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The Azores

31 May 2021

The Hawaii of Europe

The Azores, also known as Arquipélago dos Açores, is an autonomous region of Portugal that lies on the nexus of the European, American and African tectonic plates – roughly 1,600km west of mainland Portugal and about 3,900km from the east coast of North America. Born from the eruptions of underwater volcanoes, these nine islands – ranging from a whopping 288 square miles to a teeny 7 square miles – are divided into three widely separated island groups that are home to just 245,766 inhabitants. The eastern group consists of São Miguel, Santa Maria, and the Formigas islets; the central group consists of Faial, Pico, São Jorge, Terceira, and Graciosa, and the north western group consists of Flores and Corvo.

The Azores is best known as the Hawaii of Europe – but not for its climate! In fact, the main characteristic of Azorean weather is its unpredictability. You ever heard the phrase “If you don’t like the weather now, just wait 5 minutes”? Well, there’s no saying that’s more apt for these islands – in one day, you might see all 4 seasons! That’s exactly what makes this tiny archipelago in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean so special. With plenty of rain and an average year-round temperature of 17 degrees, the islands are covered in lush greenery that leaves them looking like Europe’s very own Hawaiian paradise.

What makes The Azores, The Azores?

These roads were made for road trippin’… 

The main island of the Azores, São Miguel’s paved roads, sweeping curves and complete lack of traffic make it perfect for cruisin’, whether you’re in a car or on a scooter. The island is only 65km from one end to the other, and 16km wide – it’s absolutely tiny! – so you can pretty much explore the whole place if you want… 

Road tripping in São Miguel is an unmatched experience. This is a world of towering mountains that offer stunning vistas of the island’s endless natural beauty; blue lakes ringed by forests of laurel and cedar, and crumbling hotels engulfed by sprawling vines. Everywhere you look on this island, the supremacy of nature is obvious… And without a doubt, the best way to explore São Miguel is on wheels. So, buckle up, here’s my dream 3 day itinerary:

Day 1: Canario Lake – Sete Cidades – Ribeira Grande – Salto do Cabrito – Caldeira Velha

Total driving time: Around 2.5 hours

Total distance: 96km

Canaria Lake Boca de Inferno Viewpoint, Sete Cidades & the Monte Palace Hotel (30-minute drive):

Canario Lake: Nicknamed Snapchat Lake for its spooky resemblance to the app’s ghost logo, Lagoa do Canario – or Canario Lake – sits in a small volcanic crater in the Devassa mountain range. Surrounded by dense forest, the lake remains one of the island’s best kept secrets – so enjoy the peace and quiet while you’re there!

Lagoa do Canario aka Snapchat Lake

Boca de Inferno Viewpoint: The drive to the Boca de Inferno viewpoint is a pleasantly short uphill cruise, through wonderfully green meadows. Turn right through the gate at Canario Lake and follow the dirt road until the parking lot at the end. Follow the short hiking path up to the viewpoint to discover insane views over the lakes of Sete Cidades, the Azorean mountains and the surrounding sea. Stand atop this impressive mountain to take in the awe-inspiring volcanic crater of Sete Cidades in its entirety, as well as stunning panoramic views of the Rasa and Santiago lagoons, before driving onwards to the Vista do Rei Viewpoint.

Vista do Rei Viewpoint: The lake, surrounded by lush green mountains and split into two distinct halves by a bridge, is one of the most breath-taking sights you’ll see on the islands. Legend has it that a blue-eyed princess and green-eyed shepherd – forbidden to love one another – filled the volcanic crater with their tears, creating a blue and green lake. The Vista do Rei viewpoint is a great spot to see the lakes for the first time – the spot is at the perfect distance to appreciate a birds eye view over both lakes.

The Vista do Rei Viewpoint is a must-visit when in the Azores

Monte Palace Hotel: While you’re in the area, stop by the Monte Palace Hotel, which sits atop the hills around the crater lakes, right near the viewpoint. Built in the 70s, the hotel was in use for less than 2 years before it was abandoned. Once upon a time, people could enter freely, exploring the hotel’s derelict rooms and hallways, but today, entrance is forbidden.

The abandoned Monte Palace Hotel - not very Azorean, but fascinating nonetheless

From there you can drive to Ribeira Grande (or drive down to Sete Cidades, continue to Mosteiros where there is an amazing black rock beach, and then drive to Ribeira Grande).

Ribeira Grande (50 minute drive): Home to some of the most amazing waterfalls on the island, Ribeira dos Caldeiroes is just off the main road and is 100% worth the short detour to take a stroll through the thick of São Miguel’s wilderness.

Hike to Salto do Cabrito (10 minutes drive): Look up “Bar Restaurant Caldeiras” on Google Maps to find your next spot – you will park here to start the hike to Salto do Cabrito. The hike takes about 2 hours and a half. You’ll walk through the forest and over pipelines to a waterfall. 

Caldeira Velha (13 minutes drive): Halfway between Lagoa do Fogo and the city of Ribeira Grande lies Caldeira Velha – a natural park that is home to two hot springs. Stone-walled and surrounded by lush greenery, the park feels like a scene straight out of Jurassic Park. You can change in the wooden cabins of the park, but be sure to take wet wipes since, true to Jurassic Park style, you’ll be walking on rocks and soil.

Bathe in the hot springs of Caldeira Velha for some serious Jurassic Park vibes

Lagoa do Fogo (8 minute drive): On your way back to Ponta Delgada you’ll pass the Lagoa do Fogo viewpoint which offers (again) an amazing view of yet another crater lake. The drive can be a little scary, especially in bad weather – it is steep with many turns, so take care. On a clear day, the Lagoa do Fogo viewpoint offers spectacular views. Thanks to the viewpoint’s high elevation, though, you will often be welcomed with a view of nothing but clouds. The view isn’t why we’re here, thankfully. Follow one of the trails down to a secluded lakeside beach. You can’t swim here, but the place is a sensory overload of smells, sounds and vivid colours.

Lagoa do Fogo has plenty of secluded lakeside beaches to relax on

Variety’s the spice of life

It only takes a day on the roads to understand the vast array of impressive sights there are to see in the Azores – and that’s on just one island! The Azorean landscape is truly unique to the area – offering subtropical natural beauty unlike anywhere else on the continent. But there is more to be said for the draw of these islands than their beauty; their allure lies in the wildly different feel from one isle to the next. Variety is at the heart of the Azores, and nowhere is that clearer than in each of the archipelago’s nine islands. The unpredictable Azorean climate brings a distinct flavour to each isle – so if you’ve seen one, you definitely have not seen them all… For the traveller who can’t decide if they’re a history buff, a foodie or a thrill seeker, the islands offer the chance to satisfy all of your travelling personas, as you hop from reef to reef. 

Sunny Santa Maria

Santa Maria is the oldest of the Azorean islands. The volcanoes that once formed this sunny isle millions of years ago have since eroded, mellowing out into pleasant rolling hills, secluded coves and dramatic sea cliffs. Home to some of the best fine white sand beaches in the archipelago, Santa Maria makes for an idyllic holiday destination.

Terceira, the heart of The Azores

Home to Angra do Heroismo, the historical capital of the Azores and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Terceira was once the heart of these islands. First settled in 1450, the isle was once an important stop on the transatlantic trade routes of the 15th and 16th century. Today, it stands as an unforgettable monument to times gone by…

São Jorge and its fajãsSão

Jorge is most famous for its fajãs – tiny villages perched on thin strips of land that sit between ocean and mountains, offering stunning views.

The striking Fajã Santo Cristo in São Jorge is only accessible by hiking through forests down ancient cliff paths

Pico – an extraterrestrial delight

Volcanic stone and rippled lava gives this island a dry, almost alien-like landscape unlike any of the other islands. Pico is home to Portugal’s tallest mountain, as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site of 550-year-old vineyards surrounded by distinctive walls of hand-built black volcanic rock.

The UNESCO-approved 550-year-old vineyards of Pico

Flores & Corvo – the Wild West

The westernmost islands of the archipelago are less populated than the rest of the Azores, being wilder and more elemental. These islands are home to alpine forests, tall waterfalls and vast crater lakes.

São Miguel, where volcanoes lie

Evidence of volcanic activity is clear everywhere on the island – from the dark black sand beaches that line the shores, to the lava baked pathways that remain after recent eruptions. São Miguel is where The Azores’ volcanic origin is most obvious. Driving around, you’ll notice geysers that spew hot steam from the island’s depths, mineral-rich springs serve to soothe sore muscles, and crater lakes surrounded by lush greenery create a tropical feel on the isle.

São Miguel is the largest and most populated island of the archipelago

Back on the road

If you’re looking to see the island’s volcanic sights, you’re in luck. Your second day of driving will take you through lakes surrounded by geysers, to thermal hot springs, and to villages where the Azorean’s volcanic culture is clearer than ever.

Day 2: Vila Franca do Campo – Furnas – Ponta Delgada

Total driving time: about 2 hours and 15 minutes

Total distance: 110km

Ermida de Nossa Senhora da Paz (25 minutes drive): The drive from Ponta Delgada to Vila Franca do Campo is another stunning cruise passing a lot of viewpoints. Keep an eye out for signs to the little church Ermida de Nossa Senhora da Paz. It’s a steep route, but well worth it for the incredible view of the church surrounded by hydrangeas in bloom. Climb the stairs to get a birds eye view over the interestingly shaped Ilheu da Vila, before continuing on to Furnas valley which is nestled in a volcano crater.

Lagoa das Furnas (21 minutes drive): First you’ll drive to the dreamy Furnas lake. Park in the lot on your right side before walking to the church on the lakeside. From the parking lot it’s also worth following the road along the lakeside until you see a little quay – it’s a nice little spot for photos! The last of Sao Miguel’s three major lakes, Lagoa das Furnas is a must-see. This is where you’ll find the geothermal holes and springs that the island is famous for. They continuously send sprays of mud and steam into the air, and have done for centuries. 

Miradouro do Pico do Ferro (16 minutes drive): From here you can see the Furnas lake in its entirety.

Parque Terra Nostra (11 minutes drive): After visiting the viewpoint, head to the Parque Terra Nostra near Furnas. Terra Nostra is home to a stunning collection of flora from around the world, with some dating back millions of years. But what’s most alluring about this park is its iron-enriched thermal pool – one of the most captivating hot springs in Sao Miguel. At around 38 degrees and with several medicinal properties, the spring is the perfect way to relax and recoup after a long day of exploring.

Furnas town (4 minute drive): This tiny village sits nestled in the heart of a lush valley, a hub for the island’s volcanic phenomena. The smell of sulphur permeates the village – hinting at the nearby hot springs of Caldeiras, where tiny geysers and hot water creeks make standing on the Azores feel much more like standing on the surface of the moon. Whether you’re simply taking in the surrounding mountain views or sampling geyser-cooked delicacies, Furnas offers perfect insight into the volcanic culture of The Azores.

Locals making Cozido das Furnas – a meat stew buried underground and cooked using natural heat

The richest of cultures

Furnas is just a glimpse into life on the islands, but the richness of Azorean culture is most clearly reflected in the festive spirit of the islands’ people. The religious festivals of the Azores are rooted in its volcanic origins and deep religiousness of the predominantly Roman Catholic population. Once upon a time, volcanic eruptions were commonplace on the islands, wreaking havoc on the lives of the Azoreans. Back then, the people of these islands would go on lengthy pilgrimages, praying all the while for divine intervention that would placate Nature’s wrath.

Today the tradition continues; every year, the Azorean men of São Miguel do a clockwise pilgrimage around the island, visiting over 100 churches and chapels along the way. Adorned in chequered shawls, colourful scarves and rosaries, they pray and chant religious songs, tapping walking canes on the ground before entering their holy buildings. Though impressive, that isn’t even the largest religious celebration on the main island! Each year on the fifth Sunday after Easter, São Miguel sees a procession of people through the streets of Ponta Delgada. As they follow the statue of Jesus Christ, they make promises for the year to come – so I guess New Years’ Resolutions are pretty universal!

But the festive spirit of the Azoreans isn’t limited to their religiousness – non-religious events on the island speak to the vibrancy of Azorean culture too. Carnival is celebrated intensely on all the islands, with music, dancing, parades and the sharing of food and music being central to the enjoyment of the festival. The “cantigas ao desafio” songs in which a singer challenges a reply from another singer, bring life to festivals throughout the summer.

Azorean men of São Miguel on their yearly pilgrimage

The third and final day of our Azorean roadtrip

Day 3: Tea plantations – Ribeira dos Caldeiroes – Nordeste – Salto do Prego

Total driving time: about 3 hours

Total distance: 152km

Cha Porto Formoso & Cha Gorreana (26 minutes drive): São Miguel is home to the only two tea plantations in Europe; Cha Porto Formoso and Cha Gorreana, and both can be found on the main road between Ribeira Grande and Lomba da Maia near São Bras. Cha Porto Formoso is easy recognisable by the large tea pot hanging at the entrance. Learn about the history of the plantations at the local museum, taste the tea, or watch men at work on the plantation.

São Miguel is home to the only two tea plantations in Europe

Parque Natural da Ribeira dos Caldeiroes (14 minutes drive): Continue your way from the tea plantations to Ribeira dos Caldeiroes. This tropical park is easy to find since its main attraction is a waterfall right by the road. Admire the park’s flora and waterfalls, before crossing the river to the main waterfall, where you can take beautiful pictures. 

Via Nordeste to Faial da Terra (51 minutes drive): The way from Ribeira dos Caldeiroes to Faial da Terra is a great drive with lots of viewpoints to enjoy. Grab lunch on your way to Faial da Terra – you’ll need it before your hike.

Hike to Salto do Prego: The hike to the Salto do Prego and the “ghost town” Sanguinho starts at Faial da Terra. To make your way there, follow the river Ribeiro do Faial da Terra upstream. Be prepared for some steep climbs, but just know that it’s worth every step. The hike itself is gorgeous as you walk along the riverside, passing through the jungle and gorgeous flowers along the way. If that wasn’t rewarding enough, the glorious sight of Salto do Prego should be! From there, you can either hike to another waterfall called Salto do Cagarrão or you can start returning via Sanguinho.

Our Azorean roadtrip is complete!

The Salto do Prego waterfall is well worth the hike to get there

We love a Sustainable Legend!

The Azores islands are EarthCheck certified for sustainability, meaning their tourism focuses on conserving both the natural and human heritage of the islands. One of the best things about the islands is their fertile land, which allow them to be entirely self-sufficient. Despite being an island in the middle of the ocean, the Azoreans grow their own crops and farm their own cattle – but maintaining the island in this way is a big task! The islands’ inhabitants work hard to preserve the picturesque landscape. It remains untouched by high-rise buildings or commercialised buildings. Three of the islands – Graciosa, Flores and Corvo – as well as their surrounding oceans are UNESCO designated Biosphere Reserves of national importance, with a vast array of birds and marine life being protected. The archipelago is also home to 13 important wetlands known as Ramsar sites, and over 30 Blue Flag beaches. Combined with the island’s mineral-laden soil, subtropical climate and Gulf Stream-warmed waters, The Azores serve as a modern-day Garden of Eden – a crucible for life.

Azorean tourism focuses on conserving both the natural and human heritage of the islands

Good to know

  • The Azores are located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, so weather can be unpredictable as cold and wet winds blow in from the sea.

  • Travelling between the islands is neither easy nor cheap – so plan your travels carefully.

  • Public transport sucks – getting around islands can be tricky if you don’t have your own wheels.

  • The Azorean people live a real island life, so if you’re not on the main island of São Miguel, don’t expect the same home comforts you’re used to back home. Many places wont have basic amenities such as restaurants, shops, or ATMs.

  • The Azores Air Pass by Grupo SATA allows you to visit all the islands of the Azores. The fare applies to passengers who have a ticket between any destination outside the Azores and the Azores. It is even applicable to non-residents in the Azores. With this fare you can:

  • Make 3 stops longer than 24 hours in any airport in the Azores.

  • Make unlimited stops at any airport in the Azores, provided that it does not exceed 24 hours between arrival and departure.

A modern-day Garden of Eden

The Azores have been on my bucket list for so long – I can't believe more people don’t know about them. They have pretty much everything you could want from a holiday destination: affordable prices; stunning scenery; delicious and unique food options; pristine beaches and soooooo many hikes!

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Where would you go if you didn’t get in your OWN way?

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