Azores

Azores

The Azores, situated far out in the Atlantic Ocean, are volcanic islands with beautiful landscapes to walk in and ocean activities such as whale and dolphin watching for alternative days.

Flights to the Azores generally come from Portugal or the US. There are a few that come directly from the UK if you are based there. There are also cruise ships which will stop at the islands.

We flew from Stanstead near London on a reasonably priced Ryanair flight, around a four hour flight – long enough to have something to eat and watch a movie on your laptop or ipad and you’re coming in to land.

There are nine main islands in the archipelago, the most populated being São Miguel with its capital Ponta Delgada. There are flights to the other islands from Portugal but most flights will land here.

The city is clean and has many good hotels at reasonable prices. We stayed at the Royal Garden Hotel, which has its own pool, courtyard garden and underground parking. Breakfasts are generous – an open buffet with a wide selection where you can eat as much as you want.

The islanders speak Portuguese though enough speak English for us to have no trouble getting around.

There are a couple of options to get around São Miguel. Car hire will give you the most flexibility or some people will get dropped off by taxi then do a walk and arrange to get picked up by taxi at the end of the walk. The buses on the island are infrequent but it might be possible to get a bus to a starting point for a walk then get picked up by taxi at the end of the walk. Car hire can be arranged on the island. Your hotel may be able to help with this, or you may choose to arrange car hire before you arrive.

Travel to the other islands will generally be by air. Most of the islands are quite a distance apart, though some such as Faial and Pico are close enough together to get a boat across. When planning inter island trips, it’s a good idea to leave a bit of padding in your itinerary in case there is bad weather and flights on that day are cancelled.

When deciding whether to visit one island or a few, it really depends on how much time you want to spend on each island. It also depends on the weather. Staying on São Miguel for a week will give you enough time to see most of the island even with a couple of bad weather days. Bad weather tends to affect the top of the mountains most and if the peaks are in cloud then that would be a good day to visit one of the lower lying attractions.

If you decide you only have time for one island, then São Miguel is a good choice. If you have time for 3-4 then Flores is beautiful, and Pico and Faial can be combined to see Pico’s amazing volcano – some of the best views of this being from Faial across the strait of water between them.

Highlights of São Miguel are the stunning Sete Cidades craters, the Furnas volcanic area and the Água de Pau Massif with its views of the ‘Lake of Fire’ from the top.

Sete Cidades can be approached from two directions, both are worth seeing and there are fantastic walks along the crater rim and down by the crater lakes. There are a few small restaurants within the crater area. We stopped at an ‘all you can eat’ restaurant which provided carafes of wine in with the all you can eat.

The Furnas area has fumeroles, hot springs and mud pools by the Furnas Lake. There is also the beautiful Terra Nostra park with its large thermal pool – bring your swimming costume. The gardens of the park are impressive and have many species of plant and trees.

The second city of Ribeira Grande is definitely worth a look. You can gaze north out over the ocean and know that the next land is Iceland and then the Artic. Within the main square there are cafes to get some lunch. Nearby the beautiful church of São Pedro, which is built on a hill, has great views across the town and out to the ocean.

While the Azores has beaches, they are only really warm enough for a days sunbathing in the summer months. The ocean was cold in May and would only be for the hardy at this time of year. They are beautiful though and good for walking. Many have fine black or grey volcanic sands and you can get drinks and meals at beach cafes that are dotted around.

Whale and dolphin watching tours can be booked down at the port. There are several companies that offer trips – generally half day. The boats that go out vary in size and character, some require you to wear life jackets as you are closer to the water. The boat skippers will do their best to find whales and dolphins – we saw two species of dolphin on our trip : the bottle nosed dolphin and the common dolphin. Both seemed happy for the boats to be there and enjoyed playing in the bow waves as they swam alongside us.

Western Australia

Western Australia

Western Australia is a truly enormous place. Over half of it on the east is desert or semi desert. Only on the western and southern sides are there largish populations.

Perth its capital city, is one of most remote cities in the world. It grows larger and larger with the influx of people drawn in to the mining and oil industries, expanding up and down the coast.

Most visitors will fly into Perth, alternatives being crossing the Nullarbor Plain by road, catching the Great Southern Rail train from the east, or entering by land from the Northern Territory.

Western Australia’s climate varies depending on latitude, Perth’s summer temperatures can be in the 40’s, while in the winter there can be a fair amount of rain and chilly nights in the hills. The south can be a little cooler in summer and this is a good time to visit there. In the north, it will be even hotter in summer and it is better to go there in winter, spring or autumn.

Highlights for the traveler include Perth itself, Fremantle or Freo as the locals call it; the south with towns such as Margaret River, Albany and Esperance with the natural beauty surrounding them, and national parks such as Ningaloo reef and Karijini to the north. We will be talking more about these locations in separate blogs.

Inland from Perth lies a range of low wooded hills, and an easy day trip away on the other side of these to the east, there is the small town of York. This is the oldest inland town in Western Australia and has a number of heritage buildings.

South of Perth is the city of Bunbury. This can be reached by train as well as road routes. It is a port city for the industries of WA but also has some fairly good beaches to hang out on.

600 kilometers to the east of Perth lies Kalgoorlie a gold mining town founded in 1893. It is still a bit of a wild west town but is also prosperous and buzzing from the mining industries that are around it.

The vast distances in WA mean that the far north around Broome and the Kimberley take several days to reach by road, and may not fit into a short itinerary unless you plan to fly there.

If you do have time a road trip in Western Australia is something you won’t forget, even if you only make it down to the south. You could do a short tour to Margaret River in 4 days, or a tour as far as Esperance and its national parks within a week. Ningaloo and Karijini really need longer than a week to do them justice or you will spend most of your time driving. If you are short of time its probably best getting a short flight up there.

There are wineries in the Swan River area and further down the coast to Margaret River and Pemberton which you can visit.

If you are interested in Australian wildlife there is whale watching from Cape Leeuwin near Augusta. You may see dolphins anywhere up the coast and even in the Swan River. Monkey Mia is famous for its ‘tame’ dolphins. There are kangaroos roaming on Heirisson Island in the middle of the Swan River in Perth and you will see them in the wild once you get out into the country.

Snorkeling is good on Rottnest Island and especially good at Ningaloo. Be warned some Australians will not go in the sea at times of the year when there are large sharks around, though to play it safe if you bathe on a lifeguard watched beach with helicopter flyovers you should be ok.

Iceland

Iceland

How you choose to make your first trip to Iceland can vary a lot. You can fly into Reykjavik, spend a couple of days there relaxing, maybe visit the Blue Lagoon spa.

You can go for a bit longer and take advantage of one of the day tours from the city – visiting sights such as the ‘Golden Circle’, watch a geyser, see an immense waterfall, see evidence of the volcanic nature of the island with volcano cones close to the city and fault lines from the tectonic plates Iceland is situated on which are slowly drifting apart.

The longer you are there, the further into the country you will want to go. Many people will want to do the Ring Road loop – an 800 mile road trip around the  circumference of the island. You can hire your own vehicle or travel around on guided bus. In theory it can be driven in 24 hours, but in practice you would want to spend much longer to see the fantastic locations on route.

Or you may want to visit one area of the island such as the Westfjords, with the knowledge that you will come back to visit other areas on later trips.

There are many music and arts festivals you can base a trip around. Two of the big ones are Secret Solstice and Iceland Airwaves, but there are smaller festivals also.

While Reykjavik has by far the largest population, smaller towns also have much to offer. Akureyri on the north coast is a beautiful town set on the Eyjafjörður fjord with plenty to keep you in the area for a few days. It has its own tours to places like the Goðafoss waterfall and the volcanic region around Lake Mývatn.

Getting to Iceland can be by direct flight or by transatlantic flights which stopover in Iceland. There are currently over twenty airlines flying into Iceland. Once there you can fly on to other cities in Iceland  by internal flight.

There are two airports serving Reykjavik, most international flights will come into Keflavik airport 30 miles south west of Reykjavik. You can catch a bus from there into the city. The second airport is for domestic flights and is situated in the city, a short taxi ride away. You may fly from here to locations such as Akureyri.

A walking tour of Reykjavík can take in highlights such the Hallgrímskirkja church perched on a hill in the city; the Harpa concert hall down at the waterfront which hosts a range of cultural events; the Tjörnin lake is pleasant to walk around; the harbour is interesting and there are whale and puffin watching trips from there. There is a botantic garden, a zoo and Old Reykjavík has a number of historic buildings.

There are several thermal swimming pools in the city which is where Icelanders relax in their spare time. These include Sundhöll Reykjavíkur, Vesturbæjarlaug, Sundlaug Seltjarnarness and Laugardalslaug which is close to the youth hostel.  You can also bathe at the geothermal Nauthólsvík Beach where a lagoon with sea walls allow cold sea and hot geothermal water to fuse together for higher temperature water.

There are many museums and art galleries in the city, some of these are: the National Museum for a range of artifacts, the Saga museum for Icelandic history, several Reykjavík Art Museums, the National Gallery of Iceland for paintings, the Reykjavík Museum of Photography has a gallery of good photography exhibitions, and last but not least the Icelandic Phallological Museum.

Laugavegur is the main shopping street, and you should walk up and down here at least once. There are many cool shops, bars and restaurants to check out. On a weekend evening the street becomes a line of honking Icelanders cars coming into the city to party. The party starts late and goes on to the early hours of the morning.

Read about Iceland in Winter