Spring is a fantastic time to visit the remote, stunning, and often overlooked Portuguese islands known as the Azores. Situated 850 miles off the southwest coast of Portugal in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean (and just over 1100 miles off the coast of North America), these islands have long been a stop off for voyaging traders – infusing the area with a unique blend of cultural influences.
First breaking the oceans surface in the Miocene epoch (~8 million years ago), the Azores were formed by an epicenter of seismic activity due to rifting along an area known as the Azores Triple Junction – the intersection of the North American Plate, the Eurasian Plate, and the African Plate. In 1427, the islands were uninhabited when they were believed to have been ‘officially discovered’ by the navigator Diogo de Silves. While much of the earlier history of the islands is still disputed, speculation of earlier discovery is fueled by things such as the appearance of seven islands far off the Portuguese coast on the Medici maps of 1351. Santa Maria and São Miguel were the first islands to be inhabited by Portuguese settlers, who brought with them crops and domestic animals commonly farmed on mainland Portugal. Due to their location, the islands became a common stop for long distance Atlantic trading and exploration voyages, most notably during the famous ‘Age Of Discovery’ voyages of the 1400’s. Famous explorers whose expeditions have included stopovers in the Azores, such as Christopher Columbus and Scott Of The Antarctic, have sharped the journey the islands have taken through history. This has lead to the introduction of goods and cultural influences many parts of the world (such as spices from north Africa) and left the islands littered with relics and architecture closely linked to the history of Atlantic & worldwide exploration.
The archipelago consists of 9 volcanic islands – Corvo, Faial, Flores, Graciosa, Pico, São Jorge, São Miguel, Santa Maria, & Terceira. With a subtropical climate, these islands are home to roughly 250,000 people of mainly Portuguese decent. Portuguese is the official language, though each island has it’s own distinct accent, some of which can differ greatly from that of mainland Portugal.
There are numerous adventures to be had by those traveling to the islands, including (but certainly not limited to!) whale watching & birding, fishing, diving, hiking, canyoneering & exploring caves, and surfing. There are also numerous ways to explore the culture of the archipelago, be it enjoying one of the festivals, parades, and pageants that frequently hold narrow cobblestone streets hostage, or witnessing a type of bullfight unique to the islands.
Deep Ocean Hatchet Fish
Historically whaling played a vital role in Azorean life, and has been replaced today by a thriving whale watching economy. Over 20 species of marine mammals can be seen in Azorean waters, including abundant sightings of resident species such as Common Dolphins, Bottlenose Dolphins, and Risso’s Dolphins, as well seasonal sightings of Blue Whales, Fin Whales, Humpbacks and other migratory baleen whale species. Sperm Whales are somewhat iconic for the islands, due to regular sightings of mother-calf groups in the deep waters surrounding the volcanic islands. For those with extreme patience, good timing, and a whole lot of luck, the elusive Sowerby’s Beaked Whale and Northern Bottlenose Whale can also be found in the deep blue waters.
Common Dolphin *Photo taken during a research effort with Kelp Marine Research
Sowerby’s Beaked Whales *Photo taken during a research effort with Kelp Marine Research
Risso’s Dolphins. *Photo taken during a research effort with Kelp Marine Research
Due to the geology of the islands, numerous impressive cave systems and subterranean caverns exist, leading the way for possible ‘geotourisum’. Geothermal hot springs, crater lakes, and eroding calderas paint a rich picture of the areas geologic history for the traveler interested in hiking, caving, and other outdoor exploration.
First developed in the 16th Century, tourada à corda is a type of ‘running with the bulls’ unique to the Azores. Found most frequently on the island of Terceira during the months of May through September, this type of bull running involves releasing a bull from a crate with a long line tied around its neck. The bull is then taunted by mostly young local men (some of whom are quite acrobatic), igniting the animal to chase them as far is the line will allow. People gather in mass along the streets and float along the harbor entrance on rafts that seem to be intended for destruction via horn (the bulls can and frequently do reach these floats and demolish them in a fit of rage). It is illegal kill a bull in a Portuguese bullfight/run, so after 20-30 minutes the bull is slowly pulled back into it’s crate and the next bull is released. This is repeated with 3-5 bulls before the crowed is inebriated, entertained, and/or injured enough to call the event finished.
Azorean cuisine reflects the many influences of its geographic location. A heavy love of diary products has resulted in each of the islands boasting unique cheeses, which are complimented perfectly with the crisp flavor of the local ‘green wines’. Massa Sovada (Portuguese sweet bread) has its origins in the Azores and can be topped with rich local butters. Sausage is a popular treat and grilled blood sausage takes on an interesting cinnamon infused flavor in the islands. The Azores are perhaps most famous for their fresh and varied seafood dishes, which include limpets, lamprey, and polvo (octopus) – all of which are not used as heavily in mainland Portuguese cuisine where bacalhau (cod) is often more of the staple dish.
With non-stop flights from Boston, the islands are more accessible than ever. Although the cost of getting there is still steep, the natural beauty, culture, and shear diversity of the islands makes them a travel destination not to be overlooked.