17 June 2013

Europe's best kept secret?

Vicky Power has one of the best experiences of her life in the little known islands of the Azores...

"You're going where?" was the inevitable response I received when I told friends about my upcoming holiday in the Azores. The Portuguese islands seem to be one of Europe's biggest secrets. Nine hundred miles off the coast of Portugal, they're definitely off the beaten path, but what most tourists obviously haven't cottoned on to is the fact they're only a four-hour, reasonably priced plane trip from Gatwick, so they're as easy to get to as a package holiday destination but with a heck of a lot more culture and nature to offer.

From what I'd heard about the islands - lush, rocky and volcanic, with bubbling hot springs and crater lakes - they seemed quite exotic compared to most Euro-destinations I'd been to. They aren't tropical; you can swim in summer and we'd be visiting a thermal pool, so into the suitcase went the swimsuit along with an anorak and comfortable shoes. We were planning to bike, hike, boat, eat and just take in the unusual scenery.

Our flight from Gatwick with SATA was perfectly comfortable and, best of all, scheduled for the civilised hour of 2.20pm, so our first day wasn't spent yawning because we'd had to get up for a dawn flight. We landed in Ponta Delgada, the biggest town (still only 64,000 population!) on the nine islands, and changed to a smaller plane to fly on to the island of Terceira.

We calculated that three islands in a week would give us a good taste of the Azores. For our first night we treated ourselves to islands' first five-star hotel, the Angra Marina Hotel, which is built flat against a cliff to give everyone a view of the spectacular harbour and sea. It's a 130-room complex with six separate apartments a business centre. Our first full day's sightseeing was spent wandering around the lovely town of Angra do Herismo, a UNESCO World Heritage site whose cobbled streets and low colourful buildings were very Portuguese in flavour.

Once we got out of town in our rental car, however, the green rolling farmland dotted with cows and divided by dry stone walls looked just like Cumbria. We drove up Monte Brasil, the remains of a mostly submerged crater of a volcano, for a great view of Angra and had a picnic lunch and wander. On another day we visited Biscoitos, a sweet seaside town with pocket-sized vineyards divided by black walls made of lava rock. On the seafront is a dramatic arrangement of giant black rocks that make natural swimming pools that Azoreans flock to in summer.

The next day we flew to the island of Faial, called the blue island because of its proliferation of hydrangea. We booked into the Faial Resort Hotel in the tiny port of Horta and upon walking onto the balcony of the room were treated to the most amazing sight - the giant Mount Pico volcano soaring 2,351 metres skywards on Pico Island next door. The volcano dominates the skyline and is something to behold, even when half-shrouded in mist as it was on the next morning. You can get a boat to Pico and hike it, if you're super-sporty.

On Faial we booked onto a whale watching tour, which was not just a highlight of the trip, but possibly of my life. Our guide was a salty sea dog called Norberto Diver, who kitted us out in waterproofs and took us bouncing over the waves in a RIB (rigid inflatable boat) that was an experience akin to riding a rollercoaster. It was a white knuckle ride of such fun, and seeing sperm whales and dolphins was the icing on the cake."

More to come tomorrow...


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