When I married a woman from the Azores, I had no idea that among the happiest consequences of our union would be the excuse it’s given me to repeatedly visit these rugged Portuguese islands. Floating at the extreme edge of Europe, roughly a third of the way between Lisbon and New York and reachable by a five-hour flight from Boston or Providence, the Azores aren’t exactly undiscovered—Columbus stopped at one island, Santa Maria, on his way home from the Americas—but they are far enough away that even seasoned travelers know little, if anything, about them.
That’s too bad because the islands offer a variety of adventures, each with unique Portuguese flavor. There aren’t many other places in the world where you can scuba dive around volcanic reefs, run with bulls, and climb up a volcano—and do all three in a single day if you’re so inclined.
The clear, mild waters around the Azores have made them a center for diving. Across a narrow strait from the island of Pico, at the port of Horta on Faial, I took a one-day introductory scuba course with Tiago Castro and Joana Vaz-Pereira. These two instructors have their own diving and whale-watching shop, Dive Azores, here. By day’s end I found myself on the edge of a volcanic cliff 36 feet beneath the surface, floating silently while tuna, barracuda, and a profusion of other fish teemed above me. The Dive Azores Discover Scuba Diving course includes two dives and equipment ($160; 351-912/585-803; diveazores.net).
Throughout the year local villages hold religious and cultural festivals that embrace the customs of sea and land. Almost every day from May through September on Terceira, these celebrations feature a traditional tourada à corda, or “bullfighting by a rope,” in which a bull, literally tied to a rope, is let loose on a main street. Though not exactly Pamplona, it’s great fun (and somewhat safer), as the brave, the foolhardy, and even the occasional tourist dares the animal to charge—not with a red flag but with a shirt or, in the best Azorean tradition, an open umbrella. azorestourism.com
Pico, the second largest of the islands, is named after its dominant geographic feature, a conical volcano that, at 7,713 feet, is the highest point in Portugal. The climb to the peak is fairly arduous, taking about four hours, and a guide is recommended largely because clouds can enshroud the poorly marked path. At the summit, though, hikers find themselves above the clouds, warmed by steam seeping through the lava vents and awed by the sensation of standing on top of the Atlantic, which is visible from 360 degrees. Book hikes through Azores Oceanic ($280 for a group of four; 351-917/659-073; azoresoceanic.com) or A Abegoaria Aventura ($70 a person; 351-292/642-834; aventura.a-abegoaria.com).
—Steven Lee Myers is a White House correspondent for The New York Times.