Sweet is the taste of São Miguel. Its waters are nectarous, like the pineapples that grow in glass houses on the rolling hills. Its lands are ambrosial, as airy as the rolls of bolos lêvedos leavening in the kitchens. Those who know its sweetness have sought it with intent, for São Miguel is all but invisible. Barely a dewdrop in the vast overwhelm of the North Atlantic, the Azorean island only reveals itself to the most curious of cartophiles.
A thousand miles off the coast of Lisbon, the Azores, or Açores (ah-SAW-rish)—garnished with a cedilla and pronounced with a flap of the tongue—lie on Europe’s most extreme west. Along with Madeira, they make up Portugal‘s two Autonomous Regions, vestiges of a once vast colonial empire that stretched from Asia to America. Composed of nine loosely scattered volcanic protrusions, the Azores are doubly isolated: far from continental Europe and from each other. Among the islands, São Miguel is the largest and most populous. Its capital, Ponta Delgada, is both the gateway to the archipelago and the economic center. Foiling the city’s demure front is a surprisingly bubbly culinary scene. Every evening, under the many whitewashed façades and stern frames of black basalt, fresh ingredients and catches of the day are transfigured into harmonies of flavor.
Ponta Delgada is a springing board into the wiry charm that is São Miguel. It only takes an hour and a half to drive across the length of the island, but traveling here is best done slowly; the weather can be a bit of a speed bump. Like the rest of the Azores, São Miguel is tempestuous, with the sun, wind, and rain dancing in circles overhead. For this reason, the towns of Ribeira Grande and Vila Franca do Campo, both located in the middle of the island, make good bases for exploration. Less trafficked than Ponta Delgada, they offer a more authentic glimpse into life on São Miguel. Between volcanic springs, fern palms, crater lagoons, and ultramarine gardens, there is much to discover on the Azores’ Ilha Verde, or “green island.”
Tip: The guide below is divided into seven sections, one for each day. Depending on the weather, it can be rearranged to create a custom and flexible week-long itinerary.
Ilhéu de Vila Franca
The Ilhéu de Vila Franca, or Vila Franca Islet, is a paradise off paradise. Reachable by a short boat ride from the former Azorean capital of Vila Franca do Campo, its unique appearance has lent it the nickname The Princess Ring. From the air, it resembles a ouija planchette. On clear days, one can peer straight through its aquatic “glass eye”: a shallow lagoon in the shape of a perfect circle.
The lagoon is a beloved snorkeling location, home to vibrant wrasses, porgies, and even the occasional ray. During warmer seasons, the waters around the islet are a sanctuary for migratory cetaceans, although local residents like sperm whales and Risso’s dolphins can be spotted year-round. Until 1980s, the Ilhéu was a privately owned summer retreat. Today, between the months of June and October, it is open to the public. The rest of the year, it serves as a breeding ground for seabirds such as Cory’s shearwaters, locally known as cagarros, whose distinct infantile caws can be heard filling the streets of Ponta Delgada at night.
Tip: The public bathing season on Ilhéu de Vila Franca runs from mid-June to mid-October. Due to its protected status, the Ilhéu has a daily visitor limit of 400 people and a capacity of 200. Tickets can be purchased online or on the spot from a small kiosk at the port. To make the most out of a sunny day, an afternoon on the islet can be complemented with a morning of whale watching.
Lagoa do Fogo and Caldeira Velha
Lagoa do Fogo, Portuguese for “lake of fire,” is one of the quietest and most untouched places on São Miguel. The wide crater lake was born out of the collapse of the Fogo volcano caldera some 5,000 years ago. Its enchanting beauty of blue and green can be easily admired from several miradouros, or viewpoints, such as the Miradouro do Pico da Barrosa. By the Miradouro da Lagoa do Fogo, a small and well-trodden path leads down to the lakeshore and a tranquil pumice beach. Despite the incline, the short hike can be completed in around an hour.
To the north of the viewpoints, on the road towards Ribeira Grande, is Caldeira Velha, which translates roughly to “old cauldron.” Set in a primeval forest of lacy tree ferns and ginger lilies is a trio of pools. With temperatures ranging from tepid to tropical, they draw their heat from the earth. Upstream, by the coolest basin, a small chute carries milk-warm water from deep within the mountains down timeworn rock formations. The photogenic hotspot is a victim of its own success. To control access to the natural monument, tickets are sold in 90-minute slots, and capacity is limited to a hundred bathers at a time.
Tip: A narrow road leading to the waterfall of Salto do Cabrito also lies between Caldeira Velha and Ribeira Grande. This popular canyoning spot has a sparkling plunge pool and is a refreshing place to cool off on hot days.
Ribeira dos Caldeirões and Gorreana
At the foothills of the Serra da Tronqueira—home of São Miguel’s highest mountain, Pico da Vara, and largest old-growth forest—is Ribeira dos Caldeirões. The natural park is resplendent with native cedar, flowing cascades, and reefs of the Azores’ emblematic flower, the blue hydrangea. On São Miguel, due to the acidity of the island’s volcanic soil, the hydrangeas bloom in bursts of blue, from pillowy periwinkle to Qing-dynasty porcelain. Even beyond the regular flowering season of April to September, they can be found speckling the grounds of Ribeira dos Caldeirões like a scene from Monet’s garden.
With the exception of the areas around the Black Sea and the Caucasus which border Western Asia, the Azores are the only place in Europe where tea is cultivated commercially. Once upon a time, the archipelago was a major producer of oranges, but a 19th-century blight forced farmers to diversify, and two new crops took hold on São Miguel: pineapples, and tea. While the first tea plant seeds arrived from Brazil, the knowledge of its cultivation came from two Chinese men from Macau, which was at that time a de facto Portuguese colony. In its heyday, more than 50 tea gardens could be found across the Azores. Today, only two remain. The family-run Chá Gorreana is one of them. Founded in 1883, it is Europe’s oldest tea plantation, and the only one to have been in continuous operation. Five generations later, Gorreana’s green and black teas are appreciated for their delicate flavor. A small reserve is kept in the Azores for local consumption, and the rest is exported worldwide.
Tip: The production facilities and estate of Chá Gorreana are freely accessible to the public. In the tea salon with views of leafy stepped terraces and the north coast of São Miguel, guests can sample complimentary cups of the plantation’s organic brews.
The ancient craters of Sete Cidades and their mystical lagoons of jade and turquoise are perhaps the archipelago’s most recognizable landmark. If its name—Seven Cities—sounds a bit mysterious, it is not without reason; such an opulent landscape deserves to be accompanied by a tale or two. A Latin chronicle from Porto records the story of an archbishop, who, around the time of the Muslim conquest of Visigothic Hispania in 711, planned an escape to unknown lands in the Western Sea. Together with six other bishops and 5,000 faithful followers, they fled aboard 20 ships. Upon making landfall, the entire fleet was burned and seven Christian communities were established, thus creating an “island of Seven Peoples,” or Sete Cidades. But the communities were never heard from again, and over the centuries, they faded into lore. A more grounded explanation attributes the name of the area to its surrounding geographic contours: Lagoa Azul, Lagoa Verde, Lagoa de Santiago, Lagoa Rasa, Caldeira do Alferes, Caldeira Seca, and the present-day urban settlement.
The best platform to take in the lushness of Sete Cidades is indubitably from the Miradouro da Vista do Rei. On a clear day, the Lagoa das Sete Cidades, which consists of the twin lakes Azul and Verde, puts on a dazzling display. According to another local legend, the different colors of the water here derive from the tears of two star-crossed lovers: a green-eyed princess and a blue-eyed shepherd. Closer to the town, the Miradouro da Boca do Inferno is another popular viewpoint that offers a postcard vista of São Miguel’s verdant west.
Tip: Sete Cidades’ miradouros are some of the most crowded spots on São Miguel, but the area’s hiking trails promise a more peaceful experience. Like the Lagoa do Fogo, the region’s high elevation means it is a destination better saved for a sunny day.
Ponta da Ferraria and Mosteiros
If the lagoons of Sete Cidades are the gems of São Miguel, then Ponta da Ferraria can be considered its diamond in the rough. At this one-of-a-kind natural pool, a hydrothermal vent pours hot water directly into the ocean, creating a swimmable basin of heated sea. The hot spring is toastiest at low tide, although higher water levels bring a more adventurous flair: a bit of paddling around is needed to find the warm currents. A short distance away amidst a lunar setting, the outdoor café of the Termas da Ferraria spa is a relaxing dénouement to an afternoon of frolicking.
Ponta da Ferraria is São Miguel’s only oceanic geothermal pool, but other piscinas naturais, or rock pools, can be found in nearby Mosteiros. Beloved by locals both for its surf and for its serenity, Mosteiros is a small fishing town nestled in the open embrace of the ocean. Situated on the northwestern edge of the island on a fajã—a flat piece of land formed from lava flows and collapsed cliffs—its tidal pools and black sand beach boast the most resplendent sunsets in all the Azores. Every evening, fire and water come alive and paint the horizon.
Tip: Great seafood can be had all across São Miguel, but the fishing village of Mosteiros has some of the freshest. Aside from roasted octopus and grilled mussels and limpets, a rare seasonal delicacy is the Azorean barnacle.
Hidden in the folds of São Miguel’s forests, the smoky village of Furnas exudes the aura of an excavated El Dorado. But instead of gold, the treasure here is iron. Furnas is, quite literally, covered in it. Carried to the surface by underground springs and boiling fumaroles around which the settlement grew, the bathing waters of Parque Terra Nostra are so saturated with iron, they glow in an opaque, adobe orange. At the hot springs of Dona Beija, deposits of the mineral can be scooped up in fingerfuls right from the walls. The muddy salve supposedly does wonders for the skin, although the same can’t be said for bathing suits: Furnas’s ferruginous springs are notorious for staining swimwear.
The Azores sit over a precarious place: at the triple junction of the Eurasian, African, and North American plates. (Two of the islands, Flores and Corvo, actually lie on the North American plate.) As it happens, Furnas is one of the hotspots where tectonic heat and energy is released. Why then, did the Portuguese choose to live in a hazardous caldera, steeping in sulfurous gases and potentially explosive magma? It mainly boils down to the nutrient-rich soil, although perhaps, the area’s beguiling, almost sacrosanct mystique had something to do with it too. On rainy days, when cold droplets from the sky meet the piping underworldly steam of the fumaroles, they form swirling white chains that seem to bridge heaven and hell.
Its transcendental qualities aside, Furnas is known for a very terrestrial specialty. The cozido das Furnas, a local twist on the quintessential Portuguese mixed-meat stew, is probably eaten by more tourists than locals nowadays, but it nevertheless remains faithful to tradition. In large aluminum pots, a smorgasbord of pork, beef, chicken, chouriço, and blood sausage are layered between vegetables and then dusted with coarse salt and chili pepper. The pots are brought to the fumaroles by the village lake and then lowered into pits, where they are left to cook by volcanic heat. Over a period of six hours, the flowing juices from all the ingredients are infused with natural sulphuric steam. The cooking process imparts a distinctive and inimitable smoky flavor to the cozido. After a soul-nourishing soak in a hot spring, this hearty volcano stew may be just what the doctor ordered.
Tip: In addition to Parque Terra Nostra and Poça da Dona Beija, a third thermal bath complex is located within the boutique hotel of Octant Furnas. With a heated indoor and outdoor pool, Finnish sauna, Turkish steam bath, and Roman laconicum open to hotel guests around the clock, it guarantees the most relaxing and private spa experience on São Miguel.
The northeastern corner of São Miguel, sensibly named Nordeste, is the least populated area on the island. It is a region of contrast, with a coastline that is as untamed as it is carefully curated. By the lighthouse at Ponta do Arnel, the waves tumble over themselves and turn the ocean’s surface into white marble. A few cottages line the steep slope down to the quay. On a calmer day, the boats would be out at sea, scouring the waters for silvery sardines and chicharros—tiny, slinky Atlantic horse mackerel. They make a delectable lunch when battered in corn semolina and given an oily plunge in the pan. The key, according to the men of Nordeste’s naval club, is to give them a good rub of salt beforehand.
South of the lighthouse, by the cliffside gardens of Miradouro Ponta do Sossego, the atmosphere is more palatial. Preened plants and exotic blooms line up like ladies-in-waiting by an imperial panorama. Just adjacent is the Ponta da Madrugada, or “dawn’s tip,” where every morning, the sun and Serra da Tronqueira mountains rise hand in hand out of the sea, ushering in a new day over splendid São Miguel.
Tip: At the southeastern corner of São Miguel is the civil parish of Faial da Terra. The small community, which is sustained mostly by agriculture and husbandry, is also home to the antique Sanguinho, a stony micro-settlement claimed by time. The trailhead to the waterfall of Salto do Prego starts here, with a round-trip taking approximately two hours. For a more indulgent afternoon, the neighboring town, Povoação, has one of São Miguel’s few sandy beaches.