To be honest, the Azores were not on my travel map. Quite frankly, I had not even heard of them until G. announced that this is a place he had always wanted us to go. I was rather dubious about the boyfriend’s choice but all my doubts rapidly dissipated when I started doing some research. 900 miles off the Portuguese coast in the middle of the Atlantic, this remote archipelago promised breath-taking crater lakes, dramatic volcanic beaches and numerous thermal springs. And disappoint they did not!
With only four days to spend in the region, we decided to stick to the largest of the nine islands, São Miguel. Our first stop was Ponta Delgada, the regional capital and the island’s main and largest town situated a mere 10-minute taxi ride from the airport. The town itself is nothing to rave home about. Sure, my early-morning stroll on the first day took me past a couple of nice squares, a sea-front fortress and some interesting street art, but after a couple of hours the town’s main attractions had been exhausted. Nonetheless, I’d recommend staying in Ponta Delgada if you are interested in certain maritime activities and excursions, many of which depart from the city’s harbour.
The main highlight of our stay in Ponta Delgada was a whale-watching trip. Having once already experienced the harsh disappointment of freezing your butt off for several hours without spotting a single whale, I was worried that I might find myself again in the same miserable position. However luck was on our side and we saw not only one but TWO blue whales – an incredible experience!
Our trip was run by Moby Dick Tours (€35 pp.),who I can only firmly recommend. While other tour operators might offer you more of a guided tour on smaller vessels, Moby Dick will try their hardest to make sure you see some whales and they are known for extending their standard 4-hour round-trip by up to 2 hours in the effort to make it worth their customers’ time and money.
We also visited the Gruto do Carvao, natural caves formed by lava flows. It costs €5 to visit this geological phenomenon, including a 15min video and a short guided tour. While the visit proved informative, there are more alluring things to see on the island so do not stress about squeezing this into your itinerary. They however offer longer tours, which take you further into the caves and might thus be more worth your time.
The caves are situated at the edge of Ponta Delgada, the walk to which stretched itself further than we thought through a rather unassuming residential area – taking a taxi is recommended.
For the rest of our stay, we rented a little car to putter around the island and explore all the natural wonders we had come here to see. Once you leave Ponta Delgada, it doesn’t take you long to understand why São Miguel is referred to by the local population as ‘The Green Island’. You are instantly surrounded by lush green pastureland, the hillsides dotted with grazing sheep and cows (the world’s happiest we were told).
Our first drive took us up a steep and windy road to the top of a conical mountain where we expected to be rewarded by breath-taking views over the Lagoa do Fogo, one of the islands main crater lakes. Due to the low-hanging clouds on the rim of the crater – a common feature of the Azorean mountains – the beautiful vistas however only came into view after walking a few steps down a narrow hiking trail towards the lake. The landscape is marked by a beautiful serenity, only occasionally interrupted by the odd cry of a seagull.
We hiked all the way down and round to what in the summer must be a lovely beach and bathing spot.
While these photos might conjure up images of New Zealand’s countryside, a short drive down to the North side of the Fogo Volcano takes you to the Caldeira Velha (entrance: €2) – natural hot springs set amidst Jurassic Park-like forests. A dip into these 25-38 degree hot pools is a must, so ignore the strong sulphur odour that hangs in the air and might convey the impression of bathing in a sewer hot tub with 15 other tourists – just jump in and enjoy this gift of Mother Nature! (Those of you who have been to Rotorua in New Zealand might think they know what they are in for but it is not the smell of rotten eggs that fills your nostrils…think toilet rather than farts)
Another area on the island that is a must-see is Furnas, a town essentially built in the centre of a caldera. A stroll through the town centre leads you past a set of volcanic hot springs and mud cauldrons bubbling away. For the science geeks among you, a visit to the little information centre next to the hot springs will provide you with the geological and biological reasoning behind the unique biosphere that are the Azorian hot springs.
One of the main tourist attractions in Furnas is Terra Nostra (entrance: €7), a beautiful botanical garden with a massive thermal water pool. It was lovely walking around the grounds, which contain a large variety of plants and trees hailing from all over the world.
We also drove to the Furnas lake and hiked through the José do Canto Forrest Garden featuring a waterfall, a ‘fern valley’ and an abundance of camellias – Azores’ finest.
On the other side of the lake, you can indulge in the region’s most famous stew – the cozido das Furnas. This dish is cooked for several hours underground in one of their hot springs. We unfortunately did not get to try this speciality so cannot vouch for its taste.
On the way to Furnas, we stopped at one of the two tea plantations on the island (which are Europe’s only), the Porto Formoso Tea Factory where we were treated to a swift guided tour through their factory and a lovely cup of tea, all for free – a Brit’s delight.
Our last day was spent exploring the western edge of the island, where you can find São Miguel’s most iconic feature: the Lagoa das Sete Cidades. The Miradouro do Rey viewpoint offers you splendid vistas over this gorgeous twin-lake sat in the crater of another dormant volcano. Separated by a narrow strait, both sides of the lake reflect the sunlight in different colours (green and blue) due to their differing depths, hence the names Lagoa Verde and Lagoa Azul.
To enjoy an even better view, climb to the roof of the abandoned Monte Palace Hotel just across the road from the viewpoint. The remnants of the hotel itself add a mysterious, almost dystopian feel.
From Bruno’s The Geeky Explorer, we knew that the Miradouro da Boca do Inferno should not be missed due to its unforgettable 360 degree views across the whole area. Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate and we had to use very brief stints between misty clouds to snap some photos of the what-must-be an unbeatable view on a bright sunny day.
The Sete Cidades town and lake themselves felt rather uninspiring at this time of year, with barely any shops and eateries open for business. The hotter summer months however promise activity-laden days with opportunities to kayak or boat on the lake.
Our final stop before heading to the airport was Ponta Da Ferraria, a small cove with a bathing site amidst volcanic rock where it is possible to swim in hot seawater. Unfortunately we ran out of time to enjoy this unique bathing experience.
Weather: Due to its temperate and mild climate, the weather does not seem to vary much throughout the year on the Azores, the temperature rarely dropping below 13 degrees Celsius. Beware of the humidity however that marks the weather year-round and might leave your clothes feeling damp. And as mentioned above, use all the clear, sunny days you get to explore your major viewpoints as misty fog around the crater rims is common.
Food and restaurants: Given our limited budget, we only ate out once during our time on the Azores. Our meal at A Tasca in Ponta Delgada was however well worth it. I’d recommend the sesame encrusted Tuna steak, which is served with sweet potatoes, stir-fried vegetables, and buttery yams. Their pineapple cake was also delicious and the portions were generous! Booking ahead is recommended.
Due to the aforementioned happiness of the Azorean cows, the islands are famed for the quality of their beef and cheese – two goods, which are among their principal exports. While we did not splurge on steak during our trip, we nonetheless got to taste an assortment of cheeses. The sweet potato jam that was served alongside our cheeseboard was an unexpected yet luscious accompaniment and well worth a try.
On every trip, I always make sure that I get my hands on some of the local pastries and cakes, which in the case of São Miguel were the Bolo lêvedo and the Queijadas da Vila. Bolos lêvedos would best be described as sweet rolls shaped like English muffins. They are served alongside your main meal or even as hamburger buns. Peckish after a long walk, I must admit that we devoured a few in a single sitting. The Queijadas da Vila is a traditional pastry, the recipe for which was originally created by the nuns of Vila Franca do Campo in the sixteen hundreds (or so we were told). The main ingredients are eggs, sugar and milk, giving these cupcake-shaped treats an unusual, moist texture and unique flavour. G. was not impressed and, I would also not go out of my way to get another one.
Accommodation: In Ponta Delgada, we stayed at the 1 of Us Hostel, a small family establishment with five rooms and two shared bathrooms as well as a kitchen (modest breakfast included in your stay) and a small garden. The staff were lovely, all the rooms clean and the location excellent, right in the heart of the city, only a few minutes walk from restaurants, shops and the main harbour.
For the second part of our trip, we stayed at an Airbnb of which you can find quite a few on the island!
Transportation: While a bus service across São Miguel does exist, I would highly recommend renting a car for the entirety of your stay to have the freedom to discover the island at your leisure and reach some of the more remote sights.
As our whale-watching trip had initially been postponed due to bad weather conditions, we found ourselves without much to do on Easter Sunday in Ponta Delgada. Having a car to just drive somewhere else would have been very handy in that situation!
I can recommend Auto Ramalhense as a reliable car rental company – they offer the luxury of dropping the car off at your accommodation and we were able to just drop it off at the airport upon return where one of the employees came to pick it up. A top service!