They’ve been called the Hawaii of Europe, and that’s why tourism is set to erupt on the nine volcanic islands that make up the Azores. Although, don’t worry, that is the only thing erupting – there hasn’t been a volcanic blast since 1958. The islands are an autonomous region of Portugal but lie nowhere near it; they’re situated in the heart of the Atlantic Ocean, 850 miles west of the mainland with no neighboring land in sight. It’s rare you find anywhere in Europe looking this exotic. At times you’ll wonder if you’ve wandered onto the set of the new Jurassic Park movie, as the views are grand, green and gorgeous, filled with unusual plants of all sizes and luscious landscapes. Your phone, and button-pressing fingers, will be exhausted from a long shift of photo-taking by the end of your trip. Beauty is in no short supply, but there are a couple of must-see views that would be a crime to miss.
Cascata da Ribeira Quente, the most pictured waterfall on the largest of the islands, São Miguel, is a popular proposal location. And it’s easy to see why. I’d have said yes to the nearest cow if it had got down on one knee. (Which, by the way, is likely – a cow being nearby, not a proposal from one. The Azores are home to an estimated 125,000 adult cows; that’s one cow to every two people.)
And if you need a place to celebrate your engagement – or just, you know, enjoy dinner – there are plenty of options. São Miguel’s 293 square miles are brimming with great food and culinary talent since the government changed the minimum living wage and liberated the locals to branch out from exclusively working traditional farming jobs. Cais Da Sardinha basks on the seafront and is sheer tranquility. It’s famed for, as the name suggests, sardines, which are salty ecstasy cooked to perfection. There’s also a crispy potato and egg combo that’s divine if you’re not a seafood lover, and shrimp that truly make a jumbo impression.
At the Azor Hotel, a five-star resort, they boast a restaurant that is definitely on the more expensive scale for São Miguel; but in truth, that just brings it up to average US prices, as food and drink are refreshingly modestly priced in the region. (For how long remains to be seen – but make the most while it’s still the case.) The higher price is more than justified. Dining on the banquet-esque feast of their sirloin sharer – or the indulgent cheese soup – will have you searching for a sixth star to give the place, which also offers a beautiful Atlantic view. Their rooftop bar offers top-class cocktails, pina coladas being a specialty because of the pineapples grown on the island, which are so distinctly sweet it’s like you’re having them for the first time. (See: Hawaii of Europe.)
The hotel also regularly hosts local live music acts for a taste of homegrown talent.
The hotel is also home to a luxury spa, and the hot stone massage is the perfect way to relax after an afternoon of, well, other types of relaxing. You’ll be having a whale of a time. And you actually can have a whale of a time, too. The Azores is one of the only places in the world, and considered perhaps the best place in Europe, where you can spot the world’s largest living mammal, the blue whale. It’s one of the many unique opportunities the Azores offers, and there are several companies along the harbor ready to take you out in search of the majestic queen of the seas. And not just the big one; humpback whales and dolphins are also known to make cameos, with marine biologist tours on hand to teach you more about these glorious creatures.
Similarly, there are packages for off-road rides around some of the most picturesque volcanoes, which will see you exploring winding roads up mountains to reach views that have to be seen to be believed at the Sete Cidades and Ponta Delgada. At one point, you stand by a giant lake and are encouraged to shout your name up the giant cliff, to hear it echoed back to you seconds later. These stunning backdrops are unparalleled. And it’s no wonder. When measured from their base at the bottom of the ocean to their peaks, the Azores are actually some of the tallest mountains on the planet. That majesty is apparent. You feel in the presence of greatness.
Another key location is the Hot Springs: Furnas by Moonlight (as Termas das Quenturas). It’s a small village situated within a volcano that gives off steam which creates hot springs that have been masterfully and luxuriously transformed into the most magical, mystical place. Tours show off the waterfalls along the way, as well as little authentic towns that are beyond cute, and a few more photo hot spots, including fertile prairies, volcanic craters, vibrant hydrangeas and eye-catching traditional architecture.
And even after a long day of sightseeing, there’s a lot of modern leisure time to be had. Plenty of pubs (have a sangria in Cantino dos Aujos, you won’t regret it), casinos, bowling, cheese boards – they know their way around cheese and white wine, that’s for sure – and many shops full of adorable curiosities you’ll struggle to resist. Shoppers, bring a spare suitcase.
All in all, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more sensational and unique holiday destination in Europe that offers such adventure, balanced with maximum relaxation opportunity, suitable for families and couples or a friends’ trip. Something for everyone, a disappointment to no one.