Once we decided to head back to Canada at the end of January and started researching airfares, we discovered a direct flight from Ponta Delgada on the island of São Miguel in the Azores to Toronto, Ontario. We would have preferred to fly directly to Vancouver, British Columbia, but the option of spending some time in the Azores sounded very exotic. We took an inexpensive flight from Lisbon (where we returned the car we had rented to explore the Alentejo region) to Ponta Delgada and spent a week on São Miguel road-tripping around the whole island.
São Miguel is the largest and most populated island in the Azores archipelago, located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean about 1,500 kilometres from Lisbon. The island is known for its stunning natural beauty and features a diverse landscape of volcanic mountains, pristine beaches, hot springs, and lush forests.
We came across a five-day driving itinerary for the island from Iberian Escapes and decided that it would be a good guide for us as we explored. We made tweaks along the way, and swapped a couple of daily itineraries, but overall it was a very helpful reference. We popped all the things we wanted to see and stops we wanted to make into our own Google map, and off we went. The maps below are from our Google timeline.
Day 1: Western loop
We were staying on the southwest of the island, right in Ponta Delgada, the capital city of the Azores. Rather than doing a walkabout in the city on our first day, we decided to head out on a road trip and see what this island had to offer. It wasn’t long before we were awed by the scenery
We stopped to take the short hike to Miradouro da Boca do Inferno. It was a little confusing at first as we walked across the road from the parking area and slipped through an opening beside a closed gate to wander down a roadway. We saw pathways that ran from the roadway down to a lake, but we kept going, following others who seemed to know where they were going.
Along the way was a picnic area in the forest. An open area with many concrete picnic tables and barely recognizable barbecues in the process of being taken over by the forest mosses and plants that they were bordering.
As we continued walking toward the viewpoint (Alltrails says that it is a .6km trail) beautiful vistas opened up in every direction.
It was hard to leave, but a little farther along the road we stopped at Miradouro da Vista do Rei for another incredible view, this time of the volcanic crater lake, Lagoa das Sete Cidades. The lake is actually two lakes, each named for its predominant colour (Blue Lake and Green Lake). The colours are sometimes very obvious and are due to their different depths and mineral content. The grey sky possibly dampened the effect but the view was spectacular, nonetheless. We headed into the town to find a lunch spot before continuing our journey.
As we wound our way through many of the roads, we noticed areas abundant with huge hydrangea plants, brown in January but we could imagine how these roads would be framed with pastels and greens in spring and summer.
Once back at the coast, we drove a little farther north to Mosteiros, and then south along the coast to our home in Ponta Delgada, making many stops along the way. At Ponta da Ferraria the road down is incredibly steep but there is a parking area and several buildings at the bottom. On warmer days, the area would be busy with people swimming in the geothermal waters. Except for the spa in the large building by the parking area, everything was closed, but there were still plenty of people walking the path to the water’s edge, and even a few brave souls taking a dip.
Day 2: Ponta Delgada and pineapple
This was our planned day for wandering through Ponta Delgada, but since the town is quite small we also had time to head out for another short road trip. The island is only 64 kilometres long and 16 kilometres wide at its widest point, so it is easy to get places quickly. It is the viewpoints and roads winding through mountains that slow things down, making it a great place for exploring at a leisurely pace.
The first thing we noticed as we walked into town was a colourful patterned stripe heading up the street as far as we could see and a red carpet through the arched city gate. We walked up the street to see if we could find out more and found a large crew of men busily filling a patterned form with brightly coloured wood chips. After watching them work for a bit we asked what it was all about. A new bishop was to be installed that afternoon at the cathedral and, at the end of the ceremony, he would walk through the streets along the coloured path. By the time we returned to Ponta Delgada that evening, all signs of this display had been cleaned up.
Unlike other cities in Portugal, the architecture in Ponta Delgada (and throughout the island) makes use of the local basalt stone, creating striking contrasting design elements.
Exploring Ponta Delgada also meant discovering beautiful parks nestled among the buildings. One of these was Jardim Botanico Antonio Borges, a wonderful green space with massive trees and stone grottos to explore.
Though Ponta Delgada is a waterfront town, we didn’t find its harbour particularly attractive or inviting. However, there is a nice promenade along the shorefront. A commercial dock area offers plenty of shops and restaurants near the marina that, in season, would probably be bustling. This area would likely also offer access to many water sports and tours in the warmer weather.
Next, we hopped in our little rental car and headed to Plantação de Ananás dos Açores, a little pineapple plantation just a few kilometres out of town. Pineapples were grown in greenhouses and we wandered through a few of them, including one that showed all the growing stages for the fruit. Interestingly, smoke is used to force blossoming and once the fruit begins to form a crown, the center of the crown is cut out to stop its growth and focus all of the plant’s energy on the fruit. Instead of the giant crowns that make handling Hawaiian or Costa Rican pineapples cumbersome, Azorean pineapples grow smaller than the ones we are used to and have tiny stunted crowns. Though they are available all year, we were told that these pineapples are much sweeter in the summer.
The free plantation tour included a tasting of pineapple preserve and a pineapple liqueur, both available to purchase. A small and not-at-peak-season pineapple cost €8. We decided to save tasting the local pineapple until we could try the sweet ones of summer.
Cascata do Salto do Cabrito
From the plantation, we headed out in a short loop toward some hot springs, but by the time we arrived they were closing so we saved those for another day. As we drove, the mist and clouds came in so thick there was no point in stopping at any viewpoints. We did manage a stop at a lovely waterfall, Cascata do Salto do Cabrito, with a pool below that would make for a refreshing dip on a hot day.
Ponta Delgada tiles (calçadas)
Unlike everywhere else we had been in Portugal where white stone was the base colour and black provided the design, the tiles here use the reverse colour scheme.
Day 3: Ribeira Grande
We looped around the north coast, making a quick stop to see the black sand beach of Praia do Areal de Santa Bárbara before stopping in Ribeira Grande, the island’s second-largest city.
Farther along the north coast we made several stops at viewpoints that continued to impress us. This area is also home to tea plantations and at least one offers walking tours and tastings. We’re not big tea drinkers so we didn’t stop for tastings but, like everywhere, the views from the plantation were lovely. The compact tea bushes were trimmed right down for winter.
We knew we would be retracing part of the loop on another day, so we boogied from the north coast to the south coast. Having seen the unique Ermida de Nossa Senhora da Paz from Vila Franca de Campo (the village below it), we had to drive up the hill to see the chapel up close.
Day 4: Views and stews
Exploring further east, there is no route that doesn’t retrace roads previously travelled. Since the distances are small, it wasn’t that much of a hardship, and we were able to bypass stops that we had previously made to get out to the area that we wanted to visit. The roads were so zigzaggy with beautiful landscapes and views at every turn, mostly we just enjoyed the drive.
Our main stop for the day was the town of Furnas and its caldeiras. Google took us through a very strange backway of lanes and dirt roads to arrive at the Observatório Microbiano dos Açores (OMIC), a park where you can walk around and see the steaming volcanic vents. Having visited Rotorua in New Zealand and Yellowstone National Park in the USA, we were underwhelmed by the display, which included faded painted plywood backdrops that were an attempt to create a theme-park atmosphere. (I don’t believe that we paid to enter, though, so it was still a visit worth the price!)
Similar to New Zealand, you can purchase a meal that is cooked in the caldeiras at some local restaurants. In this case, the dish is a meat stew called Cozido das Furnas. We found a spot that served it for lunch so Ken could try it–he pronounced it delicious.
We had wanted to go for a walk in Furnas in Terra Nostra Park, which is also the location of one of the hot springs that you can take a dip in, but they wanted €10 each whether you were planning to use the hot springs or not. €20 for a walk in a hotel’s park seemed a bit excessive, so we skipped it.
On our way back, we detoured to stop at the Miradouro do Pico do Ferro. We were again treated to incredible views and even a bit of a rainbow.
Day 5: East coast
Once again, we drove north and through Ribeira Grande, but then continued along the north coast and around to travel partway down the east coast. Our first stop was Miradouro da Ponta da Madrugada where we were greeted by the well-fed feral cats who lived there.
Farol de Arnel
We planned to visit Farol de Arnel, a lighthouse that, we discovered on arriving at the top of the cliff, was positioned on a point far (far!) below us. We found the road down–a single lane, incredibly steep, filled with hairpin turns road that I was a) terrified to drive down (even from the passenger seat) and b) sure we would never get back up in our tiny car. After white-knuckling it (me, not Ken) the whole way down, we found that the lighthouse wasn’t open for a few hours even though we had arrived on its only opening day of the week, Wednesday. Still, it was interesting to see the oldest lighthouse on the island. From above, you can also see that the crazy road continues farther down past several homes and boats to the water. It’s hard to believe that this road is how people get to and from their homes regularly. Their hearts (and brakes) must be very healthy.
The northeast coast is home to the town of Nordeste. Another great example of the white-with-dark-basalt-stone-trimmed architecture, including its Ponte dos 7 Arcos (seven arches bridge).
Ribeira dos Caldeirões
Our final stop for the day was Ribeira dos Caldeirões, a narrow public park built around 16th-century watermills. It was a surprisingly beautiful place to wander, even in winter. Some of the buildings were open to explore. Near the top of the park there was a cafe and shop.
Day 6: Finally, hot springs
We had been promising ourselves a visit to one of the hot springs on the island but had yet to sort that out, so a hot dip was our main goal for the day. We headed back to Caldeira Vehla. After mistakenly driving up a road to the gate of the park, we drove back down and took the correct road to the parking lot, which is below the park with a long staircase to get up to the entrance. There are three pools in a hilly giant-fern-filled forest.
On our return drive, we stopped at the viewpoints that we hadn’t bothered with when we came through in the clouds. This time, we were in luck.
And that’s a wrap on almost three months in Europe, two and a half of those in Portugal (except for a week in Spain). We saw more of Portugal than I imagined that we would and loved it all.
- Rental car: MicAuto, €29/day for 7 days, €203 total (insurance on credit card). When we were trying to book a car a couple of months ahead, cars on the island were limited and very expensive. We thought we had done OK with MicAuto, a recommendation we found from a group we are part of, even though it was quite a bit more than anything that we had paid on the mainland. MicAuto provides a shuttle to their location and has a 48-hour cancellation policy. I didn’t remember about the policy and started quickly checking prices at the island’s airport when I saw all of the car rental places with no line-ups. I was surprised to find that there were several cars available and at a much lower price than we had paid. So here’s a tip: Re-check car prices just before your cancellation policy kicks in so you have time to book with another supplier and cancel your original booking.
- Caldeira Velha: Entry fee €10 for adults, €5 for seniors for a 90-minute stay. Lockers are available but many people, including us, just left their things near the pools. Few areas are available to change so a large towel and some quick-change skills would be helpful. You can book online–we didn’t but it might be necessary in high season.
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