Amid the immense blue Atlantic Ocean, at almost 1,400 kilometers off the coast of Portugal, Mother Nature created a mysterious archipelago of outstanding beauty - the Azores.
The archipelago consists of nine islands of volcanic origin and home to unspoiled nature. You'll find beautiful forests, crater lakes, dormant volcanoes, green hills, and even vineyards. Here one can still find true relaxation, authentic villages, and plenty of opportunities for outdoor sports and adventures such as hiking, snorkeling, and canyoning!
The Azores was always on my bucket list. I saw many pictures of its fabulous nature and its colors. And I was always fascinated by its volcanic origin and position in the middle of the ocean. So, when I proposed to my husband and my kids of 11 and 8 years to visit the Azores, they were all immediately enthusiastic!
The next question was, which island(s) are we going to visit?
The Azores consist of three island groups, the eastern (São Miguel and Santa Maria), the central (Terceira, Graciosa, São Jorge, Pico, and Faial), and the western islands (Flores and Corvo).
As it was our first visit to the Azores and we were traveling with young children, we thought it would be best to stick to the main (and largest) island São Miguel. But, when we found out that we could easily move from São Miguel to the neighboring island of Santa Maria, we also decided to include this island, which was, by the way, a great choice!
The starting point of our tour was Ponta Delgada, the capital of São Miguel. Whitewashed houses, monasteries, and churches adorn the rolling hills surrounding the city, while cobblestone streets decorate the center. Find a postcard from Ponta Delgada, and look for a picture of the Portas da Cidade. This triple black-and-white entrance gate was built in the 18th-century and served as the city's symbol. The beautiful square is the perfect base for a walk in the center. Besides, Ponta Delgada is the ideal spot for buying local products such as ceramic dishes, vases, and hand-woven blankets.
São Miguel offers a myriad of attractions and exciting things to do, from historical monuments and authentic villages, countless sportive activities, and many opportunities to learn about the gastronomy and cultural traditions of the island.
So which activities did we choose?
I admit, choosing our favorite excursions was not an easy task. We did not want to overload our days with activities, we liked as well to relax with the family and experience real island life. So, we decided to make one excursion per day, either a sports adventure or visiting one of the natural attractions of the islands.
Some excursions we did on our own, but most outdoor activities we did with a private guide (or in a small group tour). The reason for opting for private tours was that in current COVID-19 times, we preferred not to end up in large groups of people.
As well we liked the idea of a personal guide to have more flexibility (you know kids are kids, and sometimes they don't row in the same direction as you would like to)… The tours included transport, so we neither had to rent a car (for the first part of our trip).
Our first adventure was dolphin and whale watching! With more than 20 different whale species, the Azores are one of the best places in the world for whale watching. We spotted the resident common dolphins and the majestic whales. A lot of excitement!
We did one full-day private tour (with chauffeur and guide) to the Sete Cidades - one of the seven wonders of Portugal. This beautiful freshwater lake (Lagoa das Sete Cidades) is located in a vast volcanic crater and consists of two lakes - Lagoa Azul and Lagoa Verde. As their names already say, they are filled with sparkling blue and green-colored water. We followed one of the hiking trails around the lakes to explore its breathtaking surroundings and went paddle-boarding (SUP) to indulge in the views from the water. It was our first time on a SUP, and after some first unbalanced moments, we managed to get the swing into it. The children did much better than their parents!
Included in the tour was also a visit to a pineapple plantation. Did you know that the Azores is one of Europe's only regions to produce the exotic pineapple? Even though the island has not a typical tropic and sunny climate (indeed, it gets steady rainfall throughout the year), the Azores managed to find the recipe to cultivate this vitamin C-rich fruit by using greenhouses! The visit was an exciting family outing with lots of information and time to taste!
Our transfer to Santa Maria was one of the highlights of our trip. As we would only stay two nights in Santa Maria, we decided to take the airplane. Especially the children were very excited to take this short flight of just 30 minutes. For those who love slow travel, there is also a ferry that connects the two islands. The crossing takes 3h45min.
Santa Maria is known as the "island of the sun." This is because it has a warmer and drier climate than the rest of the Azores Islands. As a result, it has a very varied nature, and you find all kinds of colors around the island: white sandy beaches, green pastures, vineyards, whitewashed houses with red roofs, and multi-colored flowers.
Upon arrival, we enjoyed the friendly atmosphere in Santa Maria's main town Vila do Porto, which was our base for the next few days.
The excursion we all loved to do in Santa Maria was a snorkeling adventure with the majestic local manta rays! Well, the experience exceeded our expectations! It was an amazing 3-hour adventure in the "Baixa do Ambrósio" (Ambrósio Reef). Apart from manta rays, we saw many other marine animals and enjoyed these hours on the sea to the fullest!
The rest of our time, we enjoyed the slow pace of the island. Santa Maria is smaller and calmer than São Miguel. Visiting it in the middle of our holidays was a well-appreciated break to enjoy family time and many local delicacies. We tried the traditional dish "Alheira" - pork and chicken sausage - served with a fried egg on top! In addition, we tasted the delicious local cantaloupe melon and the "biscoitos de orelha" (ear biscuits, named after its shape), that became the favorites of our children.
The return to São Miguel went as smoothly as going there. This time, however, we were not staying in Ponta Delgada but in Furnas. We decided for the last days of our trip to rent a car. Renting a car in São Miguel is easy, and driving is safe. After a short and beautiful drive we arrived in Furnas, a place of incredible natural beauty. It seems magical, as if you step inside a fairy tale book. Also, the village itself has a calm and charming atmosphere. I loved it!
Next on our bucket list (the one of my husband) was canyoning! So what is canyoning?
Canyoning is an activity that combines climbing, swimming, and hiking. We drove (in about 20 minutes) to the Nature Park Ribeira dos Caldeirões, boasting all kinds of vegetation, crystal water pools, and rock formations.
After a briefing of the experienced guides and getting our canyoning gear, we started with a short walk. We then toured an amazing canyon, passing a water slide, waterfalls, and even made some jumps into the water. An all-experience adventure!
There is no need for previous experience, and kids as young as 8-years old will enjoy this excursion! Thanks to our fantastic guides - who were patient and friendly - it ended up to be our most liked holiday activity.
For the rest of our stay in São Miguel, we made relaxing visits in the Furnas area. We visited Caldeiras das Furnas (well you need to stand the sulfur coming from the steaming geysers). We enjoyed a picnic at Lagoa das Furnas, a fantastic yellow-green colored lake. Also, we went for a short hike at Lagoa do Fogo and explored with snorkel and fins marine wildlife near the fishing village Vila Franca do Campo, on the South coast.
As well, we took a road trip to the off-the-beaten northeast side of São Miguel along some of the most impressive coastline roads and awe-inspiring lookout points. Our tour included a visit to one of the only two tea plantations remaining in Europe. This was a fascinating experience for us all, as we could take part in the different stages of tea production, from picking to packing. The tea was organic and so flavorful that we bought lots of tea for home.
I would absolutely recommend a holiday to the Azores with (young) children. The islands we visited are so varied, and there is so much to do for everyone. The islands are not crowded, and there is beautiful nature, water, and outdoor activities to enjoy.
I personally suggest not to overload your days with tours as children get tired more quickly and they need some "play time” and rest from time to time. The private and small group tours were very well organized and had great guides. They were so patient and got along very well with the children.