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Paradise Found

The Azores is a set of 9 volcanic islands off the coast of Portugal in the Atlantic Ocean. While relatively obscure to many of us, the Azores are on the tourist radar, especially for Europeans. Being featured on an episode of Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations" doesn't hurt either. It has been dubbed the "Hawaii of the Atlantic" because of its similar geology but culturally it is entirely different. Whatever it's reputation, we think it is paradise! Greenery abounds! This makes for very idyllic views, with the green juxtaposed against the deep blue of the ocean surrounding the islands, as well as the beautiful hydrangeas that grow everywhere. The temperature is also perfect at this time of the year, ranging from 21 degrees at night to 25 degrees during the day. We stayed on two islands - Pico and São Miguel.

Pico has a very small population of only 15 000 inhabitants and thus has a slow, peaceful pace of life. It is the home of the highest point in all of Portugal with the volcano Mt Pico ever present and visible from all parts of the island (unless it is covered in clouds). It is known as the "black island" because of the abundance of volcanic rocks throughout the island. It seems like, roads, even vineyards are made from these rocks. Again, we lucked out with yet another fantastic Airbnb home right on the ocean. We were able to swim off of the rocks in front of the house. The boys took to cliff jumping and couldn't get enough of it. I even braved it a couple of times. And to our pleasant surprise, the water was warm! We just assumed that being in the Atlantic Ocean, the waters would be freezing cold. But not so! Apparently it gets affected by the Caribbean currents. There were so many natural volcanic swimming pools on the ocean throughout the island, making it easy to go for a dip where ever we ended up. With such warm waters and great accessibility, we did a lot of relaxing and swimming. Another great thing about our house was that we had wonderful neighbours. Judy and Virge and their son were visiting from Toronto and we had some great visits over wine and sardines! We also met their very entertaining and hospitable cousins who lived on the island. They invited us to a goat roast but unfortunately we had to leave before it happened. Thanks for the memories!

Pico was home to the whaling industry from the latter half of the 20th century until the late 1980's. With the end of whale hunting, another industry took its place aimed at conserving and educating the public about these magnificent animals. João Vigia and Serge Viallelle, a former whaler and a sailor, started the company Espaço Talassa in 1989 to offer whale watching tours. It is a thriving business and a popular tourist activity. Because of the deep waters around the islands, it is home to many species of dolphins and whales, and is one of the best places in the world to see them. In particular, the sperm whale is the most commonly spotted whale in these waters. We went on a tour and were lucky to see 5 species of dolphins and 2 species of whales, including the sperm whale and the very elusive Blainsville Beaked Whale. The factories and instruments used for the hunting the whales have all been turned into a museum.

In spite of our busy days full of swimming and relaxing, we did manage to do a day trip to the nearby island of Faial. We did a fantastic hike around the beautiful caldera, walked briefly around the port of Horta, and also visited Capelinhos. Capelinhos is a small area of the island that formed due to volcanic eruptions that occurred over 13 months in 1957-58. This area is a stark contrast to the rest of the island, as nothing really grows here. It is still just rock and dirt.

Our second week was spent on the more populated (60 000 residents) and bigger island of São Miguel. There was definitely more of a tourist presence here. There was plenty to do on this island...hiking around volcanic lakes, soaking in thermal pools, and paragliding, to name a few. Interestingly, the only commercial tea outfit in all of Europe is found here where they produce organic Orange Pekoe tea. The factory and estate was beautiful but surprising very small.

The house we rented here was perched on a cliff overlooking the ocean with the best views we have had yet. Another restored old home, it was beautiful, taking full advantage of its position with a wonderful deck and a wall of floor to ceiling windows.

Our two weeks in the Azores has been so enjoyable and we would love to return and explore some of the other islands. While we love both Pico and São Miguel, they do have a different feel. São Miguel is more developed but by no means overrun. Pico is more quaint and pristine and the perfect relaxing getaway. We would have to give the edge to Pico.

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