Activity vacations in the Azores

Activity vacations in the Azores rely on nature. It’s the wild landscapes of this nine-island archipelago that create the opportunities for these adventures – whether that’s the nutrient-rich ocean that’s a playground for whale watching boat trips, the dramatic canyons of Flores, or the flower-strewn hiking trails and vineyards on Pico.

“We have lots of people chatting away with happy faces,” says Paulo Medeiros, reflecting on the reactions of guests on our activity vacation on São Miguel. “You know that guests are out of their comfort zone and that the feeling of doing these activities in nature brings them happiness. It’s something special.”

Paulo is co-founder and guide at our partner Fun Activities Azores. He meticulously designs trips that support the communities and environment you travel through. Over the last few years, his team have been working with local people to set out a new canyoning and hiking trail on São Miguel, easing the pressure on well-worn routes.

Elsewhere, income from whale watching trips funds long-standing marine conservation programmes, while island hopping voyages take you to islands like Corvo – a little-known bird watching outpost that rarely sees the economic and social benefits of tourism. These activity vacations don’t just offer you exciting things to do – they’re designed and led by people who give you real insight into the Azores.

Keep reading to discover our favourite activities in the Azores.

São Miguel

Go whale watching

Whale watching is done right in the Azores, with tours headed up by marine biologists and skippers who have spent all their lives predicting the movements of whales. Some of the boat crews even worked in the whaling industry before switching to conservation. Most whale watching boat trips push off from the sheltered bays of São Miguel.

“You have these very profound encounters where you feel this real connection with wild creatures in their natural environment, but you know you’re not being intrusive,” says Amanda Stafford, founder of the Dolphin and Whale Connection, who runs one of our top Azores tours. “When you’re out, and you’ve got a huge blue or fin whale swimming quite fast, and the boat is going along parallel (but not too close) at quite a speed, and they’re going about their business, on the move – it feels immense on so many levels to be with them.”

Above all, these half-day trips are pretty inspirational. You can help collect data and learn about the challenges that whales face in the Azores and beyond. If you’ve got children with you, it’s a fool proof way to educate and motivate the next generation to look after our oceans.

Try out canyoning & coasteering

Canyoning – a high-adrenalin activity where you rappel down waterfalls, scramble along rivers and through forests, and leap into pools – is especially accessible on São Miguel, thanks to its ever-changing landscapes. If one route is too challenging for comfort, then there’s always another. The deeply forested Ribeira dos Caldeirões Natural Park is an excellent place to start.

“São Miguel is very diverse,” says Paulo Medeiros. “You can have an easy canyoning experience or a more demanding one for more experienced people with 40-45m waterfalls… You have these different levels that bring more possibilities, which is great.”

Coasteering is an exciting experience too, where adventurers can scramble up and jump down rugged coastal routes away from the footpaths. Our vacations match you up with great guides who’ll make sure you’re safe and happy – and show you how to keep the landscape you’re leaping through safe and happy too.

Get a history lesson on a food & drink tour

The volcanic soils of the Azores are famously fertile. On São Miguel, enslaved people taken from West Africa were used to plant and harvest sugar cane that helped plump the coffers of the Portuguese Empire from the 15th century onwards. The best tour guides confront the colonial history of Portugal while also showing you first-hand how Azoreans farm on these wild islands today.

Visit the greenhouses of a pineapple farm in Ponta Delgada or go to Furnas, where cozido stew is slow cooked in clay pots lowered into holes dug into the piping hot volcanic earth. Gorreana is another popular stop – the last remaining tea plantation in Europe. Go for a tasting and wander around the leafy hills of the plantation.

If you’d rather get stuck in and help make the produce, some activity vacations on São Miguel give you the chance to meet a local farmer who’ll show you traditional farming techniques.

Cycle & kayak around crater lakes

Head to the west side of São Miguel to the Lake of the Seven Cities. It’s as grand as the name suggests – a butterfly-shaped crater lake chopped in half by a bridge. Kayak across the still lake, before switching it up for a mountain bike to take on the rugged paths around the caldera. You can stop for a lakeside picnic (and breather) along the way. Alternatively, head to Lagoa do Fogo, where you can pause on the beach, or Sete Cidades, to watch the sun set across one of the biggest calderas in the Azores.

Snorkel with dolphins

This is no SeaWorld; you’ll swim in the open ocean, guided by marine experts. As with all our wildlife watching experiences in the Azores, this activity is done with the utmost respect, putting the dolphins’ comfort well above our need to see them.

Expert instructors will tell you how to swim responsibly in dolphin waters, where observing without disturbing is the name of the game. After a briefing from your expert guides (for the dolphins’ safety, as well as your own), you’ll take a dip in the ocean and – if you’re lucky – watch dolphins from their level as they dive and play in the waves.

Faial

Explore Horta

Horta is the port city of Faial. Swim from the wide, sandy beach (unusual in the craggy Azores) and visit Igreja de Nossa Senhora das Angustias, a Neoclassical church that has crumbled and been rebuilt several times over the years. Explore Faial Botanical Gardens too, a ramble of old orange groves, a collection of 30-plus orchids, and a bank of rare seeds. It also showcases and preserves flora endemic to the Azores, including endangered cherry and juniper trees.

Pay a visit to the Porto Pim whaling museum

The wide, sheltered bays of Faial made it an important harbour for whaling boats docking to hunt and refuel in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Porto Pim whaling museum walks you through the history of the industry – and all in a cavernous whaling station piled high with the machines once used to extract oil from sperm whales caught in the Azores. It’s an important and interesting social history, giving you a better background of the ex-whaling captains who now use their expertise to steer whale watching trips.

Admire the blooming hydrangeas

Faial isn’t nicknamed the Blue Island for nothing – this is where you’ll see hydrangeas at their very bluest. It’s all down to the particularly acidic nature of the volcanic soil, which was laid down relatively recently during the volcanic eruptions of the 20th century. You don’t have to go to a botanical garden to see them, either. Hydrangeas bloom along hillsides, roadsides, field edges and walking paths. You just have to get your timing right – go in late July and early August for the best show.

Trek weird & wonderful volcanic terrain

Caldeira Grande is a vast, green volcanic crater that looks like the site of a crashed meteorite. Head to the edge to look out over neighbouring Pico island. Capelinhos, on the west coast, looks even more like a moonscape – or more like a Mars-scape, in fact, with its reddish volcanic soils. The lighthouse offers the best views over an arm of the island that was formed in the 1957 volcanic eruption. Or if you really want a challenge, tackle the full-day 10 Volcanoes Trail, which takes in the youngest peaks in this chain.

Pico

Taste wines along the Vinhas da Criação Velha

The Vinhas da Criação Velha is a walking trail with a difference. These rocky, coppery paths pass through a wine region that wears a (slightly tipsy) UNESCO World Heritage Site crown. Don’t expect Tuscan-style striped vineyards, either. The vines here are planted in grids of low stone walls (paredes) that roll out right to the sea. Thanks to the acidic volcanic soils, fortified wines are mostly produced from Verdelho – a grape also popular in Madeira wine. Join a wine tasting tour to discover the challenges that grape growers face in the Azores.

Hike up Pico Mountain

A little-known fact: Mount Pico (2,351m) is the tallest mountain in Portugal. It’s also home to one of the more challenging trails in the Azores. A decent level of fitness is required, as well as sturdy hiking boots with ankle supports for the rocky, steep path. And just when you think you’ve reached the top, there’s another hill to climb to get to the true peak.

It’s a bizarre landscape, with pink flowers sprouting out of weathered rock, warm steam escaping from the ground, fossilised lava and fast-changing weather that can range from misty and rainy to bright sunshine in a matter of minutes. Your reward? Stunning views over the Atlantic and neighbouring Faial and São Jorge Islands… when the cloud clears enough.

Our top Azores Vacation

Azores activity holiday, incl swimming with dolphins

Azores activity vacation, incl swimming with dolphins

Snorkelling with dolphins on São Miguel Island, The Azores

From £1285 to £1375 8 days ex flights
Small group travel:
2022: 2 Apr, 9 Apr, 28 May, 2 Jul, 9 Jul, 16 Jul, 23 Jul, 30 Jul, 6 Aug, 13 Aug, 20 Aug, 27 Aug, 22 Oct
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Azores or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

São Jorge

Go canyoning

São Jorge is more rugged than São Miguel, so expect a more edge-of-your-seat canyoning experience. Rappel down waterfalls dripping with prehistoric-looking ferns, lower yourself into vast caves, and leap into crystal-clear pools. You’ll be accompanied by guides who know how to traverse this challenging terrain with care – and heaps of fun.

Visit the villages

Villages crouch down between the volcanic hills of São Jorge. Learn about the 19th-century volcanic eruption that devastated the tiny port of Urzelina, see the monochrome Santa Barbara Church at Manadas, and swing by Ribeira Seca, where you’ll find the coffee plantation of Fajã dos Vimes – the only commercial coffee grower in Europe.

Hike & swim in the Caldeira do Santo Cristo

Get your hiking boots and walking poles at the ready for the 10km hike at Caldeira do Santo Cristo. The climb starts with an ascent and then an even steeper descent. With long-range views over the high-rise coastline and miniscule white houses below, it’s even more of a challenge to keep your eyes on the path. Caldeira do Santo Cristo is one of the best spots for swimming on São Jorge, so remember to pack your swimming gear too.

Flores & Corvo

Challenge yourself to canyoning

Canyoning? Again? This activity is worth mentioning three times, because Flores is one of the most sought-after spots in the Azores for canyoning, with both guides and adrenaline-seekers traveling from all over the world to leap from its oceanside waterfalls and scramble through its flowering laurel forests.

Go bird watching on Corvo

From Faial, you can head out on a Zodiac boat to Corvo. It’s not too well-known outside of the chatter of birding circles, so you’ll probably be the only tourists on the island when you visit. Avian rarities include the endemic Azorean bullfinch, red-eyed vireo, speckled ovenbirds and a variety of multi-coloured warblers. Just be prepared for a scramble – you’ll be going off-piste if birding, clambering over stone walls and through forests that don’t see much activity other than that of the birds themselves.

What are activity vacations in the Azores like?

Small group or tailor made?

Most activity vacations in the Azores are small group trips of 4-21 people led by a friendly and expert local guide. Depending on the activities included, children as young as eight are usually welcome. You’ll follow a set itinerary designed by experts, including accommodation, transfers, plus most activities and meals. If you’re sticking to one island, these adventures last around a week. Island hopping trips need more time for ferries and plane journeys, so expect to be in the Azores for 11 days or more.

Tailor made tours can be better for families who need to keep in mind the abilities – and attention spans – of the group. Itineraries can be tweaked, swapping challenging caldera treks with easy coastal hikes (or vice versa) or museum visits with interactive city walks around Ponta Delgada. Dates, transport options and accommodation can also all be tailored to your needs.

Which islands will I see?

Many vacations use the main island of São Miguel as a base, as there are more activities to do here, minimising travel times. For an overview of the Azores, you can opt for an island hopping vacation. Other trips focus on a specialist activity, such as canyoning. In this case, you’ll be based on a lesser-visited island such as Flores.

When should I go?

May to October is the best time to go on an activity vacation in the Azores. Which month exactly depends on what you’d like to do. Waterfalls are fuller at the rainier either end of the season – great for canyoning and keen photographers. Others will prefer the calmer waters and drier days of the summer – also when the islands’ hydrangeas are at their brightest.

Responsible Travel would like to thank Azores Tourism for their sponsorship of this guide.
Photo credits: [Page banner: Guillaume Baviere] [Intro: Luca Nebuloni] [Try out canyoning & coasteering: Fun Activities Azores Adventure] [Pay a visit to the Porto Pim whaling museum: Jose Luis Avila Silveira/Pedro Noronha Costa] [Taste wines along the Vinhas da Criação Velha: David Stanley] [Visit the villages: Jose Luis Avila Silveira/Pedro Noronha Costa] [Go bird watching on Corvo: putneymark] [What are they like?: Pxhere]