A friend recently asked me the toughest question about the Azores: if he only had time to visit two or three of the islands, which ones should he pick? My first answer would have been “you don’t pick! You try to visit them all!” But I know that for the majority of people that’s not possible either for budget restrictions or due to limited paid vacation days. I gave him two possible itineraries, based solely on the easiest way to reach, because, really, “island hopping” in the Azores needs the expertise of a frequent flyer in the region.
When that issue was solved, he asked me the second toughest question: what is there to do? I’ll be honest with you like I was with him, I know fairly well what you can do in Flores and Corvo because that’s where I lived for a big part of my life, and of course I know a lot of people there so I can quickly give them a call and ask for their best suggestions. However, those islands weren’t included in the possible itineraries; they’re the most remote of the nine and the trip is harder to plan on short notice (it would also be the most expensive). Although I wrote a post with some quick tips on what to know before you visit the Azores, this time I needed to be more specific about the resources that he could use to plan his trip as an independent traveler. These are the suggestions I gave him, and I’m adding a few more options suitable for those who aren’t sure of their itinerary yet.
#1 Booking Your Flight (in Europe)
I’m not fond of flying low-cost to the Azores and I will always choose the local airline over any other option. That being said, I understand that most people will want to save the most of their travel budget by choosing the lowest price to pay for their flight, and I don’t judge. At the time I’m writing this post, Ryanair and Easyjet are flying from London, Lisbon, and Porto to Ponta Delgada on the island of S. Miguel (which is the biggest island of the archipelago). They will probably be flying to Terceira soon too (that’s the second biggest island), which will give you one more option for a different itinerary.
Choosing where to book your flight depends on your final destination and your preference. If you’re only visiting S. Miguel, you can book through Ryanair, Easyjet (only until October 2017) or SATA. I advise you to always book directly with the airline for a higher chance of getting the best price available, without a catch.
Note: for other countries, the flights are still operated exclusively by Azores Airlines.
Low-cost “Island hopping”
You can still fly from Lisbon, Porto, or Faro to S. Miguel on one of the low-cost airlines and ask SATA for a free inter-island connecting flight. Basically, if you declare that your final destination is another island and that you won’t stay in S. Miguel for longer than 24 hours, SATA has to provide you with a connecting flight free of charge. That means you can visit islands that are more remote without additional flight costs. The downside is that you probably won’t have enough time to explore S. Miguel properly.
Other Options for “Island hopping”
For the islands that are closer together, you can choose to be based in one island and travel by boat to visit the other ones nearby. For example, you can fly to Flores, be based there, and reach Corvo by boat (or the other way around); you can fly to Faial, be based there, and reach Pico and S. Jorge by boat too (they’re called the “triangle” islands for a reason).
Transmaçor is responsible for boat trips between the three islands in the “triangle”. For other routes and the rest of the archipelago, you must check AtlanticoLine.
If you’re not the biggest fan of boat rides (trust me, I feel your pain) or if you decided to travel off-peak (when the ocean is not as “gentle”), search the flights that work best for you by using SATA’s multicity option. Before that, I always check the frequency of flights between islands first and the number of layovers.
#2 Finding Things to do in the Islands
The nine islands are completely different from one another, even if some activities and cultural events are common (like diving and hiking, or the religious celebrations of the Holy Ghost in the Summer). I have a few must-sees on the top of my mind: visiting Caldeirao in Corvo, canyoning in Flores, visiting the Capelinhos volcano in Faial, climbing the highest mountain of Portugal in Pico, discovering the Fajas in S. Jorge, chilling in the Carapacho natural spa in Graciosa, attending S. Joao in Terceira, visiting the only tea plantation in the country in S. Miguel, going to a couple of concerts at Mare de Agosto in Santa Maria. But, of course, what fits my taste might not fit yours. On top of that, I haven’t been to all the islands yet so I wouldn’t be accurate in my suggestions. Which is why, when someone asks me for tips, I always direct them to my foolproof list of online resources:
The official website of the Azores tourism is available in six languages (besides Portuguese) and should be your first pit stop even before you book your flight. A quick browse through the first menu, and you get to know each one of the islands and the highlights of things to see and do. Once you’ve planned your itinerary, you can search the same website for accommodation suggestions, getting around, things to do (and where to book them).
Hiking is a very popular activity in the Azores (for locals too), so much so that there’s this entire website dedicated to it. My favorite part is that it gives you the chance to search the perfect trail for you based on difficulty level, extension or shape (linear or circular).
Recommended Mobile Travel App
For the fans of mobile apps (like me), finding just one app that suits all your needs can mean downloading, at least, three to get exactly the information you need and want (or maybe that’s just me…). Well, that’s not practical, is it? A new iOS app was launched earlier this month* with a guide and travel tips for S. Miguel, and the Android version is coming soon. The app was created, designed and developed by locals, which means you get all the good insider tips.
Whale watching is by far the activity that best sells the Azores as a top travel destination. The only way to do this the right way is with a responsible tourism company. One of the lessons every islander learns, from childhood, is that you must respect the wildlife around you – we and nature have a mutual unspoken agreement that you take out what you put in. With that in mind, Futurismo is usually referenced as one of the best responsible travel tour companies in the Azores for whale watching, covering five of the nine islands: S. Miguel, Pico, Faial, Terceira and S. Jorge.
#3 What’s it REALLY Like There
I can tell you that visiting the Azores will be on your top five of best travel experiences ever. The islands are not as remote as you think, and still, you find you’ve reached a completely different planet. It’s very difficult to put into words, which is why most people photograph it more than write about it. Here’s a list of travel bloggers who have visited the islands recently, and that can give you an idea of what to expect:
Although he doesn’t live in the Azores right now, Bruno, like me, is a local and, of course, knows “his” island S. Miguel like the back of his hand. His most recent posts about experiencing the Azores include a list of things to do in São Miguel island and, my very favorite, a four-day itinerary to explore São Miguel.
Being vegan and traveling to a place where the local diet revolves around fish and meat is a challenge, but not impossible. Giselle and Cody were recently in the Azores and I followed their adventure while they were visiting the islands. Not once have they complained about not having options that fit their lifestyle, on the contrary. They fell in love with it, and I know they “got” the islands the right way. My favorite post is about whale watching because they absolutely nailed it. I appreciate that they tell the story of what whale hunting meant for the local economy two centuries ago and how we have evolved from that into research and conservation; it was a very grounded approach.
Breathe With Us
Hugo and Catarina’s post about São Miguel is on the top of my list as “one image is worth a thousand words”, because, in a nutshell, that’s what the Azores experience is. It will leave you speechless! They visited in 2011 (before it was trending as a travel destination) and they absolutely cover everything you can see on the island although they did miss whale watching as they refer on the blog (I’ve told you the islands are moody). I’d say it’s the islands giving them an excuse to go back.
Stop Having a Boring Life
Well, there is more to the Azores than São Miguel island of course, and I’m really jealous of Rob because in 2014 he visited two islands that I haven’t been to yet, Pico and São Jorge. I recommend you to read his experience of climbing Mount Pico (so very high on my to-do list in the Azores) and his story of hiking in São Jorge (I like how he shares the photos of food in between photos of the hike, because it takes the “guilt” out of the indulgence).
If you’ve traveled to the Azores recently, do tell us about your experience. If you’re planning to visit soon and need more information, drop us a line via email and we’ll gladly help you out. Share it with us on Facebook or Twitter. If you’re not much of a talker, follow us on Instagram and Pinterest for your daily dose of travel inspiration.