Azores Exploration: An Epic São Miguel Road Trip

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So much green beauty.

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Green mountains blend with natural steam in Furnas on São Miguel

The first thing you’ll notice is the bright emerald green, lush flora coating mountains and plains, flowers adding a colorful contrast. What makes the scene extra striking is the steam that rises seemingly without reason from the ground, as if you’ve entered a hell’s paradise.

It’s important to remember that São Miguel, also referred to as “The Green Island,” is volcanic. While it’s not uncommon to see smoke rising from subway manholes or from buildings via smoke stacks back in my home of NYC, on this island it’s completely natural, an effect due to the mix of geothermic activity.

Azores History

The Azores is an autonomous region of Portugal, and São Miguel is the largest of the nine islands that compose it. Here you’ll literally find everything you could ever want sitting in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean: farm-to-table dining, nightlife, shopping, beaches, spectacular dolphin and whale watching (they have 20 whale species), sailing, artisan culture, bird watching, hiking, cycling and myriad opportunities to explore nature, a facet of the island of particular interest to me.

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The Portas da Cidade (Gates to the City), the historical entrance to the village of Ponta Delgada, today the capital of São Miguel. Walk through the center gate and make a wish for it to come true.

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Wandering the streets of São Miguel’s Ponta Delgada

The history of the island is fascinating. São Miguel was the second island discovered after Santa Maria, sometime between 1432 and 1457 — although ancient writing in 4th century BC talking of mythical lands in the Atlantic suggests they were known long before this. Moreover, a Medici map of 1351 shows seven islands sitting just off the coast of Portugal. Portuguese Prince Infante Dom Henrique (1394-1460), aka Henry the Navigator, is the man whose fleets are actually credited as the real finder.

Oddly enough, despite all these discoverers, today the Azores are still relatively unknown and unexplored, at least to those in the Americas.

Throughout history, countries fought hard to gain control of these idyllic islands — the French, English, the Spanish, pirates. If you saw the Azores for yourself, you’d understand why so many people wanted a slice of this paradise pie.

São Miguel Legends

During the 15th and 16th centuries, its location in the center of the Atlantic made it an important navigation between between Europe, Africa and the Americas. This also made it the perfect birthplace for legends and myths, many of which you’ll hear from locals during a visit. My favorite was the story of the Twin Lakes — one blue, one green, side-by-side — said to be the tears of two star-crossed lovers. A princess fell in love with a shepherd, and while her father wouldn’t allow them to be together in life, through these lakes they can be together for eternity. Sweet.

A São Miguel Road Trip

São Miguel is best explored by car, and you can loop the whole island in about 700 kilometers (435 miles), or three days. With my home base in Ponta Delgada, the island’s capital, my first day features a drive to Furnas, a historically (and still) active volcanic complex and civil parish, with stops along the way.

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Visitors relaxing in Caldeira Velha Nature Reserve’s hot springs.

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Natural hot springs at Caldeira Velha Nature Reserve

If I had to give my first morning a theme, it would be “lakes and thermal baths,” with my first stop being the Caldeira Velha Nature Reserve. As I drive, the scenery slowly changed changed from São Miguel architecture, churches and hotels to rugged landscape carved out by Mother Nature.

Getting to the nature reserve takes only 20 minutes, and once inside paved walkways introduce me to Japanese Cedar — you’ll see these a lot around the island — and wild ginger. It’s here I also get my first look at the curative iron-rich thermal baths that would become a major focus of my day.

After a short stroll and some photos, I’m back in the car, trying to make it to Lagoa das Furnas by 12:30pm. It’s at this time each day one can see locals, mainly restaurant owners, removing their delicious Earth-baked meats and veggies to make “Cozido das Furnas,” a typical Furnas dish featuring proteins like chicken, beef shoulder, pork feet, pork belly, black pudding, chorizo, and vegetables like carrots, potato, yam, cabbage and kale, all doused in their own juices. The food is put into holes in the ground from 5am to 12:30pm, roasted by the geothermal heat underground.

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Lagoa do Fogo.

Beautiful Views

Along the way, there are a number of not-to-miss lookout points, which I pull over for each time. One is an aerial view of Lagoa do Fogo, or Fire Lake, named after its 300,000+ year-old volcanic history. The crystalline body of water sits in a collapsed caldera, surrounded by pumice beach and rising mountains. Interestingly, it’s one of the few lakes on the island you can actually swim in, as most suffer from an over-abundance of algae (eutrophication).

For me, it’s one of those places that make me wonder if God has Photoshopped the landscape.

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View from Pico da Barrosa lookout. The scene looks like a painting, but it’s real. It wasn’t even shot in HDR!

A bit higher up the mountain I come to the aptly named Pico da Barrosa lookout. It’s at this point I realize where I actually am — Pico Barrosa Mountain (umm, embarrassing) — which reaches 947 meters (3,106 feet) above sea level. From here, it’s possible to see both the north and south coasts at once.

A Taste Of São Miguel

While up high is full of rugged mountain and volcanic landscape, back down I come to Vila Franca do Campo, the original capital of the island where the fishing port is and where you can get lost in rural architecture. It’s also possible to head down to the marina and have an espresso on the water (highly recommended, especially if you’ve just gotten off the red eye from Boston like me!). Despite the ambiance, the drink comes to only €0.60 ($0.68 USD), so double recommended.

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Men preparing to bring the food up from the dirt.

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Food being taken up from the underground oven.

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The park around Furnas Lake. See all the natural steam?

I happily make it to Lagoa das Furnas on time, watching closely as men use hoes to dig into what look like giant ant hills, unveiling steaming pots of tin-foil wrapped food. Cozido das Furnas is a specialty of Furnas, home to 50 different kinds of hot spring water with which to not only heal oneself, but apparently to cook, too.

The entire scene isn’t just culturally enlightening, it’s surreal, a woodland-shrouded lake on one side and a walkway surrounded by bubbling thermal baths and steaming dirt on the other. If you’ve ever been to Hell’s Gate in New Zealand, this is a similar experience.

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Cozido das Furnas. Yum!

After viewing how the typical dish is prepared, I now need to try it. In the quiet yet actively volcanic Furnas Village, less than 10 minutes away from the lake, Terra Nostra Garden Hotel is known for the dish.

I’m first brought out some local Bolo Levedo, a sugar-sweetened pancake-like bread, and locally-made butter. Eating the food makes it clear São Miguel isn’t like many other islands where most food has to be imported. They locally produce a variety of meats, produce, dairy, liquors, teas and condiments, and most meals are effortlessly farm-to-table.

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A relaxing spot in the botanical gardens

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Wandering the botanical gardens.

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The cloudy day made the park even more tranquil and serene

Natural Immersion

And also tasty. While I won’t lie and say I finished the entire bowl of Cozido das Furnas, I did eat about half. Seriously, if you can finish this meal you deserve an award (or a visit to the hospital). That combined with the bread — not to mention the local pineapple-laced panna cotta — made me thankful the hotel was attached to a 12-acre (5-hectare) Botanical Garden with walking trails (€6/about $6.80 USD per person to enter).

I’m told there are more than 3,000 plant species here, from papyrus trees to hibiscus to banana trees to Taxodium Trees, which are surrounded by small stumps as its relatives come up out of the ground to help provide the larger trees oxygen. A beautiful manor house, once owned by Thomas Hickling, who started the gardens, sits before a curative iron-rich pool, complete with sexy Portuguese couples making out and children swimming with their parents.

Being immersed in this lush world of tropical plants from around the globe, I forget I’m in the epicenter of volcanic activity. When I walk outside, small parish sidewalks and homes are enveloped with smoke. My first reaction is to be alarmed; however, I quickly remember where I am, especially as the thick odor of sulfur fills my nose.

Oh yea, I’m just standing inside a volcano.

That’s right. Furnas is actually located within one of three active trachytic volcanoes in the historically active Volcanic Complex of Furnas. Don’t worry, though. It’s last eruption was 1630 AD.

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Gorreana Tea fields

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Gorreana Tea workers sorting black tea by hand.

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Old fashioned machines used to process Gorreana Tea on Sao Miguel

São Miguel Goes Organic

On the way back toward Ponta Delgada, I make a stop at the Gorreana Tea, one of only two tea plantations in all of Europe, both of which are on São Miguel. The operation has been family owned and run since 1883, and all tea leafs are grown organically before being made into high-quality green and black tea. It’s a very budget-friendly attraction at $0, and I’m able to go inside and wander freely, seeing both working and non-working machines, factory artifacts, workers sorting black tea by hand and even tasting some for myself. While for me green tea is often bitter, theirs is smooth with floral accents. I don’t think I’ve ever tasted something so refreshing.

Until I hit the local A. Arruda Pineapple Plantation in Faja de Baixo, offering a fruitier taste of São Miguel. The Azores are known for their unique pineapple. Compared to six months for Latin American pineapples, Azorean pineapples take two years to cultivate. Pineapple culture on the islands began in the late 19th century, when the fruits were brought over from Brazil, although their nature transformed with the unique terroir, offering a more acidic, less sweet fruit — one that I quickly became addicted to, swamping my typical chocolate desserts for local pineapple cakes and mousses.

Like the tea, the plants are grown organically, and I’m able to wander the plantation, where sawdust and scrap vegetation are used for fertilizer, recycled rainwater for hydration and burned banana leaf smoke for pesticide. It’s interesting to peek inside the various greenhouses to see the pineapple plants in their various stages.

In the onsite shop — the highlight of the visit — pineapple novelties, housewares and accessories sit alongside a table of free samples of family-recipe pineapple liqueurs, chutneys (love the spicy one!), jam, mustard and curry.

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Pico do Ferro viewpoint

Ending Views

Despite having seen a number of viewpoints in the beginning of the road trip, there are so many to be had on São Miguel. At the Pico do Ferro viewpoint, hillside slopes down to a mirror lake, bordered neatly by woodland and rolling green plains beyond. The scene is beautiful, even with the late afternoon fog that seems to have set over the island.

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São Miguel Island from Santa Isria

The best viewpoint of the day is what I end with — the Santa Iria Lookout — with São Miguel jutting into the Atlantic Ocean in a turtle-like formation. The playful shape reminds me again of the many personalities this Azores destination has.

São Miguel isn’t an island you go to lounge on the sand all day or drink cocktails at the beach bar. It’s an island meant for exploration, lush with flora as well as culture, history and adventure.

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Hiking on Sao Miguel via Salto do Cabrito

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Above view of the Salto do Cabrito dam

While I had a great introduction to the island, next time I return — and I will be back — I’ll be spending most of my time exploring the local hiking trails. I did a short 1-hour hike — Salto do Cabrito; however, the beautiful and ever-changing landscapes just begs to be explored more on foot.

Logistics

Stay: There’s one hostel I know about on the island, Pousada de Juventude de Lagoa, that’s in the nature-and-hiking-trail-filled area of Lagoa. To get here by taxi from the airport should be less than 15 Euros (about $17 USD). Rates here start at about $18 USD for a 4-person dorm.

I stayed at a budget-friendly hotel called Hotel do Colégio, which was simply yet nice with a pool, free expansive breakfast and speedy Wi-Fi right in Ponta Delgada for those who want to be in capital near shopping, restaurants and nightlife. Rates start at about $78 per night. Email reservas@hoteldocolegio.pt for more information or to make a reservation.
Get In: SATA operates flights to Sao Miguel internationally and from Portugal’s mainland. I flew direct from Boston (about 4.5 hours).
Get Around: It’s not overly expensive to rent a car, and having a vehicle to get you around can be smart, especially as most attractions are spread out. There are also three public bus lines, with single ride tickets costing 1-5 Euros, depending where you’re going.
Language: Portuguese, although many people also speak English.
Currency: The Euro

Attractions:

Caldeira Velha Nature Reserve, Estrada Regional da Lagoa do Fogo – Ribeira Grande

Terra Nostra Garden Hotel+ botanical garden, Rua Padre José Jacinto Botelho, 5, 9675-061 Furnas, Sao Miguel; +351 296 549 090

Arruda Pineapple Plantation, Fajã de Baixo, Rua Doutor Augusto Arruda (EM 503-3) São Miguel; +351 296 384

Gorreana Tea, Maia, Sao Miguel 9625; +351 296 442 349

Have you been to São Miguel in the Azores? Please share your experience in the comments below.

*My trip to the Azores was sponsored by the Azores Tourism Board. I was not required to write this post nor was I compensated for it. All opinions are my own, and all stories are based on my unique experiences exploring the destination.

13 Comments

  1. Hey! I found your blog while searching for tips from foreigners on how to travel in Azores, which is quite funny because I am Portuguese (from the mainland) and I’m planning to fly to São Miguel next month, but I wanted to hear from as many people as I could before I book the flight. In which time of the year were you there? It seems it was also on the Winter, was it easy to drive there? Btw I saw you’ve only been to Azores in Portugal, you should definitely come to the continental Portugal, plenty of things to see and cheaper than the most well known European countries, every foreign friend I have that comes here loves it! Keep up with the good work, I’m planning to start a travel blog soon so I’ll be reading yours to get inspired =)

    1. @Catia: When I was there I believe it was winter (it was pretty chilly). It was very easy to drive around. And I’ve been to mainland Portugal, too. Backpacked and loved it!! What’s your favorite city?

      1. Nice then! I live near Lisbon but closer to Sintra, the World Heritage Town, Lisbon is my favorite city in the whole country but I also have a lot of love for Porto and for Aveiro, it’s a charming smaller city in the north-center where I lived for two years too. Where did you go, and what’s your favorite Portuguese food?

  2. Thank you for posting this; I really enjoyed reading it! Your information will go a long way in helping me plan my stops. Glad I found your site.

  3. Hi Jessie. Really inspiring post and gives so much clarity about what to do in Sao Miguel! I’m planning to travel in the first week of april this year and planning to rent a car from the airport. We want to cover Furnas, Gorreana and Caldiera Velha in our first trip. How long would it take to do this circuit? Also, how difficult is it to navigate on the island? Does google maps work properly?

    1. @Avantika: I would think Google Maps works, though I’ll admit I had a local driver. There aren’t many roads though so I don’t think you’ll have trouble navigating. And I did it in one day 🙂

  4. Hi Jessie
    I was looking to travel to Sao Miguel as a solo traveller and was just wondering how you found it travelling by yourself? Is the island geared up for solo travellers? Is hiring a car the best way to explore the island or go on organised tours from Ponta Delgada. I’d be keen on going on short hikes and exploring around the island. Thanks

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