Thursday, July 19, 2012

Azores – Tranquillity in the midst of the ocean!

Azores is a picturesque Portuguese archipelago of nine volcanic islands in the Atlantic Ocean, situated about 1500 km from the Portuguese capital, Lisbon, and as many as 3900 km from the eastern coast of North America.  In fact, from amongst these islands, the Flores Island, and more specifically, the Monchique Islet on it is regarded as Europe’s westernmost point. Together with the relative isolation that marks these islands, thanks to the distant location from any of the major land masses, coupled with the scenic beauty of the area as well as its development as an exotic yet vibrant tourist destination, Azores has rapidly evolved into a premier and much sought after location for those bitten by the wanderlust bug, from all around the world. If you are on the lookout for a tranquil holiday, away from all the hustle and bustle of everyday life in major cities or even in other tourist hotspots, there are few places in the world that can even come anywhere close to Azores.
Getting to Azores
By Air
Thanks to the relative isolation of the islands, coupled with the fact that there is enormous distance separating them from virtually any other location, air travel to Azores is seen to be the most viable. That said you will find flights coming in to Azores from virtually any global destination. Needless to say, flying in from Lisbon would be the most feasible as Lisbon in turn has flights coming in from all the major destinations of the world. In case you are in North America or continental Europe and fancy visiting Azores, then the most feasible and suitable option for you would be to first fly to Lisbon and then take a connecting flight to Azores. Getting to any of the Azores islands by flight from Lisbon or other destinations should not be a problem since all the 9 islands have their own individual airfields.
By Ship
Getting to Azores by ship is another feasible option, provided time is not a constraint for you, not to forget the cost factor! After all, most of the ships coming in to Azores with tourists are cruise ships, in fact luxury cruise ships. Much of the traffic comes in from Lisbon so you should actively check out the cruise liner options along with dates and timings for these ships to set sail for Azores.
Travel within Azores
With the Portuguese administration leaving no stone upturned in developing Azores as a primary tourist destination, transport within Azores, once you are actually there, should be the least of your concerns. There are varied options on offer, whereby whether you are travelling on the same island or getting from one island to another, you should not face any difficulty. In fact, if you are coming on a cruise ship, most of the trips are scheduled in such a manner that they make spaced out halts at each of the islands, whereby you can take in the exotic offerings on every island and then move to the next one, on the same cruise ship that brought you to Azores in the first place.
That said there are many other travel options available as well. Remember that a lot of tourists prefer to come to the Azores on an unscheduled vacation whereby they are not looking at things planned out at every stage. In fact, a lot of such trips are more fun when you discover things by yourself – perhaps with a guide book or an informed local inhabitant there for guidance when really needed!
At the same time, if you are part of a tour group visiting the Azores, you can choose from a wide range of jeep safari tours, car tours, as well as regular coach tours. Additionally, when you come as a tourist who is part of a package tour, it is quite likely that the package would already include a veritable range of travel options such that you would not have to be concerned about the same.
Things to see and do in Azores
Rest assured, thanks to the exotic appeal of the overall setting, there are destinations galore that you would like to see, once you are in Azores.
That said it would be useful to first understand the islands themselves which will in turn allow you to plan your trip suitably (in case you are not part of a package tour). Even if you are, it would give you a better sense of where you are headed.
As we mentioned earlier, the Azores are an archipelago of 9 different islands. These 9 islands are in turn divided into three groups:
  • The Western group comprises of the islands of Corvo and Flores.
  • The Central group consists of the islands of Graciosa, Terceira, Sao Jorge, Pico and Faial.
  • The Eastern group comprises of the islands of Sao Miguel and Santa Maria.
Within these islands, it would be a fallacy to state that there is one particular island that has more places to see or has more picturesque locales than another. That is the reason we do not recommend any one particular island over another. Instead, we vehemently recommend that you plan your trip to Azores in such a manner that you are able to suitably cover all the islands and see all that each one of them has to offer.
That said another thing that you need to keep in mind is that the tourist potential of Azores has been recognized relatively recently and as a result the locales and types of places that would be recommended to you would also be more contemporary in nature.
That is the reason if you are out for a vacation to Azores; keep your mind open to the possibility of a modern vacation that involves indulging in activities that are more contemporary in nature than otherwise.
Thus your Azores vacation should ideally comprise of numerous golf sessions, stay at some of the most beautiful hotels in the world as well as indulge yourself on probably the finest, most reclusive and yet completely picturesque beaches that you will find in practically any part of the world.
As far as activities are concerned, let us look at them island by island. This is one more reason why it makes sense to have a good idea of the islands themselves that comprise the Azores.
If golf is what you are after, we would actively recommend the Batalha Golf Course on Sao Miguel Island that offers a pristine golf course amidst a simply breathtaking view of the ocean as well as the surrounding hills. Other golf courses of immense significance on the Azores would include the Furnas Golf Course, also on Sao Miguel Island as well as the Terceira Golf Club on Terceira Island.
If birds of the feathered kind are what you would like to watch, head straight to Sao Miguel Island which offers views of some truly exotic birds, many of which you are unlikely to see in any part of the world as they are endemic to this region. Pico Island also offers vibrant bird watching avenues, thanks to the equally exotic species of birds that you will find on the island.
Another activity that you simply must indulge yourself in, while at the Azores, is fishing. Remember that when it comes to fishing for a wide variety of game, there is simply no locale in the world as exciting as Azores. Within the Azores Islands, you could particularly concentrate on fishing either on Sao Miguel Island or on Faial Island. On Sao Miguel Island, you could easily expect to catch game such as bluefish, bonito, mackerel, tuna, barracuda and even shark! Imagine a day spent in catching this game and then the ensuing evening amidst a barbecue of the same game that you caught, amidst your friends and family – did anyone say Nirvana? This just has to be it! On Sao Miguel Island, you could go on board the specialized Shanghai Hatteras boat which is renowned for various deep sea fishing records that it has established in the Azores. On the Faial Island, you could indulge yourself in coastline as well as big game fishing, including trolling for coastal fish as well as the traditional approach of hook and line fishing. Imagine the excitement when you are able to get hold of a truly exotic fish on your hook!!
For a geographical tour of the islands and its exotic composition, a tour of the Sao Miguel Island would perhaps be the best bet. On the other hand, if you are game for some hiking, then consider the Pico Island that offers both walking programs as well as climbing the Pico Mountain which is in fact Portugal’s highest point. Of course, being a volcano, you would not want to be anywhere near the peak when it is in a state of eruption!
As for Jeep Safaris, again you would probably like to go in for the same on Sao Miguel Island which offers jeep safaris on both the eastern as well as the western side of the island.
With an abundant ocean surrounding the Azores on all sides, it is no wonder that activities pertaining to the seas take on centre stage on Azores. Thus, while you are there, you should definitely indulge yourself in sailing which again takes place in a big way on Sao Miguel Island. Other than sailing, you would definitely also like to take a look at the whales that come by the Azores island seas; practically all the islands, in particular Sao Miguel, Faial, and Pico islands offer tours of the sea on fibreglass boats whereby you can easily steal furtive glances of whales in the high seas. For a less threatening and in fact immensely thrilling experience, you must also consider the option of swimming with dolphins on the Sao Miguel Island.
Having described most of the diverse things that you can do while at the Azores, it would probably be amply clear to you that from amongst all the various islands, the Sao Miguel Island definitely holds centre stage; therefore, if you are planning a trip to the Azores, you must ensure that a trip to the Sao Miguel Island is definitely on the itinerary else your trip will most definitely be rendered incomplete!
Food and Stay
With a variety of tourists coming in to the Azores, the local administration has made sure that cuisine from around the world is available here. At the same time, given the profile of tourists which tends to be European in nature predominantly, coupled with the fact that these are Portuguese islands, there is no surprise that Portuguese and Mediterranean cuisine forms an integral part of the food on offer. Further, given the relative isolation of the islands from other land masses, coupled with the fact that these are islands surrounded by the seas, it is but natural that sea food is a staple offering here. Thus you can easily expect a wide variety of sea food here, be it different types of fish, crabs, lobsters of unimaginably big dimensions and so on.
Talking about stay, you can be assured that you will in fact be spoilt for choice, with a plethora of hotels on offer. Not only that, there is a wide range, from 4 star to 2 star hotels across each of the 9 islands such that you will not find anything too bothersome on the pocket, while not compromising in any way in terms of the service quality as well as the amenities offered. On Sao Miguel Island, Antillia Apart-hotel, Hotel Bahia Palace, as well as Hotel Avenida are just some of the more renowned 4 star properties. You will find similar hotels of varying costs across all the 9 islands, with no compromise on the service and amenities.
If you are looking for a truly exotic holiday, virtually in the midst of nowhere else but the high seas, then do consider the Azores for your vacation. Remember that everyday life in urban hotspots does take a toll on our overall wellbeing, even if we do not always realize the same; a holiday to places such as the Azores, ensures that we have ample opportunity to retune our mental and physical frequencies! 

Amsterdam – Venice of the North!

Located in the western part of the country of Netherlands, Amsterdam is renowned the world over for its historic canals, the Van Gogh museum, the (in)famous red light district as well as hundreds of cannabis coffee shops dotting the city which together draw as many as 3.66 million visitors to it, each year. Besides having a long history spanning well over six hundred years, Amsterdam has a vibrant existence in the present, not only from a cultural perspective but also from a business one, with seven of the Top 500 companies as listed on the Forbes Global 2000, being based in the city. Overall, if you are looking to have a truly exhilarating time, whether all by yourself or in the company of your friends and family, you can be assured you won’t be disappointed!

I amsterdam!
Getting to Amsterdam

By Air
Amsterdam is served by the Schiphol airport, one of the busiest airports in the world. Flights connect Amsterdam to nearly all the major cities of the world, so getting to Amsterdam by air should not be a problem for anyone.  

Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport
By Train
If you are traveling from destinations from within Europe, you may very well consider the option of traveling by train. In this regard, you might want to keep the city’s main train station, Amsterdam Centraal in mind, as that station functions as an international one, with connections to all major European destinations including faraway Poland or even Russia.

Amsterdam Centraal Train Station 
By Bus
Companies such as Eurolines connect Amsterdam to virtually all the major European cities so getting to Amsterdam from there, by bus, should not be a problem either. Most coaches run from the Amsterdam Amstel railway station, to destinations across Europe.

A Eurolines bus to Sarajevo at Amsterdam Amstel railway station
Driving into Amsterdam
Amsterdam is very well connected by road, with all major European destinations, especially neighboring Germany and Belgium. Driving into the city from any other European destination would ideally not be a problem at all, though you would perhaps be advised to forego your private vehicle once inside the city and use its plethora of public transport options. Further, with bicycles being the preferred mode of travel within Amsterdam, you would in fact be best advised to use them to the maxim.

Plush highways make driving into Amsterdam an absolute breeze
Transport within Amsterdam
Once inside Amsterdam, there is a whole host of public transport options to choose from, which virtually negate the need for private transport vehicles, especially cars which the city administration seems to particularly disdain. Taking a car to the city center is something that would be particularly taxing for you, with parking being a major issue, besides the heavy fee that you will have to pay for the same.

It is in the light of these factors that other transport options such as trams and buses come across as much more feasible options for transport within Amsterdam. That said bicycles are perhaps the best way of traveling around the city. In fact, bicycle culture as witnessed around the world, is best exemplified in Amsterdam which had as many as 465,000 bicycles back in 2006.

Where else but in Amsterdam would you see so many bicycles together in one place?
Besides bicycles, the four metro lines of the city, with a fifth under construction, should amply serve your purpose, while traversing through the city. 

Amsterdam Metro
Ferries are also an equally feasible option, for traveling to nearby places in and around Amsterdam, along the city’s waterways.

A "Flying Ferry" in Amsterdam
Things to do
While in some other cities, you might face the problem of deciding what to do while you are there, since the options at hand would be relatively few, you will face the same situation in Amsterdam as well, but for completely different reasons – Amsterdam offers simply too many options in terms of things to do, that it becomes a difficult choice as to what activities to pursue and what to forego!!

That said there are a few things that Amsterdam is particularly known for; one of these certainly is museums. In fact, Amsterdam is well known as the museum capital of the world, with numerous museums dotting the landscape of the city. Some museums in particular, which you would certainly not want to miss, are mentioned below.

Van Gogh Museum
Located in the Museumplein part of the city, Van Gogh Museum houses the world’s largest collection of paintings and drawings made by Vincent Van Gogh. Apart from the obvious draw of the museum, viz. Van Gogh’s creations, you are quite likely to be enamored by the attractive design of the museum building itself, which was conceived by renowned Dutch designer, Gerrit Rietveld.

Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam
Rijksmuseum Amsterdam
Also located in Museumplein, the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam is the Netherlands’ national museum, housing a whole host of arts and crafts from around the world. Amongst its formidable collection, paintings from the Dutch Golden Age sure occupy center stage. Dutch artists whose works you will find displayed in the museum include Rembrandt, Jan Steen, Frans Hals as well as Johannes Vermeer. Further, the museum also contains the Rijksmuseum Research Library, which is in fact the Netherlands’ largest art history research library, for the common public.

Rijksmuseum Amsterdam
Anne Frank House
Anne Frank House is a building first built in 1635 and subsequently restored as a museum in 1960, which housed Anne Frank, a Jewish wartime diarist, who escaped Nazi persecution by hiding in the rear of the building. The museum is worth a visit, not only because it served as a hiding place for Anne Frank, but also because, today it symbolizes and is representative of apathy towards any kind of discrimination or persecution, especially along racial or religious lines.    

Anne Frank House in Amsterdam
Besides the above mentioned museums, there are many others which should also form a part of your itinerary, depending on the time and opportunity that you have. Take for instance, the Nemo museum, right next to the Amsterdam central station. Besides being the country’s largest science center, which makes it an attractive destination by itself, it is the shape of the building, in the form of a sinking ship, which in turn draws tourists to it, by the droves. 

Nemo Museum in Amsterdam
Similarly, the Joods Historisch Museum or Jewish Historical Museum is certainly worth a visit, to gain a firsthand perspective on Judaism in the Netherlands, which had been prevalent since the sixteenth century till the Second World War, wherein Nazi persecution led to a virtual annihilation of the majority of the Jewish population of the country. Today, the museum has over 11,000 varied objects in its collection, each of which is representative of Jewish culture and tradition.

Joods Historisch Museum
Apart from museums, Amsterdam has a lot of other draws for tourists as well. Religious monuments and buildings certainly are foremost among them. For instance, one of the most significant churches in the country – the Oude Kerk or the old church is located in Amsterdam, in the De Wallen part of the city, which also happens to house its infamous red light district. The roof of the Oude Kerk is said to be the largest medieval wooden vault, across the whole of Europe. Today, the Oude Kerk is also a venue for various religious and cultural activities of national and international significance, including the World Press Photo awards.

Oude Kerk in Amsterdam
Considering the Netherlands’ relatively large Islamic population, estimated at about 5 percent of the total population of the country, mosques dot the landscape with as many as 400 of them, across Netherlands. Among them, the El Tawheed Mosque in Amsterdam is one of the most significant.

El Tawheed Mosque in Amsterdam
From a Jewish perspective, the expansive Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam is one of the most significant Jewish buildings in the country. Built more than 300 years ago, in 1675, the building maintains its opulent fa├žade from the exterior, even today.

Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam
Other structures and buildings you wouldn’t want to miss seeing, while in Amsterdam: 

The Royal Palace, built in 1648; 

The Royal Palace in Amsterdam
The Concertgebouw which is in fact home to the Concertgebouworkest, a world renowned symphony orchestra; 

Concertgebouw in Amsterdam
The Magere Brug, which is Amsterdam’s best known draw bridge; 

Magere Brug in Amsterdam
The Rembrandt Tower; 

The iconic Rembrandt Tower in Amsterdam
The Millennium Tower; 

The Millenium Tower in Amsterdam - this is the North West side view of the building
The Olympisch Stadion which was the main stadium of the 1928 Summer Olympics, as well as, 

The Olympisch Stadion, as it looked back in 1928
The Homomonument which is a memorial located right in the centre of the city, dedicated towards all homosexuals who have been subject to persecution, simply because of their differential sexual orientation and preference.

The Homomonument
De Wallen – Amsterdam’s largest and most well-known Red Light District
No mention of Amsterdam as a tourist destination can be truly complete without mentioning the infamous red light districts of the city. Among them, De Wallen holds center stage as not only the largest but also the most frequently visited of all red light districts in the city. Located in the centre of the oldest part of Amsterdam, De Wallen is located just south of the Oude Kerk church and comprises of hundreds of small cabins that prostitutes rent out to offer their sexual services. Typically, the prostitutes solicit customers from behind glass doors or windows, which are in turn lit up with red light, quite literally reminiscent of a red light district!

De Wallen, the Red Light District of Amsterdam
Eating out in Amsterdam
When it comes to foodie options in the city, you sure will be spoilt for choice, as there are just too many pickings, including more than a thousand restaurants! Further, you would be surprised in case you are expecting only Dutch cuisine, as food from around the world is very easily available in Amsterdam. From Spanish to Italian to French to Indonesian to Indian and even to Japanese, no cuisine should be hard for you to find. Additionally, even as a vegetarian, you really should not have a problem in the city, as there are numerous restaurants that serve only vegetarian fare, besides the fact that all the other restaurants also happen to have ample vegetarian dishes on offer.

Inside 'Memories of India' Indian restaurant in Amsterdam,
often considered one of the finest Indian restaurants in Europe
Most places commonly serve alcohol, so finding the same should not be a problem for you, irrespective of where you go. One interesting aspect with regard to eating out in Amsterdam is that you pay the same, whether you eat on the terrace or outside or anywhere else within the confines of the restaurant.


Amsterdam has a vibrant nightlife which again will leave you spoilt for choice. Areas like the Rembrandtplein as well as the Leidseplein are rampant with discotheques of varying shapes and sizes, playing a varied assortment of dance music. 

Have the time of your life in areas of Amsterdam such as Leidseplein,
showcased above
In case you are looking for something specific to the lesbian and gay community, then you might want to head towards the Reguliersdwarsstraat which is a street loaded with activities pertaining to the above mentioned community.

A Musical Event at Reguliersdwarsstraat
Amsterdam offers a wide array of shopping options, from those akin to street bazaars as well as departmental stores, housing some of the world’s finest brands. The main shopping areas that you would definitely not want to miss, while in the city, include Leidsestraat and Kalverstraat.

 You will also find major departmental stores near the Munt Tower as well as at the Dam. For knickknack and curio shopping, you would be advised to look around the Jordaan while for more chic shopping of hi-profile items or brands, you would perhaps be better off looking at the PC Hooftstraat.

High Street Shopping comes alive on PC Hoofstraat 
Considering the large number of events that take place in the city, you might want to consider the option of timing your trip in such a manner as to attend any of these diverse events. For instance, a trip in June would assure you an opportunity to attend the Holland Festival, which entails a full four weeks of diverse cultural activities. 

Signage for the Holland Festival in Amsterdam
Similarly, Amsterdam’s Gay Pride parade takes place early August, each year. Queen’s Day which takes place on the 30th of April each year is a day you would definitely not want to miss, while in Amsterdam. In fact, if you already happen to be in the city at this time, it is impossible you will miss it as the whole city gets into a mood of complete revelry.

Gay Pride Parade in Amsterdam
Amsterdam has a lot to offer to people from all walks of life. Irrespective of where you come from, just leave your inhibitions behind and go ahead and make the most of your time in the Venice of the North; life could never have seemed any better!