A Pocket Guide to the Azores, Portugal

Nine volcanic islands make up the Azores archipelago, a dramatic landscape of rugged cliff faces and verdant greenery in the Atlantic ocean, floating about 1,500km off the shores of Lisbon.

A beacon of natural beauty, the Azores is home to two of Portugal's 15 Unesco World Heritage sites: the historic city of Angra do Heroismo on the island of Terceira and the ancient vineyards of Pico. The islands' unique placement in the Atlantic - together with the volcanic, mineral-rich waters - attracts sea life from miles away, making it an unrivalled spot for whale watching. With dozens of trails of varying levels of difficulty, these islands are ripe for exploration.

Spend some time island-hopping and get to know the different lands, each with their own unique characteristics. Smoking volcanoes, crystalline lagoons and ancient vineyards are just some of the wonders that await - here's how to do the Azores properly.

Sāo Miguel

The archipelago's headline island - as well as the most accessible - Sāo Miguel is rippled with peaks, between which lie so many tropical jungles, rolling plains, epic waterfalls and hot springs that it's earned the moniker of "the green island". There's a palpable energy here; waves crash against the shore while inland the capital, Ponta Delgada, is a city that sings with things to do, see and eat.

TO STAY

On the island's northern coast, Pico do Refúgio is a heady cocktail of nature, art and contemporary design. It stands out as a hub of creativity at the heart of the slow-living locales of Rabo de Peixe and Ribeira Grande. It's minimalist lofts and apartments set in former tea-plantation buildings are prime for those seeking a boutique, design-forward stay.

Larger party? There are several houses that can be rented out in their entirety. Try Villa Várzea, a bright, off-the-beaten-path mansion a 10-minute drive from the Sete Cidades lagoon and the thermal waters of Ferraria; or the Casa dos Barcos on the shores of the Lagoa das Furnas.

For a stay that strikes the balance between sustainability and luxury, try Solar Branco Eco Estate, a mere 10-minute drive from Ponta Delgada. Powered by solar panels (this is the sunny Azores, after all), the century-old Portuguese mansion-turned-boutique-hotel ticks the boxes for producing zero food waste and banning single-use plastics - so you can polish your eco halo as you avail of its Azorean gin-tasting sessions, guided forest bathing, tile-painting classes and such. This is a place to switch off your phone and inhale a few lungfuls of the citrus-tinged ocean breeze.

TO EAT AND DRINK

This is a place fuelled by deliciously cheap petiscos (Portuguese tapas) and comparably good plonk. In Ponta Delgada, try A Tasca - the island's most popular restaurant - for just-off-the-boat tuna steak, smoked black pudding and pineapple cake; Taberna Açor for cured meats; or the no-fuss Mané Cigano where plates are piled high with grilled-to-perfection sardines. For a more gourmet spin on Azorean cuisine, try Tasquinha Vieira behind the Teatro Micaelense.

Seafood aside, beef, beef and more beef is the raison d'être of many of the Azores' menus, thanks to the flocks of cows that graze happily across the islands' wild pastures - grass-fed is the norm here. You'll find this echoed in the menu at Associação Agrícola de São Miguel, where there are nine varieties of beef to choose from - we recommend opting for the signature Bife à Associação steak. Alternatively, the garlicky Bife à Alcides from Alcides restaurant is brilliant too. While vegetarian and vegan options are few, Rotas da Ilha Verde is a hippy hotspot for plant-based fare - the aubergine cannelloni is very good.

A 40-minute drive east along the coast - factor in time for stop-offs in shoreside boltholes such as São Roque, Lagoa and Caloura - you'll reach the town of Furnas, famed for "cozido das furnas", a traditional stew baked in the earth from the heat of the volcano. Side step any restaurants when you see tour buses; O Miroma and Vale das Furnas are local favourites.

TO DO

The twin lakes of Lagoa das Sete Cidades - one blue and one green - lie together in the crater of a dormant volcano; hike the 12km circuit around the lakes, with several routes down to the water's edge. Legend has it that the lakes were formed by the tears of a shepherd and a princess who were forbidden to love each other.

On a clear day, you can see the entire island from the top of the Serra da Água and the striking Lagoa do Fogo (Lake of Fire). The viewpoints of Ponta da Madrugada, Boca do Inferno and Vista do Rei provide equally impressive views. Bathe in the clay-brown thermal pool at Parque Terra Nostra and don't miss the ruins of Monte Palace Hotel, the Aqueduct, the Caldeira Velha, the Ponta do Canário, the Ponta da Ferraria and the Portas da Cidade.

Terceira

Terceira is Portuguese for "third", and fittingly this is the Azores' third largest island while it was also the third to be populated during the Portuguese Age of Discovery.

In the years since, Terceira has become an island of celebration, with many festivals, carnivals and religious tributes taking place throughout each season. The locals say they spend 10 months of the year celebrating, so wander the street and let the party guide you. Angra do Heroísmo, the capital of the island, will stay etched in your mind long after your departure.

TO STAY

Hotel do Caracol and Casa da Amoreira are both good options. The former is surrounded by Monte Brazil, overlooking the Bay of Silveira. The latter offers simple accommodations with views of volcanic rock formations and the islands of Pico and São Jorg.

The rooms at Quinta do Martelo could be straight of a Pinterest board, thanks to the rural-chic decor. Its various accommodation options are serviced by a restaurant, organic food shop and craft workshops.

TO EAT AND DRINK

The traditional dish of Terceira is Alcatra, meaning "piece" in Arabic. It's a rich medley of Azores beef, red wine, onions and spices that slowly simmers in large red clay pots. Every family and restaurant has their own take on the recipe - we recommend getting your fill in Caneta in the northern enclave of Altares or at the family-run Ti Choa, in the pretty little shoreside municipality of Serreta. While you're here, try the doce de vinagre, a sweet, vinegar-based custard traditional in mainland Portugal's Montijo district.

For a seafood-forward menu, try Boca Negra in Porto Judeu (octopus is the signature dish here) or Beira-Mar offering a menu of cracas (barnacles) and grilled fish followed by sweet, sticky pudding.

TO DO

To experience Azorean culture beyond the hubbub of Sāo Miguel, make a beeline for Angra do Heroísmo, where cobbled streets are lined with historic buildings reminiscent of Angra's 18th-century golden age - the Igreja da Misericordia ("the Church of Mercy") is a particularly beautiful, very blue, focal point.

Beyond the island's capital, a volcanic landscape is criss-crossed with ancient lava flows and cave systems - the most famous being Algar do Cavo ("Cavern of Coal"), a 3,000-year-old volcanic chimney laced with stairs and walkways. Laurisilva and juniper forests set a lush scene for nature-rich hikes, but for the best views head to Serra do Cume, a green expanse where cows graze and photographers gather to survey the vast lands that stretch for miles. Later, take in the sights of Lagoa das Patas and Vitoria Beach before winding down in the natural pools of Biscoitos.

Pico

Wearing a necklace of wispy clouds, the mountain of Pico - a 2,350m-tall stratovolcano - rises over centuries-old vineyards and black-sand beaches, lending a mystical intensity to the island.

TO STAY

For larger groups, Casas do Sal is a great choice, as is Pocinho Bay, a six-bedroom villa fringed by vineyards. Smaller parties should opt for Casinha da Júlia, a bolthole built in 1900. The historic house is reasonably priced and nestled at an ideal juncture between the sea and the mountains.

TO DO

A climb up Mount Pico will take a few hours but the view from the summit is well worth the exertion. If volcanic landscapes are your thing, head north to the unusual lava formations of the Arcos do Cachorro, where the coastline is perforated with grottoes, tunnels and arches.

Pico's vineyards and whale-spotting rides are best experienced on guided tours, but dotted across the island are plenty of lagoons - Lagoas Capitão, Peixinho, Rosada and Paul - which can be enjoyed for free, so keep your swimming gear in the car.

TO EAT AND DRINK

In Madalena, try the Cella Bar, an architecturally impressive tapas-and-wine joint dubbed as one of the most beautiful in Portugal. For dinner, Ancoradouro's menu is typical of the region; limpets and grilled octopus are the dishes to order. Caffe 5 Cinq is the go-to if for vegetarian options and healthy fare.

Faial

The protected Nature Park of Faial spreads across almost 20 per cent of the island, earning it the European Commission's EDEN award for sustainability. It's in this scattered reserve that you'll find the Faial's (and indeed the whole archipelago's) natural showstoppers: the remnants of two submerged volcanic craters, Capelinhos and Caldeira. Capelinhos is still active and last stirred in 1958. Caldeira is the crater of a now extinct volcano, the activity of which resulted in the genesis of the island.

TO STAY

Faial is an island you can visit in just one day, with ferries to Pico at the end of the day. If you'd prefer to sleep over, stay at Casas d'Arramada in the small, coastal village of Ribeira Funda or Pousada Forte da Horta, a 16th-century fortress that gazes across Horta Bay to neighbouring Pico Island.

For a chic, self-catered stay, try the minimalist, pine-clad Porto Pim Bay apartments - bicycles and kayaks are free to borrow, ideal for exploring Horta Beach and beyond. Casas do Capelo in Varadouro also offers a range of great rental properties.

TO EAT AND DRINK

A packed lunch is probably best for a day of exploring, but plan well and you can time your pick-me-up at the quirky, family-run CASA where market-fresh, organic, "slow food" (including a decent amount of veggie options) is served in the company of a few cats.

Come evening, Genuíno is likely to hit the spot - order tuna, octopus and caldeirada (fish stew) to share while looking out across the bay from which they were plucked. It's a pint-sized spot and tables fill up fast - if that's the case, Taberna de Pim opposite is a close second best. For a more contemporary dining affair, Praya Restaurante on Praia do Almoxarife, where floor-to-ceiling windows frame Pico Mountain hugged by clouds and the salted bacalhau á brás is spot on. A meal here is best followed by a saunter along the sea wall that runs the entire length of the beach.

It's said that if you visit Horta and don't visit the famous Peter's Café Sport, then you've not really been to Horta at all. For those who sail the Atlantic, this place is an institution - like Harry's Bar to Venice or Raffles to Singapore. Peter's bright-blue facade, orange sign and sun-bleached flags have welcomed sailors for more than 100 years. Unsurprisingly, gin is the go-to tipple here - a bottle of the golden Peter's Gin do Mar makes a great souvenir too.

TO DO

Peter's Café Sport team know about thing or two about the surrounding area - take advantage of its experiences which cover "water" (kayak tours, snorkelling and coastal diving), "land" (bike rides and shearwater watching) and "self-awareness" (read: meditating on mountains).

The island is best explored by car or foot, stopping and starting as nature (or your driver, tour guide or map) dictates.

Faial's Nature Park is dotted with belvederes and lookout points, prime for taking in the island's unique topography and rare, often endemic, wildlife. The Capelinhos Volcano and the Caldera are the ones you want for the photo album, but it's well worth venturing to the Forest Park of Cabouco, Ribeira das Cabras and Morro de Castelo Branco. Don't miss the beaches, too - namely Almoxarife, Norte and Porto Pim. The Varadouro Natural Poolsimpress even the most surly vacationer.

Well-signposted pathways thread across Faial. We recommend the relatively easy climb up Monte da Guia; from the summit you'll gaze across Horta Bay - ranked among the world's most beautiful bays and the stage for many international regattas - to Porto Pim Beach on the opposite side.

São Jorge

Great acres of flatland that reaches out into the sea, known as fajãs, are the visual identity of São Jorge. Enjoy the Azorean cheese and preserves for which the island is known and snap a panoramic picture of neighbouring Pico.

TO STAY

Casa da Lagoa promises a peaceful sleep in simple surroundings. Homely touches add to its charming and laid-back style. The Cantinho das Buganvílias ("Bougainvillea's Corner") is a rustic take on the modern aparthotel, while the Casa da Caldeira puts visitors at the heart of the island's nature reserve in Santo Cristo.

TO EAT AND DRINK

Enjoy a leisurely lunch at Conserveira de Santa Catarina and pick up some edible souvenirs to take home. For dinner with a view, take the steep drive south to Fajã das Almas. It's a hilly journey not for the meek, but you'll be rewarded with some of the island's freshest seafood (order the limpets) with a side of oceanfront vistas. Amilcar in Fajã do Ouvidor comes in a close second best in the seafood-and-sea-views stakes.

TO DO

Scattered around the island are various viewpoints or "ponta" where you can stop the car and take in the views. Look out for Ponta Ruiva, Ponta dos Rosais and Pico da Esperança. If you've got time to spare, check out the fajãs of the Ouvidor, Almas and Cubres and the eco-reserve of Caldeira do Santo Cristo.

Santa Maria

Azores , Portugal

The most southerly of the Azores, Santa Maria is also the archipelago's sunniest isle where brilliant beaches draw a happy crowd of locals from other islands. Christopher Coloumbus famously came ashore here on his return voyage from "discovering" the Americas, stopping by the chapel of Nossa Senhora dos Anjos for mass.

TO STAY

Opened in 2016, Charming Blue is the best boutique hotel in Vila do Porto and a fantastic springboard for exploring the island. Let the concierge arrange a day's bike hire or watersports activities before returning to the hotel's Mesa d'Oito restaurant for dinner. For a quieter stay, plump for the secluded, sea-view house of Caso do Norte. Sleeps two.

TO EAT AND DRINK

Central Pub probably won't bowl you over in the gastronomic stakes, but this place (akin to a British boozer) has been a hub for locals and visitors in Vila do Porto for more than half a century and has a fantastic atmosphere. Wines and sweet liqueurs such as aguardente, licor de amor, vinho abafado and vinho abafadinho are produced on the island - do try to order a glass or two that are sold alongside the pizza here.

For a more traditional Santa Maria fare, walk five minutes up the road Pipas Churrasqueira where a menu of grilled meat and seafood gives way to a desert of the island's native melon. Petite, sweet and delicious.

TO DO

Santa Maria is famed for its handcrafted textiles - head to the small but interesting Santa María Ethnographic Museum in Santo Espirito to learn about the trade. This place doubles up as an artisanal cooperative, so pick up a blanket, patchwork quilt or linen tablecloth to take home.

Vila do Porto is the island's capital, though it looks more akin to a village. Enter the old city along the Dr Manuel Monteiro Velho Arruda where pavements are decorated with motifs of fishes and shells, and churches are plenty - it's best experienced in August when retellings of folklore, music and fairs celebrate Assunção, patron saint of the island. Later, head up to the Miradouro do Porto Overlook in Largo Sousa e Silva to admire views over the sea and city.

For something a little quieter and under-the-radar, visit São Lourenço, a beautiful village in which white houses and terraced vineyards tumble down into a bay. To get out into nature, head towards Santa Bárbara, where the lush woodland of Fontinhas Forest Park offers a cool canopy during sunny hikes and Pico Alto marks the highest point on Santa María.

Graciosa

Azores , Portugal

Peaceful, rural charm is the vibe of this small island which, together with Corvo and Flores, is a protected Unesco Biosphere Reserve. Villages are small, people are few, buildings are traditional and roads are quiet. If you want to slip into a gentle pace of life, this is the island for you.

TO STAY

With a tagline of "biosphere island hotel", the Graciosa Resort is the design-hotel of the Azores - rooms and suites are available, but opt for one of the volcanic-stone-clad, stand-alone villas if your budget allows.

TO EAT AND DRINK

Quinta das Grotas is without doubt the island's best restaurant. Set in a stone-built house in Guadalupe, it serves Graciosa specialities alongside it's signature dishes of seafood cooked on roof tiles. For another fix of seafood and sea views, the Dolphin Snack Bar in Carapacho, on the sunny southern side of the island is a good shout - a 30-minute walk to the Ponta da Restinga viewpoint is a lovely way to end a meal here.

TO DO

Despite Graciosa's quiet reputation, its past is one characterised by violent volcanic activity. Visit the Furna do Enxofre, an enormous lava cave stretching 200m wide, where an 80-year-old stone spiral staircase leads to a vaulted cave studded with volcanic prisms and a subterranean sulphurous lake - perhaps one of the Azores' most outstanding geological phenomena.

Flores

Azores

To visit Flores is to escape the world. For us, it's the Azores' most beautiful pocket, where a flourishing landscape that rises and falls with craters is cut by crashing waterfalls, cliffs thrashed by the sea and secluded whitewashed fishing villages. Unlike the Azores' other islands, volcanic activity is non-existent here - all the caldera are extinct.

TO STAY

The small and wonderfully welcoming hamlet of Faja Grande is the most westerly village in Europe and about as far removed from modern-day stresses as one could hope. Here, book a stay in the beautifully rustic Aldeia da Cuada - all raw woods and local textiles - and the starting point for some great hiking routes. Larger groups should book out the entire Moinho da Cascata, where a terrace overlooks the sea and a waterfall tumbles down a cliff in the distance.

TO EAT AND DRINK

Perched on the western shore in Faja Grande, Maresia Restaurante is among Flores' more expensive restaurants, but serves up respectfully cooked market-fresh produce picked from hand-scrawled menus.

It's a decent climb to reach the hilltop restaurant of Pôr-do-Sol, but you'll be rewarded with fantastic homemade blood sausage, fried seaweed cakes and pork stew - best enjoyed as the sun makes its curtain call beyond the Atlantic.

TO DO

Hiking. Hiking. Hiking. This island is thick with subtropical flora (including a spectacular smattering of wild hydrangea) that conceals beautiful waterfalls. The best way to experience it is by foot - en route keep your eye out for local handicraft that include flower arrangements made from fish scales.

Corvo

Azores , Portugal

Strung on the archipelago's north west, Corvo is the Azores' smallest island, covering just seven square miles. Studded with the collapsed remains of caldera formed some 430,000 years ago, its landscape - a biosphere reserve - is rich with flora and fauna. Vila do Corvo is the hub of human activity here, once a beacon for ships sailing the trade winds between Portugal and Brazil. Today, with a population that lingers under 500, it's a much quieter affair.

TO STAY

Accommodation options are limited on Corvo, with just one official hotel: the Comodoro Guest House, though there are several basic guest houses and B&Bs too. Try The Pirate's Nest or Joe & Vera's Vintage Palace.

TO EAT AND DRINK

Corvo has a roll call of local dishes including grilled beans, seaweed pies and liver sauce, so if you see these on restaurant menus, give them a shot. We recommend pulling up a seat in Caldeirão Restaurante & Pastelaria.

Corvo's nightlife scene revolves around the BBC Lounge (meaning "Bar dos Bombeiros do Corvo" or "Corvo's Fireman's Bar"). Expect dancing, live music, karaoke and quizzes, as well as francesinhas - Porto's signature sandwich - to keep the party going.

TO DO

Every autumn, birds migrating from the Americas - including several endemic species - make a pitstop on the island, making this prime territory for twitchers. There are several expert-led birdwatching packages available if you fancy giving it a whirl.

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