The Azores

The Azores Islands is an autonomous region of Portugal consisting of nine main islands. It is located in the Atlantic Ocean approximately 1,000 miles to the west of mainland Portugal. The islands are divided into three main groups – Western, Central and Eastern. In the Western group lies Corvo and Flores, in the Central group is Graciosa, Terceira, São Jorge, Pico and Faial, and in the Eastern group São Miguel and Santa Maria.

The Azores are volcanic islands which were first discovered by the Portuguese in the 15th century and were gradually settled by Portuguese people from the mainland. The cultures of the islands developed uniquely, and although many cultural similarities correlate with common Portuguese customs, there are also regional distinctions.

Vine cultivation is common throughout Portugal. In the Azores, where the soil is volcanic and the winds often strong grape vines are cultivated in small plots called currais, where the vines are surrounded by a low stone wall which shelters them from the wind and cold.

The main wine growing regions in the Azores are Biscoitos (Terceira Island), Graciosa, and Pico. Common grapes include Verdelho, Arinto, Terrantez, and Merlot. The regions of Pico and Biscoitos are known for their fortified wines, while table wines (mostly white) are also produced on the islands. The vineyard growing region of Pico Island, where the traditional planting techniques and wine culture is best preserved, is a designated UNESCO world heritage site.

Many islanders today are involved in tourism, fishing, and dairy farming. Until the mid-20th century, whale hunting was an integral part of life in the Azores, particularly on the islands of Faial and Pico. Whalers would take to sea in Azorean whaling boats which resembled large canoes, using primitive techniques and harpooning the whales by hand in what was an extremely dangerous undertaking.

Whale hunting is now a thing of the past, though a deep connection to the sea remains rooted in Azorean culture. Whale watching is now one of the main tourism activities of the islands. There are several museums and scientific institutions dedicated to the study of these majestic cetaceans, which are prevalent year round in the waters of the Azores.

The Azores offer a plethora of outdoor activities for the adventurous visitor. The landscape abounds with waterfalls, lakes, walking trails, canyons, and breathtaking vistas. Flores offers some excellent canyoning options (as do São Miguel and São Jorge). Visitors can rappel down a rushing waterfall into a spring water pool surrounding by lush greenery. There are also opportunities for ‘coasteering,’ rock climbing, cave exploration, surfing, cliff jumping, and scuba diving.

There are many buildings of architectural importance – churches, manors, palaces, castles, forts, and other sites of heritage, as well as important nature reserves such as the rare Laurisilva forests that thrive in some parts of the islands. The islands of Flores, Graciosa, and Corvo are designated Biosphere Reserves.

Crafts of the islands include embroidery, lace, pottery, and hand-made Azorean guitars. Flavors of the Azores include fresh seafood (tuna, octopus, barnacles, crab, lobster), root vegetables, comforting soups, artisan cheeses, local wine and an assortment of liquors made from berries, honey, herbs, and even pineapple.

People

The islands of the Azores were settled predominantly by people from mainland Portugal, beginning in the 1400s after the Portuguese discovery of the islands. Along with ethnic Portuguese, there were also Africans from Cape Verde, Guinea, and São Tomé, and settlers from France, Spain, Flanders and elsewhere during this early settlement period.

Today the folk customs of the islands include dance, music, religious festivals, and various cultural celebrations throughout the year. One of the most important festivals is the Festa of the Holy Ghost which is celebrated in the Azores and in Azorean communities around the world.

The chamarrita is a traditional folk dance originating on the islands. It is commonly danced at weddings and the annual Festa do Espirito Santo. Music is an important part of Azorean culture, the main instrument being the Azorean Guitar (Viola Acoreana), which has been in use in the Azores since the 1400’s.

Traditionally whale hunting provided a common livelihood in the Azores though now it has given way to tourism in the form of whale watching, and whale hunting is strictly illegal.

Today many people of the islands are involved in tourism, or work as fishermen or as land or dairy farmers.

Food

The food of the Azores is reminiscent of Portuguese mainland cuisine though there are also distinct regional specialties, even between the islands. Seafood (including tuna, lobster, crab, barnacles, and octopus), sausages, potatoes, taro, cabbage, kale, herbs such as wild mint, tropical and Mediterranean fruits, and artisan cheeses (many from cow’s milk) are all features of the Azorean diet.

Specialties include octopus stewed in wine, cozido das furnas (meat and vegetable stew cooked underground by the heat of the volcanic earth in São Miguel), and alcatra (slow-cooked beef stew, a specialty of Terceira).

Sopas is a traditional soup made with cabbage and some meat or sausage served over bread. It is usually served on holidays or for the Holy Ghost Festival.

The cheese of the Azores is celebrated in Portugal and across Europe. Particularly well-known is the cheese from São Jorge, though all of the islands produce cheese, often made from cow’s milk. Also notable are the cheeses of Pico, Faial, São Miguel, and Flores.

The honey of the islands is excellent as are the fortified wines, fruit based liquors, and many different types of sweets and confections. On the island of São Miguel there are tea and pineapple plantations. Other Azorean fruits include passion fruit, tangerine, berries, and figs.

The fortified wine from Pico (Verdelho de Pico), traditionally served as an aperitif, is a must try.

Sweets include the hand crafted confections of Terceira, small cheese or egg tarts, biscuits, and cookies. Every island has its own specialties, such as buttery Biscoitos de Orelha (cookies), Queijadas da Graciosa (small egg tarts from Graciosa), and Conde da Praia da Vitória (a specialty of Terceira, this small cake is made from potatoes, sugar, butter, and eggs).

Population

250,000

Currency

Euro (€)

Language

Portuguese

When to Go

May through June is a beautiful time to visit the Azores, when flowers are blooming and the weather is pleasant. Most visitors travel to the islands from April through October. Rainy season runs from approximately November through March.

A good time to spot whales and dolphins is early summer (May and June), though they can be seen year round.

Dress

Dress is casual in the Azores, and is similar to elsewhere in Europe. Some seasons call for shorts and a t-shirt, while during the winter or in early spring visitors may need a rain jacket and warmer clothing.

The climate varies across the terrain and between islands. Most visitors to the Azores participate in outdoor activities so it is recommended to bring a range of clothing that will keep you comfortable in various conditions.

Visitors may find themselves hiking in moist forests, climbing along misty coastlines, swimming in a natural pool or lake, exploring a modern town, or walking along a dry path on a hot summer day. Bring appropriate outdoor clothing and good walking shoes.

Travel

Getting to the Azores is relatively easy. There are flights from Portugal, North America, and many European hubs. Getting between the nine main islands can be done either by air or by ferry (ferries are limited). On the islands you can rent a car, take a bus, bike, walk, hike, or horseback ride along well marked trails.

São Miguel has the best bus system of the islands, though all islands have their own bus transit system (limited routes).

Ferries provide connections between some of the islands, particularly in the Central group, and between Flores and Corvo in the Western group. Ferry connections are most frequent in the spring and summer. Flights connect all of the islands and it is easy to get from island to island by plane.

Health

Health is generally good in the Azores, and it is relatively a safe place to visit. The greatest risks may be associated with outdoor activities such as hiking, surfing, rock climbing, diving, canyoning and coasteering, though any dangers can be mitigated by traveling with a good local guide and following safety instructions and procedures.

Travelers should stay on marked trails and if in doubt, ask a professional if an activity in question is safe. The climate is fairly temperate though the sun can be strong at certain times of year, so sun protection is advised.

Visas

Citizens of the UK, United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and many European countries do not require a visa for entry to the Azores (a region of Portugal) for short stays if visiting as a tourist. Travelers should check with the Portuguese embassy in their country of origin or on official government listings to determine whether a visa is required. A valid passport is required.

Top 5 Sites

1. Caldeira do Faial Nature Reserve (Faial)

2. Vineyards of Pico Island (Pico Island)

3. Algar do Carvão caverns (Terceira)

4. Carlos Machado Museum (São Miguel)

5. Angra do Heroísmo (Angra ), historic Central Zone (Terceira)

Top 5 Things to Do

1. Observe the gorgeous flowers of Flora in the spring time or embark on an epic canyoning expedition

2. Observe whales and dolphins in their natural habitat – from São Miguel, Terceira, Pico or Faial. Some of the best and most knowledgeable guides operate out of Horta, on Faial.

3. Walk the memorable Criação Velha trail in Pico

4. Enjoy cozido das furnas in the Furnas Valley on the island of São Miguel, where this typical stew is cooked for several hours under the hot volcanic earth

5. Explore the Caldeira and the gaping interior cavern Furna do Enxofre on Graciosa Island

 

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