The Azores, a.k.a. the Hawaii of Europe, known for hiking, hot springs, fresh seafood, meals cooked in geothermal hot springs, streets lined with blue and pink hydrangeas. Why wouldn’t we want to visit the Azores? We flew through Lisbon, a stunning coastal European city with monasteries, insanely steep hills, and exceptional pastries, but this trip was focused on Sao Miguel, the largest of the nine Azores islands. Island hopping is possible, but we wanted to soak in Sao Miguel thoroughly (and literally, thanks to the abundance of geothermal baths).
What We Did
One of the benefits of a volcanic island, despite the risk for further tectonic activity, is the abundance of hot springs to visit after long, beautiful hikes. In Furnas, boiling, sulphurous caldeiras produce endless towers of steam, but Poca da Dona Beija is a tamer version surrounded by a sub-tropical botanic garden for about three Euros per person.
Caldeira Velha is another popular spot. It’s rumored a Portuguese king once bathed at the nearby spa.
But Ponta da Ferraria was special. Nestled in an ocean cove, hot water bubbles up during low tide, the time to visit. As the tide washes back in, you can swim from rope to rope to adjust your temperature. We spent hours here and were lucky to catch a sunset during our soak.
Salto do Prego
At a local bar one night where smoking was legal, cigarettes were sold from vending machines, and the same soccer game blared on at least four screens, someone told us about the Salto do Prego trail near Faial da Terra. The trail meandered past abandoned homes, baby chicks, and ended at a waterfall/swimming spot cold enough to roll-call every living cell in your body.
Lagoa do Fogo “Lake of Fire”
This 10.8 kilometer trail loops past both active and abandoned farms, aquaducts carrying water to the towns below, trails lined with hydrangeas and cows, capturing snippets of life at different points in time on the island, and ends at Lagoa do Fogo, a crater lake formed during the last volcanic eruption in the Fogo area ~1563.
What We Tasted
Limpets (Lapas): Similar to mussels, these small, sea snails are smothered in butter and served sizzling.
Barnacles (Cracas): These barnacles are steamed in butter, but served chilled over ice. A tiny hook is used to extract the barnacle before drinking the remaining buttery-seawater liquid inside the shell.
Pastel de Nata: (Lisbon) The story goes that convents/monasteries used egg whites for starching clothes and needed a way to use the leftover egg yolks, hence these buttery, cinnamon-dusted custard tarts were born and sold to raise funds when convents/monasteries were financially threatened following the 1820 Revolution. They are everywhere in Lisbon and I am truly saddened they are not prevalent here in the U.S.
Queijadas de Vila Franca do Campo: (Sao Miguel) Also in light of the egg white situation, convents on Sao Miguel came up with these delicate cakes similar to marzipan in taste and texture, but without almonds.
Bolos Lêvedos: This bread was everywhere in Sao Miguel, especially at breakfast. Cooked on round griddles, the bread is sweet and airy, like a cross between a large English muffin and challah bread. Served with soft table cheese and piri piri sauce, this bread was a meal in and of itself.
Pineapple: On our first morning in Sao Miguel, we stumbled on a greenhouse full of budding pineapples. These highly compact fruits were amazingly sweet and served for breakfast or dinner, grilled with Morcela (blood pudding).
The soft, white table cheese and fresh piri piri sauce also deserve a mention, as do the fresh, green figs grown on the farm we stayed on. In short, the food was amazing. From the paella on the mainland of Portugal to the seafood on Sao Miguel and the incredible collection of Portuguese wine to accompany every meal, we ate very well the entire trip.
Restaurante Ponta do Garajau in Ribiera Quente: In this quiet seaside town, teenagers hang out at bus stops, sharing benches under cover to ward off the last of the afternoon sun as fishing boats dock at the end of the day. Families took meals outside and stray cats dotted narrow streets. Curtains blew through windows without screens, carrying the smell of fish frying, the sound of knives on plates. A scooter with a rattling muffler echoed in the hills above the village, where only one tunnel connects the town to the rest of the island. A river runs through the town to meet the ocean, where our dinner was caught earlier that day. Restaurante Ponta do Garajau was excellent, the most unhurried meal we’ve had in a long time.
Where We Stayed
Convento de Sao Francisco: Built after the 1522 earthquake and landslides destroyed Vila Campo, Convento de Sao Francisco was built to house Franciscan clergy. The building has had many uses in its lifetime including a school, a summer home, and most recently, a small guest house for travelers. Every morning, breakfast was fresh pineapple and oranges grown in the original orchard onsite, bolos levedos, jams, jellies, and cheeses. It was quiet, serene, and full of ocean breezes through the wrought-iron bars on our windows, a powerful remnant of the building’s past.
Quinta dos Sentidos (Five Senses Garden): For the second half of our stay, we stayed on the other side of the island, closer to Sete Cidades. We found Quinta dos Sentidos on Air B and B and were sold on the idea of living on an organic farm with an outdoor wood-burning stove. John and Eldibranda were excellent hosts, leaving us fresh figs, grapes, carrots, and beets harvested from the fields. We cooked dinner with fresh market fish, mainland wine, and veggies from the field. Life goals.
Take Only Pictures, Leave Only Footsteps
In 1989, Barbara Paulsen from the New York Times described Sao Miguel as “splendid isolation.” Horses and donkey carts were the primary mode of transportation, and the Azores was still among the poorest of its European neighbors. Although we only saw one horse-drawn cart, tourism is still relatively young in the Azores, with a large percentage of visitors traveling from the Portuguese mainland.
The effort to expand was visible. Roads are well marked and maintained. Towns are responsible for keeping up gardens and green spaces, especially the hydrangeas along the roads. At a local bar, an older gentlemen, though he only spoke Portuguese, insisted we take the wifi password in case we needed it. Almost every place we stayed or visited asked us to tell our friends. The message was clear: we were welcome here.
On our first day, our host explained the meaning of a miradouro, which roughly translates to a lookout spot from a tall place. Miradouro signs are everywhere in Sao Miguel. Residents must have convened to plot the most scenic spots, the places they were most proud of and wanted to share. These carefully curated places are reflection spots for troubled hearts, peaceful places for picnics, or sunsets, or proposals, places to fill your soul with beauty, your lungs with fresh, salty air, to uncork a bottle of wine and relax. Each one was different from the next, full of stories and legends, history crammed into a rough translation, a sign on the side of the road, the work of missionaries or tectonic shifts, each sign asking us to be a witness to each unique moment, another passing sunset, to an island and people in the middle of the Atlantic.