“Travel is more than having a destination in mind, it’s discovering a place in your heart you’ve never been before.” – Mark Amend
When it comes to tourism in Portugal, you’re probably familiar with a few of the country’s top tourist attractions – like colourful Lisbon and the iconic landmark of Castelo de Sao Jorge in the Alfama neighborhood, Sintra and the fairytale palaces and Porto and the infamous Livararia Lello Bookstore that was rumored to be an inspiration for J.K Rowling’s vision of the Hogwarts library.
But what do you know about the Azores Islands?
Azores Islands – are nine Islands formed by lava from the ocean floor located off the coast of mainland Portugal. They are what I like to call the Hawaii islands of the Atlantic Ocean. Sao Miguel is the largest of the nine islands. I first learned about Sao Miguel when I was booking my trip to Porto.
In searching for flights, SATA/Azores Airlines was the cheapest to fly when you are departing from east coast North America. It offers a free stopover to visit these Portuguese islands to discover the natural beauty it has to offer. And there is no way I’m going to pass up this opportunity to check it out.
So, if you’re planning to make a trip to Portugal and is a nature-lover, I highly recommend you take an extra 2-3 days and stop in Sao Miguel. You’ll find out why it is an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise! It’s dramatic landscape is scattered with splendid miradouros (viewpoints), volcanic craters, dramatic cliffs, vibrant lakes, walls of hydrangeas and geysers that rivals Iceland minus the snowy mountains and icy fjords. Instead of enduring the harsh Fire and Ice climate, you’ll be basking in sub-tropical temperatures enjoying the unspoiled beauty of the island.
The only thing to be wary of is the unpredictable weather as it is located in the middle of the Atlantic. I’ve been told within a day, the weather can change from sunny to rainy so pack smart, wear layers accordingly and pack a waterproof jacket. I was lucky all I saw was clear blue skies when I visited.
Here’s how to experience the magic of Sao Miguel
Explore the West Side of the Island
Visit Miradouro da Vista Do Rei.
This viewpoint overlooks Lagoa das Sete Cidades, the twin lakes of Sete Cidades – a town on the island. This is poster shot of the Azores. You’ll see it in every travel brochure and ads about the islands. What looks like two lakes is actually the same lake but separated by a bridge.
Visit Miradouro da Boca do Inferno
This was my favorite viewpoint of all in Sao Miguel. The view from here is breathtaking. You can see everything. It’s a birds-eye view of the entire volcanic crater of Sete Cidades, that houses the twin lakes, to the mountains surrounding it and the sea in the background. It’s incredible. I can only imagine how beautiful the sunset would be.
For pineapple lovers, stop by an Arruda pineapple plantation.You will learn how Pineapples are grown and cultivated. I was surprised to learn that it can take up to 12-24 months for it to grow and now have a new found appreciation for this crown fruit.
For outdoor enthusiasts, Sete Cidades is the perfect town where you can enjoy some of the best outdoor activities such as biking, kayaking, paragliding in Sao Miguel.
This is the area of São Miguel where you can find natural thermal pools and hot springs that oozes the smell of sulfur. It’s also a place where you can cook food underground. It reminded me of my childhood when I lived in Taiwan, and my parents would take us to a hot spring where we would cook our own boiled egg in these steam holes.
Here’s what to do at Furnas
Visit Lagoa das Furnas. It is another major lake in São Miguel. This is where you can see the strong volcanic activity of the island. You’ll find geysers and hot bubbling water and steam coming out of the fumaroles. Locals come here to cook the famous Furnas stew (Cozido das Furnas). It takes about 4 to 6 hours to cook. The stew consists of vegetables and meat, and it’s surprisingly tasty for a meal cooked by Mother Nature.
The most popular place to eat it at is Tony’s, and at the restaurant in the Terra Nostra hotel.
Relax in the Furnas Thermal Springs
While you are in Furnas, treat yourself to a mineral-enriched bath.
Head to either Terra Nostra Garden Hotel or Poca Dona Beijia
Terra Nostra Garden Hotel is a four-star hotel that has a huge beautiful botanical garden where you can explore the lush park. It’s picture friendly everywhere. At the heart of the garden, they have a huge thermal pool that you can relax. And in no time you’ll find yourself at peace. The entrance fee in 2017 to use the thermal pool and the garden is 8 euros, and towels can be rented at extra cost.
Poca Dona Beijia
It’s a recently refurbished set of 5 open-air pools at different temperatures that somehow seems more authentic and enjoyable. A night bath there is an awesome experience! Entrance fee is half the price of Terra Nostra Garden.
Stop by a Tea Plantation & Tea House
Portugal is the only country in Europe that grows tea and process the leaves using 19th-century English machinery. There are two tea plantations on the islands. 1). Chá Gorreana; and 2) Cha Porto Formosa. The tea tour and tea tasting is free (as of 2017). For tea lovers or light souvenir gifts, the little tea boxes make a great gift. And if you make an extra little trek wandering thru the plantation, you’ll find colourful fisherman huts at Porto Formosa.
Have More time?
Go for a dip in more natural springs
Ponta da Ferraria
Located on the western coast of Sao Miguel (near Ginetes). It is a natural area where you can access the small cove via a metal ladder covered with algae. You’ll find yourself surrounded by gigantic lava rock cliffs where the ocean water is warmed up by a geo-thermal natural spring beneath. Pretty cool huh? Being able to experience swimming in an ocean that has a blend of cold and hot sea water while splashing around in the ocean waves. The best part, you can go for a dip for in mother nature’s hot tub for free.
Tip: The temperature of the water tends to be warmer when the tide is low and closer to the shore. Further you go towards the ocean, the water gets cooler. To avoid staining your bathing suit, avoid leaning up against too many algae-covered rocks.
Another natural hot spring area located halfway between Lagoa do Fogo and the city of Ribeira Grande. You’ll find yourself in a tropical paradise. Surrounded by lush vegetation and bathing in stone-walled pools of thermal hot water from the springs that contains an abundant source of iron making the water look brown. There is also a waterfall located at the end with a pool of water that you can hang out and bathe. Entry fee is 2 Euros and locker rooms and cold showers are available.
Tips: It can get busy with people. Go early or later in the day. Bring your own water and snacks.
This is an area in the Northeast of the island. Furthest away from Ponta Delgada, the capital of Sao Miguel. Driving through this area you’ll find the curvy roads adorned with hydrangeas and azaleas. Some say this is the most beautiful part of the island because of the dramatic sea cliffs, the plush vegetation, and wild florals. It will make you want to stop and take photos at every turn to take in the breathtaking taking panoramic views.
Sign up for a whale and dolphin watching from Ponta Delgada. I didn’t have a chance to do this but many people said Azores is a great location to spot these marine mammals. The ideal time for this is between April and June.
How to get around in São Miguel
Rent a car or join a tour. Buses are available to transport you to main towns but they don’t run often. Plus, it does not get you close to the sites.
I opted to join local tours because I’m not one that feels super comfortable with driving in a foreign country on my own and on narrow and windy roads. So given the choice, I’d choose the latter option. The range of one day tours range from 55 Euros to 95 Euros or half day tours 30 Euros to 35 Euros. And book a week ahead if you can. When I was there I opted to book last minute and many tours were full. I did a full day tour with Pure Azores to check out the viewpoints of Sao Miguel West side but felt it was a bit long. Looking back I would have opted for a half day tour, unless there was a hiking or some other outdoor activities involved. For Furnas, I went with Azores Best Tours.
For those who have no problems with driving, getting your own cars is your best bet. But book as early as you can because this is a popular option and many people have noted that some days there are no cars available.
Where to stay in São Miguel
Stay: If you want to be more central or near restaurants, choose a hotel in Ponta Delgada or Ribeira Grande. If you want to experience more rural areas, AirBnB has many cool options. If you want to enjoy the hot springs in one area, I would stay in Furnas.
Hawaii and Iceland get a lot of love from visitors each year, but the Azores islands are AMAZING, and not to be missed! I will not be surprised if it becomes the next ‘It’ destination. So get there before the crowd starts flocking there and while the prices are great for your wallet.
Have you been to Sao Miguel? Share below!
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