I tried sea kayaking in the Azores, this is how it went
I had never been in a kayak that used a rudder and pedal system before.
In sea kayaking, sit-on-top kayaks are often the way to go, and while I knew sea kayaking would be very different from the lakes or rivers I’m used to, the idea of pushing the footrest to steer the kayak seemed strange to me.
The Azores are an archipelago of nine volcanic islands in the North Atlantic Ocean about 850 miles west of mainland Portugal, and each island has its own unique personality and opportunities for kayaking.
At the beginning of February, the Atlantic Ocean surrounding the Azores was still freezing and the last thing we wanted to do was dive into this freezing sea. When we visited Terceira Island, kayaking was one of the activities that I couldn’t pass up. While Terceira specializes in sea kayaking, the other islands in the Azores chain have volcanic lakes and rivers on which to kayak.
In Terceira, I was both nervous and excited to try water sports on this ocean that once hosted raging naval battles, spice-laden merchant ships from India, and invaders and pirates. Spanish.
Amazed in the Azores
The ocean off the south coast of Terceira glistened in the partly cloudy day, sometimes as smooth as aluminum foil and sometimes gently rippling like a girl dancing. Earlier in the week we rode through choppy waves while watching whales so I knew the ocean wasn’t as calm as it looked.
Still, I love kayaking. I love to sit deep in the water and glide like some kind of sea creature. I imagined myself settling into the belly of the kayak, letting the coordinated movement of the paddle propel me somewhere in the Atlantic.
Instead, I had to push my knees against the sides of the sea kayak and position my feet to push paddles to help me turn. The system is surprisingly effective, but at the end of the four hour adventure my hips were screaming name-calling and begging for ibuprofen.
“Do we need to train in the harbor? Our guide Sophie asked. Sophie was a French woman with a buttery croissant accent with more energy than her slim figure showed, and she was our guide with CommunicAir, the kayaking company we chose on Terceira.
She picked us up from our hotel in Angra do Heroismo to bring us to the nearby Sao Mateus port. The port town is a bustling former fishing village where most of its inhabitants still thrive on the fishing trade. The small but important fishing port is also home to the Angra do Heroismo Museum, which includes information on the island’s whaling history.
We launched our sea kayaks and after a few clumsy attempts to steer the rudder kayak we seemed to be in control and headed out to the ocean.
A quiet visit
The ocean was not as difficult to manage as I thought it would be, and we steered our kayaks towards Monte Brasil, the great old volcano that protects the cove of Angra do Heroismo. After wobbling a few times on the gentle waves, I found some rhythm in my paddles and kept my knees pressed against the sides of the boat.
Monte Brasil rises from the Atlantic Ocean, connects to the main island of Terceira and is covered with thick forests. The last volcanic activity took place around 23,000 years ago, but the forest still protects the cove from strong ocean winds, making Angra a much sought after port throughout history.
For several centuries, the fortress of Monte Brasil has protected the city from pirates and other threats. It is also home to one of the largest Spanish forts in existence outside of Spain, built after the conquest of Terceira by the Spanish army.
In fact, to this day, the old Spanish cannons still point inland, a reminder that while Terceira was invaded, it was not defeated. The Portuguese eventually defeated the Spaniards and reclaimed both their homeland and the fort itself.
Castelo de São João Baptista do Monte Brasil is a castle at the foot of Monte Brasil, built at the end of the 16th century by order of Philip II of Spain who was also King of Portugal. Despite its impressive fortifications, the castle did not withstand Portuguese independence fighters, and in 1640 the fortress was returned.
Today, the Monte Brasil area still includes a military installation, but also hiking and walking trails that circle the entire volcano.
The sea remained calm as we pulled into a small cove for a break from hot green tea and the famous Dona Amelia cakes. Dona Amelia cakes, small muffins filled with spices, cinnamon and raisins, are also called “Indian cake”, and date from 1901, during the royal visit of Queen Amelia and King Carlos to the island from Terceira. The islanders offered the cheesecakes to the King and Queen as a thank you, naming them Amelia, in tribute to the Queen.
We got back into the water and started the long paddle back to Sao Mateus where dreams of cold beer and a long stretch of the hips awaited us.
Kayaking in the islands
Sea kayaking is an option in the Azores, but on nearby islands like São Miguel, the deep, cold lakes formed at the bottom of volcanic calderas are perfect for kayaking and canoeing in calm water.
In the center of Sao Miguel is the Serra da Àgua de Pau, a mountain range reaching an altitude of 2,820 feet above sea level. Within this mountain range are the ancient volcanic craters that now house the volcanoes. Sete Cidades, Fogo and Furnas lakes. These mysterious mountain lakes sparkle with crystal-clear water in striking blue and green colors, and swimming and water sports – along with hiking, birding, and photography – are some of the top tourist attractions.
The other seven islands of the Azores also have their own lakes and coastlines for kayaking. On the younger island, Pico, kayaking and coastal exploration are popular with tours offering sit-on-top kayaks with backrests and guided tours along the island’s coast to the area of bathing and vineyards of the town of Pocinho.
How to kayak in the Azores
Kayaking and canoeing in the Azores can be practiced both in inland waters and in the high seas. Several tour operators are available on the islands. Here are a few!
- Terceira: ComunicAir. ComunicAir has an experienced team in organizing many outdoor events and initiatives such as mountain biking, hiking, kayaking, 4 × 4 tours and hot air balloon tours.
- São Miguel: Futurism. With 20 years of experience, Futurismo Azores Adventures is one of the largest active tourism companies in the Azores operating in four islands.
- Azores Adventure Islands This company offers a half-day kayaking tour of Sete Cidades and a half-day kayaking tour of Furnas Lake, both in Sao Miguel.
- São Jorge: Adventour. L’Aventour is a tourist animation company, which operates in the adventure and nature tourism sector.
- Flores Island: discover OC. This company rents kayaks for adventures on the island of Flores.
- Pico Island: Pico the Azores offers several kayaking tours around the coast and swimming areas around Pico.
Water sports play an important role in most vacation plans, and kayaking is just one of the many activities that add excitement and adventure to a destination’s appeal: