Situated all alone in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, the small island group known as the Azores (locally ‘Os Açores’) are still a relatively undiscovered treasure. Each island has its own treasures, some of which are still practically untouched – free from any human interference. The largest of the nine islands – São Miguel – is located in the eastern group. It is now both easy and cheap to get to from mainland Portugal (or elsewhere).
Flying to Ponta Delgada (the island’s capital) can be an astonishing bargain if you go at the right time and with cabin baggage only. I flew from Porto to Ponta Delgada with Ryanair in April and the flight cost a piddling €35. Likewise, getting back cost €57.
There are plenty of sites and activities, both natural and man-powered, to keep you occupied. I spent a week on the island, which is most definitely plenty of time to see and do everything you could desire. From stunning hikes to all-natural ocean wildlife, here are the highlights that I was lucky enough to discover in my week on São Miguel.
It was by complete coincidence that I was listening to a particular podcast by BBC Earth whilst driving around São Miguel that happened to be discussing these lakes. My ears pricked up at the ‘seven cities’ English translation of this area, and I listened closely to the story behind how the two main lakes were formed.
According to legend, the two distinctive main lakes are respectively green and blue because of a story of unfulfilled love between a shepherd and a princess, whose tears ultimately provided the colourful water that can still be seen today – the blue and green deriving from the shepherd and princess’s eye colours.
In reality, the geology, flora and fauna are responsible for these two distinctive colours and the lakes are best seen from somewhere high up. Naturally, tours are available and the Sete Cidades are often the centrepiece of most tours that centre around the western half of São Miguel. It is, however, possibly a much more relaxing, authentic experience to drive up or even hike around the lakes so as to have the flexibility to absorb the charm and beauty of the area in one’s own time.
These two lakes are not the only sights, however. A drive up to the Miradouro da Vista do Rei (The King’s Viewpoint) takes you past Lagoa de Santiago (also accompanied by a viewpoint), which is definitely worth a stop.
Miradouro da Boca do Inferno
If taking in all of the above lakes in one sweeping landscape is more your thing, the Boca do Inferno viewpoint is an absolute must. Again, there are parking options nearby but a hike is likely to be the best way to consume this terrific range of views, albeit not at all an essential.
There is a decent-sized car park next to the main road that runs near Lagoa do Canário (it looks strangely like a snowman wearing a hat on Google Maps, but that’s another thing), and this allows you to take a stroll that includes the lake on the way up to the viewpoint. There is also a smaller car park right next to the Miradouro, but this will involve missing the lake.
From this viewpoint, you really get to see the volcanic nature of São Miguel. The craters that surround the lakes are much more apparent from here and it’s something of a treat to see such a unique expanse.
The capital of São Miguel is not especially large, but is most definitely the centre of operations for anything Azores related. Much of it can be explored on foot – particularly the areas closer to the sea – but it can get a little hilly as you head further inland. Like much of the rest of the island, many of the main older buildings follow a clear brown/black and white colour scheme, brightly reflecting the sun back on bright days with the darker colours accentuating the traditional architecture.
Ponta Delgada is a hub from which most large tour companies operate and compete with each other, meaning that there are options when it comes to doing activities on land or sea. What follows is a description of my experience searching for marine wildlife in the Atlantic.
Dolphin and whale watching
Seeing spectacular marine wildlife in various zoos around the world (including Lisbon Zoo) always struck me as something of a superficial experience – ethics aside, there must be a better way to witness dolphins and animals in the wild. With São Miguel’s prime location in the middle of the ocean and its long history of scouting for whales from the coast, this was the perfect opportunity to observe marine wildlife in their natural habitat.
(All of the pictures that follow are from a boat trip taken in April 2019 at 1pm)
Following the advice of colleagues who have lived in Portugal for decades and online reviews, I opted to go out to sea with Futurismo. I was clearly not alone in having found out about this company – I, quite importantly, had reserved my spot for the whale watching the evening before, and although I still had to wait in a long queue to confirm my presence and pay. If you have a particular time or day in mind, reserving a spot the day before and arriving relatively early is essential in busier months.
The journey lasted a few hours and, as clearly advertised by the company, the experience very much depends on how nature takes its course. Whales are not a guarantee (despite the fact that I visited in a peak period), although Futurismo pretty much offer the best chance to see dolphins as they navigated us to a spot of ocean from which I saw more dolphins in the wild than I had ever seen before.
Not only did they start to appear one-by-one alongside our boat, they were leaping through the air, interacting, squeaking with each other, and generally demonstrating a natural, playful behaviour that I had not expected to see. This raw behaviour was a delight, and much more rewarding seeing them with the whole of the Atlantic at their disposal than being confined to a somewhat microscopic pool.
As mentioned earlier, the trip lasted a few hours, and with such open exposure to the elements, precautions should be taken. If prone to feeling seasick, come prepared. I travelled on a fairly cloudy, relatively warm day and it still felt quite stuffy below-decks (some people were suffering). Staying above, however, can be much fresher at full speed, although one should apply plenty of sun-cream as it does not take long to get burned, even with cloud cover.
All in all, the trip was a delight, albeit with realistic expectations and the knowledge that there is a trade-off when going in for a more natural wildlife experience. There are no guarantees of seeing the larger cetaceans, but the up-close view of the dolphins was something else. In addition, Futurismo guarantee you another trip for free if no dolphins or whales are spotted at all, which is a nice gesture.
(I also made a video of a few of the clips of the dolphins that I took from the trip, which can be seen here.)
Lagoa do Fogo and Furnas
Lagoa do Fogo (the coolest-sounding lake on the island – the ‘Lake of Fire’) is located in the centre of the island. Various viewpoints overlook the island but – be warned – a cloudy spell will render the views useless as the viewpoints will be right in the thick of the clouds.
A good rule of thumb on the island is not to limit anything essential to one particular time or day. A bad spell of weather or a bunch of cloud both have the power to make the island’s vistas disappear completely, so ensure you either check the forecast (which may still not be enough due to the changeable weather at times) or to allow for a couple of visits to chance your arm.
Lagoa das Furnas (Furnas Lake) is situated further east and is slightly closer to sea-level, meaning views are only likely to be disturbed from higher vantage points (such as the Miradouro do Pico do Ferro – see later). Its name derives from the fact that located both at and within the town near the lake are natural volcanic hot springs. They can be very smelly (the natural sulphur will do that), so be prepared to hold your breath if the wind changes direction!
The lake itself is a beauty (like most of them), and the best view of the lake is from the Miradouro do Pico do Ferro, which can be accessed either by foot or by car. The hike up to the viewpoint is a full 1.7km up steep hills from the lake and can be accessed and followed using signposts from the lakeside.
Driving to the viewpoint is, of course, much easier, and there are plenty of parking options up there too. The lake is stunningly beautiful – characteristically colourful and the surrounding hills are a perfect verdant accompaniment to the lake.
Furnas / Caldeiras itself is a pretty enough town. It may be a good place to stop for lunch, and there are some parks and buildings to see on a stroll.
The main attractions here are the Caldeiras das Furnas / Caldeiras Vulcânicas themselves. Situated just outside of the town, the bubbling, boiling springs are a pretty unique feature, each has a name, and my advice on being prepared to hold one’s breath above applied double here.
With my stay on São Miguel lasting as long as it did, I really got to unearth the lesser-known areas of the island. Although only mentioned in passing in most guidebooks, the coastline around the north-east area of São Miguel is some of the most natural, untouched, and stunning that the island offers.
‘Nordeste‘ is a small town with plenty of parking and some small restaurants on offer. Most routes into and out of the town will involve driving across a tall bridge (Rua Jorge M. Reis Machado), which is very much the centre of the place.
I drove from Nordeste in a clockwise direction, following the main road but stopping on numerous occasions at the various viewpoints and stops that offered wonderful views across the coast.
Miradouro da Ponta do Sossego is especially a treat – the gardens, along with the coastline as a background, mean that there are plenty of opportunities to photograph and capture the beauty of this part of the island.
I stayed at the Residencial Sete Cidades in the centre of Ponta Delgada. It was comfortable, the older ladies at the front desk were very friendly and affable (albeit with a strong Azorean accent), and the location was absolutely perfect. It may have been a little basic for some, but it did the job for me as a solo traveller.
As an essential way of getting around São Miguel, hiring a car is easy to do and there are plenty of companies to choose from. The big names are all located at the airport, but there are smaller options both in Ponta Delgada and just outside – I even pulled into a petrol station to fill up and they thought my car was one of theirs, so you never know who has cars to hire!
My hotel actually offered a car hire facility under the name gorentacar, using the car park at the back of the hotel as a base. I don’t know if it was the cheapest, but it was certainly convenient for me staying at the hotel.
Transport between the airport and Ponta Delgada is simple. A short, ten-minute journey is all it takes and the fares are fixed, meaning you can ensure you will not be tricked into paying over the odds. I believe the fare was either €10 or €12 depending on the time of day, but it is very easy to find this out for certain upon arrival. The airport is small and there is a help desk. Also, this might have been my imagination, but try taking in a big gulp of air when you are clear of the plane – to me, it tasted fresh, like fresh air would taste if you were on an island thousands of miles away from any kind of metropolis, but that might be my imagination!