If you like the kind of memories that come with a surge of adrenaline, these islands are for you: up-close whale-watching, dramatic bullfights, and challenging hikes atop dormant volcanoes with sweeping views.
The volcanic genesis of the Azores is unmistakable. Thousands of years of vegetation cannot hide the deep craters, many of which are now filled with deep lakes. Geysers and sulfur springs are common. The Azores are also known for their rolling landscapes, sprinkled with tiny settlements of whitewashed or black stone houses. The hillsides are planted with vineyards, fruit orchards, and tea plantations. Some coastlines are strewn with black rocks, rugged and often plunging hundreds of feet into the emerald sea.
On the island of Faial, one finds the remains of a lighthouse marking the site of a yearlong 1957 eruption that gutted the lighthouse, buried a small village, and added about one mile of new shoreline to the island. Today, the area is a natural park, and there is a hiking trial to the rim of the dormant volcano. Meanwhile, the island of Pico (“Peak”) is the highest point in all of Portugal, built on volcanic explosions that are visible in the island’s wild landscapes, soaring peaks, and black cliffs that drop into the sea. The climb up to the 7,700 foot summit can take up to three hours, and the views are worth it. On clear days, the peak can be seen from surrounding islands, with its lava cone rising above the massive volcano.
Whale-watching in the Azores is different than in the U.S. – often meaning a trip out to sea in a small semi-inflatable motorboat in search of the largest mammal on the planet. Perhaps that’s why the islands were named one of the top ten sites on the planet for finding the marine giants. Experienced guides offer insights into the lives of these creatures and, best of all, seeing a whale is almost guaranteed due to a system of spotters along the local mountainsides who radio the boats with the position and number of whales. Local whales include sperm whales, northern bottlenose, pilot, sowerby’s beaked whales, and occasionally orcas.
Bullfighting in Portugal is a festival of horsemanship, elegance, and drama – and unlike in Spain, the bull is not killed. In a Portuguese bullfight a cavaleiro, or rider must place a dart into the bull, delivered by drawing the bull to a charge. Horse and bull then charge at each other, with the horse suddenly veering off to avoid an impact while the rider places a colorful dart exactly in the bull’s back muscle. Locals on the island of Terceira also enjoy an odd sport of tethered bullfighting from May to October, where visitors brave or foolish enough can go a few rounds with a bull on the city streets (imagine the running of the bulls meets bungie jumping).