Azores vs. Madeira: Pick your perfect Portuguese vacation island

Sep 27, 2020

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Editor’s note: As the travel industry reopens following COVID-19 shutdowns, TPG suggests that you talk to your doctor, follow health officials’ guidance and research local travel restrictions before booking that next trip or hotel. 

With travel restrictions constantly in flux, it can be tough to decide where to take a vacation. It’s difficult to plan when you aren’t sure which destinations may require you to quarantine upon return — and things can always change suddenly.

The Portuguese islands of the Azores and Madeira have remained relatively coronavirus-free, however, Portugal is still not open to Americans. Some international travel is being allowed, but Portugal has had to scale back allowing tourists from many spots.

Of course, restrictions can change at any time, so stay informed when booking and traveling.

Flowers blooming on the Azores islands.(Photo by Sorin Rechitan / EyeEm /Getty)
Flowers blooming on the Azores islands. (Photo by Sorin Rechitan/EyeEm/Getty)

For those wanting a Portuguese vacation, both sets of islands are very special — but wildly different from each other. If you’d like to have an island vacation but aren’t quite sure where to go, this guide will help you decide whether you should select the Azores or Madeira.

Madeira island, Portugal. (Photo by Dennis Fischer Photography/Getty)
Madeira island, Portugal. (Photo by Dennis Fischer Photography/Getty)

Azores

The logistics

This exotic autonomous Portuguese archipelago consists of nine islands located in the mid-Atlantic: Corves, Faial, Flores, Graciosa, Pico, Santa Maria, São Jorge, São Miguel and Terceira. Each island has its own flair and highlights, and most people start by flying to Ponte Delgada (PDL) on São Miguel island, which is the largest and most populated of the nine.

The Azores. (Photo by PeterHermesFurian / Getty)
The Azores. (Photo by PeterHermesFurian/Getty)

It can take a while to arrive, though. Most flights require a stop in Lisbon. Once you reach Ponte Delgada, you can fly to some of the other islands, though a more affordable way is to take ferries. Just remember that the Atlantic waters can be rough, so consider flying if you tend to get seasick.

A waterfall in the Azores. (Photo by bbsferrari / Getty)
A waterfall in the Azores. (Photo by bbsferrari/Getty)

The islands are grouped into regions: Eastern (Santa Maria and São Miguel), Central (São Jorge, Pico, Faial), Western (Corvo and Flores) and North Central (Graciosa and Terceira). It might make the most sense to fly between regions, and take ferries to/from islands within the same region.

Consider a trip to the Azores if:

  • You’d like a longer trip;
  • You love nature;
  • You’re into getting off-the-beaten-path (many spots are delightfully void of tourists);
  • You prefer black sand beaches and volcanic vibes;
  • You don’t mind cooler weather, clouds or rain; or
  • You’re not a partier (this isn’t a spot with a big club or music scene).

Best times to visit the Azores

Weather in the Azores can be unpredictable, but generally, the best time to visit is from June to September. The rest of the year sees ample amounts of rain and cooler temperatures, though you may get lucky and have sunshine — it’s always a toss-up in the Azores. But for consistently good weather, it’s best to head over during the summer months.

Highlights of the Azores

Each island has its own claim to fame, but you can generally find verdant, mountainous scenery on all the islands.

Geysers, hot springs and volcanic fumaroles on São Miguel (Photo by Patrick Donovan / Getty)
Geysers, hot springs and volcanic fumaroles on São Miguel. (Photo by Patrick Donovan/Getty)

São Miguel is especially lush and green and is probably the island you’ll start on. Plan to visit Gorreana, Europe’s only tea plantation and swim in some of the island’s volcanic thermal pools. Pico (the second-largest island) is the place to visit for wine. Winemakers use the natural landscape of volcanic rocks to protect their vines from wind, salt and rain. Pico is also famous for whale watching.

Dolphins in the waters near the Azores. (Photo by Gerard Soury / Getty).
Dolphins in the waters near the Azores. (Photo by Gerard Soury/Getty)

Visitors to Faial should trek the famous Capelinhos volcano, which overlooks the sea. São Jorge is a quieter island, famous for its São Jorge cheese.

Corvo and Flores are the most remote Azores. Hikers should head to Flores to discover a number of crater lakes and waterfalls, while birdwatchers may prefer Corvo, the smallest island (there may be more bird species than human inhabitants!).

Waterfalls on Flores. (Photo by Luca Quadrio /Getty)
Waterfalls on Flores. (Photo by Luca Quadrio/Getty)

In Terceira, hike the trails of the Monte Brasil natural park and explore the ancient lava tube of Algar do Carvão, part of an extinct volcano. Active travelers will enjoy the island of Graciosa, which has plenty of water sports like scuba diving to nearby shipwrecks, kayaking, fishing, sailing and windsurfing, as well as activities for those wanting to stay on dry land such as cycling, horse riding and hiking.

Where to stay in the Azores

The top TPG hotel pick is the Santa Barbara Eco Beach Hotel, located on the black, sandy shores of São Miguel island. The sustainable hotel features a saltwater pool, a spa located inside the property’s greenhouse and seasonal gastronomy options. Room rates start at $87 per night.

(Photo courtesy of Santa Barbara Eco Resort Facebook page)
(Photo courtesy of Santa Barbara Eco Resort Facebook page)

Pocinho Bay is an option for those traveling to Pico Island. This unique property offers views of Faial island from its volcanic stone villas, as well as charming spaces like outdoor decks with ocean views or a relaxing area with hammocks. Room rates start at $180 per night.

Related: 11 best hotels for a beach vacation in Portugal

Madeira

The logistics

The autonomous region of Madeira consists of two inhabited islands: Madeira and Porto Santo, which sit slightly north of Spain’s Canary Islands and west of Morocco. Two uninhabited island groups also belong to the region: the Selvagens (also known as the Savage Islands) and the Desertas. You’ll fly into Funchal, Madeira’s capital. Arrival to Porto Santo from Madeira takes about two-and-a-half hours via ferry or just 15 to 20 minutes by plane.

Ponta do Sao Lourenco on the eastern coast of Madeira in winter
Ponta do Sao Lourenco in Madeira. (Photo by Tomekbudujedomek/Getty)

Consider a trip to Madeira if:

  • You want sunshine and warm temperatures;
  • You love white sand beaches;
  • You’d prefer all the amenities and comforts of tourist-catered resorts; or
  • You don’t have time for a super long trip.

Best times to visit

Madeira sees the warmest weather and least amounts of rain from May to October, but you’ll likely see sunshine and warm temperatures in winter too. The island has a variety of microclimates, meaning you may be able to hit the beach in the south in a t-shirt and bundle up to hike a cloud-covered mountain in the north the very same day. Really, you can enjoy Madeira year-round — just pack layers, sunblock and a rain jacket just in case.

Highlights of Madeira

Madeira’s levadas, or irrigation channels, are incredible spots for walkers and hikers. Running through some of the island’s most dramatic scenery, these paths are perfect for travelers wanting to explore the island on foot or by bike.

Mountains on Madeira. (Photo by Evgeni Dinev Photography / Getty)
Mountains on Madeira. (Photo by Evgeni Dinev Photography/Getty)

Funchal, though busy, is a special city to spend some time in — especially when it comes to unique forms of transportation. Plan to take the cable car up to Monte, admiring mountains bathed in mist and the cityscape and ocean below.

Getting back down, though, is even more of an adventure. Take the toboggan sledges known as Carreiros do Monte, where you sit in a weaved basket chair as two strapping men decked out in white push you down a mile of weaving streets until you’re back at sea level once again.

The unique sled tradition in Funchal. (Photo by zensu / Getty).
The unique sledge tradition in Funchal. (Photo by zensu/Getty)

The island beyond Funchal is full of interesting spots to see, from laurel forests to natural swimming pools to massive volcanic rock pillars like the Pico de Ana Ferreira. Rent a car and explore to your heart’s content. Don’t forget a stop in the tiny town of Santana (this made our top villages in Portugal list) to see the colorful, triangular houses.

Santana, Madeira, Portugal. (Photo by AM-C/Getty)
Santana, Madeira, Portugal. (Photo by AM-C/Getty)

While most of the beaches on Maderia have black sand or volcanic rock, Porto Santo is the island of choice for golden sands. Don’t miss Porto Santo’s gorgeous viewpoint Miradouro das Flores. To get a bit off the tourist track, consider a day trip to the Desertas islands, the closest you’ll get to a deserted island adventure in Europe.

Sand beach and volcanic island in Porto Santo,Madeira, Portugal. (Photo by Thomas Pollin / Getty)
Golden sands on Porto Santo, Madeira, Portugal. (Photo by Thomas Pollin/Getty)

Where to stay in Madeira

For the ultimate Madeira luxury, stay at Belmond Reid’s Palace, which is perched on a cliff in Funchal. From the luminous rooms to the cliffside pool, the property is perfect for a resort-style, pampered escape. Room rates start at $384 per night.

(Photo courtesy of Belmond Reid's Palace)
(Photo courtesy of Belmond Reid’s Palace)

If you’d prefer a beachfront, white sand luxury getaway, the Pestana Porto Santo boasts 98,000 square feet of gardens, two massive swimming pools and rooms with sea views (some even come with private pools). Room rates start at $131 per night.

Related: 7 reasons your next vacation should be in Portugal

Bottom line

Greenery of the Azores. (Photo by Artur Debat / Getty)
Greenery of the Azores. (Photo by Artur Debat/Getty)

Both the Azores and Madeira are stunning island destinations in Portugal for a vacation. If you prefer nature, greenery, an off-the-beaten-path adventure and don’t mind rain or cooler temperatures, pick the Azores. If you’d prefer sunshine, golden sands, luxury amenities and a quirky cable car/toboggan experience, consider Madeira, including the beachy island of Porto Santo. Either way, neither set of Portuguese volcanic islands will disappoint.

Featured photo of Madeira courtesy of Martha Dominguez/EyeEm/Getty

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