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the wild and wonderous azores

The nine volcanic islands that make up the Portuguese archipelago, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, are collectively known as the Azores. They are divided into three clusters. The Western Group is comprised of Flores and Corvo. The Central Group has Terceira, Graciosa, Faial, São Jorge and Pico. And the Eastern Group consists of Santa Maria and São Miguel.


My time was spent solely on São Miguel, aptly nicknamed The Green Island’ because of its lush landscapes, rolling hillsides, forests and plantations.


Ponta Delgada serves as the capital of São Miguel and is the gateway to the island's famous crater lakes, thermal activities, waterfalls and rugged coastline. Despite being the largest and most populous municipality in the Azores, Ponta Delgado was pretty quiet when I was there.


My friend and I arrived at João Paulo II airport (PDL), in Ponta Delgado, after flying via Lisbon, from London Heathrow. At the time of writing this, there were direct flights from Stansted, but not from any other London airports.


We rented a new and very affordable car from Magic Islands rent-a-car, but I wouldn't recommend them as they turned out to be scam artists. We should have read the reviews in advance of booking with them. I guess you get what you pay for.


After what felt like a long day of travel, we enjoyed a lengthy dinner at A Tasca and then went straight to bed, so we'd be fresh and ready to hit the road the next morning. We rested our heads in very comfortable beds at the Grand Hotel Açores Atlântico.


ROAD TRIP DAY ONE

The first day of the journey was focused on the western side of São Miguel. We drove about 25 minutes to the civil parish known as Sete Cidades, which has 15 attractions but is most famous for its Twin Lakes.


We stopped at the following five spots (each had a small parking lot/pull-off nearby):


1. Miradouro do Pico do Carvão- We initially pulled over to see what the crowd of people were looking at. When we opened our car doors, and they nearly blew off their hinges, due to wind, we decided to snap a couple of quick photos and then promptly carry on to the next point of interest.


2. Aqueduto do Carvão - 600 meters down the road, we pulled over again, to check out the old stone aqueduct that has been preserved by the moss and vegetation covering it. Originally, it was built at the request of the Town Hall, to carry water from the Canário and Empadadas lakes to Ponta Delgada.


3. Lagoa do Canario - After driving another five minutes, we parked and walked down some cool forest steps that were built between tree trunks, to get to this lake. Later in the day, we attempted to go to Miradouro da Boco do Inferno, but were unable to navigate to it on Google Maps. Whilst writing this blog, I learned that you actually access it by taking the dirt track to the right of Lagoa do Canario. If you follow the road around to the left, after a few kilometers, you'll find some steps on the left. Climb those steps and continue on the trail for about ten minutes to reach the Boco do Inferno lookout (which looks pretty darn spectacular).


4. Miradouro da Vista do Rei - We drove for about another ten minutes to get to 'The King's View'. As one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Portugal, this is the showstopper that has put the Azores on the map. Here you'll experience a breathtaking panoramic view of a crater filled with two lakes. If you're lucky, and the weather is playing ball, one lake will appear blue (Lagoa Azul) and the other will be green (Lagoa Verde) - this is due to algae content and depth of each.


When you get to this viewpoint, you'll notice the derelict Monte Palace looming overhead. This luxury hotel was abandoned from almost the day it was built, back in the 1980s. Deserted for over 25 years, it now looks a little like the set for a horror film. Despite the warning signs not to enter, you can wander around freely and climb up to the roof for even better views of the Twin Lakes.


5. Miradouro do Cerrado das Freiras - Driving another four or so kilometers will bring you to another scenic wonder that offers a different perspective of the Twin Lakes of Sete Cidades, overlooking the bridge that divides them.


As you descend from the above lookouts, into the crater, and towards the village of Sete Cidades, in the summer months, you’ll find yourself on 'hydrangea highway'. The hedgerows along this road are apparently drenched in flowers from May to September. Since it was mid-April when I was there, the flowers were not yet in bloom.


We then drove across the bridge that bisects the Twin Lakes, into the teeny tiny town, for lunch at Tea House 'O Poejo'.


After lunching, we left Sete Cidades and ventured (about 20 minutes) over to Feteiras, to check out the rocky coastline.


En route back to Ponta Delgado, we made another pitstop in Relva, for more coastal views. It was unbearably windy though, so we didn't stay long.


Once back in Ponta Delgado, we wandered around the sleepy city, stopping at a few places to eat and drink (Louvre Michaelense for drinks and then Taberna Boavista for dinner).


That night we, again, stayed at the Grand Hotel Açores Atlântico.


ROAD TRIP DAY TWO

After another tranquil night's sleep, we ate breakfast, checked out and headed northeast to begin our 'thermal day', where everything we had planned revolved around geothermal activity.


We had a reservation, from 10:30am to 12:30pm, to soak in the four naturally-heated thermal pools at Caldeira Velha. Leaving our hotel at 10:00am got us there with plenty of time to park (300m away), walk up a bunch of stairs, stand in a queue (despite having booked in advance) and still enter at our allotted timeslot. It was all a little hectic and the staff were unhelpful. In fact, this was the only place, anywhere on the island where we had anything less than perfect service, from the most delightful people. It wasn't clear how/where to get the padlocks for the hired (tiny) lockers and there was a TON of people/children all crowded around the very basic changing facilities (i.e. a wooden shed divided into three stalls). As such, I'd recommend wearing your bathing suit and flip-flops, bringing a towel and a bag for wet stuff and leaving any jewelry in the car (it'll tarnish). Although it was all a bit of a faff and overcrowded, the verdant, forested grounds were beautiful.


20 minutes further north and further east, we passed Gorreana Tea Plantation and decided to stop to check it out (the joys of a road trip!). It turns out that the Azores are the home to the oldest tea plantation in Europe. Gorreana is family-run and has been in operation for almost 300 years. It's free to walk around and bookings are not required. The neat rows of hedges were very satisfying for my OCD.


We carried on driving about 20 minutes eastward, to Furnas. We had some time to kill before lunch so wandered around the quaint town. We passed a church and a water mill before we noticed clouds of sulphureous vapor ahead. Intrigued, we got closer, we noticed the bubbling hot springs and the plopping of boiling clay. It was like a mini Yellowstone.


At 13:00 we had lunch at the Terra Nostra Garden Hotel. Our waiter generously gifted us with a voucher to visit Terra Nostra Park afterward, granting us access to the botanical gardens and the murky, golden-brown thermal pool. Don't let the color put you off though, it's just the iron in the mineral water. But if you are going to get wet, wear an old, dark-colored bathing suit that you don't care about staining.


The Romantic-style botanical garden is stunning and full of exotic vegetation. Allow for time to walk around and enjoy the beauty and tranquility.


That evening, we had dinner at Restaurante Tony's. If you want to try the famous 'Cozido', email to make a booking and pre-order at least 24 hours in advance. This regional dish is slowly cooked in pots buried in the ground, using the heat from volcanic activity. This meat stew is comprised of beef, pork, chicken, sausage and chorizo served with rice and vegetables.


In a quick attempt to burn off a few of dinner's calories, before getting in a swimsuit, we walked 20 minutes to our next destination - Poça da Dona Beija. We soaked under the stars at this natural hot spring facility, which was pretty magical. This place was much more high-tech and civilized than Caldeira Velha in the AM. It is mandatory to book tickets in advance.


The lovely people at Poça da Dona Beija called us a taxi (€5 for about a 5-minute ride) to take us back to our hotel, Octant Furnas.


ROAD TRIP DAY THREE

As an Octant Furnas guest, we had 24-hour access to the indoor and outdoor thermal pools, so we started the day off with a dip. We were also each gifted a 20-minute flotation bed treatment, so we continued our hydrotherapy circuit until we had to check out.


After leaving Furnas, we headed west, to the Lagoa do Fogo viewpoint, which is located pretty much bang in the center of São Miguel Island. Seeing the lake with clear skies is the goal, but the weather changes quickly and varies vastly across the island. We were lucky enough to get a view of the lake, but the strong winds disincentivized us from hiking. The trail starting from that overlook, was steep and muddy and uninviting due to the heavy cloud cover.


Since our attempt to hike had been obliterated by low lying clouds, mud and wind, we decided to have lunch and then give it another go. So, we drove 25 minutes to Bar Caloura in Vila Franca do Campo. This easy breezy seafood restaurant is very casual and right on the water. They don't take reservations, so you might have to wait for a seat. Get the Limpets.


We went back to Lagoa do Fogo after lunch, but the winds were even stronger on this attempt.


Hiking plans thwarted, we drove 25 minutes southwest to our beautiful hotel, White Exclusive Suites & Villas, and had a few wines on the terrace overlooking the sea instead. All was not lost.


That evening, we dined at the hotel, Cardume Restaurant, and had the best meal of our whole trip. I can't recommend this hotel enough.


ROAD TRIP DAY FOUR

We enjoyed a lie in, a private Pilates session and breakfast White Exclusive Suite & Villas before we had to check out, fill up the car hire, drop the rental off and get to the airport for our flight back to London (via Lisbon).


A visit to the Azores should be on everyone's list. It's a chance to immerse yourself in the rich cultural heritage, explore rugged landscapes and enjoy the warm hospitality of the locals.


KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

  • Driving: Roads were well paved and easy to navigate. We never drove more than about 40 minutes between sites. We saw no police. Be aware that people stop and park wherever they like.

  • Weather: Although temperatures usually remain mild all year, the rain and cloud cover can be volatile and unpredictable. You can experience all four seasons in a day. Every time we opened the car door, we were unsure what we'd be stepping into - sun, rain, wind, cold.

  • Attire: Bring lots of layers. It can be colder than you expect. There is no need to dress up anywhere on the island. People are mainly in hiking gear.

  • Sustainability: The Azores is considered one of the top most sustainable travel destinations. From a focus on conservation of natural areas, hiking trails and marine life, the islands place an emphasis on renewable energy.

  • Safety: The Azores is known to be one of the safest locations in the world.

  • Affordability: Despite a remote location, the strong Euro and lack of mass tourism certainly help. Meals with a three-course dinner and drinks average only ~€40 per person.

  • Azores vs Madeira: Both islands are filled with friendly people, English-speakers, stunning vistas and spectacular hiking. But I'd say that the Azores are more serene, eco-friendly and low-key in terms of modern development and tourism. The food is inferior.


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