Spending a week on São Miguel in the middle of November might not sound like a good idea, after a few minutes of online searches. And it’s easy to figure out why: the rainy season takes over the Azores archipelago between November and January, so it’s a period filled with unpredictable weather conditions. Still, these facts didn’t discourage me, since I enjoy traveling in low seasons, when the crowds are gone and the prices go down. And despite initial expectations, the weather was almost perfect. There was a single rainy day, and temperatures were between 15 and 18 degrees Celsius. Nonetheless, rain can show up at any time and mess up your plans, so it’s best to pack a rain jacket and waterproof boots.
The Região Autónoma dos Açores consists of nine volcanic islands, 1400 km west of mainland Portugal, in the North Atlantic Ocean. Its subtropical oceanic climate makes summers warm and winters mild, without extreme temperatures, so it’s a destination visited all year round. There are plenty of things to do and see, like natural heritage sites, caldera lakes, lava fields, thermal springs and pools, mountain ranges, black sand beaches, reefs, marine life and wildlife, and many, many more.
The largest island is São Miguel, home to more than half of the archipelago’s population. Most of the inhabitants are involved in one of the two major industries of the Azores: on one side, agriculture and animal husbandry, while on the other, as you might have already guessed, tourism.
The Azorean cuisine resembles the Portuguese one, but in the same time it has a few unique dishes. You have lots of seafood options to choose from, fresh fish, local beef and cheese, various stews and sweets, including two of my favorites: bolo lêvedo (a combination of bread and muffin, perfect for breakfast) and Queijadas da Vila (sweet cheese tarts). And here’s an interesting fact: São Miguel is home to the only commercial tea plantations in Europe, Chá Gorreana and Chá Porto Formoso. These have been running for several generations, since the second part of the 19th century.
Getting there and traveling around São Miguel
The capital and gateway to the island is Ponta Delgada, home to São João Paulo II (PDL) Airport. Low cost flights are regular, so finding a bargain trip from Europe (either direct or with connection, for example I flew through London and Lisbon) is not hard. A taxi from the airport to the town center costs €10 (fixed price), but you might be lucky to get a hold of the only Uber driver in the Azores, and you’ll pay half.
In order to discover the island and have full flexibility, I recommend renting a car. As in many other cases, I used Rentalcars and paid €150 (full protection included) for five days for an Opel Corsa, the second smallest car that you can get. There are no toll roads on São Miguel, but do pay attention to the speed cameras, cause there are a few on the expressway near Ponta Delgada.
There were seven nights in total, spent in five locations across the island. Prices vary a lot (I paid from €40 up to €115 per night, for two people), so there’s room for every budget. Keep in mind, though, that there are a few areas where you won’t find many accommodations around, so you might end up spending more than planned. This is what I booked:
1st / 2nd nights: Casa do Contador (R. do Contador 41, Ponta Delgada) – a delightful guest house located in a historic building, not far from the center. It had spacious rooms and a nice pool in the backyard. Too bad it rained most of the time.
3rd night: Furnas Boutique Hotel (Avenida Dr. Manuel de Arriaga, Furnas) – a modern hotel in a fantastic setting, surrounded by forests and gardens. The indoor and outdoor heated pools and spa, opened 24/7, were perfect for relaxation, at the end of a long traveling day. Breakfast buffet was various and tasty, but the restaurant, À Terra Fornaria, was disappointing at dinner. The food came either too burnt or kind of raw. And that happened twice.
4th night: Casa Areal de Santa Bárbara (R. da Praia 5, Ribeira Grande) – this is a typical surf house, similar to others I’ve seen in Portugal, 5 minutes away from São Miguel’s main surfing spot: the Santa Barbara Beach. Overall, it was fair value for the money.
5th night: Hotel Arcanjo (R. de Nossa Sra. das Necessidades 2, Lagoa) – another fair deal, with a great location near the ocean, and a beautiful view at sunset. That if you are lucky enough to receive a top floor room with a balcony overlooking the ocean, like I was.
6th night: Casa do Jarro (R. da Queira 22, Sete Cidades) – a tiny house that I found on Airbnb, close to Lagoa Azul, perfect for two people and a short stay. Many accommodations in Sete Cidades require at least two nights stay, so finding this one was a big relief.
7th night: Azoris Royal Garden (R. de Lisboa, Ponta Delgada) – the last night (or better said half night, since the returning flight was at 6am the following morning) was spent at this large hotel, with a lot of facilities around. It’s not necessarily my type of place; however, I must say that the room was large and comfy, and the inner garden, with all the trees and birds singing, was very cool.
Guide to São Miguel
My adventure began on an early rainy morning in the heart of Ponta Delgada, the starting and ending point for most travelers that come to São Miguel. The capital of the Azores archipelago is a mix of old and new, with an unspoiled, charming old town. Taking one day to stroll should be enough; it’s not a large town, and there are many other places on the island that are waiting to be explored.
The first stop was at Jardim Botânico António Borges, a beautiful botanical garden, with trails, grottoes and rare exotic plants. What surprised me the most, besides the luxuriant vegetation from various parts of the world, was how well it was maintained and preserved, despite being free of charge.
While en route to the port, I passed by several landmarks, not far one from the other: Palácio da Conceição historical building, Igreja de São José and Forte de São Brás, a former 16th century fortress, now hosting the military history museum.
Ponta Delgada has a very lively waterfront, with shops, cafes and many restaurants. One of the town’s symbols, Portas da Cidade, used to be located on this waterfront, but the gate had to be moved when the harbor was extended. Nowadays, it occupies the center of the nearby main square, and it’s still visible from the ocean. The story tells that if you pass through the gates twice, you will come back one day, while if you do it three times, you will fall in love with the place, come back and remain forever.
Next to the square, you’ll spot Igreja de São Sebastião, a fine example of the Manueline and Baroque architecture, and Câmara Municipal, the town hall building. And if you want to grab a quick bite or have a coffee or cocktail in a special location, try Louvre Michaelense. The restaurant is set in a former high-end hats and fabric shop, opened in 1904.
Day 2 (Ponta Delgada – Caloura – Vila Franca do Campo – Furnas)
The second day started with a short trip to the airport, to grab the rental car, and continued east, along the southern coast. I had plans to make a few stops along the way, and Caloura was the first on the list. It is a fishing village situated in a marvelous location, with rocky cliffs, a jagged shoreline and a micro-climate of its own. It becomes packed during the summer months, but it’s not the case in the autumn.
After finishing my lunch with a view at Bar Caloura, it was time to head to the town of Vila Franca do Campo, to see one scenic landmark: Ermida de Nossa Senhora da Paz. This 18th century chapel doesn’t impress that much with its size, but rather with its hilltop position and imposing staircase, which was added 50 years ago. The staircase is decorated with blue azulejos (tiles) depicting biblical scenes and is separated into ten flights, symbolizing the Ave Maria prayer. From the chapel, you’ll have a picturesque view over the town and Ilhéu de Vila Franca.
Furnas, the end point for the day, is a civil parish on the eastern part of the island, located in an 8×5 km diameter caldera. A caldera is a large depression that appears after a volcano erupts and its cone collapses. The Furnas volcano, one of the three on the island (the other two being Fogo and Sete Cidades), has been dormant for almost 400 years, since 1630. But its activity over time can be seen in the terrain and everywhere in the environment, in the form of hot springs, thermal pools or steam holes.
The top 3 things to do in Furnas are:
→ walk the shores of Lagoa das Furnas – and while doing that, check out Capela de Nossa Senhora das Vitórias or find out more about the volcanic activity in the region at Centro de Monitorização e Investigação das Furnas;
→ be amazed by the springs and small geysers at Caldeiras das Furnas;
→ visit Parque Terra Nostra, an 18th century botanical garden with a large geothermal hot pool.
Day 3 (Furnas – Praia do Lombo Gordo – Nordeste scenic spots – Gorreana and Porto Formoso tea plantations – Ribeira Grande)
The third day marked the longest drive of the trip – that if you can speak about long drives on a relatively small island. São Miguel has a lot of miradouros (viewpoints), and this day was mostly about making stops at different spots, soaking in the view and enjoying the moment. I am not going to talk about each viewpoint, simply because the photos will speak for themselves. But I will list the ones that are definitely worth a visit (from Furnas to Riberira Grande, through Nordeste): Pico Longo, Ponta da Madrugada, Ponta do Sossego, Vigia das Baleias, São Brás and Santa Iria. There are many, I know, but just have a look:
Apart from the miradouros, there is a black sand beach on the eastern side, called Praia do Lombo Gordo. I was curious to compare it to the ones I saw in Iceland, so decided to follow the steep and narrow side road, and then a 5 min walk down to the beach. Interesting that there was absolutely no one around at that time. The road might seem a bit scary at first, due to its steepness, but if you drive slowly and in first/second gear, you should have no problems.
Further to the northeast, the main road passes next to the two tea plantations I had already mentioned, Chá Gorreana and Chá Porto Formoso. The factories are open to the public, so you can take a self-guided tour to learn about their history and the process of making tea from leaves, see old machinery and even try for free some of their products.
And since the accommodation was close to Rabo de Peixe, dinner was served at Restaurante da Associação Agrícola, one of the best restaurants on São Miguel. It’s a place where people from all around the island come, mainly for the steaks. Prices are somewhere between low to medium, if you take into account the quality and the amount of food you get.
Day 4 (Ribeira Grande – Cascata do Salto do Cabrito – Lagoa do Fogo – Praia das Milicias – Lagoa)
Riberia Grande is the surfing capital of São Miguel, so Praia do Areal de Santa Bárbara was the perfect spot to start the day with an oceanside breakfast, purchased one night before from the supermarket. Surfers started coming to the beach quite early in the morning, in chase for that perfect wave. And at some point throughout the morning, even the rainbow made an appearance, for several minutes.
Before leaving Ribeira Grande, you have to go to Miradouro do Cintrão, for a spectacular view of the coastline and cliffs. There’s also a small old lighthouse, visible from the scenic spot.
On the way to Lagoa do Fogo, I took a short detour to discover one of the best waterfalls on the island: Salto do Cabrito. Surrounded by lush greenery and tall rock walls, it has a 20 meters water drop. The waterfall is easily accessible by car, so if you’re in a hurry, you can park 100m away. But if you have hours to spend in the park, there are a few hiking trails, one connecting it with the Caldeiras de Ribeira Grande.
The highlight of the day was Lagoa do Fogo, a crater lake in the Água de Pau Massif, situated right in the middle of the island. Vegetation is mostly shrubs, but there’s also a small forest towards the lake, where the slopes become smoother. From Miradouro da Lagoa do Fogo you can follow a sheer path to descend to the lakeshore and the beach. Just don’t swim in the lake, because it is forbidden by local law.
After all the hiking and astonishing views, the day ended on the same note as it started: next to the ocean, but this time on the southern part, at Praia das Milicias. Despite not being utterly impressive in any way, the clouds and sunset made it special.
Day 5 (Lagoa – Lagoa Empadadas – Miradouro da Boca do Inferno – Miradouro da Vista do Rei – Sete Cidades)
Another day, another volcano. And this was going to be the third and last one. But before getting to Sete Cidades, would have been a pity not to stop by Miradouro do Pico do Carvão or visit Lagoa Empadadas. The lakes are in a peaceful area, between cedar trees, creating a serene atmosphere.
The best place to see Sete Cidades and the four crater lakes (Verde, Azul, Santiago, Rasa) in their full beauty is definitely Miradouro da Boca do Inferno. It’s a touristic viewpoint that can be reached after an easy 15 minutes hike, and once there you’ll understand why there are so many people around. The valley, the ridge, the ocean and the sky are standing right in front of you. The 360 degrees view is out of this world. But before going there, don’t forget to check the forecast and the weather webcams, otherwise you might end up not seeing anything due to the fog.
If you don’t fancy a hike, but still want to enjoy the panorama, you have another option: Miradouro da Vista do Rei. The observation deck is accessible directly from the parking lot. And that’s not all. You’ll surely notice the gigantic building across the street, the ruins of the Monte Palace Hotel, which has an interesting story behind. It was supposed to be a luxury destination back in the late 80s, but after just 18 months from opening it closed its doors for good, due to the lack of tourists. Remember, this happened more than 30 years ago, when the Azores weren’t on most people’s radars, and its location was far from anything of interest – for the target person. I’m confident that things would be totally different today.
Now, let’s talk a bit about Sete Cidades (which translated to Seven Cities), one of the smallest parishes of Ponta Delgada. It’s positioned right in the center of the volcanic crater, next to Lagoa Azul and Lagoa Verde. It doesn’t have the bubbling thermal springs or baths of Furnas, but it’s a quaint village, that transmits tranquility and positive vibes. Tourism has not yet altered the rural community, nor the environment. That’s also the reason why there aren’t many hotels or restaurants around. And personally, I liked it just the way it was.
Day 6 (Sete Cidades – Mosteiros – Ponta Delgada)
The morning of the last day started with discovering Sete Cidades on foot. After having breakfast and coffee at O Poejo, a modern tea house, serving mostly vegan food, I was ready for a long walk, along the shore of Lagoa Azul and around the peaceful village. What not to miss? Igreja de São Nicolau, a lovely little church that follows the Azorean architecture, and Casa Grande, a colonial mansion built in the 19th century by a wealthy landlord, turned into a museum.
At noon, I was already in Mosteiros, the most western village on the island. It was probably not the best time of the day to visit this place, because I have read that sunsets here are really special. But anyways, the beach and promenade were nice, there was also an area with natural swimming pools, and you’ll spot black basalt volcanic rocks pretty much everywhere. So it’s not a bad choice, especially if you add Miradouro da Ponta do Escalvado to the list, which is 4 km away, on the road to Ponta Delgada.
How did the trip end? Celebrating my wife’s birthday, with a nice dinner and drinks at A Tasca (R. do Aljube 16, Ponta Delgada), probably the most popular Portuguese restaurant and one of the best on São Miguel. It took approximately 30 minutes to be seated, but it was Friday evening, and it’s so sought-after because it combines music, live art and regional cuisine in the same space.
I found São Miguel a bit different compared to the other Portuguese regions that I have visited before (Lisbon and Algarve or Porto), most probably due to its subtropical flora and volcanic landscape. It resembles Gran Canaria, another volcanic island in the Atlantic Ocean, where I went to a few years ago. Except that it’s much greener (no wonder it’s called Ilha Verde, which means the Green Island) and feels more lively. It’s still a wild paradise in my opinion, perfect for travelers who enjoy raw nature or simply want to uncover some of the hidden gems of Planet Earth.
Vejo você na próxima vez!