Where: The Azores, 800 miles west of the mainland of Portugal
When: May – Sept for the whale migration and the best of the limited sunshine
Happenings: Dolphin and whale watching, diving around underwater lava formations, visiting the meeting place for sailors and yachts crossing the Atlantic
Remember to bring: A video camera to monitor flipper and friends, plus some tales of the great ocean for the transatlantic boating crowd
Where It’s At
You quite simply can’t go any further west and still be in Europe. The Azores are an archipelago of nine Portuguese islands with a mid Atlantic accent that are around two hours flying time from the mainland. It’s a location that is bubbling under with steam vents in the ocean, the legacy of a volcano that last erupted in 1957 on the island of Faial, and whale and dolphin watching off Pico. Dry land pursuits include trekking in the lunar-like landscapes of volcanic hills and hanging out in a yachtie bar.
When to Go
It rarely gets above 77F (25C) in the summer, but the Azores remain slightly humid due to the Gulf Stream, with the islands tending to be more overcast than the mainland. Avoid the rainy season from November to March. Crucially, for divers the Gulf Stream has warmed the normally cold North Atlantic to between 61F (16C) in the winter to 73F (23C) in the summer.
Things to See and Do
Horta, the capital of Faial, has for centuries been the stopping off point for yachts crossing the Atlantic. For shipmates, the marina is still definitely the place to be seen. The boat logos and the crews’ messages should be seen as they are hand painted badges of personal pride on the marina walls.
Take your sea legs to the yachting institution of the Cafe Sport Bar, which has sailors’ pennants adorning the ceiling and wood-panelled walls. Listen out for international seafaring yarns from craggy featured types, while you pick up your post from the bar owner, who doubles up as the postmaster. He performs a vital role in the community in that he holds mail for sailors, rather like his father and grandfather did before him, further enhancing the establishment’s legendary status.
A half an hour boat ride from Faial is Pico, which has turned from a whale hunting location of yore to a Mecca of whale watching today. Before you head out for a closer inspection in a boat, the whale watching museum will give the sharp-eyed a view of a blob on the horizon. On the boat trip, turbo-charged dolphins often provide the entourage for their fellow mammals. The main attraction is the sperm whale, with a swish of its gigantic tail as it dives and the hollow snort from the blow hole when it resurfaces. Try to coincide your trip with the whale migration from May to September.
Deep underwater, the coast of both Faisal and Pico are littered with pristine diving locations. Observe schools of big fish like yellow fin tuna and sometimes sting rays at some sites. Some thirty metres down, lava has crafted volcanic caves and grottos, while underwater chimneys belch out mineral-rich black smoke. At night the scene changes as the diver’s path is often lit up with luminous, glowing plankton.
All you need to know about the Azores
From whalewatching and diving to accommodation and festivals
By Nadeem Saeed