I knew very little about the Azores before I ended up there. After having spent 6 weeks exploring the big cities and small towns of Spain and Portugal, I was in need of some “nature therapy”, so heading to the lush green hillsides and dramatic beach cliffs of the Azores seemed the perfect way to scratch my outdoorsy itch. With that in mind, I booked a flight on Azores Airlines and found myself flying to the island of São Miguel.
The Azores archipelago is a group of Portuguese islands located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, about 1/3 of the way from Portugal to America’s east coast. São Miguel island is the largest and most accessible of the islands, with Ponta Delgado being the main city and the airport into which I flew.
All of the Azores have volcanic origins, lending themselves to dramatic landscapes. Here you will find peaceful plains, blue & green lakes, natural thermal pools, moss covered jungles, foggy mountains, waterfalls, black sand beaches and jaw-dropping views of the Atlantic coast.
Before heading to São Miguel, I did some research on the weather, and knew that springtime brings varied weather to the island, so I booked myself there for full 5 days in the hope that I would get at least 2-3 days of clear skies.
São Miguel impressed me greatly from the very first day. I can honestly say that there are only a few places I have visited that are as lush and beautiful as São Miguel: it truly is a nature lover’s dream. My AirBnB host told me that São Miguel is known to show “all four seasons in one day” — and based on my experience that was definitely true!
On any given day I would wake up to heavy fog and overcast skies in Ponta Delgada, but by noon I would only see blue skies and big puffy clouds. When the skies were blue, they were really, really blue!
I also found that the weather varied greatly in different parts of the island and at different altitudes on the same day. Many times there would be fairly clear skies on the lowlands, but then I would drive to a high-up viewpoint and right into a dense fog. I didn't really mind though, as the fog made for some moody images.
On most days I would head out early no matter the weather, knowing the conditions could improve - or not. I have to confess that, at one point when the forecast looked exceptionally ominous in Ponta Delgada, I decided to book myself into a hotel in the middle of the island despite already having an AirBnB reservation (Remember: this is NOT a budget travel blog - haha).
I spent the better part of 2 days just luxuriating in a hotel with on-site thermal baths, an indoor pool, and great spa. Honestly, I was just plain tired from traveling and felt the need for some pampering.
Overall, there was a calmness about São Miguel that I truly appreciated. I did see a few tour busses and several cars with tourists just like myself, but for the most part it was much less touristy than anywhere I had been in Spain or Portugal (I imagine, though, that in the summer it gets busier.) After weeks of running around and seeing so many historical and cultural sites, it also felt really good to get some peace and see so much green!
São Miguel itself is a small island (measuring 62.1 km in length and 15.8 km at its maximum width) and was very easy to navigate. Although the roads are very well maintained, there are only a few main arteries so it takes longer to get to each point than you would think.
When planning my road trip itinerary, I focused on different parts of the island on different days. There are countless places to experience the natural beauty of São Miguel; here I outline my favorites places to visit and things to see on the island.
Lagoa das Sete Cidades
You can’t read anything about São Miguel without seeing photos of the twin blue and green lakes of Lagoa das Sete Cidades - one of the 7 Natural Wonders of Portugal. The lakes are situated in the crater of a dormant volcano and are connected by a narrow strait, which is crossed by a bridge. Legend has it that green and blue lakes were formed from the tears of a shepherd and a princess who shared a forbidden love.
There are two main miradouros (viewpoints) to see Sete Cidades: Miradouro Do Rei and (the much better in my opinion) Lagoa do Canario Miradouro. My first attempt at seeing the famous lakes was a huge fail: covered in a dense fog, there was literally nothing to see once I got to the top of the lookout point.
My perseverance paid off however, because when I went back a few days later the clouds lifted long enough to take a few photos. Lagoa do Canario Miradouro is a great vantage point because you can see mountains, both lakes, the caldera, and the sea all at the same time. It's probably the most picturesque spot on the whole island of São Miguel.
Tip: there is a parking lot when you first pull off at the signs for Lagoa do Canario Miradouro however you can keep driving down the dirt road all the way to the entrance point, and it’s a short walk uphill from there.
Ponta da Ferraria
Located on the western tip of São Miguel, the first thing you notice when you approach Ponta da Ferraria are the black lava rocks and the dramatic drop off to the ocean below.
What you can’t tell when you are standing on the lava rocks - and what makes Ponta da Ferraria one of the most unique places on the island - is that there is a thermal heated natural “pool” IN THE OCEAN! I’ve read that the temperature of the natural pool is very warm, but given the weather conditions AND the fact that it was a treacherous walk to get down to the water, I chose instead to just take photos from the top!
Tip: There is a steep, windy paved road down from the higher cliff to a parking area that services both the natural thermal “pool” and an actual swimming pool (there is also a snack bar and restaurant inside the pool house if you’re hungry.) The natural inlet is surrounded by lava rocks that are extremely jagged, so if you plan to swim there remember to bring shoes!
Parque Natural da Ribeira dos Caldeiroes
If you want to chase waterfalls, Parque Natural da Ribeira dos Caldeiroes is where you need to go! It seems to me that most people hung around the parking lot area where the main waterfall is located, but this well maintained park has paved walkways and wild woods to explore if you want to really get off the beaten path.
Tip: This park is free! Once you park your car, make sure you visit the main waterfall which is on the left side of the parking area; it’s kind of hidden back there.
Beautiful Flowered Vistas
Amazing flowers can be found all over the island. Located on the north coast of the island between Ribeirnha and Porto Formoso is the lookout of Santa Iria. This viewpoint is one of the best on the island, and if you come at the right time of year you can also enjoy hydrangea and yellow ginger plants
On the drive between Nordeste and Furnas you will find Miradouro da Ponta do Sosssego, another awesome viewpoint with lots of hydrangea plants around. This miradouro area is larger and more well planned than others, and boasts several tables and barbecue area. It would be a wonderful spot to enjoy a picnic - and to hang out with some cute cats too!
Tea Time in the Azores
Who would have thought that, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, one would find the only tea plantations in Europe! Located near the town of Ribeira Grande, on the northern coast of São Miguel Island, you will find two tea factories and plantations with stunning views of the ocean.
You can walk the fields, tour the factories and have a cup of tea in a stone-walled tea room, but given that the weather was PERFECT when I arrived, I decided to stay outside and make some photos instead of doing a tour. The deep green of the tea plants against the blue skies and deep blue ocean was truly stunning!
Due to optimal weather conditions, tea has been grown in the Azores since 1820. Only a short distance apart there are two tea plantations on São Miguel, both on the same main road between Ribeira Grande and São Brás: Chá Porto Formoso (where I stopped) and the larger Chá Gorreana. Entrance to both to plantations is free!. Gorreana is the older of the two and is one of the original 19th-century Azorean tea producers.
Geysers and Thermal Baths
Every trip to São Miguel has to involve natural thermal water pools! Not only are the warm waters therapeutic due to being charged with essential minerals, the hot ground in the area is used by the locals to cook the specialty dish of the area.
In the valley of Furnas, it’s an eerie sight to see the hot springs and bubbling water holes emitting huge plumbs of steam into the air; in my photos it’s hard to distinguish the natural steam from the clouds! There is a strong smell of sulfur in the air, which can be a turn-off but also is the smell of the earth being ALIVE.
It goes without saying to NOT go near the geysers: instead you can enjoy the healing powers of the naturally warm water in a safe way by visiting Dona Beija Thermal Springs or Terra Nostra Park (the latter is on the grounds of the hotel at which I stayed for two days, the Terra Nostra Garden Hotel).
Terra Nostra Park is a large (12 hectare) park with lush vegetation, a two hundred year old botanical garden, thermal water pool, and 2 natural “jacuzzis”. The volcanic hot spring nourishes the pool with temperatures between 35 and 40 degrees Celsius (95º and 104º F), creating a wonderfully relaxing experience. As a hotel guest entry to Terra Nostra Botanical Park, including use of the pools, is free. I loved to visit before and after the main opening hours because I had the pools all to myself :-)
The hotel is very nice, and I’d highly recommend it for a night or two. At the hotel restaurant you can sample the most typical meal in the Azores islands, the famous “Cozido das Furnas”, cooked with the steam of the Furnas hot springs.
TIP: The water in the pool is extremely brown due to rust in the water, so I would not recommend wearing a white bathing suit. No matter what you wear, thoroughly rinse your suit afterward! Also, make sure to visit the two smaller jacuzzis set inside the woods down a path to the left of the entrance booth (there are signs leading you there, but the jacuzzis are somewhat hidden).
Although not a big city, the town of Ponta Delgada deserves a few hours of your time as well. With typical Portuguese cobblestone sidewalks, interesting architecture, a nice waterfront, and several restaurants and cafes, this small town is worth a walk around.
There are direct flights from Lisbon or Porto to Ponta Delgada on several airlines (Ryanair, Azores Airlines and EasyJet to name a few). I religiously use Google Flight Matrix to check routes and prices, and then book accordingly. I read that there are direct flights from Boston and Toronto as well, so there appears to be a way to get to Sao Miguel without having to go through Portugal mainland - but taking a few days in Lisbon or Porto is never a bad idea!!!
Before departing for São Miguel I rented a car using Auto Ramalhense: they had competitive rates (even for an automatic, since I don’t drive a standard) and were easy to work with. I really wanted travel flexibility and quite honestly I don’t think I would have seen half of what I did had I relied on locals buses or organized tours from Ponta Delgada. Also, having a rental car allowed me to return to places that I wanted to see if the weather was bad the first time I visited (that happened a few times actually).
São Miguel itself is a small island and very easily to navigate. The map that the rental car company gave me was not detailed enough to use for driving, so I relied heavily on Google Maps and Apple Maps on my phone (I have free unlimited international data in most countries with my mobile data plan). I didn’t look for a more detailed road map, but maybe there’s one available in Ponta Delgada? The island is so naturally beautiful that it’s hard to keep your eyes on the road when driving around.
I have read that people rent scooters to explore the island, but honestly I would not have felt comfortable on a scooter. Many of the roads and windy and steep, and when they were wet from fog and/or rain, I can’t imagine them not being a bit dangerous. Plus, I went long distances on most days, and would have been extremely tired driving a scooter.
Although the roads are very well maintained, there are only a few main arteries so it takes longer to get to each point than you would think. When planning your road trip itinerary, focus on different parts of the island on different days. Some suggested itineraries can be found on this Crazy Travelista blog post and the Go To Portugal website. I used these to develop my base plan, and added / moved things around as needed.