I thought I'd write a quick overview of my trip and offer some practical advice - hope this is helpful, as I was a bit lost when planning our trip! Like most people we had a conundrum about which islands to visit. In the end, we settled on Sao Miguel, Pico and Sao Jorge. We initially aimed to also do a day trip from Pico to Faial but time didn't allow it in the end.
Our itinerary was as follows:
6 nights Sao Miguel
4 nights Pico
2 nights Sao Jorge
1 night back on Sao Miguel
We flew in and out via Lisbon with Ryanair and spent a night there each way (ending up there by accident for the Grand Finale of Eurovision, which was great fun!)
On Sao Miguel, we did all the usual sites - Sete Cidades, Furnas etc, and we also did some hiking, spent time on Santa Barbara beach and drove around the island, and of course went to the hot springs in the Terra Nostra garden. Many people don't realise that you can go inside the abandoned hotel at the Sete Cidades lookout point. You shouldn't, but if you're into urban photography, you can. To reach that amazing viewpoint over Sete Cidades that you often see in photos, you need to find the start of the walk called 'Serra Devassa'. Opposite the carpark and across the road is the entry to Lagoa do Canario. Drive in there and follow the road to the end, where you will find the Miradouro da Boca do Inferno. That's the most incredible view you'll find in Sao Miguel. Our hikes on this island were Caldeiras da Ribiera Grande - Salto do Cabrito (we did this with the owners of our lodge and ended it by eating a cozido they'd cooked themselves in the ground which was incredible), Faial da Terra - Salto do Preggo (up and down to a waterfall through this beautiful valley, in an area that isn't so frequented by tourists), Cha Gorreana (through the tea plantations), and Serra Devassa (which is near Sete Cidades and I think is supposed to be beautiful but the day we did it was so windy and cloudy, we didn't see a lot!)
Summary of Sao Miguel: Lots to see and do, you need five or six days. Also, many amazing places to eat. However it has a very different vibe to the other islands, although it's quiet compared to Lisbon, it was definitely 'buzzier', had better infrastructure, and a lot more tourists.
We flew to Pico on the morning of the seventh day, arriving around 10am. Here we stayed at a nature lodge in Madalena with views of Mount Pico in one direction and across to Faial in the other. We decided to give ourselves a day off and lazed by the pool. On the other days, we went whale watching in Lajes (saw blue whale plus baby, sperm whales plus baby, fin whale, and two types of dolphin - it was an incredible experience) drove up to Mt Pico, walked around Lagoa do Capitao, did a drive around the whole island, and we did one long hike through the vineyard area: Vinhas da Criacai Velha (we did it in both directions). We had a few hairy moments driving on the central road through the island in thick cloud with zero visibility - the weather changes there fast!
Summary of Pico: Much quieter than Sao Miguel but still has enough going on to keep you occupied for four or five days. It's much more obviously 'volcanic' than the other islands, not only because of the dirty great volcano in the middle of it - also the soil colour, the fact that the houses are built out of the dark rock etc. Most people seemed to be there to hike the mountain but you can still appreciate it by driving as far as you can go up it - the view is out of this world. We didn't hike it this time because I have a knee problem but I feel I need to go back and conquer it!
We then took the ferry to Sao Jorge. This was my favourite of the islands. On the first day we drove to Faja das Almas for lunch. We then continued on to Faja dos Vimes, where the only coffee in Europe grows. We sampled the coffee and had a private tour of their little plantation which was brilliant. The next day, we did the famous hike from Serra do Topo to Faja dos Cubres, via the beautiful and remote Caldeira do Santo Christo. This was by far the highlight of the trip for me. The hike was stunningly beautiful, although it's quite hard on the legs with all the steep downhill sections from the top. The following day we drove to the far west to Rosais, checked out the park at Sete Fontes (which wasn't anything special after the what we'd seen the previous day) and visited the abandoned lighthouse at Rosais, before having a walk around Velas, the main 'town' (it's tiny, with not a lot happening). We then took a late afternoon flight back to Ponta Delgada and enjoyed being back in a lively place - it felt like the big city after our week on Pico and Sao Jorge!
Sao Jorge Summary: I wish we'd had an extra day or two to do more of the hikes because this island was by far the most beautiful. It was also very, very quiet tourist-wise - many people spoke no English and we hardly saw anyone else on our hike. The downside of this is that you're better off self-catering if you can, as there aren't many good restaurant options. The roads are very difficult to drive - windy and very steep down to the Fajas. The hikes on this island are all medium to difficult and generally all long, there are no 'easy' grades ones.
Overall, I fell in love with the Azores and we want to explore them more now. Everyone we met was so warm and friendly, and everywhere we ate, the food was amazing.
Now on to general practicalities and advice:
- You do need a car to really benefit from what these islands have to offer. We booked in advance for Sao Miguel and Pico with Ilha Verde, but for Sao Jorge we hadn't. In the ferry terminal on Sao Jorge we asked the tourist information office what they would recommend and she said a car works out cheaper than taxis. She helped us book a car on the spot. This might be risky in Summer but out of season seems to be ok.
- That said, if you're not a confident driver, don't bother driving on Sao Jorge (and I can imagine some of the smaller islands.) You could also reach the start and end point of hikes on that island by taxi. Also, great care should be taken driving the national road on Pico, as it's high up and when the clouds come in you can't see - we nearly slammed twice into empty trucks that farmers had left in the road, and there were ALWAYS lots of cows on the road as well!
- Tap water is safe to drink and is all straight from the source. Same goes of stream water and water from public taps.
- There is a brilliant app called Visit Azores which has all the information you could ever want about the islands and what to do on them. Hiking maps can be downloaded to view offline.
- Another useful app is 'Spotazores' which has webcams at all the hotspots like Lagoa do Fogo and Sete Cidades. Perfect for checking if it's worth trekking there for the view or if it's covered in cloud.
- The weather changes very fast. We were shivering on Sao Miguel and got sunburnt in Pico. Unless you are there in the summer, you will need layers and a rain jacket. Also, make sure your plans are flexible. There would be nothing sadder than only planning to see Sete Cidades on one particular day and it be covered in cloud.
- Leave the high heels at home, you won't need them, you won't be comfortable and you'll feel silly because everyone is in sports shoes.
- If you're a beach lover, the Azores might not be for you.
- The white wines from Pico are amazing. The reds are very minerally. The reds from Sao Miguel are better, if you can find them (we did in Sol Mar in Ponta Delgada.)
- If you get seasick and want to go whale watching, DO NOT forget your seasickness pills! If you do it on Pico, you're on a rib, and it is B.U.M.P.Y! (But fun!!)
- Don't take your best swimwear to the hot springs, especially if your best swimwear is white...
- Flying between islands was no problem, depending on the plane there are around 40 to 80 people on it so it's not a tiny plane. Don't expect any onboard service though. Ferry was more comfortable but can get a bit bumpy.
I think that's it for practical advice. I hope this maybe helps someone who is thinking of visiting the Azores and isn't sure where to start with their itinerary!