In the Atlantic: Azores, Cape Verde, Madeira, Canary Islands

I am a big fan of islands, and looking toward Europe from Canada, I found several islands out in the Atlantic that I’d like to visit, including the Azores out in the center of the ocean, and three groups off the coast of Africa, the Republica of Cabo Verde, Madeira, and the Canary Islands. These were all identified by Europeans during the 1400s, when the explorers we learned out in grade school, including Prince Henry the Navigator, took voyages of exploration into the unknown Atlantic. Portugal dominated the seas and world exploration at that time, and today the Azores and Madeira are still overseas provinces of Portugal. The Republica de Cabo Verde was a Portuguese colony, but is now independent. The Canary Islands are a province of Spain.

What these islands have in common other than their Iberian ancestry, is delightful climate. Even the Azores, that appears to be out in the North Atlantic, has a range of mild annual temperatures that don’t fall below freezing and rarely reach 80oF. Distance is the issue for visitors to the Azores, since flights are long, though there are direct flights from Boston–Wait! We should not go there yet.

Needless to say, our beach combing would be interesting on any of these islands. Advice for people visiting the Azores is to pick one or two places to visit among the nine major islands, as transport between islands is costly. I’d like to visit one of the smaller islands by ferry, just for the experience. My choices would be shaped by which airport we landed at, as Ponta Delgada, one of the major cities, is on the eastern edge of the group, and the only island nearby is tiny Vila do Porto. There is a ferry that takes about five hours. If our plane landed on Lajes, in the central group of islands, there are nearby islands that could be visited easily by ferry. Festivals on the Azores tend to be related to religious holidays, with processions and flower bedecked displays. These largely take place between Easter and the end of August. Carnival is another event celebrated on all these islands. Folk dancing and colorful costumes are traditional, and embroidery is a widespread local craft. Visiting during Carnival, Easter, or Christmas might be more crowded, but there would be lots of good things to see.

A ten dollar stamp from the Republica de Cabo Verde designed by the ecology-minded Austrian artist Hundertwasser.

Our next stop might be Republic of Cabo Verde, off the coast of Africa near Senegal. The best time to visit is in January and February, when the temperature mostly stays below 80oF and there is scant or no rainfall. Most of the annual rain falls during September, a month that might be better elsewhere. I first learned of Cabo Verde as a young stamp collector. Small countries used to issue beautiful commemorative stamps as a way to make money. Collectors all over the world would pay for unused individual stamps, blocks of stamps, or stamped envelopes (First day of issue covers). There are some gorgeous ones by well known artists.

Like many island groups, Cabo Verde has a number of endemic bird species (found only in this place) that would give us new challenges in our bird watching. As you can imagine, there is plenty of seafood, and even a small wine industry, which we would do our best to support. A good reason to support Cabo Verde by visiting is the fact that the country has made strides in decreasing poverty and building a strong economic foundation. About 30% of its electricity now comes from wind farms, and there is probably more to come.

Republica de Cabo Verde

Moving north, Madeira is a single large island and three much smaller islands off the coast of Morocco. There’s a choice to be made in visiting. The three warmest months are June, July, and August, when rainfall is lowest, with average high temperatures around 80oF. However, recent record high temperatures in these months reach 100oF, so you might want to accept more rainfall for a month with milder weather, perhaps during April or May when there is just over an inch of rain. The other months average three or more inches of rain, so take your umbrella.

I had no idea that Madeira was so popular with cruise ships. Madeira is the most-visited place in Portugal for cruise ships, more than Lisbon. Half a million visitors a year disembark from cruise ships. They go on walks that border an extensive series of canals, they taste Madeira wine, and eat a fusion of Portuguese and local cooking. There is even a colorful endemic bird to look for, the Madeira firecrest. I think that it must get crowded in Funchal, the main city and port, so I’d look for a rental house somewhere outside the city.

A namesake of the Canary Islands?

Last, but far from least, is the Spanish group of islands. The Canary Islands may be the best known of all these Atlantic destinations, as they are very close to the coast of Morocco and have been known for hundreds of years. The name for the islands comes from the Latin word “canis” for dog, as dogs were mentioned in connection by Pliny and other early writers. There is even a breed of dog from this region, the Presa Canario, a big dog formerly for fighting, not birdlike at all. Canary birds are named after the islands, not the other way around.

There are eight main islands in this group, many more smaller islands, and a number of unoccupied but mapped “rocks”. The population is over two million, mostly on two islands, Tenerife and Gran Canaria. Described as having “long, hot summers and mild winters,” there is almost no rainfall May through August. It’s no wonder that the Canary Islands are popular with European vacationers and retirees. This is another big cruise ship stop, and the cities may get crowded, but there are lots of places outside the two capital cities, Santa Cruz de Tenerife and Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. I’m sure we could find a wonderful spot for a month.


Published by winifredcreamer

I am a retired archaeologist and I like to travel, especially to places where you can walk along the shore or watch birds. My husband Jonathan and I travel for more than half the year every year, seeing all the places that we haven't gotten to yet.

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