Having only been sailing on Serendipity for four years, just two of those as full time cruisers, we’ve mostly stuck to the east coast of the US and parts of the Caribbean. Although we’ve been to so many beautiful places and I count myself lucky almost every day that we’re out here living this lifestyle, there haven’t been many places on our list of travels so far that I would categorize as exotic or far flung. In my mind those areas described as unusual or excitingly strange tend to relate to isolated regions of beauty, normally a remote set of islands probably somewhere in the South Pacific. But we had never been any place that met that kind of criteria. At least in my mind at the time.
So when LOOK Insurance Services gave a list of their Top 5 Most Exotic Sailing Locations in the World and asked us to lend them a hand with what we thought our most exotic location was, one area shot straight to the front of my brain. I remembered that we now have been to an area of isolated beauty that’s unfamiliar, fascinating, and definitely romantic. The Atlantic Islands of Portugal. Lying approximately 800 nautical miles off the coast of Portugal, they should be a top sailing destination for every cruiser and even fit into my mind’s criteria of exotic. Yes they are isolated, yes they are kind of far flung, and Yes, THEY ARE GORGEOUS!!
The specific Portuguese Atlantic Islands I’m including in my list the Azores Archipelago and the Madeira Island Group, and here are a few reasons of why we love them so much.
The sea life is amazing.
It never fails that no matter what port we’re in between any of these islands, there are always tours set up for whale watching, dolphin watching, and seal spotting. And with good reason too. They’re everywhere! Coming in to the ports of Ponta Delgada, Sao Miguel Azores, and Funchal, Madeira, we had pods and pods of dolphins leading the way in. To the point that I actually got sick of watching them, which should really be a felony, because really, how can one ever become sick of watching dolphins glide and jump through the water? Plus even though we arrived fairly late in the season, we actually spotted whales! Short finned pilot whales mostly, but for a couple that couldn’t even spot a single bald eagle while traveling up the Potomac where they’re supposedly hanging off every buoy, getting even one whale sighting in for us was huge.
The views from the water are staggering.
I have never been any place that has offered such great views of said place from the water in my life. When you come up on any of these islands from the water you’re normally greeted with sheer cliff drops into the water and rolling green hills of farm and/or white buildings with terracotta roofs flowing inland. It’s almost like stepping back in time to an era before resorts and hotels and super-malls blocking out any area of civilization, to when it was just nature and and the locals living off the land. Don’t get me wrong, there are still some resorts and hotels and mega malls tucked in here and there, but you can’t tell it from looking. If we didn’t have to go through the trouble of getting in and out of a marina berth, I could honestly spend my days just cruising back and forth along the coastline. If there was ever an area for daily pleasure cruises, this would be it.
The climate is a perfect balance of warm and cool.
You’d think that with such a northern latitude, equivalent to where you’d find yourself in the US anyway, would have fairly cool days and much cooler nights. Not quite, as the Gulf Stream runs just close enough to the Azores leaving them in a subtropical climate all year meaning it is warm but not overly hot. Spending most of August and September in the Azores we’d experience highs in the mid to upper 70’s and low’s in the upper 60’s. Getting to Madeira even later in the season in October, approximately 600 nm south of the Azores, we experienced much of the same there. This meant that the days were warm, even hot sometimes when the sun was beating down on you, but it was never stifling and there were always pleasant sea breezes blowing off the harbor. The nights cooled down just enough that it reminded you fall might be around the corner, that perfect temperature where it’s nice to bundle up in a sweater but know you’ll be able to peel it off the next morning.
The landscapes are incredibly diverse
Think of basically any kind of landscape you’d like to see on a trip or vacation, and it’s likely you’ll be able to find it here. Large volcanoes towering out of the sea? Check. Deserts surrounded by beautiful jagged cliffs? Check. Opulent forests sprawling into rolling green hillsides? Check. Golden sandy beaches leading into clear (sub)tropical waters? Check. Isolated villages that look like they haven’t been touched in a hundred years, or large and upscale metropolitan cities? Check and check. At least one area in these islands, and usually multiple, will give you all of these and more. It’s literally the place that offers everything.
The cities are like something out of a storybook.
Do you remember the photos I shared from Picturesque Horta? How incredibly surreal and beautiful everything looked? Trust me, that wasn’t just for the cameras. Every direction you turn your head in these areas holds parks, markets, beautiful old world architecture or churches that have been standing for a hundred years, and all of them looked like they were set up to be part of a movie except it was actually real life. There hasn’t been a single area in any town or village we’ve visited where ours jaws have not been on the floor due to their charm and grace.
Island hopping is easy and enjoyable*
Situated in an area with steady north to northeast tradewinds make moving east, west, or south between the islands incredibly easy. Granted, we did most of our traveling through here in the fall where the weather was a little stronger than normal, but plan your visit from mid-late spring through summer and you’ll find reliable 15-20 knot breezes under brilliant sunny skies to carry you from one destination to the next. In the Azores, the nine islands are clustered together in three groups meaning that most sails are within sunrise to sunset distance of each other, but never more than a day and a half apart. Getting between the Azores and Madeira is about a five day travel, but if you’re moving south you’ll have the wind and current at your back to push you smoothly along.
*Don’t base this on our own travels of the area where every weather forecast was wrong and we ended up with strong winds on our nose. That’s not the norm.
The cost of living is not very high
I may not categorize this with the extreme cheapness we were experiencing in Central America, but I’d say that our costs here are on par with, or even a little lower than what we were paying in the US. Our main expenses were groceries and marina charges, and although I might have to consult our monthly costs, I think we’re on average below what we were in Florida. We’d heard that Europe is expensive, and when we arrived here we were blown away with the cheap prices we’ve been finding everywhere. I will say that we’ve heard Portugal has the lowest cost of living between countries in the EU, but to only have to pay 1€ for a bag of sandwich rolls, 1€ for a bag of potato chips, 1,25€ for a bag of coffee grounds, or 0,60€ per bottle of beer, we’ve been doing pretty good.
I could go on and on about the million other tiny reasons of why we fell so deeply in love with this area. The history, the cleanliness, the safety, plus it’s European flavor. Trust me, the cheap espressos, wine, and cheese have not gone unnoticed. Plus all of the impromptu (and free) festivals, concerts, and other events always going on.
Needless to say, if the season and our Visas allowed us, we could spend months and even into years enjoying these island groups. Besides Guatemala, it’s the only place we’ve ever seriously considered buying property because we never wanted to leave.
Unfortunately they’re not on a highly traveled cruising route. The best way to get to the Azores is heading east across the Atlantic, although Madeira wouldn’t be too far out of the way for those making their way south upon leaving the Med. So if you ever find yourself with the opportunity to visit any of these islands, hop on that chance right away. I promise it will be something you’ll never regret.
But now that I’ve shared our favorite and most exotic sailing location with you, I’d like to know, what’s yours?
*I will note that if there is one big downside to cruising this area it’s that protected anchorages are very hard to come by. If you sail here be prepared to spend a majority of your time in a marina. The upside to this though is they usually cost a fraction of the price they do back in the States. Our 34 ft boat was usually 14€/night.