Canary Islands vs. Azores
It's time for the battle of the European island archipelagos (we're not sure that'll catch on!). While there are plenty of similarities between these island chains - both in the Atlantic, both formed by volcanic activity and both tied to a mainland European country - when it comes to which you should choose for your holiday, there's plenty to divide them!
In the purple corner, and needing little introduction, we have The Canary Islands! Possibly THE most popular destination for British tourists all year round. These 8 Spanish islands are found just off the coast of Africa - with top notch beaches, infamous nightlife and year-round sun.
In the yellow corner, and needing maybe a little introduction, we have the Azores. These 9 Portuguese islands in the Atlantic Ocean, are described as a mix of Hawaii and Ireland - with verdant green landscape, stunning volcanic lakes and the only tea plantation in Europe!
Planning a trip for after lockdown?
Every part of the UK is currently subject to various levels of travel lockdown, so it's a good time to plan your holidays after December 2nd but unlikely you'll be able to get away until then. For more details see our Covid-19 advice section below.
Where's better for diving?
If you're a keen diver then there are plenty of great opportunities to get your flippers wet on both the Canary Islands and the Azores!
One of the best places to dive is off the coast of Santa Maria, the smallest of the Azores. The marine life here is ridiculously abundant and the water has amazing visibility. Here you get the chance to swim with whale sharks and devil rays - but not just that, you'll find sunfish, rays, octopi all year round. The underwater landscape here isn't to be missed either, with black coral, lava walls and underwater tunnels.
Another Azores diving spot to visit is situated between Pico and Faial (it'll take about 3 hours to get there by boat), Princess Alice - the visibility here is up to 60m and you'll find yourself swimming amongst hammerhead sharks, dolphins and even marlin. To top all that though, is the opportunity to dive with mobula rays - makes it a pretty unforgettable experience!
Not to be outdone La Catedral is a spectacular dive spot in the Canary Islands. Just off the coast of Gran Canaria - this dive spot is a 30m high structure (hence the name!) full of caves, arches and crevices to explore. This site is more about the scenery than the fauna - but you can expect to see sea slugs, urchins and smaller fish.
Our verdict: there's plenty of dive spots to explore in both, but our vote goes to the Azores. The diving experience here will stick with you for a long time.
Where are the best beaches?
The Azores may not have the 'classic' white sandy beaches, however there's an amazing choice of beautiful spots to choose. Especially if water sports are your thing. Praia de Santa Barbara can be found on São Miguel, and is one of the most popular beaches on the island. The sand here is volcanic and black, which makes for an excellent photo op! There's a surf shop here so why not take surfing lessons whilst you're there, or simply sit back and watch others give it a go!
For something a bit different take a trip to Islet of Vila Franca do Campo. This is a small beach that can be found inside a submerged volcanic crater. It's not as scary as it sounds! You'll have to take a boat to get here, but once you're there the sheltered islet is great for swimming.
The Canary Islands boast better weather than the Azores, it's mild all year round - which make this a go to beach destination even in the winter. The warmest of the islands is Fuerteventura, as it is closest to mainland Africa, and it boasts some of the best beaches. Our favourite is Playa de Cofete - a beautiful wild beach that may not be the best for swimming but is certainly best for the views. At the other end of the island you'll find El Cotillo Beach & Lagoons, similarly beautiful but the lagoons here provide better opportunities for swimming.
If you're looking for beaches with more amenities then you'll want to head to Playa del Inglés or Playa de las Américas - these are purpose built resorts, with everything you need to sunbathe on the beach all day - then hit the bars and restaurant's at night. But don't forget Tenerife is about so much more than just the resorts!
Our verdict: there are some beautiful beaches in the Azores but really if relaxing on a white sand beach is what makes a holiday for you then the Canary Islands are the obvious choice.
Which is best for families?
When it comes down to which island is best for families it really depends on what a "family holiday" means to you - do you like to explore the outdoors and get off the beaten track with your kids, or do you prefer to relax by the beach with plenty of amenities nearby? That's not to say there aren't elements of both in each, but there's definitely different experiences to be had.
If you raised a hand for "explore the outdoors" - then the Azores are definitely going to tick that box. The Azores pride themselves on being an amazing natural environment with sustainable travel at the forefront. Direct flights arrive in Sao Miguel, and reaching the other islands takes a ferry ride - so for ease of travelling with children then we recommend basing yourself in Sao Miguel for your trip. There's loads to do and see - but here's a few top tips for things to do.
- Furnas - this is a great experience for the whole family. Walk amongst the geothermal pools, try one of the specialist dishes cooked in the ground or hike to one of the nearby waterfalls.
- Caldeira Velha - pack your swimsuits and head to this beautiful waterfall and hot spring pools, and even better there's no hike needed.
- Swim with wild dolphins - here's the opportunity to make many kids (and adults!) dreams come true. There's plenty of boat operators to choose from, but the minimum age for getting in the water is 8. There's also the chance to take a whale watching boat trip for some extra excitement.
Now if a slightly more catered for beach holiday is more your thing - then the Canary Islands are a great choice. There's too many options to run through them all here. But if you're looking for a more resort style family holiday then you can't go wrong with Tenerife - you'll find everything catered for here with plenty of things to keep the kids entertained. If you want to get away from the crowds slightly then we recommend heading to Fuerteventura instead - it's a little less developed and the beaches here are some of the most beautiful in all of the Canaries.
Our verdict: it's hard to pick one here as both have their charm for your family holiday - in fact we're not doing it! We'll call this one a tie.
Which is best for nightlife?
Like to hit the town on your holiday? Then you probably want to head to Gran Canaria or Tenerife where you can party all night. In Tenerife head to Playa de las Américas, where you'll find clubs such as Tramps Tenerife and Sugareef Tenerife on the popular Veronicas strip.
The nightlife on Gran Canaria is second to none. Playa del Ingles serves as the island's party capital, with countless bars, clubs and pubs to suit all tastes for the perfect night out. It's also a great LGBT-friendly holiday destination, with most of Gran Canaria's gay bars and clubs located here. Expect to see drag queens, regular 'Pride' processions and dress-up nights galore in a part of town where partying is a way of life and almost nothing is off limits.
There's definitely not so much of a party scene in the Azores, but that doesn't mean there aren't some great nightlight spots to check out. On Santa Maria, there is Chaminé Club with two floors of music to choose from. Or head to Ponta Delgada, and enjoy drinks whilst looking out over the marina at Baía dos Anjos and then head to Bar Do Pi for the music.
Our verdict: this is an easy one, after all the Canary Islands are famous for their nightlife.
Which is best for hiking?
Fans of the great outdoors are spoiled for choice, at either island chain. This is largely due to their rugged volcanic landscapes, and protected nature reserves.
Most people tend not to visit the Canary Islands for the 'great outdoors' - the larger islands have become more commercialised and touristy, but take a trip to one of the smallest of the islands - El Hierro - and you can explore a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. One of the most popular paths is La Llanía, it will take you through ancient forest to black sand craters. There's plenty of hikes to choose from and this island really is a jewel in the Canaries crown. If less tourism and more nature is your thing, then head here.
In the Azores you don't have to go off the beaten track to find beautiful hikes however, some of the most famous pathways on the islands are on São Miguel - the main island. The landscape here is so verdant it's fondly known at the "green island" - there's lush vegetation, beautiful lakes, volcanic craters and mountain peaks. One of the must see spots on the island is the Vista do Rei - a viewpoint looking out over the twin lakes of Verde and Azul below. There's an easy 7.7km hike to the view point and it's well worth the views at the end.
Our verdict: if you enjoy getting out into nature, then the Azores are definitely the best choice!
Well this is unfortunate, we seem to have ended in a tie, but strangely this seems fair - whether Canary Islands or the Azores comes out on top for you really depends on what sort of holiday you're looking for. The Canary Islands are certainly more touristy and can be a little brasher at times, but actually once you step outside the resort then there's so much more to the Islands and so much more to explore. The Azores are a little more rustic and a lot quieter and we love this about them - they're certainly an outdoor lovers dream. They're growing in popularity in recent years, so visit now whilst they're still a little bit of a secret!
But wait, a new contender enters the ring - Madeira
Situated between the Azores to the west and the Canary Islands to the south is Madeira - a 4 island archipelago also tied to Portugal. The largest, and most visited is Madeira itself. Madeira, like the other islands, was also formed by volcanic activity, so boasts a similarly rugged landscape - this makes it an excellent spot for hiking. There is good infrastructure on the main island, and tourism is popular here (mainly around Funchal in the south) - so you can expect to see plenty of amenities, nightlife and the food here is great!
Due to it's rugged cliffs there aren't really any good beaches on Madeira, however some sand has been imported to make an artificial beach at Calheata to the west of Funchal. If you really want a sandy beach you'd need to make your way to Porto Santo a smaller island about 2.5 hours away via ferry - if you have the time it's well worth the trip.
We think Madeira is a perfect blend of the things we love about the Canary Islands and the Azores - the creature comforts that more tourism brings, plus the opportunities to get out and explore the outdoors and take in the stunning scenery.
The Canary Islands are a Spanish archipelago off the west coast of Morocco - there are 8 main islands, though most tourists tend to visit the big 4 (Tenerife, Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria and Lanzarote).
CANARY ISLANDS WEATHER
Time zone: GMT +1
Language: Canarian Spanish
Flight time: Avg. 4 hours 30 mins
Climate: Temperatures are mostly between 18° and 24° year round - with highs of up to 30° in summer.
The Azores archipelago is an autonomous region of Portugal in the mid-Atlantic - there are 9 main islands split into 3 groups (Western, Central and Eastern).
Time zone: GMT -1
Flight time: Avg. 4 hours 15 min
Climate: Temperatures are mostly between 15° and 25° year round - with highs of up to 29° in summer.
COVID-19: Latest Update
Last updated Monday 16th November: The Canary Islands, Madeira and the Azores are all on the FCDO travel corridor. That means, in theory, that when lockdown ends (currently pegged for 2nd December) you can holiday there. However, direct flights are available to the major Canary islands and to Madeira; Ryanair was the only carrier flying direct to the Azores from the UK, and at time of writing they've cancelled their winter flights there. So unless another route opens up, or you don't mind quarantining when you get home via a connection, the Azores may have to wait until next year.