Last week, I traveled to São Miguel, the largest and most populated island in the Portuguese archipelago of the Azores. Located at the center of three major tectonic plates, this volcanic island is peppered with gorgeous crater lakes, bubbling hot springs, endless fields of saturated green, and lots of happy cows! And, since the island spans only 9.5 miles at its maximum width, the ocean is always easily within reach. Often called “Ilha Verde”, or “The Green Island,” São Miguel is a breath-taking hidden gem, painted with lush colors and a vibrant, natural energy.
My friend Katie and I stayed at São Miguel Park Hotel, located about a 10-minute walk from the marina in Ponta Delgada, the capital of São Miguel. We spent only $699 for our round-trip direct flight (with SATA airlines) AND 6-night hotel stay (an awesome Groupon deal!). Aside from that, our main expenses were the amazing tours we booked to site-see around the island. In total, I don’t think I spent more than $1250 for the week-long vacation. Granted, we visited during the off-season, but with temperatures averaging nearly 60 degrees all week, it was still perfect!
While we spent a couple of days walking around the city, most of our time was spent exploring other parts of the island. In case you’re feeling inspired to follow in our footsteps and book your own trip to São Miguel (I obviously highly recommend it!), here are 10 things to experience while you are there.
- Sete Cidades
Lagoa das Sete Cidades (the lake of Seven Cities) is truly breathtaking. Although actually one lake, a small dividing bridge separates it in two, creating Lagoa Azul (the blue lake) and Lagoa Verde (the green lake). Legend has it that the lakes were made from the tears of a princess and her lover who were separated from one another. Many viewpoints around the area offer gorgeous aerial views of the lake and the parish, as well as opportunities for screaming into the abyss and listening back for the amazing echo. Another beautiful spot for views is at a nearby abandoned hotel — a fascinating and artistic little spot that curious travelers shouldn’t miss.
- Lagoa de Fogo
Situated within abrupt cliffs, this crater lake is a stunning, protected area in São Miguel. The perfect place for a hike, the lake offers more beautiful aerial views, calming beaches down by the lake’s shore, and forest walks around the perimeter. There are always seagulls flying and singing above or below, (depending on your altitude!) and you’ll find a variety of endemic plants along your way. This area exemplifies why São Miguel is known as “the Green Island” — lush greenery decorates the scenery everywhere you look.
The caldeiras (hot springs) around Furnas were probably the most interesting part of our visit. For beautiful views, you can see Lagoa do Furnas from above, similar to the other two crater lakes. For a sensory experience, visit the bubbling, sulfuric-smelling hot springs near the lake, and watch as local restaurant-workers lift their pots of “Cazido”, the local, traditional Portuguese stew, from the ground, where it cooks for 7 hours (the delicious smell is a nice contrast to the sulfur smell). For a relaxing break, take a dip in the spa-like hot springs at Poça da Dona Beija, but be warned — the sulfur in the hot springs may turn your bathing suit orange! More natural hot springs are scattered through the parish of Furnas — and you can drink from natural spring water taps along the street!
- Ponta da Ferraria
A magical little spot at the western-most spot of the island, Ponta da Ferraria is part hot spring, part ocean! A small swimming area exists among the rocky coast, and although the ocean water can be a bit chilly in February when the waves crash in, when the water pulls back out, the warmth of the hot springs rushes past you. I recommend visiting Ponta da Ferraria when the tide is very low for the best experience. The tide was starting to rise when we went for our swim, and the waves were a little intense! But don’t fear — there is a rope to grab across the pool, so you can easily stay put away from the open ocean.
- Canyoning in Nordeste
The most exciting part of our week in São Miguel was definitely our experience canyoning in the northeast part of the island. Run by a fabulous tour company called Azores Adventure Islands, this activity gave us the opportunity to jump off cliffs, rappel down canyons, and rock-climb up waterfalls. A half-day tour was the perfect amount of time, and our tour guides Andre & Andre were professional, safety-conscious, helpful, and friendly. A memorable activity for adrenalin junkies and nature lovers alike.
- A tour with Holistika
All of the tour guides we met in São Miguel were incredibly friendly and knowledgeable, but Jorge of Holistika Tours was particularly special. Jorge and his partner Lisa founded Holistika a couple of years ago and together they have created a truly unique way to experience São Miguel. With a focus on mindfulness and consciousness, Holistika allows tourists to experience nature, the island, and themselves on a much deeper level. Our time with Jorge was the perfect balance of profound introspection, wonderful conversation, and total fun and silliness. From spontaneous yoga on a road-side aqueduct to a guided music meditation among a pineapple plantation, Jorge shared some of the less-experienced but most beautiful sides of São Miguel with us.
- Praia das Milícias or Praia de Pópulo
One of the more independent and laid-back activities that we enjoyed was a visit to Praia de Milícias, the largest black-sand beach, a very short bus-ride from Ponta Delgada. We actually intended to visit Pópulo Beach, another popular beach nearby, but not knowing which was which we accidentally ended up at Milícias Beach! During the week in February, the beach was pretty abandoned aside from a few surfers, but the view was beautiful, the sand was soft, and the waves were calming. And, we stumbled upon a random cafe near the beach that had one of the tastiest cappuccinos I’ve ever had! We actually walked back to Ponta Delgada from Pópulo, and the 3.5 mile journey along the coastline was truly beautiful at sunset.
- Ponta Delgada
Ponta Delgada is a quaint little city that is easy to navigate, and the perfect place to stay if you are touring São Miguel. It’s close to the airport, and pro tip: take the Aerobus from the airport to your hotel — it’s only 5 euros total for a drop-off AND a pick-up at the end of your trip. Way better than paying for a taxi!The city’s beautiful white and black architecture is incredibly unique (the black is volcanic rock!), and beautiful graffiti and murals adorn the sides of buildings, giving the city an artistic feel. It’s lovely to walk along the marina, and there are lots of cafes for a delicious espresso and local pastry. Everything is very accessible, including a nearby mall with a grocery store! I’d also recommend visiting the main church of the city called Igreja Matriz de Sao Sebastio and finding a cheese shop for some delicious souvenirs.
- A Tasca, Reserva Bar, and Cantinho dos Anjos (in Ponta Delgada)
We stumbled upon a few delicious places for dinner and drinks that I would highly recommend. Our favorite dinner was at A Tasca, a small and cozy restaurant with an open kitchen and a welcoming feel. I had the most delicious beefsteak I have ever tasted (not kidding), and the menu was diverse and affordable. We also enjoyed dinner at Reserva Bar, a tiny tapas-style wine bar near the marina. Although slightly more expensive than A Tasca, the ambiance was awesome and it was a great way to get a taste of lots of local meats, cheeses, and wines. Finally, we visited a bar called Cantinho dos Anjos a couple of times. A low-key, not-too-fancy atmosphere made it a perfect place to grab a drink and feel like a local.
- Azorean Foods!
Although the cuisine isn’t the main attraction in the Azores, Katie and I love food, and we tasted quite a few fabulous local dishes. I could probably write another entire blog post on this topic, but here’s the summary or our favorites:
- Cheese. The tastiest. The fresh, soft, cow’s cheese with red pepper sauce is the best!
- Cozido. See #3 above — don’t miss this local dish cooked in the hot springs in Furnas.
- Beef. Like I said — happy cows! See #9… you have to try a beefsteak.
- Fish of the day. Guaranteed to be delicious and fresh.
- Bolo Levedo. Azorean sweet muffins. Like english muffins, but better!
- White wines. Frei Gigante is supposedly the best, but we also enjoyed Terras de Lava.
- Pineapple cake. Our favorite way to enjoy the locally-famous fruit was in a cake.
- Passionfruit soda. I’m not usually a soda person, but this local drink called “Kima” is a must-try.
- Gorreana Tea. Harvested and produced locally, this fine tea is known as the oldest in Europe.
- Queijadas de Vila Franca. A traditional, sweet, flaky pastry from Vila Franca do Campo. Our favorite!
I have to admit that I didn’t have time to do everything I would have liked while we were in the Azores. Some new additions to my bucket list now include a visit to Terra Nostra gardens near Furnas (supposedly absolutely beautiful!), whale watching and swimming with dolphins (a perfect summer activity), rock climbing and surfing lessons with Azores Adventure Islands, and visits to the other islands — particularly the central ones.
I guess I’ll need to book another trip soon! 😀