A nature-lover’s paradise, mystical, mountainous, volcanic, blessed with wild beaches, ocean cliffs, thermal springs, rolling green pastures and many, many happy cows. This is the Azores, a group of Portuguese islands referred to as Europe’s Hawaii. The islands are in the Atlantic Ocean about 2.5 hours from the European Continent, and about 4.5 hours from the nearest US airport of Boston.
Hubby and I spent a magnificent five days on the main island of São Miguel for our 25th anniversary celebration. We rented a car and a villa up on a hill and enjoyed feeling like locals, only better since we were on vacation! From our centrally located hillside home we enjoyed panoramic views of the southern coastline, a glimpse of the northern coast, hilly fields and cow grazing pastures stretching out before us toward the west and the towns of Lagoa and the capital Ponta Delgada, which were especially beautiful at night. Our outings took us in all directions of the island and it was captivating everywhere we went.
In the west is the village of Sete Cidades with the so-called Blue and Green Lakes, which are named for the way light reflects off the water in slightly different shades. The day we visited was a bit hazy, so our pictures don’t capture this variation, but the sight was beautiful all the same. Not far from the lakes is the coast of Ferraria, with its volcanic rocks, thermal ocean pools and a lighthouse.
In the south we visited the island’s capital city of Ponta Delgada. The church Igreja Matriz and Portas da Cidade (City Doors) are worth visiting. Here we strolled through a pedestrian street lined with shops and eateries and walked along the waterfront. The city’s center was being strung with lights and decorations for an upcoming Catholic festival in honor of Senhor Santo Cristo dos Milagres (Our Holy Lord of Miracles). Many tourists stay in the capital for the convenience of hotels, restaurants and tour departures right in the city.
The next town over is Lagoa, where we visited the ceramics factory Ceramica Vieira as well as one of the churches and the town’s coastline. In Água de Pau we made a quick visit to the tiny but pretty hilltop chapel of Ermida de Nossa Senhora do Monte. This town was only about five minutes from our villa so we went here for dinner a few times, our favorite restaurant being a new place called Coriscos Sabores. Further along the southern coast we stopped at a small rocky beach and picked up some goodies strewn onshore by the waves.
One misty morning we set out traveling northward from our villa toward the Lagoa do Fogo, or Fire Lake. The drive is steep and windy and tends to be shrouded in mist, fog and clouds. We soon found ourselves on a very foggy stretch of road and noted that with all the pull-off points we most likely were in an area with great views but the fog obstructed them. We pulled off the road anyway and got out of the car. I will never forget the sense of complete silence that engulfed us…no cars, no birds, no other humans. It was surreal. We continued on the switchback-laden road until I looked over to my right and in the thinning fog caught my first sight of the Lagoa. It was unexpected and breathtaking! Pictures never do justice to a beauty of nature as being there does, but nevertheless we take pictures.
Not far from the Lagoa do Fogo is Caldeira Velha, an area of small thermal pools in a natural park setting. There is an entrance fee of 3 euros to visit or 8 euros to visit and use the pools. We were disappointed that part of the park was closed to walking visits so it was a quick 1/2 hour stop since we did not use the pools.
On the northern coast is the town of Ribeira Grande. The beach of Santa Barbara is very scenic, with its dark volcanic boulders and big waves enjoyed by local surfers. An interesting surprise was the stealthy WWII lookout hidden below the black rocky cliffs along the coast. Hubby liked that! The town center was decorated for a flower festival and also boasted some beautiful old architecture.
To the island’s east is the center of volcanic activity known as Furnas. Here one can witness the forces of the Earth at work in the boiling pools and the “fumarolas”, spewing their sulfur smelling smoke into the air. A beautiful park is located in the town of Furnas, called Terra Nostra Park. Besides the many species of trees, shrubs, plants and flowers, there are small thermal soaking pools such as those at Caldeira Velha, as well as a large thermal swim area that is a not very eye-pleasing orangy brown color. The water is naturally heated deep underground by the earth and is mineral-rich, particularly in iron. I found the experience of immersing myself in that water one of the most relaxing I’ve ever had.
One final note is that for hiking enthusiasts, this island offers so many rewards with its miles of trails to be explored offering spectacular viewpoints. For those that prefer to drive or be driven, the side roads wind through gorgeous vegetation, and are mostly lined with flowers such as azaleas and hydrangeas. Our visit in May allowed us to see the earlier blooming flowers, but a visit in June and July would offer the best of the hydrangeas in bloom – the official flower of the Azores!
I loved my time In São Miguel. It’s one thing off my bucket list, now that I can say I’ve visited the Azores. But I would love to return and visit some of the other smaller islands as they have beauty to offer as well.