Checking Out The Azores – A New Destination For School Geography?

IMG_1591During the Easter holiday, I was given the opportunity to join a teacher focus group to visit the Azores. The trip was organised by ‘Discover the World’, a tour company who specialise in taking school parties to exciting locations. They are already a market-leader in school trips to Iceland, and were keen to investigate the possibilities of expanding their portfolio, and offering trips to this Atlantic archipelago.
Before departing for the Azores, I was surprised how little was known about the islands by my friends and colleagues – and more strikingly, by fellow geographers. I managed to find time to carry out some research before my visit, but this did not prepare me for the stunning landscapes and distinctive atmosphere of the islands I was about to visit.
The Azores may not have the same breathtaking unique sights as Iceland – but it has a character of its own, and plenty to offer in terms of landscape ‘wow’ factor. The natural environment of the Azores is well protected and respected, and remains at present unspoilt by excessive tourist development.
It is difficult to imagine that this destination will remain under the radar of holiday-makers and school visits for much longer. With its direct flights, short flight time (less than 4 hours), similar time zone (minus one hour GMT), and relatively low domestic costs compared with northern Europe, the Azores has a head-start on many other locations.
The Azores consist of a chain of nine islands, and although the underlying theme of stunning volcanic landscapes makes this a very special destination, each island has its own characteristics and identity. It is therefore easy to understand why ‘Discover the World’ has recognised the rich potential of the Azores, and is keen to pioneer the development of this destination for school visits.
It seems likely that any study-based trips would be best aimed at either key stage four or key stage five students. An exciting programme could also be provided for key stage three students, but a number of activities included in the sample itineraries demand a degree of physical challenge, and any students from this age-range would need to be carefully selected.
It would not really be practical to visit all of the islands on a school trip, but clusters of the islands are close enough to each other to make it possible to include three or perhaps even four islands in a week- long trip. During the focus group trip, we were able to explore three of the islands – Sao Miguel, Pico, and Faial.
The flight from London Gatwick brings the visitor direct to the largest island in the archipelago, Sao Miguel. The main settlement of Ponta Delgada provides a mix of traditional and more modern architecture, and as it is the largest settlement in the archipelago, it has something of an ‘urban’ feel to it. We did not have much of an opportunity to explore the town, but a visit to the nearby Gruta da Carvao lava tube is worthy of a mention.
IMG_1460<The highlight of our time on Sao Miguel was undoubtedly our visit to Sete Cidades (‘Seven Cities’) , on day two, which certainly delivered some ‘awe and wonder’ right at the beginning of the trip. With a theme of ‘volcanoes’ for the day, a visit to the Vista do Rei viewpoint provides a unique opportunity to observe a large intact caldera and gain a clear understanding of how this special landscape has been created. Many calderas in other parts of the world are either too large for youngsters to appreciate, or have a broken caldera wall which disrupts not only the overview, but also the understanding of what is seen before them. From the viewpoint, students can begin an exciting journey that takes them into a volcano, dropping down to the caldera floor and the lakes contained within. Local legend links these impressive water features to two lovers – a shepherd boy and a Princess – who were forbidden by the King from seeing each other after their love was discovered. Upon this separation, the green-eyed shepherd’s tears fell to create the green lake, while the blue-eyed Princess’ crying formed the blue lake. The village on the lakeside provides a quiet and safe environment for students to roam with a degree of independence, and potentially address enquiry-based questions on tourism or industrial location (through the new EU funded work units). This location also offers excellent opportunities for challenging physical activities on or around the lakes. We were given a taste of these, trying our hands at canoeing on the lakes as well as a cycle along a lakeside mountain bike trail.
The next day on Sao Miguel gave us the chance to visit the area of Furnas to examine themes of ‘sustainable geo-tourism’ and ‘sustainable farming’. A short walk alongside Lagoa dos Furnas took us to the modern and well-equipped interpretation centre. Here, enthusiastic staff delivered an introduction and audio visual presentation before outlining a variety of themes that could be examined by students through pre-prepared enquiry activities. Topics such as tourism, eutrophication of freshwater environments, freshwater flora and fauna, vegetation sampling or sustainable land use and dairy farming can all be studied in this area.
IMG_1364Just a short walk from the centre it is possible to see ‘cozido’ lunches being prepared – by burying meals of meat and vegetables in the thermally-active sand, and allowing it to cook over a period of a few hours. Tastes good!
We were also able to visit the nearby Terra Nostra Gardens to bathe in the iron-stained thermal baths which became known to Iceland veterans as the ‘brown lagoon’! Later we also visited the Caldeira Velha site, where a similar thermal bath experience was offered. Another brief excursion on our first day took us to a working tea plantation.
IMG_1395There are many locations on the island of Sao Miguel that lend themselves to the study of ‘sustainable energy’. A number of geo-thermal power stations such as the Central Geotermica de Pico Vermelho provide guided visits, and it is also possible to visit to a working HEP station for comparison.
A dramatic and easily accessible coastline free from tacky tourist development on Sao Miguel provides potential for coastal geography studies. Our group visited Ferraria, where we were able to enjoy close-up views of some impressive coastal geology and landforms – including arches, stacks and blow-holes. While I leant against boulders to photograph these, the sea pounded the volcanic rocks beneath me, causing the whole cliffline to vibrate.
After a couple of days on the main island, we took a short 45 minute early morning flight to the second island destination of Pico. Here, we were able to make an ascent of the classic strato-volcano that forms the core of the island, and gives the island its name. This proved to be a physically demanding trek needing a full eight hours, but had as its reward stunning views from the summit. This would undoubtedly be a special highlight and achievement for students. It might be necessary to select students for this activity, depending on their physical and mental fitness. If not all trip members are capable of attempting the ascent of Pico, an alternative physical challenge – probably an extended trek – could be arranged.
Also on the island of Pico is the World Heritage site of the Craicao Velha vineyards, where vines are cultivated between shelter walls of basalt rock, forming a unique man-made landscape. In addition, the Gruta dos Torres lava tube provides a far superior experience to the one at Ponta Delgada. Thought to be one of the largest lava tubes in the world, this subterranean landscape has been kept very much in its natural state with few concessions to visitors like concrete walkways and lighting. A guided walk by torchlight revealed vast caverns, collapsed lava benches, pahoe-hoe and aa lavas, and lava ‘stalactites’, that had the appearance of melting chocolate.
IMG_1719To explore the third island on our tour, we took a 30 minute ferry journey from the town of Madelena on Pico to the island of Faial. The short ferry trip really helps to emphasise a sense of adventure for students, and also makes clear the physical division between the different islands they are scheduled to visit. Faial is a choice location for a whale-watching trip – although the same service is advertised from Sao Miguel. The surrounding waters here provide far more reliable sightings than other locations around the world. It is also possible to include a visit to the whaling museum at Porta Pim (preferably before the whale watching trip) to discover some of the history that helped to make the Azores famous. The attractive main settlement of Horta provides opportunities for town-based studies or a tourism enquiry based around the marina and port area.
There is an opportunity for another (less strenuous) physical challenge on Faial, a trek with an underlying theme of volcanism. After a short trip by coach to the viewpoint at the main caldera on Faial, a group can be then moved on to a convenient start point on the ‘10 volcanoes trail’ where it can follow a geological transect to the Capelinhos Visitors Centre. The final part of this trek takes you across volcanic ash fields that mark the recent 1957 eruption that created this peninsula and literally extended the island into the sea. Lava bombs litter the sides of the trail, and surface water has carved crazy patterns in the soft ash and pumice. The Centre itself has won a number of European awards, and a generous amount of time is needed there to explore the variety of photographic and video displays. These explain not only the creation of the Capelinhos peninsula, but also cover the subjects of volcanism and plate tectonics in an interesting and lively way.
it is also possible to visit the Botanical Gardens on Faial, where a lot of work has been done to protect native species through the creation of seed banks and reintroduction programmes. Enthusiastic staff are on hand to provide excellent information about the endemic plants of the island, as well as the invasive plants that have become such a threat. Some background knowledge of plant succession gained here proved invaluable on our walk to help us understandi the way in which the island’s plants have responded to the creation of the ‘new’ land of the Capelinhos peninsula.
Accommodation during our trip was based in local Pousadas, or youth hostels. These were similar in standard to UK youth hostels, and perfectly adequate for adults, but would need some modifications for use by school parties. The Pico hostel is particularly suitable for group visits, the layout of the rooms being ideal for school groups, and with generous living spaces that could be adopted for group use.
‘Discover the World’ are currently offering a short itinerary that explores just the largest island of Sao Miguel, and a longer trip (that would be my preference) to combine time on the islands of Sao Miguel, Pico and Faial. However, they are entirely flexible with their programmes, and will adjust itineraries to match any desired combination of islands, as well as any particular study theme. This could range from a general ‘look and see’ travel experience to a subject or theme based study trip, with work activities provided. The company has an outstanding reputation in the area of education travel, and its trips to Iceland and Morocco are especially popular. They are now applying their experience to offer this new and exciting destination, and I would highly recommend it be considered for your own next school adventure.
Sustainability may well be a ‘unique selling point’ theme for a school trip to the Azores. Students could then have a key question as a recurring reference, for example: ‘Is the future of the Azores sustainable?’ or perhaps: ‘Where will sustainable development take the Azores in 50 years time?’ Alternatively, a theme could be adopted to act as a specific focus for each day, or It might also be possible on multi-island itineraries to attach a particular theme to each island, in order to emphasise the individuality and distinctiveness of the different island locations. For example, Sao Miguel could have a theme (perhaps with a key question) of ‘sustainable energy’, Faial could have a theme of ‘volcanic landscapes’, and Pico’s theme could be ‘geo-tourism’.
Due to the changeable weather, it is difficult to predict the best time to visit the Azores. A trip could certainly be planned in the calendar between May and October half terms, but a July trip is likely to provide the better weather, better whale watching, and higher visitor numbers for data collection.
Details on school visits to the Azores (and all the other locations in the portfolio) along with sample itineraries can be found on the ‘Discover the World’ web site at:
Or, ring 01737 218800 and ask to speak to ‘Red Leader’ (Sonia) – she will tell you all you need to know.
Photos from the focus group visit can be found at:


Post Script: There is also a new resource bank being created by ‘Discover The World’ in conjunction with the Geographical Association at:
This will provide quality teaching aids for the Azores as well as other locations, along with tips on planning overseas fieldwork. The site is currently under construction with resources being updated in the next few months and it is free to register – well worth checking out!


About devongeography

Head of Geography and Assistant Vice Principal at South Molton Community College, North Devon. Exeter Chiefs supporter!
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