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Why it's time to explore the Azores

29 September 2021 • Written by Sophia Wilson

Despite being on the beaten track of the Atlantic crossing, the Azores are largely ignored as a cruising destination. Take a look at our destination guide to the Azores Islands to discover why they have much more to offer than just a port in a storm...

Sitting nearly 800 nautical miles off the coast of Portugal, the remote islands of the Azores have been a mid-Atlantic haven for sailors for centuries. Christopher Columbus was forced to take shelter from a storm there in 1493, Joshua Slocum stopped off on route to becoming the first person to sail single-handedly around the world in 1895 and Robin Knox-Johnston is known to favour a tipple at the archipelago’s most famous drinking hole, Peter Café Sport.

Volcanoes, like the Capelinhos one, have created a lush, dramatic landscape.
Credit: Zodebala via Getty Images

Comprising nine volcanic islands – São Miguel, Santa Maria, Faial, Terceira, Graciosa, São Jorge, Pico, Flores and Corvo – the Azores’ geographical position means that a large proportion of superyachts have also paid a visit. Horta on the island of Faial – where the harbour is lined by murals painted by superstitious sailors who believed this would grant them a safe onward passage – is a common stop for refuelling but few choose to venture further afield. “It’s surprising that 75 per cent of the boats that cross the Atlantic to go to the Med stop in there, but we were told we were only the second boat that has done an owners’ trip outside of Horta,” says Captain John Crupi of 45-metre Dorothea III, who spent nearly six weeks in the Azores in 2018 during the yacht’s 20-month circumnavigation.

Superyacht Dorothea III.
Credit: Dorothea III

Duncan Sweet of Mid Atlantic Yacht Services, who helped to plan Dorothea III’s visit, believes the Azores just aren’t on the radar of most owners. “I think it has never really been advanced as a serious cruising destination because the Mediterranean and the Caribbean have so much to offer,” he says. “Owners think, ‘Oh I’ll be in the Caribbean for the winter and then do next summer in the Med,’ and those are the parameters that they look at. They never think about the Canaries or the Azores.”

But perhaps owners are missing a trick and with Covid-19 reshaping priorities, the Azores might finally get their chance to shine. “For sheer beauty, it rivals French Polynesia,” says Crupi. “There is so much variety in the islands, both onshore and in the water in terms of diving and whale watching. It is a unique destination, and I would go back in a heartbeat.”

The waters surrounding the islands are filled with marine life, such as whales and dolphins.
Credit: George Karbus Photography via Getty Images

The underwater attractions are what drew Dorothea III to the Azores, as her owner is a sportfishing fanatic, but there is something for everyone. “The Azores has incredibly rich and diverse marine life with 25 species of whale and dolphin visiting throughout the year,” says Neal Bateman, head of yachting projects at Cookson Adventures. “The chance of sightings is virtually guaranteed; there are sperm whales throughout the year, and the best time to spot blue whales is between March and June.”

The Azores act as a magnet for marine life in the Atlantic, not only because they are on the migration route for many big animals but also because of their geographical location. Set on the triple junction of the Eurasian, American and African plates on the Atlantic Ocean, the surrounding seamounts provide an underwater oasis. “The first thing that guests need to understand is exactly how deep and amazingly unique these waters are. It’s so different to the Caribbean, it’s completely different to the Bahamas,” says Sweet. “There’s a lot of deep water but every island also has beaches where there is a gentle slope. You can do snorkelling and shallow-water diving, or you can go deep-water diving to the extent of the abilities and equipment of the guest or yacht.”

Dorothea III spent nearly six weeks in the Azores in 2018 during the yacht’s 20-month circumnavigation.
Credit: Dorothea III

With such abundant marine life the islands are a magnet for research, and Cookson Adventures recommends visiting yachts get involved. “We partner with leading marine biologists who take clients out with them to help register important data on the migration pattern of whales and record sightings,” says Bateman. “After lunch back on the yacht, the biologists interpret and explain the data they’ve helped record.” One such project is researching sicklefin devil rays, which congregate in large groups in the Azores every summer. “Very little is known about this mysterious and beautiful species of ray, and it is a unique opportunity to take part in studying and recording them,” adds Bateman.

The island’s volcanic landscapes also lend themselves to a bevy of adventure activities on dry land – from paragliding to horseback riding, and the hiking opportunities are ample. “The land is pretty steep, I mean these are volcanoes and they look like volcanoes,” says Sweet. For the ultimate challenge, Sweet recommends taking on 2,351-metre dormant volcano Mount Pico. “It’s like climbing stairs. It will take you about two and a half hours to get from the end of the summit trail to the top, but it’s worth it. The best way to do it is to go with a guide and stay overnight so you can watch the sunrise.”

The northern coast of Flores shows the characteristic steep topography.
Credit: tane-mahuta via Getty Images

For those that are keener on heading down than up, Bateman recommends descending from Serra do Topo to Fajã de Santo Cristo and Fajã dos Cubres on the island of São Jorge. “It is a two- to three-hour descent with dramatic views of Mount Pico and the ocean below throughout,” he says. “At the end of the hike you are rewarded by being able to swim and kayak in the natural lakes that were formed by lava flowing into the ocean and collapsing cliffs.”

One factor that potentially puts off visitors is the unpredictable nature of the weather, but Crupi argues this shouldn’t be a factor. “The thing that brings summertime to Europe is the Azores High, which means high pressure basically sits over the Azores. When you are in the ridge of a high-pressure system you don’t have weather, it is sunny and beautiful. When we were there it was flat and calm.” Sweet adds that even when the weather is changeable there is always shelter available. “You need to keep an eye on the weather, like you do in most places, but there are always good anchorage options,” he says. “Each island will have at least one or two places in lee of the island when there’s a bit of swell around.”

Rays congregate in large groups in the Azores every summer.
Credit: Gerard Soury Via Getty Images.

The Azores’ climate and volcanic soil provide the perfect conditions for produce to flourish. The islands are famous for their flowers, in particular hydrangeas, which have become a symbol of the region. “You can see wild flowers here 11 and a half months of the year,” says Sweet. “Even after you have lived here for 30-plus years, the flowers are still extraordinary.” The soil also provides perfect growing conditions for fruit and vegetables. “There is a lot of organic food grown locally. Tomatoes that look like a tomato and taste like a tomato, strawberries that taste like strawberries, which I think is becoming increasingly rare in the world,” he adds. And while the islands may not be home to the Michelin-starred dining establishments of the Med, that doesn’t mean there is a lack of quality. “It is very much a home-cooked, local restaurant environment,” says Sweet. “There is no silver service. It’s a knife, fork, spoon and if you are a lucky a linen napkin. But the food is superb.”

The waterfalls of Poço da Alagoinha on Flores.
Credit: Marcobarone via Getty Images

The islands also have a strong history in viniculture, with vines thought to have been introduced to the islands as early as the 15th century. Thirty-three grape varieties are now grown on the island producing both red and white wines, and there are ample opportunities for tastings. 

“On Pico Island the Azores Wine Company is a cutting-edge contemporary winery, with spectacular views out over the ocean and the vines growing in the volcanic landscape,” recommends Bateman. “This destination is world-renowned for its volcanic wines and to have a private tasting with the master winemaker in this unique location is a very different experience to wine-tasting in the more traditional vineyards of mainland Europe.”

The islet of Vila Franca do Campo, formed by the crater of an underwater volcano.
Credit: ARoxo via Getty Images.

There is no question that despite being considered part of Europe, most experiences in the Azores are likely to be very different to the traditional Med milk-run. “It’s not Capri,” says Crupi. “It is definitely a destination for owners that want to push the envelope in terms of cruising and going to explore the islands.” However, perhaps that is part of their charm and like the adventurous sailors who once sought shelter on the archipelago’s shores, it is time to push the boundaries once more.

This feature is taken from the October 2021 issue of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.

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