Eleanor Findlater took her two sons and intrepid mother for an action-packed week enjoying the natural wonders of these Portuguese islands.
The start of the summer holidays is rather a daunting prospect if you have two active and energetic boys aged 10 and 12. As a family we have traditionally plumped for a beach holiday with no real structure, just an optimistic hope that the boys will perhaps meet similar aged children to splash around in the sea with. An action packed adventure in the Azores, complete with a full daily itinerary, was a new departure for us. Sadly, my husband could not join us due to work restrictions so Gogo (granny) was more than happy to step in.
The exact location of this gorgeous cluster of volcanic islands (there are nine in total) was a slight mystery to the family. Like a handful of glistening emeralds thrown into the middle of the Atlantic, they are further away from Portuguese mainland than we had thought. After a four-hour flight to Porto Delgada, the capital of the main and most populated island, we settled into our four star hotel full of anticipation and excitement for the week ahead.
Centrally located in this small and friendly town, we were able to wander through the narrow, cobbled streets in search of an evening meal. Half the fun of being on foot in the evening was discovering little back streets offering unpretentious, local cuisine and prices are not vastly inflated.
It's worth remembering that when travelling with different generations of family, a full activity day can exhaust both the elderly and young alike and we found that a little coercion was needed to venture our in the evening. With not a screen of the 'f' (Fortnite) word in sight though, the boys started writing diaries which was a great way to wind down before bedtime.
On our first day, we were met by Maria and Eulalia, our Activities Abroad reps (or Companions, corrected by my ten year old son). We were three families and would be travelling around in a minibus for the week. The friendly and lively pair gave us an informative introduction to the islands as we set off to visit a tea plantation and processing plant. Surprisingly perhaps, tea is one of the major exports of the Azores. Our adventurous week had begun.
The tour was fascinating and the boys decided that the samples of black and green tea were rather delicious, made more palpable by four sneakily added sugar sachets.
You could not fail to miss the main feature of our next stop. This volcanic archipelago is still very much alive with secondary volcanic features, mainly geothermal bubbling hot springs which are used for cooking huge pots of meat and vegetables several feet below the ground. The sulfuric smell (and taste) was overwhelming but the novelty was not lost on the boys. The fact that the island is still alive with activity under our feet provided an extra thrill for the children.
A huge draw of the Azores is whale-watching and our tour was very much one of the highlights of the week. However, whales are obviously wild animals and our whales decided to have a day off. We were, however, rewarded with plenty of dolphin sightings; we lost count of the playful creatures we saw. We were fed marine facts over a tannoy during the two-hour boat trip. Dolphins sleep with one eye open and first time dolphin mums leave the parenting to the more experienced grandparents. This obviously amused Gogo!
On day three there were more energetic activities. We did a cycle ride around the scenic Lagoa das Sete Citades or Lake of the Seven Cities, deep crater lake formed mainly by rain water. This was followed by a cooling dip and kayaking session. Gogo was able to join in kayaking, which the boys were thrilled about, although trying to flip their seventy-five-year-old granny into the freezing lake was definitely not part of the original itinerary.
We had seen dolphin activity earlier in the week, however there was much excitement and anticipation on day four. We were given wetsuits and masks and snorkels and set off early morning in a Zodiac boat. Within twenty minutes, we spotted a flock of seagulls frantically dipping and diving over a small area of ocean. Maria maneuvered the Zodiac within the direct path of the oncoming pod of dolphins. She expertly guided us two by two to slip into the sea with a minimum splash and we were rewarded with the mesmerising sight of dolphins swimming and feeding around us in the clear, deep blue sea. It was spectacular and beyond all our wildest expectations.
Day five proved to be a huge hit with the boys, a jeep tour to the farthest corners of the island with stops at hot springs and warm waterfalls. It was a fun mode of transport and perfect for off-road terrain. The boys took huge delight in watching Gogo's anxious expression as we bumped along the exceedingly rocky routes.
The last day involved the grand finale, canyoning. We drove to the meeting point in the Ribeira dos Caldeiroes Natural Park and were handed wetsuits, all-terrain waterproof boots and helmets needed for abseiling down waterfalls. My children find the more equipment needed to execute an activity, the more thrilling it will be.
We were not sure what to expect, but were guided uphill through dense vegetation to where the canyoning began. It turned out to be a mix of abseiling and jumping down waterfalls, sliding down the rocks of this fast-running stream and culminating in a very high (8m) jump on the last waterfall. It was a suitably dramatic way to end the week. The sight of my mum abseiling down the side of a waterfall will leave a lasting memory for all of us. I think the extra attention she received from the dark and handsome guide spurred her on, coupled with two little eager grandsons shouting words of encouragement.
I have to admit an organised holiday itinerary had not always been top of my bucket list nor had I thought I was a group holiday person. However I have changed my mind. We spent every day together for all the activities but apart from the first and last evening, we were all left to our own devices when we got back to the hotel. The three families rubbed along very well and my boys made great friends with two brothers the same age. One of the other families - group holiday veterans - told me that they only ever go on group holidays now, not least because it minimises their children's squabbling!
Travelling with my mother as well as my boys added a very special dimension and was a fanatic bonding experience, one we will talk about for years to come. By the end of the week, we all felt we had both learnt and experienced a huge amount in the stunningly lovely Azores. Our first-time activity holiday will be a difficult one to beat.
Eleanor travelled with Activities Abroad. The 7-night Lava Lands and Dolphin Swimming trip costs from £1,015 per child (aged 8-12), £1,255 per child (aged 13-18) and from £1,425 per adult including flights and transfers, b&b, five lunches, two dinners, guided activities and instructors. Departs April-October 2019. activitiesabroad.com