São Miguel, Açores, Portugal

Visiting the Azores has been a wish of mine for years. I remember thumbing through a stack of photos from the Azores that someone had when I was a teenager and being completely captivated. In the days before online albums, I went back to request a re-visit many times after. I was beside myself when I found a low-cost, direct flight from the UK direct to Ponta Delgada.

Before our trip, it was difficult to find a great deal of information on public transport, travel between islands, and building an itinerary. There still aren’t great travel guides available (though there are some) and island hopping is either time or cost intensive, so might not make sense for a visit unless you have a big money bag or more than a week there. (For example, the 15-minute flights between islands when I looked were more expensive as the flight from the UK: £160 or so. The ferries, which still aren’t cheap, require long travel days).

If you’re planning a home-grown visit to the Azores like us, I’d recommend getting a guide despite their reviews. I’d also emphasize the beauty of going somewhere still relatively unspoilt where a visit takes shape when you’re there. We booked whale watching in advance and I had a growing wishlist, but until you know the week’s weather forecast, it may be wise to just embrace what comes by word-of-mouth from locals and other travellers. There were many times we were tipped off to special restaurants, swimming holes, drink/food treats and had we not gone in with flexibility we would have missed some of our best moments.

(São Miguel is the second island from the right.)

São Miguel is the largest of the 9 islands in the Azores, but it’s still tiny in comparison to many places: the island has a population of 140,000 and between all nine islands the population was still less than 250,000 as of 2011.

First afternoon of erratic weather – whale watching trip cancelled in the morning storm and the rest of the day spent in glorious sunshine exploring Vila Franca do Campo.

We tried wandering up the hills above the village to get to the little Ermida de Nossa Senhora da Paz (Our Lady of Peace Chapel) but it seemed impossible. Later in the trip we finally got there. From the overlook, through apricot trees down to Vila Franca do Campo and the islet just beyond: Ilhéu de Vila Franca (good for snorkeling, but as a protected site only 400 visitors are allowed per day. Only good to visit in the summer when the shallow water has warmed up a little).

Jack looking over the city (& finally getting his camera back!).

Little tiny lizards baking on the rocks. Interestingly, no snakes (zero!) have made it to the Azores yet. Lizards have found their way over attached to cargo.

We nearly missed this teeny tiny puppy walking by – what a guy.

Be still my heart, look at that pupface!

!!!!!!!

Preparing for the Sunday’s Holy Spirit Festivities, women and children created walkways of pine through the streets of the village dotted with flowerbuds and swept into neat, springy corridors. Others shook out brilliant carpets and quilts to hang out over bannisters for the procession.

Preparing for the Holy Spirit Festivities of the day.

Too many early mornings and too much sun. Waiting for a bus to turn up and take us back to Ponta Delgada.

Also in Vila Franca do Campo: Ermida de Nossa Senhora da Paz! This little chapel evaded us our first visit, but a guide brought us back a few days later to admire the steps with their small, tiled images of saints.

The next afternoon, we went on a 4-hour whale watching trip with Futurismo, one of the largest whale watching tour companies operating on the island. We joined about a dozen others in a lurching zodiac and followed directions from the trackers reporting from small wooden shacks around the hills of the island. They survey the ocean with very powerful binoculars and then send us coordinates over the radio to try and follow rising fins and bursts from whale blowholes.

A pod of false killer whales showing off for us!

We were very lucky to see a pod of Fin Whales as well as three different kinds of dolphins: bottlenose, false killer whales and even Risso’s Dolphins which are rare to see. They’re white and covered with scrapings similar to sperm whales because of the squid they feast on and fisherman they squirm away from.

We also saw a loggerhead turtle basking at the top of the waves. They swim from Mexico over to the Azores, which takes them 7 years, then just swim back.

Look! A Risso’s Dolphin! You can see the white shapes moving under the surface of the water because of their pale color.

Back in Ponta Delgada, enjoying one of many €1-2 glasses of excellent Portugese wine.

Some babe in the marina.

I was so excited to see a Phlegm piece in the Ponta Delgada marina. Phlegm is a street artist from Bristol & just weeks earlier my friend Erin and I came across his stuff in Stokes Croft.

The next day we took an early bus to Sete Cidades, even though the forecast was looking very grim, to find the trail around the rim of the volcanic crater. On our way, traffic was halted for awhile for herds of cows. Dairyfarming (as well as fishing) is among the chief industries. See that little face peeping out?

Walking through the village of Sete Cidades with all its wonderful puppies. Not sure how these ones found their way up to the roof.

This tiny chihuahua greeting the puppy who had just started following us… more on that.

Here’s Jack and our first foggy glimpse of the crater.

Our puppy for the day! He greeted us warmly in the tiny village of Sete Cidades and kept following us to the trailhead… then proceeded to climb the miner’s path with us to the top of the rim. He pretty much adopted us and decided to go on the full, 4 hour hike never leaving our side.

Jack and the puppy having a little moment.

Several verdant cones in the middle of the wide crater with tiny Sete Cidades in the distance.

Me with a fluffy tree and dairy fields below.

When the weather was still dry.

Looking down over Ginetes and the shore of Sao Miguel.

These black and white cows are Holstein-Friesians so, dairy cows!

Me and the puppy. I miss him :'(‘ ‘ ‘ ‘

Gazing over Ginetes.

Start of the weather turning / constant downpour.

The next day (skipping a whole long, torrential saga where we lost the path, walked along the highway realizing we were getting further and further from Sete Cidades – still with the puppy – then wound up hitchhiking back to the village with local hero Tiago. Was panicking about the puppy but he was like, “oh yeah, that’s my friend’s dog. She’s always joining hikers NBD.”) … the next day, we woke up to another booming thunderstorm. Although aching from our expedition the day before, we were booked to go on a guided hike up to Lagoa do Fogo. We would have bet that the hike would be cancelled, but it was on!

The weather calmed down but started off in a thick fog.

It was eerie walking through a cold forest of fronds and fog only to emerge in this scrub-covered misty crater land at the top of our hike. We had our packed lunches so started our descent to the lake in the crater.

Jack, Carlos and Andrei walking through the otherworldly terrain with the fog finally starting to lift. You can see how it went from almost opaque to crystal clear in this completely untouched picture above.

Lagoa do Fogo is a seagull’s nest paradise and they hate having humans come into their territory. They let out the strangest honks and crows at us while we ate our lunch.

At the top of the hill overlooking the lake.

You can tell this is about to be stunning. The fog finally lifting off the surface of the water.

Exposing the blue-green waters of the lake and the dreamlike juniper, laurel and buckthorn.

Jack making his way through the bush to the lake shore.

————

The next morning we woke up early again to make our way to Ferraria near Ginetes for low tide so we could swim in the ocean cove, Ponta da Ferraria, where a hot spring empties into the open ocean and the cold and warm waters mix together.

Unfortunately the waves were huge and the wind was powerful, so the strong, breaking waves filled the ocean cove fully with cold water and made it too dangerous to swim. Instead we explored the coastline and sea cliffs.

The swimming cove with the sea rushing in.

Disappointed visitors watching the water whack its way ashore for awhile before retreating.

When we got back to Ponta Delgada, we took Carlos’s advice from the day before and went for an incredible lunch at Mané Cigano. We were the only non-Portugese in the restaurant but were treated so well by the family operating the small restaurant. Their speciality is traditional, family-style food and especially their fried mackerel, beans and potatoes. It’s not even on Tripadvisor yet, but well worth tracking down. Delicious and incredible value – I’d have it every day if I could.

After our disappointment at the ocean cove, we decided to try the ‘indoor-outdoor’ pool on our hotel’s rooftop. It was still very cold, but we forced ourselves to pretend it was great. Our first four nights we stayed in a very inexpensive airbnb with our lovely host Rita, but our last few nights we moved to a deeply discounted hotel and enjoyed a bit more space.

With a little spare time, I downloaded the Walk&Talk app for an annual streetart festival in Ponta Delgada. It’s hard to miss all the incredible street art walking through or even driving into Ponta Delgada. Each year dozens of artists are invited to São Miguel to practice their art or ‘co-create’ with other invited artists and their work is never taken down. Each year there is more to discover and stumble upon down tiny alleys or on the side of the highway (or in the Marina! This is how Phlegm popped up in Ponta Delgada).

From Draw, a Portugese street artist.

Whale by Hazul.

I walked around for a few hours before dinner finding upwards of 30 pieces tucked away in the streets of Ponta Delgada.

At Arco 8, by Vhils. One of my favorites.

Getting ready for my dinner date & taking LinkedIn-esque portraits. On this note though, we had incredible food while we were in Ponta Delgada. Our top three dinner recommendations:

1. Tasca. We went our last three nights in a row, it was really that good. (Even cancelled our last night’s dinner reservations elsewhere!)
2. Boca de Cena. We loved the chef – he was very honest & sweet and the food was impeccable. Right across from the theatre and playing tunes from the 1930s, so I was in heaven. “Tuna: the best tuna in the world. Octopus: the best octopus in the world.”
3. Reserva Bar. We had a very indulgent dinner of nice hams, sausages, cheeses, fancy bread rolls and incredibly nice Portugese wine with port to finish it all off. Heaven.

Our last full day, we went to Furnas to look for the thermal baths! Also hike around the Lago de Furnas; see where the cozido stew is cooked in the hot, thermal earth; and explore the stunning botanical gardens at Terre Nostra (which also had a few thermal baths).

Pretty home on our way around the lake hike.

Tiny cones

I think this was a birder thing, this domed nestball.

After our hike, we went to Poça da Dona Beija for our first thermal bath in the slightly sulfuric waters. There’s an orange build-up from the minerals flowing through the bath, which many used to cover their faces in mineral art (I vaguely remember this also being good for you, in addition to being fun). Jack kindly let me dot his face with the sulfuric mud :)

Near Lago de Fogo, pots of cozido were cooking away in the ground. The dish is cooked with volcanic steam over about 6 hours and then served in restaurants nearby. We did have this and it was good, but not all that nice looking, so will spare you.

After lunch we went to Terre Nostra to walk around the botanic gardens for a few hours and then take our last dip in the thermal and decidedly more murky waters.

The ginko trees.

Jack and the sequoias.

Wild little ducks floating around here.

Jack exploring a fern lane.

A stunning little grey wagtail in flight.

And sadly, back to England.

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