If you asked anyone what would be at the forefront of their mind when they thought of taking a holiday to a set of beautiful islands, most people would immediately reply that they’d see themselves on tropical white sand beach, a large umbrella over their head, and a rum drink in their hand as a calm sea lapped at their feet.
Balmy temperatures and palm trees may be what most people fantasize, but I argue that we should start to think outside the box when asked this question. There are some real treasures that lie out of this ingrained paradise if you know where to look.
Azores: The Pearls of the Atlantic
The proper name for this group of islands is the Azores, and they are situated approximately 800 miles off the continental coast of Portugal.
The Azores are made up of 9 islands in total and are a part of a subtropical archipelago created from volcanic origins. They may lack a tropical feel but more than makeup for that charm and lure with their varying landscape including volcanoes; harsh cliff sides; lush green farmlands; crisp cedar forests; and fragrant blue hydrangeas.
One island has even been nicknamed the Blue Island for the number of these blue flowers that line its streets and hillsides. Just past all the lures of land in the great blue yonder is an extraordinary sea life. Caves and schools of brilliant fish for those to like to roam below the surface, and tours for whale, dolphin, and sea-lion spotting for those who prefer to take in the view from above.
The Paradise Called Faial
Luckily for me, I had the pleasure of visiting Faial and spending four wonderful weeks on what I can only call a paradise that most people wouldn’t think of, possibly because they’ve never heard of it.
Getting here is not as hard as it may sound. There are three major airports between the islands and many long distance ferries which run between the island group as they are spaced out between a hundred miles.
I had the rare opportunity of arriving on my yacht, a 34 foot sailboat named Serendipity, and although the 29 days at sea since my last port may have added to the mystery and the marvel of landfall, I would go back in a heartbeat by plane, submarine, or flying on the back of an albatross if it would get me there.
The Picturesque Town of Horta
After stepping on to land after what I can’t refer to as a gruelling passage since we drifted across the Atlantic while sitting in the Azores High, we were greeted with the picturesque town of Horta as it was hosting its yearly Sea Week. A tribute to the sailors who pass through this port on their way from one continent to another, filled with nights of music, food vendors, and traditional dancers.
The festivities fill ten full days and are always hosted on the first weekend of August through the following weekend. Filled with regattas, parades, and a large stage playing the countries most popular bands, the celebration is brought to and end with a ‘fireworks’ display over the harbour. Fire lanterns set up in the sky by the dozens, perfectly outlined by the volcanic crest of Pico behind them.
Getting ourselves out of the main town for a bit, we spent one day on the back of a scooter as we zipped around the island. A highly recommended method of transportation as the island is still small enough to see everything in 1-2 days and you still have the opportunity to easily take in your surroundings as you pass them by.
Some highlights to see on your trip around the island should include the caldera (a large volcanic crater) and the Capelinhos, a monogenetic volcano which is part of a complex that includes 20 scoria cones and lava fields. After you’ve done you’re hiking through the area there, a nice enclosed pool of refreshing Atlantic water awaits a dip on your exit of the grounds.
Whether taking in the rugged sights of the volcanoes, strolling the open fields with views of Pico in the distance, or just sipping wine and grabbing a bite to eat at one of the many European cafés, Faial and its neighbouring islands has something to offer everyone.
So ditch the palm trees and rum drinks for once and experience something offbeat and exotic, full of moments that you’ll carry with you for the rest of your life.
Jessica is one half of the crew of s/v Serendipity, the “J” to MJ Sailing. Jessica and her husband Matt have taken off to see the world on their 34-foot sailboat, having left from Lake Michigan in 2012. In the last two and a half years they’ve covered parts of the Caribbean and Central America. The most recent leg of their journey had brought them across the Atlantic where Europe was in their grasp until they bought a new boat in the States and turned around to sail back to it.