|Ireland Ain't Got Nuthin' on the Azores: Corvo's caldera (courtesy, Azores Tourism)|
Draw your finger across a map of the Atlantic toward the western fringes of Europe and you'll likely land somewhere on the coast of Ireland. Most people skip right over those nine islands off the coast of Portugal, the Azores. Too bad for them. Lucky for you.
This archipelago of volcanic isles stretches for about 400 miles and is probably one of Europe's best-kept secrets, especially if you're looking for bargain shoulder-season deals. First, the Azores tear a wedge in the warm currents of the Gulf Stream like so many channel markers. That means the islands have a pleasantly mild maritime climate all year round. As they also sit on the edge of the continental plates that separate the Americas from Europe, the Azores have absolutely stunning topography as well. Think rugged hills slathered in hydrangeas and azaleas, steep cliffs diving into azure waters, lonely beaches, and natural mineral baths and hot springs. Best of all, the Azores are only a four-hour flight from New York or Boston. You can't get to Los Angeles that quickly. For a good overview of the islands, check out www.mirapico.dk.
Of all the islandsCorvo, Faial, Flores, Graciosa, Pico, Santa Maria, São Jorge, São Miguel, and TerceiraSão Miguel is the most developed. It is here that your adventure should begin. The spa resort town of Furnas on the eastern side of the island attracts people from all over, and for good reason. Dozens of mineral baths and hot springs percolate from deep below to warm weary souls. Rolling country roads and cow paths in this area make for great biking and hiking, too. The Terra Nostra Garden Hotel, with its outdoor hot-spring pool, is the perfect spot to get your bearings. Rates at this 84-room resort drop drastically during the shoulder season to about $80 a night for doubles. (www.portugal.com/azoreshotels/sanmiguel/terranostra.asp; 011-351-296-549-090)
But what would a trip to any island be without exploring the seas? Water temperatures aren't exactly tropical in the Azores, but they aren't the frigid North Atlantic, eitherabout 60 to 70 degrees year roundmaking scuba diving a choice activity. Off the south coast of the island you'll find rocky reefs, underwater caves, natural arches, and shipwrecks to explore. Parrotfish, rays, octopi, and red mullets populate these warm waters, as do big game fish. (You guessed it, chartered fishing excursions are popular too.) Diving in the shoulder season can be a great deal. Outfitters advertise five dives for as cheap as $30 or so a dive from November through March. Check out www.diving-azores.com for more information.
Pico Island, west of São Miguel, gets rave reviews for outdoor adventures as well. This island is dominated by a 7,000-foot volcano bearing the island's namesake, which simply means "Peak." This terribly steep volcano attracts climbers as well as photographers hoping to catch the mountain covered in snow. Pico is also a mecca for diving enthusiasts, with dozens of great dives over reefs home to a myriad of fish. Outfitter EWP (www.ewpnet.com/azores) offers custom guided and unguided trips to Pico, and can organize climbs up the volcano, hiking, sailing, scuba diving, and fishing trips in the Azores.
Like any archipelago, you'll find some islands popular among visitors as well as a smattering of lesser-known specks where adventurous visitors can find quiet days off the beaten path. Terceira would fall into the latter group. The town of Angra do Heroismo is about as picturesque as towns can come. Wander along the cobblestone streets between whitewashed buildings with red roofs or out into the countryside for views of the rugged landscape of misty valleys and lonely coasts. Sailing is certainly quite popular here as well. Spirit of the Azores (www.azoreschoice.com/terceira.htm) runs weeklong sailing charters that take in several of the islands, including Terceira. It's not cheap, at about $3,000 per person for a week, but the Azores are so close to home that you can think of the oceanic tour as a once-a-year indulgence.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
Best Hotels in Azores
VIP Executive Azores Hotel
The Lince Azores Great Hotel, Conference, Golf & Spa
Residencial Sete Cidades