This other Eden: the Azores, Europe’s secret islands of adventure
For in-the-know travellers, the Azores have long represented a beckoning blip on the radar of possible destinations. Recognition from Unesco and other organisations has helped that blip to pulse more brightly over the years.
But most people still know little, if anything, about this far-flung archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic. And yet it is hard to imagine a place better suited to nature lovers, fans of adventure sports, or anyone looking for a beacon of sustainability. As if that wasn’t tantalising enough, there is a new reason to visit this autonomous region of Portugal: restrictions on air routes to the Azores recently eased, which means more carriers, more choice and cheaper fares for travellers trying to reach this other Eden.
The exposed tips of vast underwater mountains, the Azores lie on the nexus of the European, American and African tectonic plates, and they bear witness to the forces forever shaping our planet. This is a world of fumaroles, mudpots and scalding springs; of caverns, columns and grottoes formed from once molten rock; of blue lakes ringed by forests of laurel and cedar, and green pastures patterning the slopes of calderas.
Unesco designated three of them (Graciosa, Flores and Corvo) as biospheres, and the archipelago also contains 13 Ramsar sites (important wetlands) and over 30 Blue Flag beaches. Combine mineral-laden soil with a subtropical climate surrounded by Gulf Stream-warmed waters, and the result is a crucible for life.
Thankfully, Azoreans seem intent on preserving their treasures – the built environment covers just five per cent of the land; the rest is a patchwork of protected areas and marine reserves. The regional government aims to produce 75% of the islands’ energy from renewables by 2018.
Little wonder then that last year the Azores were named as the world’s top destination for sustainable tourism by Quality Coast, a European Commission-supported certification programme. In fact, it is the only place in the world to receive a Platinum Award, the organisation’s highest accolade.