Third of the way out into the Atlantic on route to America, sits a family of 9 volcanic Islands, stretching over 600km.
“The Azores?! Where are they?” is pretty much the confused response I’ve had from everyone that’s asked where I’ve recently been on holiday. And not surprisingly given TAP Portugal, SATA and Ryan Air are the only carriers currently to fly direct from the UK to the main Island of Sao Miguel. Other than the odd cruise ship that stops by, the Azores go pretty unknown to the UK population as a European holiday destination. But this is obviously also a bonus – not only can you get cheap direct flights from Luton Airport, but the Islands are not over crowded by tourists giving way to a true cultural experience. Many have asked why they should visit and quite frankly there are too many reasons.
2 weeks on a fairly small island (62.1 km in length and 15.8 km wide) can sound like a long time. But if you love the outdoors as much as we do, there’s plenty to keep you occupied, even when the weather is a bit iffy, and iffy it was for us unfortunately. (Everything I’d read prior to booking promised that rain never lingers and you can often expect 4 seasons in 1 day, but 3 days of sun out of a total of 14 was a bit hard going even for this typically English couple!).
If you’re looking for a chilled beach holiday or lots of indoor activities, the Azores is not for you. Known as the “Green Island” thanks to it’s rolling terrain and natural beauty, Sao Miguel is definitely the destination for outdoor lovers. On land there’s plenty of hiking and cycling with well marked paths and although these are designed for the walker, most are biking suitable also. For the water loves there’s plenty of surf, diving and whale/dolphin watching as well as canyoning and kayaking (both in land on one of the many lakes or on the sea) and with the water temperature a comfortable 16-17 degrees in March/April there’s plenty to do year round . It’s no wonder the Islands are often referred to as the “Hawaii of Europe“.
I would highly recommend hiring a car to get around – public transport is limited and if you really wish to explore the mountainous island this is your best option. We hired a (rather old) Renault Clio from Ilha Verde for a very very cheap £120 for 2 weeks; sufficient to fit bikes (see below for rental info) and surf boards in when we needed.
What to do:
Surfing: One of the key reasons we were in the Azores was for the surf. Depending on wind and swell direction there’s normally a wave somewhere on the island (Santa Barbara, Calhetas and Moinhos in the north, Mosteiros in the West, and Ribeira Quente in the South) although very much more for the intermediate to expert ability and when it’s not 15-20ft, like on our arrival.
For the beginners (like me), Pópulo Beach provides a nice beach break, but as the name would suggest, don’t expect it to be quiet; one given afternoon I counted at least 30 surfers in the water on a 2ft break (!).
Hiking: The Azores were made for exploring, and clearly the islanders know it. With miles of walking trails across the island there’s terrain to challenge as well as provide gentle, scenic walks. Definitely remember to pack to walking boots. Trails can easily be found on the Azores Trails website; and most are pretty long so it’s often worth looking at options to join it half way.
Our favourite, but definitely not easy walk was a climb down, yes, you read that correct, through the fog to Lagoa do Fogo (Fire Lake). The man-made route consists of steps, although some of these were giant steps at half my height (thanks to being a shorty); so I ended up jumping my way down. The lake is stunning, but with the fog rolling in and sun setting, we didn’t have time to explore the perimeter. I can only imagine it would be a great place to explore for the day with a picnic. Just don’t think about the route back up! Start your walk from the view point, literally heading straight down over the wall (the route will become clear).
It would also be criminal to not check out Setes Cidades, known otherwise as the blue and green fresh water lakes often appearing in the majority of tourism posters. A fairly easy, although long walk is possible from the abandoned hotel at the view point down into the town and the lakes. We wish we’d done this by bike. (The derelict hotel left to nature is itself worth a wander around providing some fun and rebel-like exploring and unspoilt views – just be careful for the random man sized holes in the floor throughout).
Cycling: Not only are the network of roads well maintained on the island, but the variety of terrain makes for interesting off-road rides too with most of the walking routes suitable for bikes making it a great way to explore your surroundings. Just be prepared for some serious climbing.
Unfortunately due to low-cloud for most of our stay, we weren’t able to get up high and do most of the routes we wanted. However, we enjoyed a very easy 9km cycle around Lagoa Das Furnas with a stop to look at some of the Calderias; extremely hot thermal pools used by the local restaurants to cook food.
We also had a very difficult climb to the top of Pico de Vara – the highest point on the island (ok, maybe not quite to the top as the 7 degree fog and howling wind hampered that attempt – we got 2/3rds of the way!). Be warned of the volcanic shale – it makes for an *interesting* descent.
Thermal Baths: When not surfing, hiking, cycling or eating, the thermal baths are a blessing and wondrous place to recover from the day’s activities. There are many different types of baths across the island, all very accessible and reasonably priced (2 – 6 Euros per person); and some stay open until 9pm. The best time to go we discovered, is over lunch time or at the end of the day an hour before closing. Just be sure not to wear a white swimming costume or be prepared to dye it orange due to the high levels of iron. Also be warned if you’ve recently bleached your hair – I learnt the hard way 😉
Caldeira Velha (Fogo) – a short hop from Lagoa do Fogo or Ribeira Grande was our favourite of the thermals. The 2 pools are set within a maintained forest and also homes an information centre to learn more about the islands and volcanic activity. The pools are also more natural than some (don’t be put off by the colour of the water!). The larger of the pools is sourced by a warm waterfall and home to frogs. The smaller of the pools is a lot hotter which makes switching between the two fun.
Poça da Dona Beija (Furnas) – built more for the tourists, Poca da Dona is more “up market” with purpose built pools built on the river. These were the busiest and most expensive pools we’d been to and although the water was hot with great facilities it just didn’t have the same experience as the more natural pools. Still worth a visit if you’ve time.
Terra Nostra Garden (Furnas)- Our second favourite, the large thermal pool was built by the American Thomas Hickey in 1775 as part of his summer home. Although large, the pool is surprisingly warm and deep enough for a swim, followed by a dip in one of the smaller ‘jacuzzi’ like baths. Although a popular place, the grounds and pools were large enough to not feel crowded. The Gardens are also dense in beauty and worth a walk around.
Towns, Museums & Places of Interest:
Look at the list of museums and ‘places you should visit’; and they’ll be longer than your arm. You’ll quickly learn that some of them are very random, but then others are totally worth while.
We explored Ponta Delgada on a rainy day, stopping by the Military Museum (turns out most weapons are made in the UK) and the Lava Caves, Gruta do Carvao, which not only gave us solice from the weather, but were fascinating. Nestled in the middle of the town is a traditional market, great for purchasing fresh fruit. But, not far from town are the Pineapple Plantations too – the only pineapple farms of their kind in the world; growing sweet fruits grown in greenhouses with a cultured method. At Arruda, there’s also a great gift shop with home-grown products too.
Our second most visited place was Furnas. With so many days to fill, we didn’t dedicate whole days to specific towns, but instead re-visited them with purpose. One of those days was to explore the Caldeiras and a microbiological science museum providing invaluable information on the muds and water. Be prepared for the intense smell of sulphur, and if you’re brave enough try the natural ‘sparkling mineral water’ – it’ll take you by surprise! There’s also the baths, already mentioned as well as the lake and plenty of places to eat.
The small town of Povoação on the South East of the island wasn’t only great for a fresh-fish lunch with a sea view, but the town too is pretty and clearly well looked after. We randomly stumbled upon the village petting zoo. What would have been popular in a UK seaside town 50 years ago provided insight into the Azorean way of life today. On a good day, the small beach would be a great place to relax and maybe even snorkel.
Where to eat:
The food on the island is the one thing that took us by surprise. Having holidayed on the main island of Portugal for the past 2 winters, we expected much of the same – chicken and chips, fresh fish and chips, something else and chips, so we were delighted to find that the Azoreans are great cooks! Everything you see growing on the Island – alive or not – finds its way into the food chain. Queijo da ilha (Island Cheese) is a popular starter. Soft cow and goat’s cheeses are served with locally grown pineapple (see places to visit below) or piri-piri chilli chutney. And of course, you can’t complete a meal without some island made passionfruit liquor. Yum yum!!
There were 2 restaurants that stood out to us and places we wish we could visit again and very much of the ‘local’ experience.
Associação Agrícola (Santana / Ribeira Grande) – Quite possibly THE BEST beef we’ve ever eaten! Then again you only need to look around you to understand why. The Agricultural Association owned restaurant was one of the best finds on the island and only a 5 minute walk from where we were staying which meant we acquainted ourselves with the menu on more than one occasion. With simple and cheap dishes such as the Beef Stragonoff (€7.50) to the exceptional Veal Medallions (€18), there’s something for everyone with fantastic service.
Quinta dos Sabores (Rabo de Peixe) – another restaurant we happened to stumble upon in the area, but so glad we did. Quinta dos Sabores is like no other – a farm owned restaurant with a prohibition feel to it, you can only book to eat here. Greeted personally by the owner, there are no menus. Dishes are served based on food available to the farm that day; but all 5 dishes were delicious and the €30 per head extremely good value. Products made on the farm are also available to purchase.
Tuka Tula is a great beach-side bar. Although we didn’t eat here, a sun-downer G&T was just right.
Where to avoid: We thought we’d give the new ‘Santa Barbara Eco-Beach Resort‘ a go; but much like many hotels that are new to the Island, it very much lacks the local cuisine and experience. Highly disappointed by the very small servings and over-cooked beef. Visit if you’re a hipster.
Where we stayed:
Our first point of call for majority of our holidays, especially longer than 3 days, is Airbnb and we were not let down. Our farmhouse on the outskirts of Ribeira Grande, a 15 min drive from Ponta Delgada on the North Coast, provided 2 bedrooms, a very large living space and kitchen with great big wood burner. 1km from Santa Barbara Beach, the property provides views as well as green gardens around the property all for a very reasonable £545 for the 2 weeks.
We hired mountain bikes from Azores Car. I think they’re fairly new to bike rental as they had to buy a bike in at my size and we also had to ask them to purchase puncture repair kits for us. With drop off and collection to our place of stay for 7 Euros a day, it’s pretty cheap, although the bikes are low-entry level (mine couldn’t quite handle the tough terrain but was great for exploring by road).