After a five hour bumpy ride, we started to spot Sao Miguel through the steamy clouds hovering over the Atlantic. It was looking green and defying out there in the stormy waters of the unforgiving ocean. We landed on a cloudy morning, jet lagged, a little bit tipsy from all the wine we used to wash down the terrible airplane food and extremely excited for all the adventures to come.
Sao Miguel is the largest and most populated island of the Azores Portuguese archipelago. It blessed with all year round mild climate, rich cultural heritage and pristine nature. The best times to visit is between June and September when there's less chance of rain and the temperatures are in the 20s.
Getting around. Now someone (ahem me) was smart enough to rent a car for the week, which I highly recommend. There's very little public transportation and having your own vehicle will give you the freedom to explore at your own pace. I used this website which accesses all the local operators to book our car and buy our insurance. The company which we went with was called Ilha Verde and the car we drove was a diesel Ford Fiesta which was perfect for our needs. Be aware that most of the cars in Europe are manual and renting automatics can cost considerably more, so I suggest getting some practice before arriving. You'll know what I mean if you ever need to drive uphill in a manual (god save us all).
The road system is very well marked and maintained, but make sure you download the map of the island in your Google Maps app to use offline before arriving. It will save you a lot of trouble and it will easily get you wherever you need to go without having to pay for data or roaming. If you need more instructions on how to use Google Maps offline check out this handy tutorial.
Where to stay. We stayed at Pedras do Mar Resort and Spa, a new five star hotel, which came at a very reasonable price with an Expedia bundle I had bought back in the fall of 2016 ($2000 for flights, hotel and breakfast for two people). While not exactly boasting five star features, the hotel did make up for it in other areas. The staff went above an beyond to make us feel welcome (early check in, dinner reservations, cleanliness) and we really enjoyed the secluded location and the pools. One thing that I think they could be working on is safety around the slippery pool area - take it from someone that landed face first into the classy Turkish bath. I mean you're supposed to slip in there like an elegant mermaid, not trip and splat like a confused elephant.
Word on the street is you can also rent beautiful villas and houses on the island . I think this would be a great option for larger families and friends that like privacy and enjoy catering for themselves. Check out some of these awesome digs. Some go as low as $60 a night. Cha ching!
What to do. There is an adventure waiting for you every step of the way on Sao Miguel. This is one of the most beautiful places you will ever experience (like for realz guys) - imagine a beautifully landscaped garden at the scale of a whole island. Every detail is thought of and minutiously maintained to create a paradise in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. So make every moment count.
We started our week with a visit to the natural hot springs of Caldeira Velha. After walking through what I can only describe as a magical tropical forrest (where unicorns probably live), we arrived at two pools of warm iron rich water. I recommend a nice swim in the larger and cooler one before a relaxing long dip in the warm pool (I feel it should be called a jacuzzi...a brown water jacuzzi). Think of it like a much welcomed stress therapy for all those months of hard work and dark winter days (I'm talking about you Canada). Remember to bring a dark colored swimsuit because the water is tinted brown from the minerals and it will stain.
Next up, we packed our snorkeling gear and caught the boat for Ilheu de Villa Franca do Campo, a small islet off the coast of Sao Miguel. The ride there will set you back 5 euros, but it will be money well spent, because you will get to swim in an ancient volcano, spot the cutest fish and catch some sun on the rocky shores. Which reminds me. Bring water shoes. It's a must.
But if any of those ideas don't strike your fancy and you feel like a little bit of more adrenaline is in order, make sure to check out Picos de Aventura in Ponta Delgada. Swimming with wild dolphins or kayaking on a scenic lake anyone? Take advantage of their wide variety of authentic tours and activities to dive deep into the beauty of Sao Miguel island and, why not, discover your inner Indiana Jones while you're at it. Tudor is still talking about how a dolphin stared into his soul and told him all about the meaning of the universe. But you'll have to be happy with that spoiler and stay tuned for our life changing experience with Picos de Aventura in another post coming soon.
We toned down all the excitement with a visit to the Porto Formoso Tea Plantation. If you are as obsessed as I am with tea, this will probably be the highlight of your stay. It felt like we had all the place to ourselves while we strolled through the rows of tea and had a little picnic on the grass. Take in the amazing view of the ocean before sampling some delicious complementary tea. I dare you not to leave with a few bags for yourself. I bought three, but I should have gotten more because they were only two euros and I rarely come across such nice tea in Canada.
Lastly do not leave without seeing the Terra Nostra gardens. We seriously didn't understand what the excitement was about so we saved it for the last day of our trip. But do go! It is probably one of the most beautiful botanical gardens in the world. The variety and the attention to detail will fascinate you and just the opportunity to exist there for a few hours will make your soul very happy. Bring a swim suit and some change to buy koi fish food. You'll thank me later.
Where to eat. Okay. So this is where the story takes a little bit of a downturn. If you are a picky eater like me I would highly recommend renting a vila and catering for yourself. You will find amazing fish and beef in Sao Miguel restaurants, but not much else. Food is not very varied, at least from my point of view, and we have found few restaurants that we believed to be worth the money. Also, if you are a vegetarian you'll probably be eating bread and fruit. There is a vegetarian restaurant on the island, but I can not recommend it.
A Tasca comes in at the top of the list. You will need to make reservations three days in advance for dinner, but if you go before 6pm you'll be able to get in without one. It mainly serves Portuguese food, but everything we had here was delicious, memorable and very affordable. We loved ordering the greens soup and a few tapas because that way we got the chance to sample more things from the menu.
Bar Caloura is the perfect lunch spot with an incredible view. They only serve fish related dishes, but everything tastes amazing and the service was exemplary. The portions are big so you have the option to split a main course and still have a go at their all you can eat salad bar. Do try their honey pudding (it's actually a cake) if you're looking for a religious experience.
For no fuss lunches after trotting (or whale watching) all day, try 3 Sentitdos over by the port of Ponta Delgada. They make a pretty decent pizza which you can savour on their patio over some local beer and people watching. Or you can order takeout for a relaxed night in watching tv.
We had a great meal on our first night at Botequim Açoriano, a great little charming restaurant serving the best wild berry cheesecake I have ever had. Fish is the main dish you'll encounter here as well and you must try it grilled with butter and garlic. It tasted magnificent.
Some last words of advice for traveling to the Azores (Sao Miguel):
- Bring cash (euros). Credit cards are accepted, but not everywhere.
- Bring a wetsuit, water shoes and some snorkeling gear. There's a lot of water activities to enjoy, but be prepared for some rough terrain and colder water.
- Bring a waterproof camera if you can. There are plenty of opportunities to use it.
- Learn how to drive manual. Seriously.
- Invest in some comfortable, light, yet fast drying clothes for adventuring. You'll wear them all the time.
- Don't worry about language barriers. Portuguese people speak better English than you.
- Wear high SPF sunscreen and a hat. Take it from this Canadian that got burned to a crisp because she thought 30 SPF was enough.
Our time on the island was too short and I left with a bit of a heavy heart and a lot of FOMO. The Azores are such a transcending experience, which my words and pictures will never truly be enough to describe. You must see it to believe it. So long, Sao Miguel, and thanks for all the fish!
Have a brilliant day!
P.S. Make sure to stay tuned for more on our swimming with dolphins and kayaking adventures coming soon and don't forget to leave me your thoughts in the comment section.