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Island Hopping In The Azores Can't Be Beaten For Relaxation
The once mighty Portuguese empire is a shadow of its former self. But most of what remains can be seen on a fascinating cruise tour which is appropriately titled Portuguese Islands & Cities. Portugal's territory once stretched from provinces in South America to those in Africa and Asia, and it was the undoubted skills of their navigators that achieved the empire.
So it was entirely fitting that we should set out on a modern voyage of discovery, courtesy of Fred.Olsen Cruise Lines, that took us to the existing Portuguese territories of the Azores islands in the middle of the Atlantic, the separate island of Madeira, plus ports of call on Portugal's mainland itself. We set sail on the 14-night cruise from Dover on board Fred Olsen's ship Balmoral, one of four cruise vessels in the fleet.
One of the stunning landscapes in the Azores islands
The first stop on our journey was the beautiful Azores islands which can be found some 760 nautical miles due west of Portugal in the middle of the Atlantic. The Azores actually consist of nine volcanic islands measuring almost 900 square miles in total and with a welcoming moderate climate all year round. Despite the nine islands, there are currently just three available ports, namely Ponta Delgada on the island of Sao Miguel, Praia da Vitoria on Terceira, and Horta on the island of Faial.
After sailing just over 1,400 miles from Dover we landed at Praia da Vitoria on Terceria from where we ventured south to Angra do Heroísmo, the historic former capital of the Azores. Stunning views can be found at the top of the now extinct Monte Brasil volcano. But if you love volcanos, the Azores has plenty for you to visit. Our next stop to Horta on the equally beautiful Faial island features tranquil lakes and dramatic cliffs, dominated by the Capelinhos volcano which rose from the sea just over half a century ago.
But the most impressive volcanic sight awaited us on the island of São Miguel, where we took a coach trip to the magnificent twin lake which lies within the extinct volcano of Sete Cidades. The lakes, which are divided by a narrow bridge, are one body of water but are made from two separate craters with different depths and colours. One is clearly blue (on a sunny day) due to the reflection of the sky, while the other is green because of the rich vegetation surrounding it.
Although the Azores was the highlight of our cruise, the return sailing to Dover afforded us a two-day stopover in Madeira, which is located off the coast of Africa. A trip around the port of Funchal gives visitors the chance to sample its cable car and gardens, as well as a toboggan ride back down the mountain for those who are not faint-hearted. But we chose to take a tour to the north-western valley of Porto Moniz which offers the most spectacular views.
Tributes to Christ the Redeemer and the Golden Gate Bridge in Lisbon
From Madeira, it was on to Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, which is spread out over seven hills and boasts tributes to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio, as well as the stunning 16th century Belém Tower. One of the great ways to see Lisbon, in view of the many hills, is by tuk tuk, a little electric or battery powered vehicle with the driver also serving as a very helpful guide.
And then to our final destination of Oporto which can best be seen by a boat trip on the River Douro, with the mini-cruise passing under several bridges of various shapes, designs and age. And what better way to complete a relaxing day ashore than with a visit to one of the port wine cellars that the city of Oporto is still famous for with names such as Sandeman and Cockburns still prominent.
Smaller cruise ships such as Balmoral can get right into the towns and cities they visit
One of the joys of the Fred.Olsen cruise ships is their smaller size compared to some of the giant liners that you see around the world. That provides for a much more intimate experience on board their ships where you get to know the helpful and friendly staff on board. And the days when you are literally 'all at sea' provide the perfect opportunity to enjoy the facilities on the ship which, despite the smaller size of the vessel, include a spa, gym, library, dance classes, and guest lectures, as well as fabulous restaurants, comfy bars, and nightly entertainment. And with drinks packages costing from just £10 per person per day, you won't be hit hard in the wallet.
Further information about Fred.Olsen Cruise Lines can be found online or by calling Reservations on 0800 0355 242.