I am about to tell you a travel secret that is still relatively untouched by tourist hands. Take a flight 870 miles west from the coast of Portugal, and you will find the best hidden jewel in all of Europe. It is a tropical oasis that definitely reeks Hawaii vibes. I am talking about the Azores Islands!
I have always wanted to visit these majestic, mysterious, volcanic islands. After spending some time living in Portugal, it finally made sense to stop over on our way back to the U.S. So, we booked our ticket and made it happen.
First of all, you should know that there are a total of nine Azores Islands and then, of course, you have Madeira to consider. Each island has its own unique glory, and one of them even harbors the tallest mountain in Portugal. While we did not get to visit all of them yet, (the guy at the rental car place was so upset at us!), we did have the opportunity to visit Sao Miguel, and it was absolute magic.
If you find yourself lucky enough to visit this glorious oasis, here are some must-sees and tips for you!
First, you should definitely rent a car while visiting the island. The car rentals are fairly reasonable (ours was about 10 euros per day). Driving around is pretty easy, although if you have any level of acrophobia, be ready to try some breathing techniques to relax…if the views alone aren’t enough. Having a car means coming upon a natural vista or some cool restaurant, and being able to stop an d truly enjoy it. You can drive the entire island in 3-8 hours. It really just depends on where you stop and how often. There is one major highway on the island, but even the smaller roads are pretty easy to navigate and well maintained. Be sure to double check at the rental car counter to see which roads to avoid. Keep in mind that some of the steeper drives can be tricky driving a manual car!
Be weather wise!
The weather in Sao Miguel is constantly changing. You should be ready for rain at any time. The island has many different microclimates. I suggest packing a rain and wind jacket with some warm clothes, just in case! Especially if you are exploring the island, you need to be ready for anything! We ended up almost not going out to explore on a rainy day only to find pure sunshine after 25 minutes of driving. Be ready!
Sao Miguel is a volcanic island. That means…thermal bliss! There are several thermal options to soak in all the warm minerals the Earth generously gives. However, I recommend two in particular.
The first is a natural wonder where the hot thermal water meets the sea. It is called Ferraria. The most important thing about going to Ferraria is to check the tides online. We ended up getting the tide times confused. If it is high tide, the water will be freezing and very violent in current. Be sure to go at low tide. Keep in mind that the ocean is coming into this small cove. If you are not a strong swimmer, be sure to utilize the ropes. Even holding onto the rope, I was being pulled in every direction by the currents. However, that feeling of hot and cold is really unique and awesome! It is totally worth the visit and dip. They also have facilities there were you can get dressed. One word of caution for the acrophobic: the drive down and back up is harrowing to say the least. If you have any doubts, you can always park up the mountain and then hike up and down in about 20 minutes.
The second recommendation is Caldeira Velha. Imagine going into the set of Jurrassic Park and sitting in a natural hot tub, and there you have it! It is a beautiful, lush jungle where you can truly relax. There is a gorgeous waterfall that you can play in as well. My biggest tip for this area is to arrive early. With Covid restrictions, we had to wait a while in the afternoon to get in. We almost did not make it in, so plan accordingly. This area does have a fee to get in. You can pay there, and they take card or cash.
Marvel at a natural wonder at Sete Cidades
Legend has it that a farmer with green eyes fell in love with a princess with blue eyes. Forever separated by their families desires, they cried and cried to create one blue lake and one green lake. (The legend may be a bit different, I apologize if I got it wrong!). These two lakes are simply stunning. My advice is to see them on a sunny day, if possible. You can see the lakes up close, but I recommend seeing them from XXXX so that you can clearly see the difference in color. While you are in the area, be sure to check out Vista Do Rei and Boca do Inferno (more on this one below).
Eat stew made by volcanic thermal underground heat
In Furnas, they have a unique food called Cozido das Furnas. When I tell you this dish was absolutely delicious, it was the best stew I have ever tasted. They cook the stew, which consists of many different sausages, meats, and vegetables over rice, for hours underground using the natural thermal volcanic heat. While there are many restaurants in the area that serve this delicacy, we went to Tony’s. I recommend Tony’s because the staff is friendly and they had excellent food and service. Be sure to check out the Caldeiras Vulcanicas while you are in the area to see some naturally boiling springs.
Gaze upon Lagoa do Fogo
The drive up to this lookout point is absolutely worth it. Stop off and take a small hike, if you feel. One word of caution is that it gets very windy in this area. However, the vistas are absolutely worth it!
See volcano craters from a fairytale
Boca do Inferno is one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. To see this, you will need to park in a lot across the street and then enter through a pedestrian gate. It is free to enter. Then, you will walk about 20 minutes down a road (and wonder if you are in the right place..don’ worry, you are!). Finally, you will pass some of the most beautiful forests and then find the gorgeous ridge trail out to the lookout. The ridge trail itself is a picture paradise. Once you get to the lookout point, you can see the craters and even the sea on a clear day. The whispy clouds tickling the mountains around you will make you feel like you are in Lord of the Rings. This is maybe my favorite thing I did on the island!
See waterfalls that will put Instagram to shame
Be sure to stop at Ribiera dos Caldeiroes. The surrounding gardens are delicious for the eyes and you can find a plethora of waterfalls on an easy to walk trail. Another waterfall I recommend is a double waterfall called Salto do Cabrito. You have to hike a bit (or drive a very steep grade), but the view is worth it. If you are feeling brave, you can jump in the cold water!
Hike to your heart’s content
Many of the places I suggested require hiking. Hiking on this island is pure magic. The flora and fauna are otherworldly. The air is fresh and the breeze is cool. There are so many trails all around, but if you only get to hike to the sights, even that will impress the outdoor enthusiast.
Stay at Hotel Vale do Novio
This hotel was posh and perfect. Upgrade to the ocean view. We actually got automatically upgraded here when the sister hotel was still closed due to Covid. Outside, you can hike on the cliffs just outside and even enjoy some local natural pools on the coast.
Whatever you choose to do on Sao Miguel, it is sure to leave a lasting impression. From the nature to the food to the friendly locals, you are sure to have a blast!
Have questions about your upcoming trip? Email us at Abroadwithabrain@gmail.com. We would be happy to answer your questions!