By Merle Rosenstein

“The Azores are a nature lover’s paradise – as green as Ireland and as volcanic as Hawaii,” said Valerie Ward, business development manager with Total Vacations. “They’re big for hiking – you can walk for days.”
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I couldn’t have come up with a better description of this unspoiled archipelago if I’d tried.
A collection of nine islands marking the midway point between Europe and North America, 1,609 kilometres off the coast of Portugal, the Azores originated from 1,766 volcanoes and share world-class botanical bounty, white-washed historic homes, time-honoured religious traditions and a temperate climate.

Santa Maria: Yellow Island

Santa Maria, the oldest of the nine islands was first discovered by the Portuguese in 1427 and was visited by Christopher Columbus on his first journey to America in 1439. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the English, French, Turks, African Arabs and Moors invaded and settled the islands. The 18th and 19th centuries saw the emergence of agricultural industries.
Natural wonders include the Barreiro da Faneca, a ‘red desert’ that changes from bright orange to red depending on the time of day; and the Ribeira do Maloás, a waterfall encased in long strips of black lava.
Blessed with more hours of sun than any other island, Santa Maria boasts the best beaches in the Azores. Bask in the sun at Praia Formosa, São Lourenço, Figueiral, Baía de Lobos and Prainha and Sul, where surfing, windsurfing, water skiing, sailing, paragliding and deep sea fishing are popular.

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The island’s intriguing mix of cultures is evident in historic churches, convents and fortresses in Moorish and Portuguese styles and a full calendar of festivals including the Festa da Nossa Senhora da Assunção (Our Lady of Assumption Festival) in August, and the Maré de Agosto Music Festival dedicated to world music.

São Miquel: Scenic Lakes

The largest island in the archipelago, São Miquel houses more than half the population of the Azores. Early settlers to São Miquel came from the Algarve, Alentejo and Estramadura, followed by Moors, Jews and French citizens. In the early days the island thrived as a commercial port. Pineapple, tea and tobacco were introduced in the 1800s and are still cultivated today. In the 20th century, the fishing industry expanded along with cattle breeding and agriculture.
São Miquel weathered two volcanic eruptions leaving a landscape filled with hills, green plains and crater lakes. You can take a dip in the thermal waters at the Vale das Furnas and Parcque Terra Nostra where swimmers find the brown ferrous pool soothing.

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In the town of Ponto Delgada sample cozidos das furnas, a meat and potato stew cooked in thermally heated holes in the ground.

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Terceira: The Festive Island

Terceira, the third island to be settled by the Portuguese was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983. The 16th-century city of Angra Do Heroísmo features Portuguese palaces, churches and museums like the Sé Catedral, the Palácio dos Capitães-Generais, the Paços do Concelho (Town Hall), the Igreja de São Gonçalo and the Palácio Bettencourt.
Terceira is also known for its many festivals. The Holy Ghost Festival takes place between Easter Sunday and Trinity Sunday lighting up small chapels across the island. During the three days of the Carnival, Azoreans walk the streets in groups called danças or bailinhos telling satirical stories. For 10 days in June, the Sanjoaninas festival, dedicated to Saint John, dominates the community of Angra do Heroísmo with parades, concerts, bullfighting, fireworks and sporting events. Praia da Vitória celebrates the Praia Festival in August and the Festas da Vinha e do Vinho (Vinyard and Wine Festival) at the beginning of September.
Bullfighting is an ancient art in Terceira taking place in arenas, on the beach and in the streets between May and October. Some bullfights are planned, while others occur spontaneously.
Praia da Victória is the biggest white and black sand beach of the Azores and offers every water sport imaginable including surfing, windsurfing, water skiing, jet skiing, sailing kayaking and whale and dolphin watching. Deep sea fishing and under water spear fishing trips are offered off the coast.
Looking for adventure? Climb inside the Algar do Carvão, a volcanic chimney with stalactites suspended from the arched ceiling, or explore the Gruta do Natal, a cave formed from a lava tube.

Pico: Divine Wine

The 2,351-metre Volcano of Pico is the highest point in Portugal. Hike to the summit for excellent views of Faial, São Jorge, Graciosa and Terceira, then explore the Gruta das Torres cave on the way down.
Grapes were first planted on Pico in the 1500s, and over the centuries locals have perfected grape growing using a framework of black basalt stone walls to protect vines from the elements. The vineyards of Pico have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site; follow the eight-kilometre walk of the vines or Vinhas da Criação Velha for a close-up view.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, Pico was a prime location for whaling. Today Pico’s whales are protected and visitors can take scientific and ecological tours.

São Jorge: Just Say Cheese

On São Jorge a central mountain range leads directly down to flat plains or ‘fajas’ that reach out to the ocean and are used for farming.  
And important part of that farm bounty is São Jorge cheese, the most popular food product of the Azores. Brought by Flemish settlers, this hard/semi-hard cheese is round-shaped with a slightly peppery aftertaste.

Faial: Sailor’s Island

Famous for marlin fishing and yachting, Faial offers refuge to sailors from around the world. Tradition at Horta Marina has sailors painting pictures on the walls of the breakwater to ensure a safe journey. In August during Maritime Week, yacht regattas and whaling canoe races bring excitement to the city. The Marina is the place to embark on whale and dolphin watching tours.

For more information on the Azores, go to www.visitazores.com
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