Here’s a recipe for a lasting holiday memory: take one eight-year-old boy, and put him at the prow of a Zodiac boat as it sails into the gin-clear waters of the mid-Atlantic on a hot day. Then, wait for the appearance of an 80-strong pod of wild bottlenose dolphins — each of them sleek, speedy and considerably larger than the boy — and let him watch as the creatures spend 10 minutes swimming alongside the boat, darting here, leaping there. Serve with a garnish of increasingly excited shouts and liberal use of the phrase, “this is epic!”
The Azores are brilliant for kids, as my son can attest. The Portuguese archipelago takes a handful of familiar holiday touchstones — green hills, long beaches, plentiful sea-life, proper ice cream — and transports them to a still-steaming volcanic island group, 850 miles off the coast of mainland Europe. Wild hydrangeas cluster the roadsides, temperatures hover around the mid-20s, and whales appear offshore. Everywhere you go, there’s a crater to peer into or a thermal pool to wallow in. It’s not hard to enjoy yourself.
I’ve come here with my eight-year-old son Joseph, joining a handful of other families on a week-long activity break. Our base is São Miguel, the largest and most visited of the nine main Azorean islands. It’s a magnificently tiring week. Each day combines a few hours of downtime with a range of scheduled activities, more often than not water-based. When we’re not snorkelling, we’re soaking in hot springs, kayaking on crater lakes, or jumping off 30ft forest ledges into rockpools (with fearless glee in Joseph’s case, and jelly-legged hesitation in mine).
“When I was at school in the mid-’90s, the Azores weren’t even marked on the world map,” says Maria, our tireless local guide for the week, over a group seafood dinner. “That’s changed now.”
It’s mildly baffling why a subtropical destination that sits under four hours from the UK took so long to establish itself as a talked-about holiday destination. The islands are by no means over-run by tourism — during our July visit, even gloriously photogenic spots like the twin lakes of Sete Cidades feel virtually empty — but the Azores’ reputation as somewhere for outdoor adventure is now well established.
The edge-of-the-world setting helps. This is Europe’s farthest-flung outpost, surrounded on all sides by vast blue skies and wind-whipped ocean. For a volcanic chain, however, the island landscapes are surprisingly green and lush. The slopes are laced with waterfalls, veined with basalt and dotted with herds of Friesian cows, creating a visual effect that’s part-Lost World, part-West Country.
São Miguel itself is around 40 miles in length, 10 miles across, so it’s more than big enough to keep young travellers wide-eyed for a full week. Our hotel is in Ponta Delgada, a whitewashed and attractive coastal town but also — by Azorean standards — built-up. Happily, the holiday covers a lot of ground. As well as ample time dedicated to zipping around in the sea, the itinerary also includes a visit to a tea plantation, a forest jeep safari, a lakeside cycle and a guided tour of underground lava tunnels (“Daddy, why do the stalactites look like runny noses?”).
There’s also a whale-watching tour — the highlight of which is the sight of a vast sperm whale tail descending into the deep — and even the chance to snorkel with dolphins. Meanwhile, canyoning on the penultimate day is a particular hit, involving being kitted out in helmets and padded romper suits then sliding, abseiling and leap-of-faithing down a succession of rock chutes and waterfalls.
The group dynamic becomes an enjoyable one by the week’s end, aided by some long communal meals. One of these features cozido, a traditional stew cooked underground by volcanic steam; at other times we’re treated to swordfish, octopus salad, slabs of roast pork and mounds of the omnipresent local pineapple.
The fizzing thrill of that playful dolphin pod around our Zodiac will be mine and my son’s abiding memory of the trip, but there’s no shortage of close contenders. In truth, you can amend the earlier recipe for a lasting holiday memory with a simpler one: spend a week in the Azores.
Five things to do in the Azores
1 // Visit the beautifully landscaped Terra Nostra gardens in Furnas, on São Miguel. Home to around 2,500 trees and a grand summerhouse, it also boasts a huge thermal swimming area.
2 // Try the white wine from nearby Pico Island. It’s best known for fortified wines, but the chilled white is eminently drinkable in its own right and great with seafood.
3 // Whale watching is a major draw here, with the species you encounter varying according to the month. In April and May, you might even be lucky enough to spot blue whales.
4 // Should you wish to extend your stay in the Azores with more active pursuits, the islands of Flores and São Jorge are both renowned for their hiking and trekking.
5 // Take the time to visit Ponta Delgada’s historic core, where you’ll find the original three-arched gate to the port town, and a network of cobbled lanes to explore.
Their favourite things
“I loved watching them jump out of the water and swim next to the boat. They were agile, fast and confident.” — Joseph
“Looking back across the curving spine of São Miguel, you get a real sense of being somewhere special.” — Ben
“Because you get to jump off really high things. When you’re flying through the air, you’re like ‘oh my gosh, I can’t believe I’m actually doing this!’” — Joseph
Ben and his son Joseph (8).
Island adventures for kids 8+.
Need to know
The famous ‘Azores High’ is a subtropical area of high atmospheric pressure — make sure to pack waterproofs.
How to do it
The Azores – Lava Lands and Swimming with Dolphins small group trip is run by Activities Abroad. With departures from March to October, prices start from £1,395 per adult and £940 per child (aged 8-12) including return flights, transfers, seven nights’ accommodation and more.
Published in the Family Travel guide, free with the Jan/Feb 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)