The central islands of the Azores form the ‘Ilhas Triangulo’ – a triangle of islands which are both culturally and geographically close. Here are some of our favourite things to do on Pico, Faial and Sao Jorge.
The island of Pico is most famous for her wines, and the Museu do Vinho in the main town of Madalena is a celebration of the island’s viticultural heritage. Pico’s vineyards flourished during the early years of her settlement – many of the original settlers were Flemish; evacuees escaping the devastation of the Hundred Years War. Their influence on wine production can still be seen today through their unique method of protecting their vines. They constructed square pens from the basalt rocks which litter the landscape – known as Currais, these pens retain the heat of the day to keep the vines warm at night, and hold back the worst of the wind and rain during the Azorean winters. Following a series of local protection laws, UNESCO granted the vineyards World Heritage status in 2004. Opening hours at the Museu do Vinho are Tuesday to Sunday, 10:00 to 17:30.
Our Whale and Wines on Pico holiday includes a tour of the vineyards with our resident guide – and if you’re visiting in September, you can also participate in the grape harvest; harvest days are organised directly through the museum.
It’s hard to resist the draw of Pico’s mountain – Portugal’s highest peak at 2,351m. It’s a hard hike both technically and physically which normally takes around seven to eight hours to complete. We recommend tackling the mountain with our resident guides – they’ll help with navigation if it’s cloudy, set a good pace on the ascent, and they’ll advise on the best line choices on the tricky descent. They’ll also arrange the necessary climbing permit in advance.
Up above Madalena, high on the slopes of Mount Pico are the lava caves at Gruta das Torres. In Azores-terms the caves are quite young, formed around 1500 years ago. Explorations of the cave system only began in-earnest in the 1990s; it’s total length still not 100% confirmed but it’s thought to be in the region of 5km. Opening hours are 10:00 to 18:00; the caves are closed on Wednesdays. Visits are guided and I’d recommend booking in advance. Be sure to wear grippy footwear as the caves can be slippery, and take along a jacket as it can be quite cold underground.
The north-coast harbour town of Sao Roque has one of the best-preserved examples of a Fabrica da Belaia, or whaling factory from the era of whale hunting. The hunting ban in the 1980s had huge social and economic impacts across all the islands, with over 175,000 Azoreans emigrating to the US (over 30% of the population of the islands). Sao Roque’s Museu da Industria Baleeira is a key educational tool in understanding this turbulent period in the islands’ history.
More of the island’s whaling history is preserved at the Museu dos Baleeiros – the whalers’ museum in Lajes do Pico. When hunting ended, the spotters who’d manned the island’s ‘Vigia’ whaling lookouts were left unemployed. French naturalist Serge Viallelle combined the spotters’ skills with his own passion for marine conservation, and demonstrated that whale tourism offered a more sustainable future than whale hunting.
Just along the road from the whalers’ museum is Pico’s Centro de Artes e de Ciencias do Mar. This former whaling factory has been repurposed as a multimedia education centre, with exhibits on the biology and ecology of the marina life of the Azores. Opening hours are 9:00 to 18:00 monday to Friday.
Heading down to Ribeirinha at the eastern-tip of the island, you’d be forgiven for missing the small workshop of Barro & Barro. Brainchild of Dutch artist Marjella Vermazeren, their pottery, ceramics and jewelry make ideal gifts for family and friends.
Crossing the channel to Faial – this unassuming island has played a key-role in Portuguese history, and in the wider history of Europe and the Americas. The Museu da Horta has a number of excellent exhibits on the island’s history – Horta was an important resupply point for transatlantic traders shipping gold between mainland Portugal and her colonies in Brazil. In the late 1800s, trans-Atlantic telegraph cables began connecting Europe with the east coasts of the USA and Canada. The cables terminated in Horta and each of the big players (Germany, the UK and the USA) built an Azores headquarters in the town. Away from history, the museum also exhibits works by Azorean artists Antonio Dacosta and Jose Julio de Souza Pinto, and Lisbon-born poet Mario Cesariny. The Museu da Horta’s opening hours are 10:00 to 17:30, Tuesday to Sunday.
The Teatro Faialense will pop up on the Artistas Facebook page quite frequently. Faial’s was the first theatre in the Azores – the original building opened to the public in 1856 before being replaced by the current theatre in 1916. Following a reburbishment in 2003, the Teatro widened it’s remit to become the main theatre space, classical music venue and cinema for the island. Again, their Facebook page is the best place to check for upcoming performances and your hotel’s reception can arrange last-minute tickets.
The Oceanic Cafe is a new edition to Horta’s cultural scene. The ‘Cafe’ in the title is perhaps misleading – Oceanic is a bar-cum-music venue providing a much-needed stage for Faial’s music community. Their Oceanic Store is also a great place to pick-up wildlife and whale-related souvenirs.
It’s a short walk from the centre of Horta to Casa dos Dabney overlooking Porto Pim Bay – former home of the 19th Century US Consul General John Dabney. John himself was instrumental in connecting the island to the outside world by telegraph: west to Boston, and east to Ponta Delgada and mainland Europe. Horta was a first port of call for New England whaling ships – once connected by telegraph, the town became a crucial weather station for the whaling industry, providing valuable up-to-the-minute data on Atlantic weather patterns. By the height of the American Civil War, John’s descendants had accumulated a large fleet of merchant ships and virtually controlled shipping between the east coast of the US and Europe. They encouraged Union ships to use Horta as a safe haven for refitting before heading into battle.
A ten-minute drive north of Horta brings you to the Jardim Botanical do Faial. Conservation is at the heart of the gardens – to preserve and maintain a collection of endemic Azorean plantlife. To date, their Azores Seedbank project has preserved sixty-percent of the endemic and native flora species from across the nine islands. A recent success was the discovery of Myosotis Azorica, the Azorean ‘Forget-me-not’, thought to be extinct until a small population was found in 2014. Opening hours are 10:00 to 18:00 every day.
The western peninsula of Capelinhos is one of the Azores’ most-arresting landscapes. Capelinhos is the site of the last major volcanic eruption in the Azores in 1957/58. The Capelinhos Interpretation Centre houses images, newspaper reports and archive film footage from the period, helping to explain geological processes at work during the eruption, and the devastating human impact on the residents of Faial. Opening hours are 10:00 to 18:00 (14:00 to 18:00 on Saturdays, and entry is 10€ per person.
Completing the triangle of islands with Sao Jorge – a beautifully rugged island which we recommend to anyone that’s serious about their walking holidays. Our guides Dina and Jorge know the island’s trails intimately – our favourite walks begins on the summit of Pico do Pedro, following the line of volcanic cones which form the high central spine of the island. Sao Jorge grew out of a tectonic plate boundary which extends 200km east, (all the way to the main island of Sao Miguel). The walk takes you directly along top of this plate boundary, before a steep descent brings you down the spectacular cliffs of the north coast. The trail ends on one of the island’s famous fajas – Fajã do Ouvidor, home to one of the best natural swimming pools in the Azores: the Piscina Natural Simao Dias.
Away from the walking trails, you could take a drive to the village of Calheta to visit the Museu Francisco de Lacerda. Their permanent exhibits focus on the cultural heritage of the island – Sao Jorges’ agricultural history, her textiles and her ceramics (mainly from the 19th and 20th Centuries). The museum also hosts local literary events and music recitals – there’s an up-to-date events calendar on their website. Francisco de Lacerda (the man) was a Calheta-born composer and conductor, and one of the founders of the Lisbon Philharmonic.
Heading up to the northern-tip of the island, you’ll come to the Parque Florestal das Sete Fontes – Sao Jorge’s forest park and arboretum, which is home to various species of cryptomerias, hydrangeas and azaleas. Weirdly, the inclement weather really adds something: the mist clings to the underside of the Japanese Cedar, the rain encourages the aromas from the aloe and fuchsias to mingle, and you’ll probably have the whole park to yourselves. It’s short walk from the park to the miradouro on the summit of Pico da Velha, which has a wonderful view out across the channel to neighbouring Pico.
If you’ve ever visited the Azores before, you’ll know how proud Azoreans are of their cheeses. Sao Jorge’s cheese is probably my favourite – a dark yellow, semi-hard cow’s milk cheese which is usually aged for three months. Again, history thanks the Flemish settlers who brought their cheese-making methods with them from Flanders. Guided tours of the União de Cooperativas Agricolas de Lacticínios de São Jorge take you the whole production process from beginning to end, and cost 5€ per person. It’s usually better to book in advance through your hotel, but it’s always worth popping into the shop in passing as the friendly staff will often take you on a spur-of-the-moment tour if they can.
We specialise in tailor-made holidays to the nine islands of the Azores. Call Paul on 017687 721020 to begin planning your personalised trip.
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