flights bringing lots of tourists have helped the Azores Economy

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