Be the first person you know to dive this emerging destination in the mid-Atlantic
Picture a velvety-green Hawaiian island rising straight from the vast and empty surrounding sea. Now perch a quaint northern Italian hill town right on top — Renaissance glories intact — and there you pretty much have Angra do Heroísmo, a 15th-century Portuguese town on the island of Terceira, one of the nine islands that make up the Azores.
Virtually unknown to Americans, the Azores and its more than 100 dive sites are virtually unknown to European divers too. An important way station at the dawn of the golden age of navigation — an age dominated by the Portuguese, who have controlled these islands more than 900 miles west of their shores since about 1430 — the Azores today reveal their historic past above and below the waves; topside also offers many rewards for adventurous travelers, who have unlimited ways to work up an appetite for the varied local cuisine.
Sport Diver got just a small taste of what the Azores have to offer divers with a trip to two of the five islands in the “Central Group,” Graciosa and Terceira. Here’s a look:
GRACIOSA: Dive tourism is very new here, so expect an adventure on this completely unspoiled, lush, temperate island that is home to about 5,000 residents. Attractions in these crystal-clear waters include the Terceirense wreck not far out of Santa Cruz harbor; get there with Nautigraciosa (divingraciosa.com). The wreck, which is split in two, is guarded by enormous purple conger eel; it’s also a good place to spot the lovely local dusky grouper, called meros here, along with amberjack, bream and wrasse.
At the renovated 100-year-old stone inn Casa das Faias, you’ll find warm hospitality, and the rustic Gracipescas dive shop (gracipescas.com) right out back — but there’s nothing rustic about its brand-new high-tech RIB, which also is used for whale watching, a signature activity in the Azores.
Accommodations elsewhere run from a rustic B&Bs in Gracioso’s signature windmills to the new Graciosa Resort & Business Hotel — the island’s only American-style hotel — which offers 44 rooms, two suites and six villas plus a restaurant, bar, pool, gym and more. Dine as locals do at the Green Light, where heaping platters of local beef and seafood are served family style, and at Apolo 80, near Nautigraciosa dive shop, where the lunch buffet includes an amazing octopus stew. Do not leave these islands without checking out Azorean wine, a fantastic value for the modest price.
Après-dive, Graciosa’s restored historic thermal baths — the Termas do Carapacho — are now a high-tech spa; relax in style with a water massage, in the spa’s chill lounges or in the swimming-pool-size mineral bath. Or experience a different sort of submersion as you descend 100 meters into an extinct volcano at Furna do Enxôfre, for a scene right out of The Lord of the Rings.
TERCEIRA: Situated in the middle of the Atlantic, Terceira’s historic Angra do Heroísmo was an important stop for sailors; today its ancient harbor shelters pleasure craft and divers who want to experience the shallow 19th-century wreck of the Lidador, part of Terceira’s underwater archaeological park. The developing park includes a deeper “anchor graveyard,” where divers of all levels can thrill to more than 40 enormous anchors of all description, many amazingly intact, and imagine the tall ships they once were attached to, exactly where you fin today among schools of Atlantic barracuda, stingrays and slipper lobster — which you may be served in delicious form at Beira Mar, a fisherman’s haunt where you can experience a typical Portuguese meal of seafood, beer and hours of friendly, boisterous conversation. Access the wreck and graveyard with PADI Five-Star IDC Anfibius (anfibius.com) — a modern, American-style dive shop and the Azores’ only PADI shop — located at the sophisticated Hotel do Caracol (hoteldocaracol.com), nestled right on the water within easy walking distance of the town center.
More developed than Graciosa — and much larger, with more than 50,000 residents — Terceira offers night life and restaurants at the newly redeveloped waterfront in the town of Praia da Vitoria, on the island’s eastern side; or dance till dawn at cliff-side Copos & Companhia, a restaurant that turns into a nightclub after 10 p.m. Praia also boasts the outstanding Octopus Diving Center (octopusportugal.com); at its namesake reef, you’ll dive under a sheer volcanic cliff wall through a tumbled stone landscape that looks like it was cut by giant hands.
Daytime highlights on Terceira include hiking — popular throughout the Azores — the Algar do Carvao volcanic formation and the lava tubes of the Gruta do Natal, a cave system named for the Christmas Eve services once held there. Spend your last few hours here just strolling the black-cobblestoned streets of Angra, where it’s easy to believe you’ve traveled straight back in time.
GETTING THERE: Azores Express/SATA and some U.S.-based carriers offer direct flights to the Azores seasonally from a limited number of U.S. cities. These flights book up fast according to season — summer is the best time to dive these islands — so book early or you might have to fly through Lisbon.