We went to Azores for my birthday in May 2019. I remember making the decision without really realizing, announcing to my Dutchie (when we were quite a new couple): "I am going to Portugal and Azores for my birthday. You can come.".
We landed in São Miguel from Lisbon, after a day there. We had booked a few Airbnbs around the island and a car, so we could freely roam around and explore.
Greeted by Sete Cidades & its twin lake
After a quick, but delicious, lunch in the Capital Ponta Delgada, we headed to our first accommodation. We chose a typical house near the Lagoa das Sete Cidades, a twin lake made of Lagoa Azul (blue lake) and Lagoa Verde (green lake). You guessed it, one is green and one is blue! This is because, although separated only by a small stream of land, the two lakes reflect the sun differently resulting in this particularity.
São Miguel is full of amazing view points, and driving from one to the other was one of our main activity (it's really worth it). This is the first "real" Azores sight we got, on the way to Sete Cidades, from the Vista do Rei view point:
Not too bad right?
The cloud cover above the lake is actually also one of the very characteristic sights of the Azores. The first two days, we drove in a thick grey fog, that would only clear up a little when we approached the coast. Lost in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, the islands have a very humid climate. You can feel it in the heavy moist air, particularly inlands. It's also why the Azores have such a tropical vegetation and luxurious greens, so I'd say - worth it.
Typical Azorean sights
Another very typical sight in São Miguel is surprisingly something I am fairly used to seeing from living in The Netherlands. Cows! Although I heard about the famous Azorean cows, it's still a barely believable vision in the middle of jungle like surroundings, bordered by the ocean.
From Sete Cidades, we explored the South-Eastern coast of São Miguel. It's a fairly populated area, and also the home of a few whale spotting zones (but more on this later).
This is the view over Farol da Ponta de Ferraria, a light house looking down on a spa with natural pools:
We took advantage of a particularly foggy and rainy day to explore Ponta Delgada, the main city on São Miguel. Ponta Delgada is a cute town, with tiled buildings but mostly these white buildings contrasted with dark stones on the angles and around the windows.
The town has a lot of options for restaurants, cafes and shops. In general, we were really surprise as to how urban São Miguel is. Maybe it's because the Azores really are lost in the middle of the Atlantic, or because we had mostly seen pictures of the local nature, but we really expected a much wilder island. Instead, there are small towns and villages everywhere, and you can't drive too long without seeing buildings or facilities.
The sweet side of Ponta Delgada
Our favorite visit near Ponta Delgada was the local pineapple farm. Pineapples are a local delicacies, and you can buy them almost everywhere. They are smaller and sweeter than your average pineapple, and personally I liked them a lot more. Because of their small size, the far was really a cute visit (it helps that we also ran into a very friendly kitty in the middle of the plants).
Azorean pineapples take 2 years to reach full maturity, and their growth is organized in different green houses, labelled with the stage. If you are visiting São Miguel, I can only recommend to pop into this adorable farm. They also have a nice shop with the most delicious pineapple liquor and some other objects made of local materials.
At the heart of the Azores: perched viewpoints & hidden lakes
Any water lover will be charmed by the Azores. If the Ocean wasn't already enough, there are also numerous impressive lakes at the heart of São Miguel and most of them benefit from breathtaking view points. We spent a good part of our trip taking the inland roads and exploring the local lakes.
A nice short hike will take you to the Miradouro da Grota do Inferno, a perfect view point over the Santiago Lake. This lake is shaped like a crater and surrounded by a lush vegetation. If it wasn't for the well defined path and the few other visitors, this is probably one of the spot in the island where you can feel the most "into the wild".
The Wildest lake by far though is the Lagoa do Fogo. That's where we found this feeling of being lost in nature that we had been expecting and looking for.
Fogo, which translates into "fire", is a suiting name for this lake that we found covered in what surely looked like heavy smoke. At first, we could not see any sight of a lake and doubted for a bit that we were actually at the right place. But slowly, the fog lifted, and the Lagoa de Fogo appeared.
Unlike some of the other, braver, travelers we did not take the path downwards that led to and seemingly around the lake. It did look like a beautiful hike but we were not equipped and had an appointment shortly after. The view from above was still plenty satisfying.
From the Lagoa do Fogo, we made our way to our next accommodation. We chose to stay in Nordeste, at the extreme Est of São Miguel, so that we could easily explore the other side of the island and take full advantage of the natural parks and the famous hot springs.
Thermal waters, natural parks & rotten eggs
At the heart of São Miguel, one will also find its natural parks. Green sceneries of tropical plants, waterfalls, and for some of them thermal baths, they remain one of our favorite memories of the Azores.
Caldeira Velha, located not far the Lagoa do Fogo, was our first encounter with the therapeutic baths. This Jurassic looking natural park is less busy that the other thermal sources because of it's size: it's pretty small, with only three separate pools.
We started off at the very end of the park, where Caldeira Velha's main (and most impressive) hot spring hides behind trees and bushes.
It has two advantages: it's gorgeous, very wild looking with its stone wall, lush surroundings and the waterfall that feeds it. It's also fairly private, and you can easily forget that this is actually a pretty popular touristic attraction, and other guests may come and trouble your peace at any moment.
This pool is larger than the others in the park, but also a lot cooler (around 22 degree celsius compared to over 30 degree celsius for the lower ones).
We really enjoyed the wild and calm aspect of this park, we came fairly early and left just as more people were starting to arrive.
The full Azores thermal experience
For the full thermal waters experience, the best option is to head directly to Furnas. The small town at the border of the Lagoa das Furnas is known for its lingering rotten egg smell. It comes from the Caldeiras das Furnas, hot springs and geysers located right in the middle of the town of Furnas.
The sight is strange: a grey looking landscape, often compared to the surface of the moon, surrounded by the local lush vegetation, and overlooked by habitations. We were very surprised that the whole village was built around this area, considering the very strong smell of rotten eggs and the vapors emerging from all the holes and craters. The locals actually made the best of their environment, using the steaming holes and boiling springs to cook some unique local specialties: cooked corn and a stew named "cozido". We did not get a chance to try either.
From Furnas, you can easily join the Poça da Dona Beija: a beautiful tropical park with five hot springs. We visited in the evening, which gave the place an intimate atmosphere despite it being fairly busy.
Tears in the Ocean
If Azores was overall a wonderful experience, there is one part of it that will always stay in my heart. For our last days on the island, we decided to explore the ocean further. I've always loved the sea, feeling more at peace on a boat than I ever could on land.
We had read that you could do whale watching from São Miguel's Capital Ponta Delgada, and looked for a responsible company to do this with. We were very happy with our choice: Picos de Aventura. The company was well organized, and very focused on safety and the respect of the animals and their environment. In addition to touristic adventures such as whale watching and many other, they also participate in environmental initiatives such as tagging turtles. They don't use any sonar to attract the animals, but instead observe movement for whale spotting points from the mainland. In the boat, we were accompanied by a marine biologist and always stayed at a far distance from the animals.
We got equipped and headed to the water on a small boat. After some time on the thankfully not too choppy ocean, our crew was informed that a whale might be visible nearby. We headed there, and something clicked in my head: we were going to see an actual whale, in its natural environment!
Before we even got a sight of it, I started tearing up from the emotion, and again after we actually saw it. Of course from the distance we could only see some of it, coming out of the water. But it was a beautiful, emotional moment that I will never forget. We saw Sperm whales, the local resident, a family of migrating whales, and ended surrounded by almost 200 dolphins.