To be perfectly honest and quite ashamedly, having spent 25 years in the travel industry, I wasn’t familiar with The Azores or even know where they actually were! Since working at Sunvil my knowledge of these islands has improved but to get to really know them I was going to have to take a trip there. So, in May I was lucky enough to be invited on a familiarisation trip to visit the archipelago way out in the Atlantic. At least I now know where they’re located, in fact they are 800kms off the coast of Portugal.

A short hop between the islands A short hop between the islands

Where did you go?

There are nine islands that make up the Azores and given our schedule of a week, we were only able to visit three; Sao Miguel, Terceira and Graciosa. We departed London Gatwick on Saturday evening and flew the three and a half hours direct to the capital of Sao Miguel, Ponta Delgada. Another thing learnt – the Azores have their own airline!

What was your favourite property?

We visited many properties across the three islands during our visit and all were very unique from coastal, countryside or town locations all offering accommodation ideal for families, couples looking for the perfect retreat or base to explore each island. It was very difficult to identify a favourite as they all had their USPs (unique selling points) but of the many we visited or stayed at, the White Exclusive Suites & Villa and the Do Colegio Hotel, both on Sao Miguel, struck a chord with me.


White Exclusive Suites & Villa – as the name suggests, the décor here is a brilliant calming white from the whitewashed walls, floors and expansive terraces. This contemporary boutique hotel, remodelled in an 18th century building is located on Sao Miguel’s south coast and offers stylish, minimalist accommodation with amazing ocean views from the terraces and infinity pool. Much of the furnishings are created from driftwood which compliments the cool décor of the rooms which are furnished with cooling cotton and linen fabrics. From entering the reception and lounge area through the inconspicuous roadside entrance, you get a sense of light and space and a feeling of contemporary luxury. I could very easily see myself staying here. After a day exploring Sao Miguel, returning ‘home’ to watch the sun set over the Atlantic, sat by the log fire pit on the terrace – obligatory vodka and tonic in hand.


Do Colegio Hotel – this hotel is located in the centre of Ponta Delgada and has recently undergone a major refurbishment. The building was once home to the Regional School of Music and there are subtle references to it’s musical past throughout the hotels’ décor. As you enter the hotel, many of the building’s original features are still visible including the impressive stone arches and flooring in the reception and lounge areas. I spent my last evening here and was suitably impressed by service throughout the hotel from reception to the restaurant (‘A Colmeia’) - more about our meal later on in this article.  I stayed in a Superior room which had high ceilings, contemporary, luxurious décor and panoramic views over the rooftops of the city from the large French-style windows. Despite being in the city centre, with just the subtle background noise of ‘Friday night’, I had one of the best night’s sleep. Maybe it was my body relaxing after seven days ‘full-on’ exploring or simply the luxurious, king-size bed (complete with a music sheet effect wall-covering above the headboard) that helped me drift off to a blissful night’s sleep.

White Exclusive Suites & Villa White Exclusive Suites & Villa
White Exclusive Suites & Villa White Exclusive Suites & Villa
Do Colegio Hotel, Sao Miguel Do Colegio Hotel, Sao Miguel
Lounge, Do Colegio Hotel Lounge, Do Colegio Hotel
Superior room, Do Colegio Hotel Superior room, Do Colegio Hotel

What was your favourite viewpoint?

Given the unique landscape of the Azores, there were so many great views across the islands. On the largest of the islands, Sao Miguel, one of the most iconic viewpoints is down to the small town of Sete Cidades which is located in the centre of a massive volcanic crater and on the edge of the ‘Blue Lake’. The view didn’t disappoint and after seeing so many images, it was a visual treat to see it with my own eyes.

Another viewpoint that captivated me was in the lesser-known region of Ribeira Grande, an agricultural town on the north coast of Sao Miguel. The dramatic coastline with it’s black shingle beach, was edged by the power of the Atlantic Ocean. It’s understandable to see why this part of the island is so popular with surfers. Despite a slightly overcast day, it was ideal to spend a few moments here, listening to the roar and crash of the waves and taking in the splendour of this part of the island.

Sete Cidades, Sao Miguel Sete Cidades, Sao Miguel
A view out to the Atlantic A view out to the Atlantic

Where did you have your favourite meal and what did you have?

After a delay in Graciosa, we only had a short time on the island of Terceira and had an early start the next day with a 7am flight back to Sao Miguel. So, despite the tired legs we ventured along the seafront of Angra do Heroismo and came across the delightful Captain’s Table restaurant. Tempted by the offerings written on the blackboard outside,we entered through the small red door and were pleasantly surprised to find a few free spare tables in this quirky family-run restaurant. To herald our arrival, a small dog in a basket in the corner, barked as if to say ‘hello, come on in and make yourself comfortable’. As well as the eclectic decorations, the aromas coming from the kitchen made us feel very welcome - tired legs were now replaced with expectant stomachs. The owner/chef was Turkish and also a keen sailor and his menu reflected both his Turkish origins and seafaring travels. You know you’ve stumbled across a good restaurant when the choices on the menu leave you struggling to make up your mind. After much consternation and recommendations from the waitress, I chose the 40 day-aged beef, served on crusty bread with a garlic sauce for a starter, followed by the most delicious, tender lamb (my thoughts and taste buds were back on the Greek island of Kefalonia). As much as my eyes and taste buds were crying out for the homemade chocolate mousse, my overly satisfied belly, was having none of it. This was something I would regret later. I could have truly stayed here all evening (not just to try and make room for the dessert) but the restaurant had a lovely, homely ambience with the chef coming out to talk to his guests not only about the food but to regale stories of his many sailings from the Azores to the UK and Mediterranean.
Back at the hotel with my 4.30am alarm call looming and struggling to sleep, all I could think of was the chocolate mousse.


My second favourite meal was dinner at the ‘A Colmeia’ restaurant in the Do Colegio Hotel, Sao Miguel. As a rule, when visiting any new destination, I try to eat out at local restaurants to get a real 'flavour' of the area. On this ocassion, the hotel's restaurant (which is also open to the public), came very highly recommended. It was Friday evening and the restaurant was very busy but we were able to get a table just next to the indoor courtyard swimming pool. The waiters and waitresses were every friendly and attentive and talked you through the whole menu. Again, with too much choice, a large vodka and tonic was called for to help me make up my mind. Having never tried octopus, I was tempted to try the octopus and white beans encased in filo pastry and was pleasantly surprised at the delicate flavour combination. For my main course I chose the seafood risotto, after all, if you're staying on an island in the middle of the Atlantic, the fish has got to be good. This was proving to be a popular choice as many of the tables around us had opted for the same. It was nicely presented, as were all the dishes and was served in an earthenware dish on a wooden board. The risotto was perfect. A rich, creamy texture with a subtle taste and aroma of the ocean, topped off with crisp goujons of squid. I could have easily eaten that again but tonight I wasn't going to deny myself dessert. There really was only one choice for me and it had to include chocolate. Not only did my dessert include chocolate, it also had pineapple, coconut, a soft biscuit crumb all topped off with a rich, hot chocolate sauce. Job done!

Captain's Table, Terceira Captain's Table, Terceira
A warm welcome from 'Reuben' A warm welcome from 'Reuben'
Greek style lamb Greek style lamb
Octopus and white beans, A Colmeia restaurant Octopus and white beans, A Colmeia restaurant
Seafood risotto, A Colmeia restaurant Seafood risotto, A Colmeia restaurant

What was your favourite activity?

The Azores offer a range of activities for all ages and all levels of fitness and all encompassing the diverse terrain and landscape. These include; Jeep tours, canyoning, hiking, cycling and kayaking but the one activity that draws tourists to the islands is whale and dolphin watching. Like so many people I adored David Attenborough's 'Blue Planet' series and here I was waiting to board our catamaran to hopefully spot one of the ocean's giants or a pod of playful dolphins - or both. There are a number of companies that organise tours from Sao Miguel and all of them offer expert advice and information from marine biologists, prior to and during your excursion. Our trip was onboard a catamaran but you can also take this excursion using a Zodiac (rib boat).  As we left the harbour we were given a briefing from the marine biologists on some of the species of whale and dolphins we could be likely to spot. Four miles out to sea with Ponta Delgada a faint shadow on the horizon behind us, the endless, deep blue of the Atlantic stretched ahead of us. The expecation was high and the slightest ripple on the surface of the ocean had everyone craning their necks with cameras poised. After nearly 40 minutes at sea, an indistinct message crackled over the Captain's radio and he sped up and veered to the right. The message had come from one of the many whale-spotters situated on the island, who were scanning the horizons for any activity with powerful binoculars. Something had been seen breaking the surface of the water and that's where we were heading. We were going to have to wait a while if the whale was to resurface as they usually dive to great depths before appearing again. The wait was intense, the Captain had cut the boats engine and the silence was eerily deafening. We were all scanning the relativley calm surface, waiting and waiting...

Catamaran, Ponta Delgada harbour Catamaran, Ponta Delgada harbour
Scanning the horizon Scanning the horizon

After what seemed a lifetime, there was another excited call over the radio and the Captain signalled to his left, running to the other side of the boat, we caught sight of a large blue shape just breaching the water. Not a dynamic leap, just a graceful rising, but enough to witness the majesty of this giant of the ocean - a blue whale none the less. Alas, the moment was over too soon and not even a chance to capture it on camera but it's a sight I had wished for and something I will remember for years to come.

Feeling buoyed by one sighting, surely we would see more? Another twenty minutes passed and another sighting just on the horizon. This was more frantic with numerous shapes jumping from the sea and as we got closer it turned out to be a large pod of dolphins.

 

Sunvil has two Whale watching itineraries from the Azores -  Whale watching (A) and Whale watching (B).

One of many dolphins - up close and personal One of many dolphins - up close and personal

Highlight of your trip?

There were many great experiences during my time on the three islands. Our 4km hike in the southeast of Sao Miguel, in Faial da Terra. The trail is lined by exotic and luxurious vegetation. During the walk we stopped by the beautiful waterfall of Salto do Prego. I loved taking the short inter-island flights, with the longest, Sao Miguel to Terceira only taking 25 minutes. This seemed to be the most popular and quickest way of getting to each island, especially with the locals. But the ultimate highlight has to be the whale watching experience and if I had more time during our trip, would have happily done it again...and again!


 

General feel of the islands?

Having no real expectation of the islands, I was pleasantly surprised by what I experienced over the 7 days. Although all the islands were similar in their landscape and architecture, albeit on a different scale, I could see how they had their own appeal for all ages and interests. For me they were a mix of South America meets Europe with a dash of Jurassic Park thrown in for good measure.


The Sunvil Family
The Sunvil Family
The Sunvil Family

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