São Miguel Island: Portuguese Paradise in the Azores

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I first learned of the Azores Islands from jaw-dropping images of volcanic lakes, waterfalls, and cliff-side ocean views. The search aimed to find “off the beaten path” destinations in the summertime, when many from the US and Europe are vacationing. The images I found were stuck in my head.

I’ll warn you ahead of time that this post is very picture heavy, so hopefully you’ll find the island as awe-inspiring as I did!

Over the last few years, airlines in the US have added many flights to the Azores from New York and Boston. With more options and competition, costs are more affordable than ever. We took a week and jetted off across the Atlantic to see what this up-and-coming archipelago was all about.

The Azores are made up of nine islands in the middle of the Atlantic and are one of two autonomous regions of Portugal. Vastly unspoiled landscapes every way you turn make you not want to blink. Ever.

Our Favorite São Miguel Experiences

How to Get Around São Miguel

São Miguel is small. You could drive around the perimeter of the island in one day. According to Google Maps, without any stops, the total driving time would be about four hours. If you only allow yourself one day of exploring, though, you’ll only leave yourself wanting more!



When searching for activities, hikes, and other attractions on the island, I found myself getting confused about where everything was located. I decided to make myself a small map with many of the attractions labeled. This way, we didn’t really have a set plan. We just picked a destination and set out for the day. After spending adequate time at each place, we’d check it off the list. Then, we looked for other places close by to move on to. This worked out extremely well for us, and we ended up happening upon some great unexpected places along the way, too.

This little 8.5×11 paper map with chicken scratch helped me get my bearings… Primitive planning, but it did the trick!

We chose to visit the largest island, São Miguel, for a full week. We found plenty to do to fill our time and more. Some choose to spend less time here and travel to multiple islands. Flights or ferries, depending on the time of year, are both readily available and affordable. We just didn’t want to rush through only the highlights, so we decided to plant ourselves for the week and hope to return to other islands in the future.

This method also allowed us to be the most flexible for weather changes and avoid driving in circles. The weather on the island can be vastly different from one side to the other even hour by hour, so it is important to stay flexible. Here, provided by Visit Azores, you can find webcams from lookout points across the island. Use these to check the weather at your day’s destination prior to departure. If the fog or rain is undesirable, check out another location and try back another day!

Accommodations

We stayed in Ponta Delgada, the capital of the island of São Miguel, rather than move our sleeping quarters around the island. With the amount of time we had to spend on the island, we had plenty of opportunity to see all corners while having a consistent home base.

We chose Hotel do Colégio, located in the city center of Ponta Delgada. This property is filled with history. It was originally a Manor House, then housed a private school, and was also the first home of the Regional Conservatory of Music of Ponta Delgada. It was renovated and modernized in 2017.



This hotel provided many comforts that we were thankful for, including daily breakfast and a small private garage to park our rental car. Much of Ponta Delgada was within walking distance, so we were able to visit things like the market, many restaurants, and our whale-watching tour with ease.

The front desk held a collection of maps and brochures, some of which we found extremely helpful in trying to get our bearings on the island.

A swimming pool, lounge, and restaurant, Cantina do Colégio, are also housed on the property.

We did choose to have dinner at the onsite restaurant on our last night, and they had one of the most theatrical desserts I’ve seen. The chef brought the dish out and explained the significance of each part, one of the coolest, most thoughtful dining experiences I’ve ever had.

Piping hot chocolate fudge was poured through a chocolate cap and over some sort of graham cracker-like concoction. A small slice of pineapple doused in liqueur was lit on fire. All to represent the volcanic nature of the island. It tasted just as good as it looked.

check out that flaming pineapple…

Lookouts around São Miguel

If you drive around the perimeter of the island, you’ll see various signs for “miradouros,” many labeled with binoculars. These are lookout points, where you can catch some of the best views on the island.

I suggest stopping at as many of these as you possibly can.

Of the most notable was Vista do Rei (View of the King), both for the view of Sete Cidades and for the abandoned Hotel Monte Palace just behind. In one direction, see the beautiful lakes, hills, and far-off ocean. Turn 180 degrees and climb up overgrown stairs to an abandoned, once five-star hotel, built just before the tourism industry began to hit its stride in the Azores. The hotel was left abandoned less than two years after it was built, and now it looks more like a prison than a resort. Top-notch views await from the roof.

We were told that the property had been purchased with the intent to renovate/rebuild, and further research revealed a reopening slated for 2021. Stay tuned.
Covered with fog more often than not, timing is everything when visiting this viewpoint.

Miradouro da Grotado Inferno is the lookout point in all the popular photos and is also located in the Sete Cidades region. When you type “Azores” in Google, this is the walkway view you will see. We parked in a small area by the main road, making a little farther walk to the lookout. We were able to take a quick detour down a stairway path to check out Lagoa do Canario. Though smaller and less impressive than many of the other lakes on the island, it’s secluded. We were the only ones there.

Miradouro de Santa Iria on the north side of the island, near Porto Formosa, can be a quick stop. If your timing is right, it’s a great place to catch a sunset. We didn’t luck into a good sunset day, but the island landscape views here were still pretty incredible.

Miradouro da Ponta do Sossego, and Ponta da Madrugada, are both on the eastern side of the island. These lookout points can be quick stops on your trip around the perimeter of the island. Both provide more cliff views, beautiful flower gardens, and a chance to stop and stretch your legs outside the car!

Hiking São Miguel Island

Hiking is a great activity to add to your itinerary while in the Azores, specifically on São Miguel. The tourism authorities here have done a great job of consolidating all of the hiking information and providing detailed maps, descriptions, and directions for each hike. Check out the trails section of Visit Azores where you can filter by island, difficulty, or distance.

On the island, we found the hiking trails to be, for the most part, very well-marked and easy to find.

From Furnas Lake, after viewing how cozido is prepared (more on that later) you can hike to Pico do Fero, which overlooks the lake and the area where all the culinary magic happens. We totally didn’t expect to take this hike, and we hardly encountered anyone else on the trail. When we arrived at the lookout point, we realized that you can also drive right up to it. Probably why the trail was empty. Maybe also because it felt like we climbed thousands of steps? It was a beautiful trail, though! At about 6.2 kilometers long, we got our workout in climbing up, and back down, that hill!

We took some time to hike the Sanguinho trail on the southwest corner of the island near Faial da Terra. Medium on the difficulty scale and about 4.5 km long, we thought we’d get a lot of bang for our buck on this one.

We started off on the lower part of the trail, hiking straight back an alley to find a dirt path. Gentle elevation gain most of the way lead us to the waterfall Salto do Prego. A couple of other small groups were also visiting the waterfall at the same time, but there was plenty of room for all to enjoy. You can sit in the rocks at the base or view from lookouts above.

On the way back out, we passed through a small village in the process of being restored, the Sanguihho. The path at the end is very steep and made of old cobblestone, and could get very slick if wet.

Parque Natural da Ribeira dos Caldeiroes is also located on the east side of the island. The hikes here are much shorter, and probably more child-friendly. The downside: the waterfall here is man-made, with the water flowing out of a pipe at the top of the rocks. It kind of feels like a rip-off after Salto do Prego. It’s still a nice spot to get out of the car, stretch your legs, and wander around. The main attractions are close to the road and parking area, and you can walk right up to the base of the waterfall.

Lagoa Congro, which is located between Fogo and Furnas, is a great stop as well. There isn’t really a parking area at the beginning of this trail, so be warned. People seemed to just pull off to the side of the dirt road. From there, the trail was a well-carved-out dirt path weaving down to the lake. Let me tell you, the colors at Lagoa Congro are amazing. The greens in the water are so intense. There were a couple of other groups exploring the lake while we were there. After the noisy group left, the sounds of birds chirping completely surrounded us. This hike is definitely worth it. Set aside a few hours to enjoy the views.

Lagoa Fogo was the last hiking destination we came upon purely by accident. We were just driving around near the end of our trip and came upon a spot with many cars pulled off the road. When we got out to see what everyone was looking at, you couldn’t see ANYTHING. You’d think Lagoa Fogo translates to Fog Lake, right? Wrong. Fire Lake is actually what it means. After standing at the top of the overlook for a few minutes, we saw a narrow path heading down over the edge of the mountain cliff. While we couldn’t see what was at the bottom, we had time, so why not? Seriously, this was probably my favorite adventure of the whole trip.

The hike down the hill was fairly long, but when we arrived at the beaches of Lagoa Fogo, it felt like we were the only ones in the world. The entire lake was visible underneath the fog clouds with such vibrant colors, and the tourists above at the overlook had disappeared into the sky. It was one of the most mystical scenes I have ever seen. The hillsides were covered in the greenest vegetation. The lake is so calm and peaceful. Lesson learned here. There’s usually more than initially meets the eye.

There are many other hiking trails on the island that you can explore. A few we skipped after reading the descriptions of “easy” trails. Others we passed over for fear that the waterfalls had dried up. Some did note springtime is the best for waterfall viewing, and we didn’t want to look at dry rocks.

São Miguel Hot Springs

Abundant opportunities to visit natural volcanic hot springs exist all over the island. Each one has its own atmosphere and “personality.” We were able to visit four different hot springs during our time on the island and enjoyed each one.

Parque Terra Nostra, located in Furnas, is home to a large rusty-colored pool, boasting healing properties due to its high iron content. More pools sit off to the side and contain more normal-colored waters. You can also wander through the botanical garden with many different species of trees and flowers. Park entry costs eight euros, and you could certainly spend hours soaking, relaxing, and wandering. Showers and changing rooms are located on-site.

Poca Dona Beija, also located in Furnas not far from Parque Terra Nostra, almost feels like a luxurious spa. A six euro entrance fee gets you admission to the changing rooms and hot springs for an entire day if you’d like. Wooden boardwalks lead to different pools with calming names, like serenity. Temperatures are posted on the side walls of the pools, so you can choose the heat level you prefer.

Caldiera Velha, nestled in the jungle near Lagoa do Fogo, boasts a more natural feel, and pictures appear other-worldly. The top pool is fed by a waterfall, and the water is not filtered. Expect to see leaves and dirt floating around the pool. Closer to the entrance, other pools sit and also have water of different temperatures. A cheaper entrance at two euros also meant not as much room in these pools. We spent no more than a couple of hours here.

Ponta de Ferraria hosts the most natural hot spring pool with ocean waves rolling in. This pool is free to swim in and also has the most primitive changing facilities. You will feel the most effects from the geothermal heat vents at low tide, but the water can get really hot at this time. A rope strung across the pool helps you to contend with the ocean waves at high tide and ladders make getting in and out a breeze. I’d suggest some water shoes or secure sandals here. Those volcanic rocks are sharp in spots!

Side note: If you plan to visit any of the hot springs on the island, wear old or dark-colored swimwear and pack old towels. The waters here WILL discolor your suits and towels!

Beaches on São Miguel

While the weather wasn’t ideal for sunbathing and relaxing on the beaches, we still made some time to visit a few.

More traditional beaches can be found in Ponta Delgada, and we found one to take a quick nap just after arriving on the island, remedying our jet lag. Streets, buildings, and playgrounds are nearby. It seemed like more locals were enjoying this beach.

Porto Formosa is a small and secluded volcanic dark sand beach. We found ourselves winding down into a tiny village and sneaking down alleyways to find this one. Although it was a little chilly, we had the entire beach to ourselves to enjoy.

Mosterios is located on the northwest corner of the island. While not a sand beach, it is made up of volcanic rock and small pools of ocean water. On sunny days, the water in these pods heats up and makes for a comfortable day of lounging. Some of the best sunset views on the island are found here as well! We enjoyed a drink and a snack while watching the sunset here. We also got some local tips from a man who has a family summer home nearby.

Whale and Dolphin Watching + Islet Vila Franca Do Campo Tour

The Azores is a top whale and dolphin-watching destination in Europe. Many species migrate past the islands yearly. Three species of dolphins and one whale species call this area of the world home. With tours leaving right from the marina in Ponta Delgada, we decided to use a few hours to see what we could see. We chose Futurismo as they seem to focus a great deal on both research and conservation of the animals.

We reserved our tour online prior to arrival. They have different boat options, but we wanted to go on the Zodiac boats, which are much smaller and closer to the water. This type of boat gives you more of an adrenaline-pumping experience! We also chose the trip that included an afternoon at Vila Franca do Campo Islet for snorkeling, but more on that later.

Prior to setting out on the whale and dolphin expedition, we were briefed by a marine biologist about the animals, how they are sighted, and Futurismo’s conservation efforts. Once we were fitted with rain suits and life jackets, we loaded onto our Zodiac boat.



The process used for sightings continues to use spotters placed at various lookout points on the island, using high-powered spotting scopes to see the animals. They then radio locations to the captains of the boats, providing customers (hopefully) many chances to see these animals.

While we did not come across any whales on our trip, we did follow a few big groups of dolphins. We were able to see two different species, and one of the pods had quite a few baby dolphins if you looked closely!

The largest whale species in the world, the blue whale, does pass by the Azores, but the best time to see them is April-May. Even though we didn’t see any whales, we had a great time speeding alongside the dolphins.

We also took a quick ride around the outer edge of the Islet Vila Franca do Campo, which we would be visiting later in the afternoon.

After about three hours out on the water, we headed to the town of Vila Franca do Campo for lunch near the harbour, which was included in our tour. The restaurant was just a short walk from where we needed to board the ferry to the Islet.

The Islet Vila Franca do Campo is a protected nature reserve, so the number of visitors per day is limited. You are only able to visit during the summer months, May-September. While on the islet, you can snorkel in the calm, shallow waters or sunbathe on the rock formations. While we were there, workers were also building platforms for the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series Competition to be held the next week!

We were able to spend a few hours snorkeling and relaxing. It was cloudy and kind of chilly the day we visited, even though it was July. I’d suggest packing a couple of layers so you are prepared. Once out on the Islet, there is only a very primitive changing facility, and you’re stuck for a few hours. We did enjoy watching the little sea creatures while snorkeling and climbing around the rock formations.

Canyoning in Ribeira Grande

We wanted to do something more adventurous while on the island, and the waterfalls are plentiful here. I had first learned of canyoning years ago in Costa Rica but ran out of time there before I could try it. I thought this might be a great place to see what it was all about. Canyoning helps you get to more remote areas, usually by hiking and following routes carved by water through rock formations.

We chose to go on the Canyoning Adventure with Azorean Active Blueberry. They host two different trips, with this one being the longer and more difficult of the two. The trip began at a gas station meeting point in the Ribeira Grande region, where we met our guides and two other groups. In total, there were eight participants and two guides.



We formed a caravan and followed our guides to the beginning point of our tour, at the Salto do Cabrito waterfall. We were fitted with wet suits, boots, and helmets. The hike to the top of the canyon began. While this was not a long hike, we climbed many steps. Once at the top, we descended into the canyon and began our trek.

The route we took gradually eased everyone in, beginning with smaller waterfall rappels and increasing in height and difficulty. The final waterfall drop back at Salto do Cabrito was a 50 m drop treated much like a zipline into the pool of water below!

After we arrived back at the bottom, we shared some snacks and stories with the group. Because we had driven in our own car, we were then free to explore further in the Ribeira Grande area for the rest of the day.

This trip highlighted the waterfall at the end, so we were able to skip this hike. Our guides were both knowledgeable and energetic. We never felt unsafe or at risk despite never doing anything quite like this before. I’d definitely recommend this activity for anyone feeling adventurous or looking for a thrill.

São Miguel Architecture

While not known for famous or significant architecture at every turn, many of the houses and buildings here have a similar feel.

Two buildings, however, boast significance.

The Farol do Arnel lighthouse is located on the northeast part of the island, in the Nordeste region. It’s the oldest lighthouse on the Azores. The path down to the lighthouse, though paved like a road, is STEEP and it is advised for cars to park at the top. Then, you hike down to the lighthouse. The lighthouse is open for tours only on Wednesday afternoons, and we did not plan this well. We walked all the way down to find it was not open, so it was kind of anti-climactic. Then came the daunting task of hiking back up the hill, though we were able to enjoy coastal views along the way.

Our Lady of Peace chapel is the other notable piece of architecture here on the island. The church sits high on the hillside above Vila Franca do Campo and is recognized by its long symmetrical staircase, and blue and white color scheme. Even if you aren’t into churches or architecture, the views of Vila Franca down below, including the Islet off the shore, are fantastic! While it was a little gloomy on our stop, the views were still definitely worth it!

Food in the Azores

Going out on a limb here, but I think it’s difficult to find bad food on the island of São Miguel. Everything is fresh and local. Cows roam the hillsides. Being an island, sea food is naturally abundant. Make sure to visit the island with an appetite! Here are some of my favorite things. I’d recommend you try as many of these things as possible, too.

Pineapples

The island of São Miguel is the only place in Europe where pineapples are grown. They are smaller and sweeter than the typical Latin American variety. A few of the pineapple plantations here are open to the public, and pineapples are my favorite fruit. We had to make a visit and see what they were all about.

We chose Augusto Arruda Pineapple Plantation to learn more about their growth. This plantation boasts over 100 years of history. Now third generation owners focus significantly on education and less on growing mass quantities of the fruit.

Visiting the plantation is free. They have multiple greenhouses where you can see the pineapples in different growth stages. Informative boards are placed to help you learn about the growing process, which takes 18 to 24 months, ending with a mature pineapple.

The visitor’s area is condensed and doesn’t require a significant amount of time or walking to visit. You can cover the whole area, reading all the informative displays in an hour or two.

After, you can visit their gift shop, where they sell crafts and souvenirs, in addition to their pineapple goods. We purchased small bottles of pineapple jam, pineapple liqueur, and pineapple and chili-infused olive oil after sampling.

Cheese

With so many cows grazing on São Miguel, naturally, there is fresh local beef in the form of delicious steaks. What else is provided by these cows? CHEESE!

Some of the best cheese I’ve ever eaten, I’ve had on São Miguel.

Many of the restaurants on the island feature appetizers with cheese and bread combinations for just a couple of euros. It was difficult for me to pass up any of these offerings.

In the breakfast spread provided by our hotel, there were three varieties each day. The one I LOVED was called Queijo Amanteigado Serra Nova, or Serra Nova Buttery Cheese. I still dream of that butter cheese.

Seriously, if I could find out how to get this cheese shipped to me in the US, I would do it. In a heartbeat.
It was that good.

Tea

The Azores, specifically the island of São Miguel, is home to the only tea plantations in all of Europe. Cha Gorreana is open to visitors seven days a week. They offer free, self-guided tours of their tea-making process. The tour begins with a video walking you through the history and the current operations.

After the video, wander through the building to see the equipment used and learn more about what goes into making each batch of tea. In the end, the samples provided help you to select your favorite variety, which you can purchase in the cafe on your way out.

The whole self-guided tour only takes about an hour or so, but you can also spend time wandering around the outdoors and enjoying the views of rows of plants and ocean-side cliffs in the background.

Vino Verde

Portugal is known for its many different wine varieties. In addition to the typical reds, whites, and rosés, vino verde is made in specific regions of Portugal. São Miguel produces some of the grapes used to make this variety!

Even though I was a little unsure of a “green wine” at first, it turned out to be very light and refreshing. Bubbly, almost like a glass of lighter champagne, this wine is “young” as well, not aged like some typical reds and whites.

In the high seasons, the Azorean wines can be sold out in many of the restaurants, but if you come across one that is available, jump on it. Who knows when your next chance to sample will be?

Cozido

Specific to the Furnas region, cozido is a one-pot dish, typically of meat and veggies. What makes this dish unique is the method of cooking. All the ingredients are placed into a giant pot, sealed, then placed into a hole in the ground and buried. They are left to cook using the geothermal heat of the region, adding a sulfur taste to the dish.

There are plenty of places offering this dish in the Furnas area. It’s even cooler to go to the lake and watch part of the cooking process prior to eating the dish.

The cooking time and methods do limit the quantities of this dish made available each day. The more popular restaurants do sell out at lunchtime, so I’d recommend an early lunch here. If you’d like a specific restaurant, make a reservation, as well.

This is probably the one dish you should sample when visiting the island of São Miguel.

hills covering the pots full of cozido, overlooking the lake

Final Tips for Your Trip to São Miguel, Azores

  1. Renting a car in the Azores is a must for this type of trip. It allowed us to see the island at our own pace. There isn’t a lot of traffic, and roads are pretty well labeled, making navigation on your own doable.
  2. Check the webcams on Visit Azores if you’re able. They give great real-time weather and conditions, so you don’t waste time driving to a lookout point that’s completely fog-covered. Unless you’re running out of days. Lesson learned at Lagoa Fogo.
  3. As mentioned before, wear dark-colored or old swimwear in the hot springs. The mineral water will stain anything light-colored.
  4. Mercado da Graca, located in Ponta Delgada, is a great place to pick up last-minute souvenirs and experience a local food market.
  5. The island felt very safe for tourists, and while we didn’t interact with a ton of locals, any we came into contact with were friendly. We also speak NO Portuguese but still found our way around fairly easily.
  6. When I think of visiting an island, I think of the Caribbean with its hot climate. The Azores are much different. Make sure to pack layers, even as you head out each day. Temperatures vary drastically from the tops of the mountains to the bottoms of the volcano lakes and seaside cliffs

We chose to take this trip in July when the Fourth holiday fell midweek in the US. This allowed us to only use four days of vacation to get a week exploring São Miguel. I feel we definitely got the most bang for our buck!

We hope to return someday, as well, to explore some of the eight other islands that make up the Azores.

Have the photos I’ve shared inspired you to visit São Miguel? Or the Azores in general? If not, there are probably a thousand more (literally) where those came from.

Just go see it for yourself!