Updated: Aug 14, 2021
Some of my favorite trips are the spontaneous ones where I impulsively decide to go somewhere I know nothing about. That happened to me last week when I decided to visit the amazing Azores Islands on my way back to Italy from the U.S. This Portuguese island chain is in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean so it was kinda "on my way." 😉
There are 9 major islands spread out over roughly 600 km (370 mi), so it's quite extensive, and they lie almost smack dab in the middle of the Atlantic: 1,400 km (870 mi) west of Lisbon, ~1,500 km (930 mi) northwest of Morocco, and ~1,900 km (1,200 mi) southeast of Newfoundland.
Along with the Portuguese island of Madeira (closer to Portugal), the Spanish Canary Islands (farther south and closer to Africa), and Cape Verde (formerly Portuguese but now independent), they make up what is called Macaronesia, from the ancient Greek for "blessed/fortunate islands." Apparently that was the name given to any island west of the Straits of Gibraltar. Who knew?!?
Two things encouraged me to make the journey: one, I have an American friend who recently moved to the island of Faial so I wanted to visit her; and two, there are direct flights from Boston to São Miguel island that take only 4.5 hours! See Sata/Azores Airlines for information on flights. And if you're wondering why there are direct flights from Boston, see this fascinating article on Portuguese (and especially Azorean) immigration!
Ponta Delgada is the main port on São Miguel and also the capital of the island chain. It has about 70,000 residents and is small but quite charming.
The church of San Sebastian is elegant and ornate, with a rich (part-lava!) facade dating from 1533, about a century after the islands were discovered by Portuguese sailors. It is thought that the islands were uninhabited before this (no human evidence has been found).
As in mainland Portugal, there is a lot of pretty paving work (click on each separate image to see it in full format):
And some cool street art! This is on the facade of a leather goods shop, Pele e Osso.
I love how it shows nature reclaiming industrial areas:
But the REAL attraction on São Miguel is Mother Nature: the Azores islands straddle three tectonic plates so are a hot-bed of volcanic activity. I spent a day visiting some of the main sites, beginning with "Sete Cidades," a caldera filled by four lakes (two of which, the Lagoa Azul and Lagoa Verde, are linked). It was overcast most of the day but at least it didn't rain.
The island is so lush it's nicknamed "the green island," and you can see why!
The highest peak is around 1,100 m (3,600 ft) and there's tons of great hiking. Here below we see the massive lake within the Lagao do Fogo stratovolcano. This caldera is the newest on the island, formed some 15,000 years ago, while the lake was born when the top of the volcano collapsed 5,000 years ago. The whole area is a protected natural site.
There's geothermic activity everywhere, from coastal "hot pools":
To thermal baths that date back to 1811:
The ground is so hot there's a traditional dish -- Cozido -- that's slow-cooked in pots placed inside the earth! You can find these for public use around the island:
They also grow pineapples in greenhouses:
And no worries, swimmers, there ARE some sandy beaches :-)
This being the Atlantic Ocean, the water isn't as warm as it is in the Mediterranean, but like the Atlantic coast of the U.S. it's heated by the Gulf Stream so makes a refreshing swim. Surprisingly, the weather in the Azores is quite mild given its location! It never gets very cold in the winter and never gets too hot in the summer, and it gets a lot of clouds and rain, so it's not a "tropical island."
And finally, I had to go see at least ONE museum, and this is a weird one! The Carlos Machado Museum opened in 1880 and its zoological and geological collection was intended to "preserve and showcase its vast and rich heritage, which is the foundation and expression of an Islander’ s identity in the midst of a large sea." There were rooms and rooms filled with taxidermied animals, from a mammoth Great White Shark to a two-headed cow. Hm! (click on each image to see it separately)
No ancient Roman stuff for me in this part of the world, but still a lot of fascinating things to see and do. I was only there for 2 ½ days so I just scratched the surface, and I didn't do any hiking since this was a reconnaissance trip. So I left plenty to do on my next visit!
A few practical details: * I stayed at the Hotel Alcides, in the heart of the old town. Basic rooms but good wifi and breakfast, and friendly staff. Good value for what you get.
* I did my volcano day-tour with Green Visions tours.
*Restaurants: Unfortunately I never got into the best vegetarian restaurant on the island (maybe even in the whole Azores), called Rotas. I could have tried to book but I was in "seat of pants" mode and they were always full when I showed up. It's on my "to do" list for next time! I did try Lan's for some good veg "exotic" fare. Casual, friendly, tasty. I also had a good meal at A Tasca. They're very popular and don't take reservations so try and go during off-peak hours. And for a cheap healthy lunch I had a nice salad at Dondue' and another one at the Cafe' Central. Obviously there were lots of meat and seafood places but I don't eat that. 😉
That's it for now! I hope you enjoyed your trip around São Miguel, and I'll see you soon with more pics from the Azores. Toss a couple of Portuguese escudos into the tip jar if you've got 'em, and thanks for supporting me during this never-ending furlough. SOME DAY I will get back to guiding in the flesh! (in fact I have my one-and-only 2021 tour next month)
Obrigada, vejo você em breve! (thanks and see you soon)