t09auh2vTurismo de Portugal“The Azores are an unforgettable experience, which combines pure nature and a unique culture,” says Miguel Cymbron, director of tourism for the Azores. “Many visitors (including travel agents ) from around the world are astounded at the complete vacation package that is the Azores.”

On the outskirts of Europe, the nine islands of the Azores rise out of the Atlantic to offer natural beauty, plenty of outdoor adventure, fine cuisine and 500 years of art, history and culture. Just five hours flying time for Central Canada, the Azores were voted the Second Best Islands for Sustainable Tourism by National Geographic Traveler.

To the east lie the islands of Santa Maria and Sao Miguel. Sao Miguel, the largest island, boasts hot thermal springs, volcanic lakes, steaming geysers and lush valleys, and the hustle and bustle of Ponta Delgada, the capital city. Santa Maria has magnificent cliffs covered in vineyards and the Chapel of Angels where Columbus prayed upon his return from the New World.

The centre of the Azores harbours a cluster of five islands. The history of Terceira is reflected by Angro do Heroismo, the first European city founded in the Atlantic and a UNESCO heritage site, while the blooming (quite literally) island of Faial is a favourite port of sailors from around the world. The dramatic outline of Pico is dominated by a majestic volcanic peak that rises 2,350 metres and its whaling tradition – continued today with whale-watching tours. The vibrant green pastures, plots of land jutting out into the sea at the base of towering cliffs are the natural setting for Sao Jorge and the base for a local cheese-making industry. The small island of Graciosa has a mysterious lake at the bottom of a volcanic cavern, and surrounding fields covered with vines where windmills wave their outstretched arms.

Flores is a blooming garden surrounded by sea; the perennial charm of lakes carved out by angry volcanoes. Corvo, a curious miniature island, is crowned by a beautiful large crater.

So Much To See, So Much To Do

t09auh2vTurismo de Portugal

Local museums catalogue everything about Island life since their discovery by the Portuguese in 1427. Churches throughout the islands preserve their earliest history, but whaling and craft museums chronicle the commercial side of the past.

On the island of Terceira, the town of Angra do Heroísmo, is on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Highlights include the Renaissance town square, lovely traditionally designed houses, the Sé (Cathedral), Nossa Senhora da Guia Church and the Museu de Angra next to it, as well as the Capitães Generais Palace.

In Ponta Delgada on Sao Miguel, clients can visit the famous baroque gates, the Carlos Machado Museum, beautiful palaces and the Esperança Convent and Chapel. There are also museums in Ribeira Grande and Vila Franca do Campo.

Sights in Horta, on Faial include two museums and the gilded woodcarvings in the churches at São Francisco Convent, S. Salvador and Nossa Senhora do Carmo.

Speaking of churches, the Igreja Matriz (parish church) and the chapel of Nossa Senhora da Ajuda in Graciosa; the churches of S. Roque and of S. Pedro de Alcântara in São Roque, and the S. Sebastião Church in Calheta de Nesquim on Pico; and Nossa Senhora dos Milagres in Vila Nova do Corvo on Flores are all must-sees.

Whaling traditions are honoured in museums throughout the islands. On Graciosa, clients can see whaling vessles and a traditional mill and Pico boasts not one, but two museums devoted to the venture.

But it is the year-long calendar of festivals that preserves the cultural past. The tradition of popular festivals sprang from religious devotion, such as the Festival of Senhor Santo Cristo dos Milagres, (Holy Christ of Miracles), celebrated in May in São Miguel, and whose first procession took place in 1700; the Holy Spirit Festival, a popular event of medieval origin, closely tied to natural disasters, which is celebrated in the various islands between May and September; and the Festas Sanjoaninas, or Festival of St. John, held in Terceira. Other events of a secular nature, such as Sea Week in Faial, the Whaling Festival in Pico, the August Festival of Music Maré de Agosto in Santa Maria, or Carnival in Graciosa Island, are highpoints on the calendar.

Azores Adventure

t09aud41Turismo de Portugal/Norberto DiverAdventure is another reason to sell the Azores to your clients. On the water they can watch dolphins and whales that feed in local waters between June and September; board a yacht cruise or skipper one of their own; dive; wind surf; or catch a wave off Santa Maria or Sao Miguel, both acclaimed surf destinations by enthusiasts from around the world.

Underwater, the caves, shipwrecks colourful sea life off Sao Miguel, Terceira, Sao Jorge, Pico and Graciosa are spectacular.

Swimmers find plenty of ocean beaches, but there are also natural swimming pools inland, formed by volcanic activity.

Land adventures include horseback riding; tennis and studying local volcanoes. Up in the air there is parasailing and hang-gliding.

Cavers can hire a guide for a visit to the Grutas dos Balcões, Agulhas and Natal cave systems on Terceira, or the caverns of Algar do Montoso or Furna do Pico when on Sao Jorge.

Perhaps the best way to get out and enjoy the islands’ natural beauty is by biking and hiking. All the islands offer walks along the spectacular coastline, through the hills and past picturesque villages. The local tourist offices offer maps and itineraries that indicate trails of varying degrees of difficulty.

t09auh3qTurismo de Portugal

Great Golf

Canadians have long favoured Portugal as a winter golf destination. Now you can add the Azores to the list of options.

Furnas, on Sao Miguel, is a par 72 course designed by Bob Cameron that runs between majestic Japanese cedar trees. The broad fairways of Batalha, also on Sao Miguel, offer a smoother ride over its three 9-hole loops ending at the clubhouse overlooking the ocean. On Terceira, the 18-hole Golf Club of Terceira boasts six artificial lakes and ravines, masses of flowers and a beautiful country setting.

Foodies' Favourite

The abundant supply of fresh fish and shellfish is the basis of the Azores cooking traditions. Specialties include the ‘craca’ barnacle, or ‘cavaco’, a particularly tender and delicious type of lobster. On land, ‘cozido das Furnas’ is a meat stew cooked beneath the earth in the thermal heat that seeps upwards on Ilha de Sao Miguel. And then there is the local wine. While Verdelho is the best known of the local wines, the reds and whites of Pico, Graciosa, Santa Maria or Terceira all deserve a mention.

More Azores

Sata Internacional offers year-round flights from Toronto with five flights a week in peak season and two flights a week in the winter, and weekly seasonal summer service from Montreal.

For more information on the Azores, visit www.visitazores.travel and www.visitportugal.com.