Experience the Azores and feel alive
It’s a raw winter’s day when I meet Ben Fogle near his house in London, although his healthy glow betrays a man who has not spent much time in Britain recently. As well as his TV presenting duties that have just taken him Down Under, he has been in the Azores too, training for a 5,000km charity swim that will see him front crawl from New York to Cornwall.
“I love the Azores” he says exuberantly “It’s their isolation in the middle of the Atlantic and their diversity too – the fact you can go to one island, think you have seen everything but then head to the next and have a completely different experience.”
In fact, despite that almost long-haul feeling, the nine islands are remarkably close to Britain. From Easter to October there is a nonstop flight from Gatwick to São Miguel every Saturday lunchtime with SATA International, which is under four hours, and at other times of year the journey is not much longer with a quick switch of planes in Lisbon.
Ben is certainly animated when talking about the archipelago that lies some 1,500km west of the Portuguese mainland. “Some people find islands imprisoning but I find them liberating. For me the Azores have this mid-Atlantic island flavour, so the vegetation is pretty unique. It’s very green for a volcanic island chain – a lot of people have a stereotype of just a black, volcanic landscape and you can certainly find that in places but there’s a lot of thick, lush vegetation too.”
The Azores are not going to attract your traditional sun and beach brigade, it’s just not that kind of destination. “It has this feel only very remote places have,” adds Ben. “It’s difficult to define, but it adds to its uniqueness and you feel as if you are off the beaten track. It’s not spilling out with tourists. Instead of going to a beach you’re more likely to go to a lava park where the lava has “frozen” into all these fantastic shapes so now you have these amazing rock pools where the islanders have built platforms so you can dive into the wonderfully clear water.
For someone not accustomed to sitting still for long, there has been plenty to keep Ben occupied in the Azores when he’s not sea training. Kayaking on the gr
een and blue waters of the Sete Cidades lake – said to be the tears of a shepherd and a princess whose love was forbidden by their families – for example. And soaking in hot springs at Terra Nostra Park, or the geothermally heated rock pools by the shoreline at Ponta da Ferraria. (“You have to be careful there,” he advises. “At low tide the water can be very hot”.)
Coasteering has been a favourite activity as well. “You’ve just got this endless sea. That’s what’s so extraordinary, you just have deep, deep ocean all around and you’ve got every chance of a mighty sperm whale swimming past you too. And I’d love to go diving – it’s supposed to be amazing.” (The Azores is well known for being one of the best whale watching spots on the planet, even if you don’t fancy jumping off a 6m cliff to get closer).
“But I think my favourite activity so far has been hiking on Pico. Just standing on top of the spectacular volcano that dominates that island, the highest point in Portugal, looking out over hundreds of square miles of Atlantic Ocean, cloud below you, takes your breath away. It’s a truly magical site. The fact you climb down and you’re back at sea level, literally you feel like you’ve been on top of the world. You can do it round trip in about ten hours and although you don’t need a guide I would say you’ll get more out of it if you do hire one.”
In terms of wildlife, the islands offer something for everyone. April to October is the main season for whale, dolphin and porpoise watching and over 25 spec
ies have been spotted in Azorean waters, including sperm and blue whales. It’s easy to take a trip lasting around three hours, especially from Pico, São Miguel and Faial for around €50 per person. “It’s a hotspot if you’re a birder too” Ben reminds me. 35 species breed here of which ten are endemic subspecies, and the mid Atlantic weather sometimes means rarer examples are blown off course when migrating between Central and North America so always keep a look out for the unusual!
If all this exercise builds up a good appetite, you’re in the right place. “There’s lots of hearty fare” Ben reminisces “especially great seafood. I remember on Faial there’s a restaurant called Canto da Doca where you cook your own raw meat and seafood on a sizzling hot piece of volcanic rock. And in São Miguel there’s a spot near Furnas where food is lo
If there’s been one thing missing so far that Ben intends to add on future trips, it’s his family. “Instead of beaches you have these rock pools, which are well protected so they’re fine for children. You can go coasteering too – higher jumps for the older ones, smaller heights for the youngsters – and gorge walking. And whale watching is very much a family activity of course. Plus I’d definitely like to take my children swimming with wild dolphins”
So how would he sum it all up? He pauses and ponders the question. “It’s Europe with a twist. It’s a pretty extraordinary place. I can’t wait to go back.”