Where the heck are the AZORES islandsApril
This is the question everyone will ask you, and you'll ask yourself if you plan a trip here. Technically part of Portugal, this archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic is like an un-touristy, less beachy Hawaii.
Duration: 4 Days
The Azores islands boast green rolling pastures, lake-filled calderas, and natural hot springs. It’s an exotic destination for nature-lovers, hikers, and anyone who likes the idea of discovering some place in Europe that none of their friends have been to. With direct flights from London to Ponta Delgada, located on Sao Miguel (the largest of the islands), we made this our base for four days, before continuing on to Porto. The island is remote, and enjoying nature is the real draw here. There are a few “boutique” hotels, and a decent restaurant or two, but for the most part, the island is a place to unplug, and enjoy unspoiled views, quiet walks, and steamy springs. There isn’t that much to do here, so it’s best thought of as place to recharge.
- Sight Seeing 70% 70%
- Food 50% 50%
- Ease of Transportation 40% 40%
- Activities 60% 60%
Upon arrival, we rented a car and immediately headed for a late lunch en route to our hotel. We were staying at the Furnas Boutique Hotel, and the one restaurant we had read repeatedly was worth visiting was Bar Caloura. This relaxed little outdoor restaurant in Caloura, is located right next to the sea where fishermen bring their daily fresh catch. We had a feast of grilled fish, vegetables, and wine, and were spoiled thinking the rest of the island had food this good (in our experience, it doesn’t). After this amazing first meal, and many mediocre meals in between while in São Miguel, we ended up coming back here our final night to end on a high note.
Any research on visiting São Miguel will point you towards the one most hyped hotel on the island, the Furnas Boutique Hotel, located in the hotspring-heavy town of Furnas. The hotel is sleek, comfortable, and cool, though the surrounding area does feel quiet and remote. One thing to note, while hotsprings are soothing for muscles, it does mean that the entire town reeks of rotten egg most of the time. This is a slight caveat we felt we should include to give a full picture of the boutique experiences.
Nearby, Poςa da Dona Beija is the most popular place to experience the Azorean geothermal pools. This little retreat allows you to rent a locker, towels, robes, and slippers, and spend time rotating between five geothermal pools all at different temperatures, some with waterfalls, and all surrounded by the natural green, jungly setting. We came for a few hours in the evening, and returned to our hotel relaxed and ready to sleep.
One of the most popular natural attractions on the island is the enormous volcanic crater lake Lagoa do Fogo. The drive itself is winding and beautiful, taking you past verdant cow pastures improbably perched overlooking the Atlantic. The view of Laoga do Fogo when you arrive is breathtaking. The dramatic landscape, the color, the sense of calm, it all feels almost prehistoric, with no sign of human intervention as far as the eye can see. We parked and descended a narrow trail path down to the water level where we could walk around a few jutting promontories. For people looking for more serious hikes, or guided hikes, this looked like a good resource.
After our hike, we were hungry and keen to explore the other side of the island. We drove down to Tuká Tulá bar for a drink on the beach. We sat outside with our beers, watching a few surfers catch small waves. They offer beach shack fare, but we wanted something a bit more substantial, which led us to the Restaurante da Associação Agricola de São Miguel. Located at an agricultural venue where cows are appraised and shown, this restaurant had a high google maps rating (4.6 – in a pinch, we find google maps ratings to be pretty reliable for restaurants). It’s a large, sleek modern building specializing in steak from the Azorean cows we had seen happily grazing all over the island. We ordered a blood sausage and pineapple appetizers with some of the infamous Azorean furnace cheese (doesn’t smell great, tastes ok), a bottle of Portugese red wine, and a few steaks that were fantastic. It’s odd and off the beaten path, but if you’re looking for a great steak, this is definitely the place.
After exploring the Eastern half of the island, we moved to the Azor hotel in Ponta Delgada and set out to explore the western reaches. Modern, comfortable, and overlooking the port, the hotel ended up being owned by the same group as the Furnace hotel, but was a welcome lively change of pace. The rooftop bar has a fun atmosphere, and was a nice place to spend a few hours in the evening.
The main natural attraction on the western side of the island is Sete Cidades, a set of two lakes, side by side, separated by a narrow sliver of land. Amazingly, one lake is rich green, and the other blue. A local legend attributes this to a princess and her lover who were parted, and at their farewell, the tears they shed became the two lakes with water colored like their eyes. It is a visually stunning area, though there’s not much to do, and less in the way of hiking than Lagoa do Fogo. Despite it’s popularity as a desination on the island, you won’t find gift shops, coffee shops, or cafés here, so planning ahead for meals and snacks is important. There’s a lake lodge with arhitecturally beautiful bungalos that looks nice for people who want to stay in this quiet, remote area.
From here we drove to the coast to see the famous Termas da Ferraria, thermal baths that are part of the crashing surf of the Atlantic. Slightly treachorous, we scrambled over rought volcanic rock, climbed down the metal ladder into the sea, and dropped into the warm(ish) waters. Other bathers were clinging to buoyed ropes as the waves crashed dramatically all around us. We can’t call it a relaxing experience, but there is a solidarity among us who have come to this improbably place, to cling to ropes in the thermal warmed sea, and say we’ve done it.
Final Notes: There is supposed to be great scuba diving off of Vila Franco do Campo that we wanted to get to but didn’t have the time.
Overall, our experience of the Azores (limited to the biggest island São Miguel) was beautiful, sleepy, and a bit strange. We came in April, which is off season, and we’ve heard that it’s quite different in the summer months. For the majority of our trip, we were the only two, or one of just a few tourists on various trails and at hot springs, which was great. The natural beauty, lush greenery, and volcanic elements reminded us of parts of Hawaii, although without the sandy beaches. Aside from the two hotels and two restaurants we visited, you’d be hard pressed to find many more options, although we’ve read that this is part of conscious efforts to keep the natural beauty undisturbed, which is admirable. We’d say prepare to come here for a very slow, off the beaten path dose of hiking and biking with unspoilt vistas, and get your culture, food, and hospitality fixes on the mainland.
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