Sao Miguel, Azores – You’re going to want to see this place

Lagoa do fogo 2

My friend, Katie, heard about the Azores from a random fisherman she met in Denver, CO; he raved about the beauty and adventure in the archipelago and convinced her to add it to her travel list. When debating where we should visit on our 10 day vacation this year, we decided to allocate a few days to the island of Sao Miguel in the Azores due to it’s convenient location in the Atlantic on our way home from Morocco. If you Google “The Azores”, tons of unreal looking stock images appear and it seems too good to be true. The thing is, those photos are REAL! They may be HDR and color saturated to “pop” more on screen, but the real-life version of those locations is EVEN BETTER than these enhanced images! I’m hesitant to share about our experience here because we love the island exactly as it is now, with limited tourists and no real restrictions or oversight on the natural attractions. It seems only logical that this small group of islands will continue exploding in popularity, with Delta recently announcing upcoming service starting 2018 from the U.S. to Ponta Delgaga, Sao Miguel.

We flew SATA air which flies direct between Boston, MA and Ponta Delgada, Sao Miguel and remained on the big island of Sao Miguel for our two and a half day visit. We stayed at Azor Hotel which is really nice with awesome amenities like a champagne brunch every morning, huge rooms with cozy beds and coastal views, a rooftop pool and bar, and awesome hotel staff that really made our stay. The location in Ponta Delgada is also ideal as it is central with easy access to most attractions and close to the airport. Samir at the front desk showed us Spot Azores which is a website where you can get a live look at the cloud coverage over the attraction you want to visit before heading out to it. When we first arrived, Samir said that Lagoa do Fogo was the clearest he’d seen on the webcam in a week and he strongly advised we get out there as quickly as possible. Even though we arrived at 8 am and check in wasn’t until 3 pm, they gave us the key to our room and allowed us to go right up. We quickly dropped our belongings, got a recommendation on a bakery down the street to pick up some pastries and espresso before scurrying to Lagoa do Fogo.

Lagoa do fogo

Lagoa do Fogo is a crater lake in the middle of Sao Miguel, we drove about 40 minutes from Ponta Delgada to reach it – but even the 40 minute drive on the island was an experience in itself. There are constant sweeping coastal views, vibrant green fields, blooming flowers, the happiest looking cows (were they really, or did we just imagine that because we were our happiest selves?), and a magical breeze with the windows down all the way. The roads are winding and steep leading up to the peak overlooking the lake. We parked and ascended about a 200 meter trek along a paved road too steep to drive, when we got to the top it was breathtaking – 360 degree views of water, the only point on the island where you can see all of the coastline on a clear day. There was some cloud coverage today, but the views were still mind blowing. The Lagoa do Fogo is so blue, surrounded by such hearty green hills, with glances over the hills to the vast Atlantic stretching to meet the sky. We were so thankful that Samir instructed us to begin our trip with this attraction, what a welcome to the island!

We trekked around the peak for a while just taking it all in, we watched a few paragliders take off on their flights over the lake and saw some mountain bikers searching for a thrilling trail down to the base. There are plenty of hiking trails to choose from surrounding this lake, we opted for a shorter hike starting about midway down the mountain which was basically a winding stairwell down to the water. We drove to the starting point and then it took us maybe 20 minutes to hike down and 25 minutes to hike back up. We walked around the lake a little and could’ve spent a full day at this site, but we wanted to get other attractions in due to our limited stay, so we climbed back up to the car and headed to the west side of the island for more adventure.

Sete Cidades

We stopped at the Vista do Rei lookout point over the Sete Cidades Lakes; these are also volcanic crater lakes referred to by their colors, Lagoa Verde and Lagoa Azul, as one body of water appears distinctly green and the other distinctly blue. There is an abandoned hotel at this lookout point which is not restricted at all, despite it’s obvious potential for personal injury and biological growth; this is the kind of thing where you think “In America this would be barred off, with no trespassing warnings and concern for lawsuits over injuries”, but dozens of people were opting to enter and it appeared to be an interesting experience, so we joined. We climbed to the roof of the hotel, gawking at the soaked carpet, winding stairwells and remnants of the ballroom and lodging quarters coated in graffiti and slime. The view over the lakes is astonishing from the roof and we couldn’t help but notice that if we’d been a few weeks earlier, we would’ve caught the peak of the hydrangeas surrounding this site and all the hillsides of the island! We saw plenty of full blooms of the blue bunches, but could see the browning skeletons of what were many, many more.

One great thing about Sete Cidades Lakes and most of the attractions on Sao Miguel is that you can drive right up to this Vista do Rei lookout point without having to hike at all, a real advantage for older travelers just wanting to enjoy the sites and forego physical activity. We returned to the Sete Cidades area on day two of our visit to hike around a little more and find an additional vantage point on the other side of the lakes. As with Lagoa do Fogo, you could spend the better part of a day hiking around the Sete Cidades area, and we again wished we’d had a longer visit.

We drove down from the Vista do Rei and crossed the road between the Lagoa Verde and Lagoa Azul into the small towns making up Sete Cidades. This would be an awesome area to just wander and get lost enjoying the people and architecture, we didn’t have the luxury of time this trip to take advantage of that aspect, we were on our way to the thermal pool of Ponta da Ferraria. When we reached the cliff side above Ponta da Ferraria, we were intimidated by the steep, winding, downhill driveway to reach the ocean. We stopped and peered down to the parking lot below to see what kind of cars had made the journey, we debated walking down but then asked a nice, older, Canadian gentleman to have a look at our car and see if he thought we would make it. He did. So we drove. It was less scary than anticipated from above, but some seriously steep grade and quick, switchback turns. We parked in the lot and walked the 100 meters or so to the volcanic pool.

Ferraria Termales2

We wanted to get to this oceanic hot spot today since the website lists it as closed on Mondays; however, please note that the website is for the spa at the termas da ferraria and the actual oceanic pool does not have openings, closures or cost as it is a public natural attraction without restrictions. Along this same line of “open to the public unrestricted”, it does NOT have lifeguards or safety features. It is essentially a jagged rock surrounded inlet with half a dozen ropes tied across it’s width intended for gripping for dear life as you’re pummeled with frigid waves while being warmed from the volcanic vents below. The ideal time to visit is low tide when it is essentially a calm, hot tub in the ocean; as the tide rolls in, it brings harsh, icy waves that really seem like they could suck you right out to sea if you don’t hold tightly to the rope. The contrast between the warm, still water and the harshly cold incoming tide is a really unique experience and you can even see the steam and mixing of colors between the two waters as they collide!

After Ponta da Ferraria, we visited Bar Caloura for a sunset dinner and grabbed one of the last remaining tables on the patio. We thought this would be a hyped touristy spot, but were pleasantly surprised that the majority of patrons were Sao Miguel residents. There is a nice swimming area teeming with locals right outside the restaurant and we thought this was a fantastic dinner spot with fresh fish, a salad bar, and local Azorean wine. A perfect close to our first day on Sao Miguel!

On day 2, after a leisurely morning, breakfast buffet feast at Azor Hotel, and hike at Sete Cidades Lakes, we wanted to make the Nordeste coastal drive. This drive along the northern and eastern borders of the island includes multiple marked miradours (vantage points), two operating tea plantations, a couple of waterfalls and many charming, small towns with friendly residents. You can opt to stop at as many or as few of these attractions as you’d like. We hit a few miradours and lucked out with a cute, authentic Italian gelato stall at one of them. We also stopped at Cha Gorreana tea plantation which has a beautiful cliff-side location and a quick walking tour through the factory with free tea samples in addition to tea bags and loose-leaf tea for purchase (I stocked up on the green tea which was so delicious!), you may also choose to wander through the vast tea fields if time permits (looked incredible).

Samir at Hotel Azor had instructed us to continue around the island to the town of Faial da Terra where there is an entrance to a hiking trail to Salto do Prego waterfall. We got a little confused trying to find the trail head but sort of stumbled upon it along the creek through town. This is not a strenuous hike and is lush and enjoyable the whole time, it took us maybe 30-40 minutes both ways. The waterfall is spectacular and we had it all to ourselves for quite a while before a handful of other tourists made their way over. You can swim in the pool beneath the falls and the whole location just really feels like an unbelievable dream!

Nordeste drive

We drove back the same way we came around the coast to avoid zigzagging through the mountains on the return to Ponta Delgada. We stopped at Parque Natural da Ribiera dos Caldeiroes where there is a beautiful waterfall and more natural trails with blooming flowers. This is another spot where you don’t have to hike or exert yourself to experience the attraction. We stopped only briefly to take in the sites and then continued on to another miradour on the coast to catch some of the color changes in the sky as the sunset.

This night, we enjoyed dinner at Casa da Rosa, both opting for a beef dish; is it weird that we wanted a taste of the happiest cows we’d ever seen? The food and atmosphere were exactly what we wanted. I will say though, my advice would be to book dinner reservations weeks in advance as the restaurants fill quickly; our hotel concierge specifically recommended A Tasca and Quinta dos Sabores (really try for this one, it sounds like quite the experience, the chef serves you out of his own home).

The next morning we were up early to hit the beach, Samir recommended Populo Beach just a couple of miles down the coast from Ponta Delgada. There are tons of beaches on this island though and it really would’ve been great to explore more of them; Samir pointed out many differences in the quality and coarseness of the sand, size of the waves and crowds (or lack there of) amongst a handful of the options. This morning there was hardly anyone out on Populo Beach and it was ideal to relax in the black volcanic sand and play in the waves as our vacation came to an end. I cannot recommend this island enough, and am eager to return to explore more of the archipelago. With the affordability, lack of crowds, ease of travel to/from, and spectacular landscape, I’m not sure how this island can maintain its anonymity; it should be high up on any traveler’s list.

A few thoughts as you plan your travel to Sao Miguel:

  • Rent a car if you’re able for flexibility with schedule (we had a hard time finding an automatic as most are manual transmission), though you can find tour groups to show you the whole island without a car if needed
  • Book dinner reservations weeks in advance since restaurants are small (try for Quinta dos Sabores or ask your hotel for recommendations before visiting)
  • Give yourself plenty of time, we could’ve stayed a full week on Sao Miguel alone
  • There are tons of adorable, small villages covering the island, any one of them appeared to be a charming place to stay, don’t be afraid to get out of Ponta Delgada
  • The weather can be unpredictable, we lucked out avoiding rain but it can come and go in an instant so we were always prepared with a rain jacket on hand
  • We traveled in the first of October and seemed to have missed peak hydrangea and lily blooms by a month or so I’d guess, it would be spectacular to visit during early-mid September when florals are more in bloom but just passed the peak tourist season of July-August
  • SATA air and soon Delta are the only carriers flying direct to Sao Miguel from the U.S.
  • This destination is not only for the young and adventurous, the sweeping views and beautiful natural attractions are mostly reachable by car, not requiring a lot of hiking or physical activity
  • Sao Miguel is on par with the rest of Portugal as an extremely affordable European destination, if you’ve read my Lisbon post, you know I’m on the Portugal bandwagon right now!
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