The National Geographic Center for Sustainable Destinations has named the Azores islands as the world’s second most appealing islands destination in it fourth annual Destination Scorecard survey. A panel of 522 experts aided by George Washington University reviewed conditions on 111 islands and archipelagos. The Azores were outscored only by Faroe islands, and received the title of “Authentic, unspoiled, and likely to remain so.”
The Azores are the closet point in Europe to North America. The islands were created by volcanic activity hundreds of millions of years ago, building an environment that is both unexpected and varied. From the 7,700-foot peak of Pico island, to the blue and green lakes at Sete Cidades on São Miguel, the Azores offers a lush and sculptured landscape
One of the wonders of the Azores Islands is the bio-diversity of its trees and plants, brought here from around the world. Despite their proximity, each island has its own look, feel and climate. The fauna can vary dramatically from island to island.
In 1995, the European Union recognized the people of Portugal and the Azores Islands for their commitment to the environment, as evidenced in the numerous nature reserves and protected parks and forests.
The Azores began, for the most part, as lava rock. Then the winds brought grasses and bits of organic debris. By the time humans arrived, plants and evergreen forests had sprouted throughout the islands. Wandering sailors then brought their own new plantings, such as the cryptomeria conifer (Japanese cedar) from Japan. Of the more than 800 species of plants now living on the islands, only 300 of them are native to the region. Cedar trees, heather, ling, mountain grapes, white wood, ginger, dogwood and the tamujo bush are a few of the local species. The newcomers include the acacia tree, flowering hydrangea and azaleas, camellia, incense and other ornamental plants.
Birds are abundant throughout the islands, with more than 150 species to add to one’s “life list.” Birders can listen for the night calls of the cagarro or watch for one of the 35 species which breed here--seagulls, plovers, terns, chaffinches, sparrows, bullfinches, buzzards, goshawks and doves. The priolo, a native species, the hawk, blackbird, wood pigeon and red garajau are also common.
The volcanic genesis of the Azores is unmistakable. Thousands of years of vegetation cannot hide the deep craters, some of which are filled with deep lakes today. 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, tea, and fruit orchards. Some coastlines are strewn with black rocks, rugged and often plunging hundreds of feet into the emerald sea. But, there are plenty of welcoming bays, natural pools, beaches, and inlets for swimming and sunbathing (the water temperature is warm enough year-round). Watersports, fishing and whale watching are widely available. Equally popular is yachting, horseback riding, cycling and hiking.