Choose your own adventure
One afternoon on São Miguel, Maggie and I got into a boat and traveled far from the shoreline. We bounded across the waves until we spotted them: common dolphins, rocketing through the water, one of 27 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises that call these waters home. We lined up along the edge of the boat and then, just as the pod of dolphins swam past, dropped into the ocean, snorkeling masks on. There’s something disorienting about dropping into deep blue, where, at first, it can be hard to tell up from down. I panicked momentarily, but then was calmed by the graceful movements of the dolphins through the water, unconcerned by our presence in their world.
That lack of concern stems, at least in part, from the strict regulations around interacting with the animals. Outfitters like Picos de Aventura may only follow the dolphins for a certain amount of time; no more than three people are allowed in the water with the dolphins at once; and every guest can only enter the water up to three times on a trip.
It’s the photogenic attractions that bring people to the Azores. Along with dolphins and whales, there are steep cliffs and waterfalls that make ideal territory for canyoning, a sport that involves rappelling down the side of rock faces. Mountain bike trails wrap around craters, and the ocean stays between about 63 and 77 degrees Fahrenheit all year, thanks to warm currents.
Beyond the outdoor pursuits, there is the food: a surf-and-turf array of grass-fed beef and ocean delicacies like limpets, marine snails that are cooked in copious amounts of garlic, and barnacles that taste like lobster. There are the only major tea plantations in Europe and pineapple farms, where the fruit tastes like it’s been dipped in sugar.
In Terceira, we followed a tip that brought us to the village of São Mateus da Calheta, where a traditional bull run — a tourada à corda, or “bullfight by rope” — was taking place. Over the course of two hours, while spectators watched from high ground and behind barricades, one angry bull after another was released into the streets. Men — and it was almost always men — took turns goading the animal; getting as close as possible before it lashed out and they had to maneuver to avoid the filed down horns. More than once the bull chased revelers into the ocean.