Island Hopping in Portugal: Why Not?

This article was originally published in the 2019 Spring issue of Invest In Style Magazine. 

Don’t feel badly if you struggle to pinpoint these islands in your mind’s eye – until relatively recently they have remained quiet, mostly agricultural islands, whose stunning natural scenery – crater-made lakes, terraced waterfalls, volcano mountains – was often missed by those visiting the sites of mainland Portugal. The Azores, 1,400 km west of Portugal’s shore, is made up of nine islands. It’s useful to group these into west (Flores and Corvo), central (Graciosa, Terceira, Sao Jorge, Pico and Faial) and east (Sao Miguel, Santa Maria and the Formigas Bank). Sao Miguel is by far the largest, and most popular of these islands. A direct flight from Toronto to Ponta Delgada, Sao Miguel, is only five-and-a-half hours.

The main islands of Madeira, southwest of Portugal and 600 km west of Morocco’s shores, are Porto Santo, the Desertas (actually its own archipelago of small islands, designated a nature reserve), and Madeira, the largest, known for its namesake wine. Madeira is about a two-hour flight from the Azores and considered the most touristy of the islands.

Each island offers its own pleasures and personality. Lilac-covered Terceira is home to summer festivals, primeval laurel forests, patchwork vineyards and a perfectly preserved Renaissance town. Flores is an island botanical garden with spectacular coastal hikes, waterfalls and lava tubes. There’s tiny, old-world Corvo for bird watchers, and sleepy Graciosa for those seeking tranquility. The mountainous Madeira is not a beach destination, but it’s got some of the best surfing in Europe. And of course, there’s the wine.

The wonders of the islands include opportunities for hiking, spelunking, scuba diving, and swimming with dolphins.

These autonomous regions of Portugal are among the best whale-watching spots in the world. From April through October, several different types of whales pass by the islands on their migratory paths. Consider how much holiday time you have and play connect-the-dots with a map of the region: look at the islands closest to each other and start from there. In the Azores, for example, it’s a one-hour flight from Sao Miguel to Faial Island, and from Faial to Pico it’s a 30-minute ferry ride (Faial and Pico are also easily accessible from Lisbon). There are daily flights from Sao Miguel to the much smaller Santa Maria. Total flight time? Ten minutes.

There are several daily flights from Lisbon to Madeira Airport, touching down near the capital of Funchal, less than 2 hours after take-off. From Madeira, travel to nearby Porto Santo by plane (15-minute flight), helicopter or ferry. When planning your island-hopping trip, think of the travel time between islands not as a necessary evil, but as part of your holiday adventure.