Azores Islands

Though part of Portugal for roughly 500 years, the Azores are really a world unto themselves. About as remote as islands get, the Azores Islands begin 800 miles west of the Portuguese mainland. Nine main islands and eight smaller islets comprise this isolated archipelago, and since the islands are spread out over an area of approximately 370 miles, they vary to a certain degree when it comes to cuisine, dialect, and overall culture. You can visit any one of the main islands here, and interisland travel is possible by plane or boat. Life is relaxed wherever you go in the Azores, which has a lot to do with the fact that many travelers still don't have the archipelago on their radars, and you're bound to feel the stress melting away from the second you arrive.

Volcanic in origin, the Azores are a little like Hawaii, minus the tropical climate. The climate here is actually more akin to what you might expect in Rhode Island, which, coincidentally, is a state that many Azoreans emigrated to in the mid-to-late 1900s. The banning of whaling in the Azores Islands in the 1980s has a lot to do with the younger islanders who continue to emigrate to other countries to this day. Farming is now the main industry in the Azores Islands. The volcanic soil helps to support agricultural pursuits, and since the islands are surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean waters, fishing is big too. You can definitely enjoy some deep sea fishing on your Azores vacation, and whale watching trips can be arranged as well if you prefer.

Summer is the peak season for travel to the Azores Islands, thanks to the warmer temperatures and the relative lack of rain, though you can visit year round if you don't mind duller weather conditions. A thick fog tends to move in over the islands in October, and the winters tend to be on the dreary side. Volcanic hills and rugged valleys help to make for good sightseeing regardless of the month, so you don't have to visit in the summer if it's not convenient for you. Summer is the best time to hit the Azores beaches, however, which is worth keeping in mind. There aren't a lot of beaches in the Azores Islands, as lava rock cliffs dominate the coastlines, though you can find some inviting ones if that's what you have in mind. The island of Sao Miguel, which is home to the archipelago's main airport, boasts some of the best Azores beaches, as do the islands of Santa Maria and Faial. Should you find yourself on Terceira, Praia da Vitoria is another strip of sand worth checking out.

In addition to fishing, whale watching, and hanging out at the beach, those who are enjoying an Azores vacation can also enjoy some hiking and cycling. There are plenty of wonderful walking and biking trails in the Azores, and while cycling is popular enough, walking is even more popular. Pico Island, which is home to Portugal's tallest mountain, is one of the best walking and hiking destinations in the Azores Islands. Sao Jorge Island is ideal for coastal hikes, thanks to its coastal rambles, and great treks can also be had on the islands of Flores, Corvo, and Sao Miguel. Sao Miguel is also a good destination if you are interested in doing some scuba diving, as are the islands of Faial and Terceira.

Spas are springing up all around Portugal, as the country continues to position itself among the world's top spa vacation destinations. Thanks to the volcanic nature of the Azores, hot springs are in good number, and you might look to seek out the therapeutic waters at the Furnas baths on Sao Miguel Island. Faial is home to the Veradouro baths and Graciosa Island is where you will find the Carapacho baths, so you can visit them as well when looking to pamper yourself on the side. A hot springs soak might just be in order after a few rounds of golf. The Portugal golf industry, much like the country's spa industry, has grown significantly in recent years, and you'll even find some good golf courses in the Azores. Sao Miguel is home to two of the archipelago's three courses, and Terceira is where you will find the third.

It's hard to sum up the Azores Islands, as they are quite unique. Even the larger cities here, which include Ponta Delgada, Angra do Heroismo, and Horta, are laid back, and you could hardly ask for a better place to escape to if you want to get off the beaten path. Various vacation packages to Portugal revolve around or at least feature some time in this magical land, and the Azores hotels should more than have you covered when it comes to finding accommodations on your own.

Sao Miguel, Terceira, and Faial boast the most in the way of hotels and other traveler amenities, though there are some hotels on the smaller islands as well if you are up for some island hopping. When possible, booking your stay in advance is a good idea when it's a summertime Azores vacation that you have in mind, though you shouldn't have too much trouble securing accommodations even if you arrive without reservations during the peak season. Plenty of local families rent out rooms at their homes if you're in a pinch, and these kinds of rooms can be the cheapest around if saving money on lodging is your aim. As a side note, should the Azores Islands pique your interest, you'll also do well to consider a visit to Madeira Island on your next vacation to Portugal.

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