Would you take a holiday on a VOLCANO? An explosive trip to the Azores

Would you take a holiday on a VOLCANO? With black beaches, stews cooked in burning ground and snorkeling with dolphins, the Azores offer an explosive family holiday

  • The Azores, a Portuguese archipelago in the Atlantic, is great for adventures
  • The beaches are black, there are hot springs and stew is cooked in hot ground 
  • Canyoning and swimming with dolphins were superb challenges for the kids
  • Overall it was an exhilarating outdoorsy holiday that won’t be forgotten 

It is an extraordinary thing to holiday on a volcano. The beaches are black, the springs are hot and the food is cooked by burial in the burning earth. These memories aren’t going to melt into all the others when the children are older.

Welcome to the Azores, an archipelago of Portuguese islands marooned in the North Atlantic. In a move that I’m told is typical of English teachers, my wife decided to spend half-term walking the South Downs Way with only a fat novel for company.

This meant one thing: my three kids (eight-year-old twins and a 10-year-old) were having a dad holiday. Which meant a further thing: it would be an adventure holiday. Which led us eventually to a cluster of volcanoes in the Atlantic.

The Azores is an archipelago of Portuguese islands marooned in the North Atlantic.  Pictured is the three-mile wide crater at Sete Cidades

The Azores boast extraordinary black beaches as a result of the volcanic stone

The scenery is breathtaking around the volcanic craters and makes a perfect adventure setting

Restaurant workers dig up a pot of stew that had been buried in the hot earth to cook

Swimming with dolphins in the deep blue Atlantic was a highlight even for the children

The Azores is a place where all of life stems from the fire in the earth. We plumped for Sao Miguel, the largest island, which lies like a smile-shaped flick of Tipp-Ex about 900 miles off the coast of southern Portugal.

It used to be divided into two separate volcanoes. But back in the mists of time, one of them erupted and the lava formed a bridge and hardened into a single landmass. As I said, in the Azores life depends on volcanoes.

It was a four-hour flight from Britain, almost entirely over the sea. When we arrived, the place was not barren and dusty as I’d expected but verdant, with wind-combed foliage carpeting every open space – a feature of the rich volcanic soil.

In the main town, Ponta Delgada, pavements and buildings were hewn out of black lava rock decorated with limestone patterns. Half of the island’s energy comes from geothermal sources, just another example of the bounty of the fire in nature’s belly.

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After a decent night’s sleep at the four-star hotel our tour guide, Paolo, collected us the next morning in a white minibus that would come to punctuate the week’s activities.

We were eased in with an introduction to volcanic living in Furnas, where we ate stew cooked in the hot earth, wondered at geysers bubbling with sulphur and floated in hot springs coloured orange by the iron deposits.

The weather in the Azores is very temperate. On a good day it can be slightly hotter than the height of an English summer and when it becomes overcast you might need a jumper; but the peaks and troughs are no more extreme than that.

And no mosquitos. The islands were discovered by the Portuguese in 1427 in the true sense, having been formerly uninhabited by any humans, indigenous or otherwise.

As they were so isolated from other landforms, the wildlife was very limited and the new arrivals introduced cattle, new bird species and other animals according to their vision of island paradise.

Obviously this did not include mosquitoes (which seem to plague everywhere these days, even France).

The volcanic energy at Furnas can be seen bursting through the ground in plumes of steam

A group of holidaymakers go whale-watching off the coast of the Azores in the Atlantic

The dolphin swimming took place at sea and we were taken out in a rib to find them

Even children as young as eight can snorkel with dolphins and it is a great challenge

Hiking in the Azores is stunning as the volcanic soil is extremely fertile and rich

It was after experiencing the unique bounty of the volcano that the proper adventures began. First came whale watching. The Azores have a traditional way of spotting them which involves a chap on a hill with a walkie talkie and a pair of binoculars.

It worked. About half-an-hour offshore we were directed south and saw the black body of humpbacks scrolling in loops like sea-monsters. According to the marine biologist who led the trip, they sometimes approach the boat and put on a show.

Not this time, sadly. But nature doesn’t always play nice, and it was breathtaking to see them in the wild. And there was always swimming with dolphins.

Ah, the dolphins. This was the real challenge for the kids. We got wet-suited and snorkelled and installed in a plucky rib to be sped out into the sea like a bunch of GNVQ Royal Marine commandos.

The Atlantic was bluer than blue and had quite a swell, and this made our task even more daunting: to wait for the cut of a dorsal fin then hurl ourselves into the depths.

I’m proud to say that all three of my children did it. My oldest daughter, who is 10, didn’t think twice – her logic was that if people do it every day, why couldn’t she? – and at one point a dolphin swam beneath her at a distance of no more than two feet.

As for the twins, who are not so strong swimmers, they both took the plunge for a short time. But they were badly affected by seasickness so the experience was, as they say, slightly sub-optimal.

I had a go too. At that depth you can see nothing but rich, endless blue in all directions through your snorkel mask. From this ghosted three dolphins, appearing white against the darkness, those strange fixed smiles on their faces. The leader turned his eye towards me and I saw the scars on his flanks. Then they were gone.

On land there were other adventures in store. Canyoning – basically jumping off cliffs into water – was quite something, not least because of the high-camp duo who led the activity and referred to us constantly as ‘party people’.

Funnily enough, my eldest, who had been so brave in the sea, freaked out when it came to jumping off cliffs. And here the twins came into their own, launching themselves with kamikaze abandon into the air and plummeting into the river below.

Their mother would have had kittens.

There are hundreds of volcanic peaks and craters in the Azores and they make amazing scenes

Sunset on Sete Cidades – a spot Jake and his family hike to on an organised tour

Canyoning was also a highlight as it challenged the children to jump into deep pools

There was also an off-road tour of the island in a fantastic banana-coloured jeep; kayaking on a volcanic lake; mountain biking through beautiful woodland; and a surprisingly interesting tour of an Azorean tea plantation, which against all the odds converted the children to the delights of green tea.

This was sprinkled with a number of visits to liquor factories. The Azores have a strange way with booze. For a start they produce green wine (which can also be found on mainland Portugal), which tastes like white but with added novelty value.

But their main preoccupation is with liquor. It comes in a bewildering array of flavours, from tangerine and chocolate to rice pudding and biscuit, and is so sweet that when you next look in the mirror you expect your teeth to look like stalactites.

I’m a seasoned enough traveler, with enough holiday bottles in the drinks cabinet with lids welded shut through disuse, to have resisted the temptation to buy any.

There was one aspect to the package tour that was rather a drag, however. The food. We were continually dragged from one touristy restaurant to another and given standard options of chicken, burgers or fish.

The only Azorean element to the meals was a cream cheese with pepper sauce, which was rather lovely but only whetted my appetite for more.

It got beyond a joke when we visited a restaurant on the beach famed for fresh raw fish – but were told that our deal only covered burgers or chicken.

I found a remedy, however. The itinerary allowed for many ‘free evenings’ and you should use it to explore the small Azorean restaurants where tourists fear to tread and which will put a plate of whole mackerel in front of your startled kids.

Do you have a pen? Listen carefully now, for I’m only going to say this once: Mané Cigano. You’re welcome.


Jake Wallis Simons travelled to The Azores with family travel experts Activities Abroad.

The seven-night holiday costs from £1,005 per child (8 -12 years), £1,235 per child (13-18 years) and from £1,395 per adult. Price includes flights (London), transfers, seven nights’ bed and breakfast accommodation, five lunches and two dinners, guided activities and instructors. Departs 7 July until 20 October 2018 and March to October 2019.

Visit activitiesabroad.com or phone 01670 789 991.


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