Discover São Miguel – the largest of the Azores islands

Nestled on Europe’s western fringe, over 1,300 kilometres west of mainland Portugal, you’ll find the Portuguese Azores Islands. Charmingly wild, comparatively unexplored and (thanks to the recently launched direct flights from Ryanair) easier to get to than ever before, there’s never been a better time to discover what The Telegraph have described as “Europe’s answer to Hawaii”.

São Miguel is the biggest island in this mid-Atlantic archipelago. Here, a crashing coastline edges an interior that’s blanketed in lush-as-you-like vegetation, whilst brooding volcanoes and pristine crater lakes set the tone for the island’s knock-out scenery. This is a place that can pique even the most dormant sense of adventure…

Sete Cidades. Image: © 2016 Laura Jean Sargent

Sete Cidades. Image: Laura Jean Sargent

Volcanoes and crater lakes

The Azores’ location, at the meeting point of three continental plates (the Eurasian, African and North American), leaves them vivaciously volcanic, and the peaks of many of São Miguel’s active volcanoes play host to serene sets of crater lakes. There are three main lakes, and perhaps the most stunning are the two that fill the Sete Cidades Volcano. One green and one blue, they sit side by side, and legend owes their origin to the farewell tears of two separated lovers, with the colour of the water reflecting that of each’s crying eyes.

A hiking trail follows the Sete Cidades crater rim and affords stunning views, particularly from Pico da Cruz. The full route takes around three hours and winds up at an attractive church in the town of Sete Cidades itself. It’s possible to drive around the rim too, providing you have a fairly robust vehicle. One of the best spots from which to view the area is the viewpoint within the park that surrounds the nearby Lagoa do Canario; follow the signpost on the road into the park and, once inside, head to the “Miradouro” where you’ll find a stepped path that leads to a fenced viewing area (pictured above).

Lagoa do Fogo lies in a tranquil nature reserve at the island’s centre. Here, you can pick your way down one of the trails to find wild beaches and tempting waters – a particular draw on one of the island’s clearer days. Lagoa das Furnas lies a little further east and its shores play host to the pleasingly modern construction of the Furnas Monitoring & Investigation Centre and an attractive Gothic church. On the lakes eastern shore the earth’s steaming hot waters bubble all the way to the surface (along with the less-enticing smell of sulphur) and the ground gets so hot that stews are cooked within it – look out for “Cozido das Furnas” (Furnas Stew) in local restaurants.

Furnas Caldeira. Image: © 2016 Laura Jean Sargent

Furnas Caldeira. Image: Laura Jean Sargent

Thermal waters

When it comes to experiencing the island’s thermal waters, you are truly spoilt for choice. From rocky inlets on the coast to manmade pools set deep in the forest – you can find a different thermal bathing situation for every day of the week, should you wish. Ponta da Ferraria’s therapeutic springs mix with the Atlantic Ocean to create a marbling of temperatures within the water. Ropes have been extended from one side of the inlet to the other, creating low-fi perches that joyfully sway in the current – taking you with them should you balance yourself on top. It’s no surprise that this particular spot on the western coast has been enjoyed since the 15th century.

On the southern coast, Fogo Beach in Ribeira Quente is an obvious draw – the bay boasts a lovely stretch of sand, and several submarine hydrothermal vents ensure the seawater’s kept unusually warm. Further inland, on the northern slope of Fogo Volcano, you’ll find the Ribeira dos Caldeirões Natural Park, which contains Caldeira Velha – a warm iron-rich waterfall that tumbles into a pool, where you can bathe. Also in the park, it’s possible to witness boiling waters bubbling from the ground, and bathe in a 35°C pool with lively hydrothermal vents that create the feeling of a gentle, natural Jacuzzi. It’s all set in the simply stunning surrounds of a foliage-heavy forest, which offers a fantastic display of the island’s flora.

Meanwhile, further east in Furnas lies Terra Nostra Park, which is home to a large thermal water pool with a tempting temperature of 35-40°C. The sulphur-orange waters are surrounded by attractive parklands, and there’s a hotel here too with a restaurant – a great spot for lunch after a long, calming soak. Poça da Dona Beija offers an alternative in the area; a group of manmade public bathing pools and waterfalls set along a central stream, and linked by attractive wooden walkways and decking. The pools are fed by a cave-dwelling iron hot spring with temperatures of up to 40°C.

Road in Sete Cidades. Image: © 2016 Laura Jean Sargent

Road in Sete Cidades. Image: Laura Jean Sargent

Road tripping

São Miguel’s road network is simple, effective and a pleasure to use. There are four types of road – expressways, main roads, secondary roads and secondary ways (the latter aren’t always paved and can be extremely steep, so caution should be taken when using these). The journey by road from west to east takes just over an hour, whilst getting from the north coast to the south coast can take as little as 15 minutes. Even a basic tourist map can be enough to go on, and the roads are well sign-posted with the names of towns, viewpoints and nearby attractions.

Driving around the island is a fantastic way to explore and affords plenty of flexibility. The coastal routes are just as splendid as those that snake through the volcano peaks, with scenery that would draw you to a standstill mid-road if it weren’t for the frequent look-out spots that pepper the roadsides. These are often accompanied by fully equipped picnic areas, with stone-built barbecues, chopped wood, running water, rubbish bins, tables and benches (often covered in case of rain showers). Some are so exceptionally well kept – with boxwood hedges and colourful flowerbeds – it’s hard to believe that they’re completely free for public use. Ponta Madrugada and Ponta do Sossego along Nordeste’s coast are excellent examples and well worth the trip.

Further delights await just off the island’s roadways, and you may find yourself stumbling across pretty windmills or historic lighthouses as you cruise the island’s edge. Situated on the northwest coast in the parish of Brittany Help, Moinho do Pico Vermelho (Red Peak Mill) is a recently restored windmill that, once a year, is put to work for old time’s sake, but you can visit it all year round and garner an explanation on how it works from a volunteer guide. Meanwhile, back on the east coast is the island’s oldest lighthouse, Ponta da Arnel – it was built in 1876 and still works today. The lighthouse is open to the public on Wednesdays and reaching it is best done on foot from the main road – the track that leads down to it has a 55% gradient, making it somewhat hair-raising in a car.

Ponta da Arnel. Image: © 2016 Laura Jean Sargent

Ponta da Arnel. Image: Laura Jean Sargent

Food and drink

One of the first things you notice on arrival in São Miguel is the patchwork of farmlands that blanket the rolling hills (however steep!). Black and white Holstein cows speckle the verdant grasslands, providing a livelihood for about 35% of the population through cattle and dairy farming. Whilst a lot of the finished product is exported, you can still find Azorean beef, milk and cheese in the island’s restaurants and shops. The Agricultural Association of São Miguel’s restaurant is a good place to try steak, a range of which are offered alongside local wines. Despite the high winds, viticulture does exist on the island and benefits from the heat-retaining properties of the black, volcanic soil.

Tea began being cultivated commercially in the Azores around 1870 and it continues today on São Miguel. The Gorreana plantation has been in operation since 1883 and produces around 40 tons of tea and year, whilst nearby is the smaller operation of Chá Porto Formoso. Both are open to the public, allowing visitors to witness the tea-making process at different stages, from planting and picking to drying and packing, depending on the time of year. The stone-walled tea room at Chá Porto Formoso makes a particularly nice spot in which to sample a locally grown brew.

The Azores are proud of their pineapples too. What started as a curiosity grew into a commercial enterprise in 1864, when the first hot house for pineapples was built. The island’s production of the fruit now exists more for the benefit of tourism, and visitors can explore a pineapple farm, sample liquor and purchase fruit. It’s one of the few places in the world that continues to cultivate pineapples using organic principles – heather turf is burned to head the glasshouses, and the smoke this creates stimulates the plants to fruit (a process otherwise executed using chemicals).

The coastline at Ponta da Farraria. Image: © 2016 Laura Jean Sargent

The coastline at Ponta da Farraria. Image: Laura Jean Sargent

Adventures and activities

One thing you definitely won’t be denied of on São Miguel is adventure. The island’s activity list is a long one and accessing it all is made easy thanks to a handful of organisations that have set up to cater for intrepid tourists. Some of the most popular excursions are centred on whale watching, as the waters around the Azores provide both a permanent home and a migration route for more than a third of the world’s whale and dolphin species. It is possible to sight sperm whales, bottlenose dolphins and Risso’s dolphins all year round, whilst blue whales, fin whales and sei whales often make an appearance over Spring as they pass through.

The Azores are excellent for scuba diving too, as the clear waters allow for a visibility range that boasts at average of 30 metres (it can stretch as far as 60 metres on a good day). The mix of the subtropical climate and the Gulf Stream waters mean that many types of marine species can be spotted, sometimes even on the same dive. Divers often sight manta rays, blue sharks and schools of colourful fish at São Miguel’s off shore dive sites, swimming past rocky reefs, arches, underwater caves and wrecks. Various diving centres offer tuition for all levels, as well as equipment hire.

Hikers and walkers are well catered for, as the island is veined with many trails (be prepared for hilly terrain) and, if that sounds like a little too much effort, head out on a Jeep safari – it’s a good way to cover a lot of ground in a little time if you’ve only a few days here. Bird watching, fishing and, for the more steely-hearted, canyoning and paragliding offer new perspectives on the place, and it’s a hot spot for surfers – some of the best waves can be found on the north and eastern coasts. Azores conditions also lend themselves well to both windsurfing and stand-up paddle boarding.

For those less interested in sports, São Miguel has a few weird and wonderful alternatives up its sleeve. Star gazers can head to the Santana Astronomical Observatory in Rabo de Peixe to spend ‘A Night with the Stars’ when, providing the weather’s good, visitors can look through the telescopes and explore the planetarium. For something a little more off beat, the ghost of Monte Palace awaits – an abandoned, former five-star hotel that sits on a hillside of Sete Cidades. To meander through the crumbling ballrooms and the dilapidated halls (at your own risk), take the road to the parish of Sete Cidades and turn off just before you get to the village, taking the road for Vista do Rei.

Lagoa do Fogo under the clouds. Image: © 2016 Laura Jean Sargent

Lagoa do Fogo under the clouds. Image: Laura Jean Sargent

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