Although 9 islands make up the archipelago of the Azores, in this article we are going to talk about one in particular, Sao Miguel.
Sao Miguel is the largest and eastern island, located just a two-hour direct flight from Lisbon or Porto.
We travel to the capital Ponta Delgada, a small and easy airport, as is often the case in places that are not very crowded.
I was lucky enough to go to the Azores to see an old friend for her 40th birthday. There’s no greater privilege than knowing a place by the hand of someone local and if that person is also called Joana Damião Melo, hospitality is more than served with great detail.
She organized a complete program of activities for all her guests, who came from different parts of Portugal and some from Spain. One of the first things that surprised me was the weather… all four seasons in the same day. The climate is mild throughout the year, and one day may begin rainy and end with sun and high temperatures. Winter temperatures don’t fall below 15 degrees and in the rainy season, from November to April, these are temporary and don’t last long, always giving way to its famous anticyclone.
Another thing that caught my attention was the vegetation of this «lucky island» that is part of the so-called Macaronesian islands. On the one hand, endless green meadows that remind us of Galicia or Cantabria with a cliff-lined coast. The hydrangeas are in their natural habitat and grow wild in the foothills of each road – as if they were the most beautiful of weeds.
Here there are at least two meadows per cow… they roam at ease and are happy. The production of milk is one of the strengths of the island, and is of a quality that we have long forgotten in large cities. You don’t see dairies, the cows are milked directly in the meadows. These Atlantic landscapes, or those typical of an oceanic climate, are mixed with exuberant tropical and volcanic landscapes whose contrasts leave you speechless.
Joana’s family welcomed us into their house, an old pineapple plantation in the vicinity of Ponta Delgada that has been in the Damião family for several generations.
THE APARTMENT lies within the property and is where I stayed, and I say it with capital letters, since it’s probably the house with the best panoramic views of the city, and even of the island. Built on a defensive tower in the 18th century, this glass box welcomes you with its breathtaking 360-degree views, from where you can see the sea, the plantations as well as mountains in the vicinity and traditional constructions of the area. It’s well worth climbing each of the steps of volcanic stone that lead to the apartment. Once there you’ll find all the comforts… a timeless, neutral and neat decoration by Joana’s mother, the interor designer Lili Damião, who conveys the guest warmth and good living. If you like staying in private houses on holiday, this is a perfect base to explore Sao Miguel. And if the light bothers you at an early hour the electric blinds can be lowered and you have at your disposal a mask in case you are one of those who needs total darkness.
Our first dinner was in a typical açoriana tavern, where we could eat specialties of the island: delicious limpets, varieties of cheeses produced in the different Azores islands, cod fritters… and finally a walk through the cobblestone streets of the beautiful old town of Ponta Delgada, whose origins go back to the 17th century. Here we had a drink in an animated cocktail bar in the heart of the city’s nightlife.
We started life on the island very early. For what was my first foray into the island life we woke up at 7.30 with a cloudy, rainy day. Just waking up to such breathtaking views takes away any kind of laziness. Following Joana’s instructions, we skeptically prepared a bag with a swimsuit, towel and flip flops… while we left home with a sweater, raincoat and leather boots to protect us from the rain and the morning’s humidity.
We start a buggy trip to Sete Cidades, a population built at the foot of a lake that was formed by the collapse of a crater during a large eruption. As we climb, the fog and rain dissipates until we see an extraordinary landscape that from the viewpoint Vista do Rei allows us to see the lake formed in its crater. They are actually two connected lakes of almost equal size, one of crystalline greenish waters (the colour adopted by a type of seaweed) and the other of amazing blue waters. An absolutely hypnotic landscape.
It is said that the name Sete Cidades is due to the fact that after the eruption of the volcano it destroyed the seven cities that had been erected there.
We descend to the shores of the lake inside the crater, crossing its green «beaches», endless hedges of hydrangeas and bougainvilleas mixed with tropical vegetation. Here the day rewards us with sun and under the shade of its trees we enjoy a copious picnic in short sleeves.
If you look to one side, you might think you are in Switzerland, and yet another part of the landscape with Amazonian vegetation will transport you to more tropical areas.
All in the same place.
I can honestly say that is one of the most beautiful and amazing places I have seen in my life, and I confess that I have not travelled a little.
From here Joana proposed a dip in the sea, in a cove where the water is hot thanks to the volcanic origin of the island. Not that it was very hot – the temperature was great, but then to swim in the Atlantic, you skip a breath just thinking… but as the old Spanish saying says «wherever you go, do what you see.»
This place is called Ponta de Ferraria, located in the most western point of the island. We go down a cliff with spectacular views until we reach a natural pool where the sea enters with force, and where there are some ropes to hold onto so as not to be carried away by the strong currents. Even so, we wait until 8pm for the tide to go out, and so we end the day safely, bathing in this natural pool where the hot thermal waters mix with the Atlantic, resulting in the most pleasant temperature. I didn’t think all this possible at 8am this morning, when I dressed in a rain jacket and sweater.
But what wonderful temperatures, and light, at 8pm. We remember that the clocks are two hours behind Spain.
To end the day, Joana takes us for a drink at a boutique hotel that is marking the new model of tourism development on the island of Sao Miguel, the Santa Bárbara Eco-Beach Resort. A privileged small hotel composed of studios and villas, where every detail is taken care of. Built with natural materials from the area, it is oriented to the sea and has direct access to one of the best beaches on the island where you can practice sports such as surfing, diving, as well as birdwatching, bike tours… you’ll find the best sushi on the island in its restaurant.
Honoring my expertise in tourism, I can’t help but ask Joana about the island and the quality of its accommodations. Joana tells us how tourism on the island is beginning to launch in a sustainable and responsible manner, so that hotels of this style are emerging, offering quality, careful design and unique experiences that point to a tourism of greater purchasing power interested in enjoying this last natural paradise with all the comforts.
Thanks to the vision and investment of different entrepreneurs, both local and from other parts of Portugal, including Joana Damião herself, São Miguel is committed to quality and not quantity of tourists with a boutique product, different and unique.
Santa Bárbara Eco Beach Resort
As well as the Santa Bárbara Eco Beach Resort, other hotels that are within this philosophy and are more than recommended for an unforgettable stay on the island are the White Exclusive Suites & Villas, situated on the seafront next to the new Sul Villas & Spa, both in Lagoa, which will open its doors on June 7.
One that will be very special and which we’ll keep a close eye on is the Senhora da Rosa, Tradition & Nature Hotel in Ponta Delgada, located within the traditional pineapple plantation of the Damião family.
A boutique hotel with 35 rooms surrounded by rich vegetation and sports facilities, it will be a hideaway for rest, meditation and well-being in capital letters.
During my stay I had the privilege of visiting the old farmhouse that has been a hotel for many years but after eight closed and now with the resurgence of tourism in Sao Miguel, it will reopen with a new positioning in January 2020. We’ll be sure to mark that date on the calendar.
On the outside it’s clearly rural Portuguese architecture, with the typical charm of its countryside villas. Inside counts with high ceilings and views onto large patios with tropical vegetation, and large windows that inevitably remind us of Brazilian architecture.
We are looking forward to seeing the one that I dare say will be one of the best accommodation options outside the first line of the coast but one step away from the city, and that pays homage to another of the typical industries of the island, the production of pineapples. Joana Damião Melo will be in charge of this hotel, formed by one of the best hotel chains in the world such as Starwood Hotels & Resort (now Marriott) and Ritz-Carlton, which after many years, returns to its roots to lead the new era of quality tourism that positions the island in the place it deserves, whose objective is to keep its nature intact by offering tourists the best quality while maintaining its authenticity and personality.
Tourism yes, but not at any price. Nature and beauty must be valued. The product that will mark the future of the island is already underway.
Another highly recommended and no less impressive plan than the Sete Cidades is to visit the Furnas, an area where you’ll be captivated by its lake, its botanical garden, its pools of hot water and relaxing therapeutic muds with smells of sulfur. On the shores of the lake we can appreciate the volcanic activity, approaching its smoking fumaroles where, in addition to the vapors they release, they keep boiling water with temperatures that can reach 100 degrees.
And to eat, you can’t miss the famous «cozido açoriano», which consists of a delicious stew with vegetables and cod that is cooked inside a fumarole. A hermetically sealed pot is placed underground that is later buried, and left for approximately six hours. The result is spectacular.
Another tour includes visiting the lake of Fire, where if you have time, you’ll want to lose yourself in long walks through the different routes. It is so-called because with the sunlight its waters become reddish. For this tour, because there were 40 friends, Joana organized the excursion in several fun Big Trucks making a stop at the Caldeira Velha to give us a hot water bath.
My last visit was a walk through the northeast part of the island , where I could see incredible natural areas of tropical vegetation with hot water cascades where you can bathe, going through the Faial da Terra natural park and visiting Povoação and Vila Franca do Campo, the ancient capital of the island from where you can appreciate its islet, the result of the crater of an ancient submerged volcano that inside houses a perfect natural circular pool, emerald green in colour and which flows into the sea and that has a small beach. Really idyllic.
It’s also worth visiting the Chá Gorreana green tea plantation, which follows the traditional methods of production and collection, where there is a museum and you can taste and buy the different products made with the tea. Apparently it is the only tea produced in all of Europe.
I would highlight the religious architecture of the island, of great beauty, it seems magical, as if taken from a fairytale. The number of churches and hermitages that you can find in each of their towns in proportion to the number of houses and / or inhabitants is high, which shows the fervor of the Açoriano people and their faith, traditionally dedicated to the sea, where risking their lives daily is part of everyday life. There is also livestock tradition (especially milk production) and agriculture (bananas and pineapples).
I could go on and on… this green island has completely enchanted me during my six-day stay and I still have so much to do.
As our friend Marta Aguilar said during the trip, everything was unbeatable!
If you like nature, hiking and outdoor life, this island offers you everything. My Portuguese friends say that you can be up to a month making different plans every day and not repeat any… and of course visit the rest of the islands that have a lot to offer.
When the writer Raul Brandão visited the archipelago in 1924, he identified each island with a colour. São Jorge, chestnut, for the light reflected by its rocks; Terceira, lilac, after the wisteria; Santa María, yellow, for its vegetation in summer; Graciosa, white, for its rocks; Flores, pink, after the azaleas; Corvo, the most remote, small and isolated (only 17km and scarcely 400 inhabitants), a black spot bathed in lava; black. São Miguel is the green island.
What they promise is that we will continue to see lagoons in volcano craters, volcanic vineyards, beaches, natural pools, tobacco and tea plantations, hot springs, waterfalls, cliffs, valleys, dozens of viewpoints, numerous churches, black basalt stone houses (in the case of São Miguel, most are seen in the northern or northeast part of the island).
Above all, we must highlight some things that you can only do here with respect to other places in the world, such as diving in thermal baths, excursions to paradisiacal places, whale and cachalot watching (this is what I reserve for my next visit), native bird watching, and tasting their special gastronomy: «cozidos», local cheeses, natural milk, bananas of their own production as well as pineapples and the delicious desserts that they make with them, such as sorbets, ice creams, flambé pineapple, their typical breads, desserts (they love the sweet and they have delicious options) …
São Miguel is an island that flees from the crowds that other destinations have experienced. They know that preserving their essence is and will truly be their differentiating value for a sustainable future.
The last natural paradise of Europe.
Guide to boutique accommodations with hotel services & restaurant on the beachfront:
Unique boutique hotel in a pineapple plantation:
Apartment for rent:
Mirante Loft, part of Casa Senhora da Rosa in Ponta Delgada.
Glass house located in an old volcanic stone tower.
Ideal for couple getaways.
The best season to visit Azores: from April to October.
If you still have no destination for these next dates, we definitely recommend it.