The Azores are a set of 9 volcanic islands that are part of Portugal though administered autonomously. Sitting deep in the Atlantic Ocean, they are close to 1,000 miles from the Iberian Peninsula and 2,400 miles from North America. It is the westernmost part of the European Union. With about a quarter of million residents, it is thought that there are close to 2,000,000 Azores emigrants and their progeny living outside the archipelago.
The Azores were ranked second in a 2007 National Geographic Traveller ranking of more than 100 international island travel destinations. The islands in the archipelago are widely dispersed covering a total area of 363,000 square miles. As such, they are grouped into three regions based on proximity – the Eastern islands comprising Sao Miguel and Santa Mari, the Central islands comprising Faial, Pico, Sao Jorge, Graciosa and Terceira and the Western islands consisting of Corvo and Flores.
The Azores position as the only significant land mass near the halfway point between Europe and North America makes them a mandatory stopover for the millions of migratory birds that do the transatlantic flight. The islets, coastlines and lakes are regular nesting and resting areas for the birds.
In fact, the Azores do not have a bird species that is truly endemic – resident birds are descendants of migratory birds that settled and evolved. Bird species regularly sighted in the archipelago include finch, crow, gill, tern, pigeon and eagle. The most common mammals include hedgehog, ferret and the wild rabbit. The rivers and lakes are home to rainbow trout, common trout, carp, old world pike, red gurnard and yellow perch.
One of the reason early settlers were attracted to the Azores was the fertile soils, lush green pastures and beautiful wild flowers. The thick vegetation includes more than 50 indigenous species and several species from the greater Macronesia. Additional species from further flung areas have been introduced over the years to improve the landscape as well as provide building material for construction. An example is the Japanese Cryptomeria and the Acacia.
Sao Miguel is the Azores largest and most populated island and its cosmopolitan capital Ponta Delgada is the archipelago’s largest city. It is therefore the epicentre of most activities on the Azores including whale watching, sailing, fishing, diving, swimming, snorkelling, trekking, jeep safaris, bird watching and golf.