The Azores is a cluster of nine volcanic islands and it's said the islands are Europe's answer to Hawaii. Considered somewhat of an off-the-beaten-track destination, lying west of the southern tip of Portugal in the North Atlantic, tourism in this beautiful and unspoiled region is increasing. The Azores archipelago is often featured on repositioning cruises -- with lines such as P&O Cruises, Princess Cruises and Holland America Line, among many others, stopping there as part of transatlantic crossings -- and some Western Mediterranean itineraries.
The archipelago, which is an autonomous region of Portugal, was known in the 14th century when the islands of Santa Maria and Sao Miguel were rediscovered in 1427 by the navigator Diogo de Silves. Official colonisation began at this time, with settlers arriving from Portugal and other European countries. In 1451 the navigator Diogo de Teive discovered the coast of Faial during his first voyage of exploration. The islands have a combination of traditional Portuguese buildings, breathtaking scenery with hedgerows and meadows covered with hydrangeas, pineapple plantations and a population of two cows to every human! Above all, the region's volcanic history is still in evidence, with craters and bubbling hot springs visible at close quarters.
Situated on the island of Terceira, Praia de Vitoria is a town with a stunning natural harbour overlooked by the 16th century fort of Santa Catarina. Also on Terceira is the must-see historic city of Angra de Heroismo, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Dating from the 15th century, it was an important port for Portuguese and Spanish merchants due to its sheltered harbour, and located in the city is the 16th century Se Cathedral. Situated 820 feet above sea level is the extinct volcano Monte Brasil which emerged from the sea during an early underwater eruption. This natural protected park has spectacular views over the city. The Caldeira de Guilherme Moniz is the largest volcanic crater in the archipelago, with a perimeter of nine miles.
Horta, the fortified main town of the island of Faial, is one of the liveliest towns in the Azores. It lies facing the imposing cone-shaped island of Pico on the southeast coast of the island, with a beach of black volcanic sand. The marina is filled with yachts which stop there during their voyage across the Atlantic, and the walls and footpaths of the marina are covered in paintings of some of these boats, put there by the owners as a memento of their visit.
In the centre of the island is the Caldeira do Faial, the vast crater of the extinct volcano from which the island originated. A visit to Monte do Guia, and a climb to the chapel, gives a magnificent view of Faial and Pico. In the summer months the green and fertile landscape is covered by a carpet of the pink, cream and mauve flowers of the Hortenses, which gained their name from the town.
The main town on the island of Sao Miguel, Ponta Delgada has picturesque whitewashed buildings with terracotta roofs. About 1,866 feet above sea level is the extinct volcano of Sete Cidades, its crater home to a magnificent twin lake. The lakes are one body of water, but consist of two craters with different depths and colours. One is blue, reflecting the sky, and the other is bright green due to the rich vegetation which surrounds it.
Sao Miguel is noted for its outstanding natural beauty, and no tour is complete without a visit to the Furnas Valley. The area is known for its volcanic activity, and here you can walk along pathways within a few inches of hot sulphur springs and steaming stretches of water -- an unforgettable experience. Another great attraction on the island is the Fire Lake, one of the top natural attractions in the Azores, situated in the crater of an extinct volcano and surrounded by mountains and lush vegetation.
In addition to sightseeing, there are many outdoor activities to enjoy on the islands including whale watching, surfing, golfing and hiking, and there are some great caves to explore. The beaches are mostly grey or black due to volcanic lava sliding into the sea after the volcanic eruptions, but they are spacious and clean and with excellent facilities.
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Best Time for Azores Cruises
The Azores enjoy mild weather throughout the year, benefiting from the warm water of the Gulf Stream. From November to March temperatures will average between 52 to 63 degrees, from April to June, and between 62 to 75 degrees between September to October. Weather can sometimes be changeable, with rain, sun and cloud all in the same day, but on the whole the temperate climate means a holiday can be enjoyed at any time.
Azores Cruise Lines
A large number of cruise lines are now sailing to the Azores from the U.K.,: Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines, P&O Cruises, Noble Caledonia, Cunard Line, Cruise & Maritime Voyages, Saga Cruises, Thomson Cruises, Swan Hellenic and Voyages of Discovery.
Azores Cruise Itineraries
9 to 15 nights: Fred. Olsen, P&O, Noble Caledonia, Voyages of Discovery and others offer Portuguese destination cruises from various U.K. ports taking in the Azores, Madeira and Lisbon, and cruises to the Canary Islands and the Azores, sometimes including the Channel Islands.
24 to 35 nights: Fred. Olsen, Cunard, P&O, Cruise and Maritime and others include the Azores in long-haul cruises to the Caribbean or the West Indies.
Azores Cruise Port Highlights
Praia da Vitoria: Now a popular tourist destination with its large modern harbour, vibrant town centre and beautiful sandy beaches, Praia de Vitoria is on the island of Terceira. It was formerly the capital of the Azores and is a town steeped in history with an interesting historic quarter, where parts of the original town wall can be seen.
Horta: Outside the marina is Peter's Sport Cafe, selected by Newsweek as one of the 10 best bars in the world, and popular with sailors, locals and tourists alike. It features a small museum with relics from the island's whaling history in the 19th and early 20th century. The Horta Museum has some fascinating artefacts made from fig tree wood.
Ponta Delgada: The town has a cosmopolitan atmosphere in spite of dating back 500 years. It has many historic buildings, a reminder that this was once an important staging post between Europe and the Americas. Intermingled are parks, enchanting squares, a modern marina, restaurants and waterside cafes, and everywhere are the characteristic cobbled streets with lovely mosaic patterns of animals and fruits.
Azores Cruise Tip
The language spoken in the Azores is Portuguese, and the currency is the euro.
In view of the rocky terrain and distances between the many places of interest, it's advisable either to take a sightseeing tour as a shore excursion from the ship, or book a private tour with a knowledgeable English speaking driver/guide who can tailor-make the itinerary to your wishes. Light clothing is fine as it's likely to be warm throughout the year, but be sure to take a waterproof or umbrella as there may be showers. Sturdy shoes are necessary to navigate the cobbled streets and steps, especially around the volcanic craters and hot springs.