AS we surfed the waves in our boat alongside a pod of 100 dolphins 100, watching them leap and dive unfazed by our presence, it was not just the sea air taking my breath away.

During my too-short trip to the Portuguese islands of The Azores I had been repeatedly amazed by the sheer beauty and uniqueness of this very special place.

It’s one of the Top 10 destinations in the world for whale watching, although we were unlucky not to see any. It merely means I’ll have to go back.

After all, you might be surprised to learn that this archipelago of nine islands in the middle of the Atlantic is just a three-and-a-half hour, direct flight from the UK.

Each of the islands has a personality and landscape of its own, ranging from lush green to black volcanic, but all are pristine and unspoilt. It is a destination for outdoor experiences – walking, cycling, fishing, sailing, horse riding, diving, canyoning and surfing, but the islands are also an ideal, relaxing holiday getaway.

We flew from London Gatwick to Ponta Delgaga on the largest island Sao Miguel, but island hopping by plane or boat is easy. On our first morning we took a 50-minute flight to Pico Island and then boarded the ferry over to Faial, known as the blue island for its hydrangeas.

Arriving in the town of Horta, one of the world’s favourite stop-off points for yachtsmen, the brightly-coloured houses form a picture postcard view as you enter the harbour. Peter’s Café Sport is a great place to eat and to marvel at the large collection of scrimshaw in the museum, reflecting the island’s whaling past.

A natural wonder is the Capelinhos volcano that erupted in 1957. This eerie landscape brings home the power of nature with its half-buried lighthouse and swathes of wind-swept volcanic dust.
Marine life, however, is often the main focus for Azores visitors, however our first foray out to sea from Faial harbour to swim with dolphins, became a sightseeing tour only. Pedro of HortaCetáceos ( gave us a detailed briefing and his passion to promote, preserve and respect the wildlife was infectious.
On our second trip from Ponta Delgada with Picos de Aventura (, again, the sea was rough, but our precious adventure alongside 100 dolphins was compensation enough for not seeing a whale.
A total of 26 different whale and dolphin species have been recorded here. You can also swim with dolphins in the wild and scuba dive with sharks in these temperate waters, warmed by the Gulf Stream.

The ferry journey back to Pico the next day was a great opportunity to view the 2,351ft high peak of Montanha do Pico, the highest point in Portugal and the ancient, dry stone-walled vineyards on its black lava fields - a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

An evening flight then took us back to Sao Miguel, home to half the Azorean population, and Ponta Delgada which enjoys many, colourful summertime festivals.

The next day’s drive into the island interior and the town of Furnas emphasised the lush landscape with its farm fields, pineapple and even tea plantations. One of the most stunning sites is the Sete Cidades Lakes, one blue and one green, said to be formed from the tears of a shepherd and a princess who shared a forbidden love. It’s a great place for cycling and walking.

In Furnas valley, known as the ‘beautiful’ valley, boiling mud and water bubbles to the earth’s surface and a traditional ‘cozido’ (stew) is cooked in large pots underground by the natural heat. We later sampled this hefty meal at the charming 1930s Terra Nostra Garden Hotel.

Here you can take a therapeutic (and very hot) swim in the rust-coloured water of the outdoor pool, fed by a geothermally heated, natural spring and also explore the impressive botanical gardens.

In the village itself it was fun to drink from various natural springs that have therapeutic properties for your stomach, gall bladder, eyes, or even a hangover!

My second hot spring, spa experience in Ferraria the next day in a pool next to the sea convinced me that you would have to pay a fortune for an experience like this in other parts of the world. There was even a natural rock pool in the sea, fed by hot volcanic waters. Pure paradise.

For more information about The Azores, visit
Where Ruth stayed: Hotel Talisman and Hotel VIP Executive Azores, Ponta Delgada, São Miguel, Hotel do Canal, Horta, Faial
Book it: Departing June 15, 2013 a package including direct, return, daytime flights with SATA from London Gatwick to Ponta Delgada (PDL) and seven nights’ B&B at the four-star Lince Azores Great Hotel in Ponta Delgada, Sao Miguel costs from £495 per person. Details: where you can also book hotel stays on other islands.

The geography bit
The islands are in three groups, the Eastern group of Sao Miguel and Santa Maria; the Central group of Terceira, Graciosa, Sao Jorge, Pico and Faial; and the Western group of Flores and Corvo. The average air temperature varies between 11 and 26°C and the ocean averages between 15 and 25°C.