Azores Up Close

March 01, 2013   //  Posted in: Merry Travels   //  By: Emily   //  29 responses

This place was pretty remarkable. (So remarkable that we returned in the spring of 2014 with kids in tow – you can read more about that in this post.)

Sao Miguel, Azores on a sunny day.

We spent a week in January vacationing on the island of São Miguel in Azores, Portugal for our honeymoon. The Azores are a series of volcanic islands in the middle of the Atlantic–nearly 1,000 miles off the coast of Portugal–where three tectonic plates meet (the North American Plate, the Eurasian Plate, and the African Plate). I mentioned once before that we discovered the islands from above on our way home from Morocco (we sound like such world-travelers, and we are so not), but we never expected to be able to visit ourselves so soon. We only went because Groupon was offering a special, we hadn’t actually planned on honeymooning until later this year, but I couldn’t pass it up. Map courtesy of Google, circle courtesy of me.

That's it, those are the Azores.

We liken it to the Atlantic version of Hawaii, but a more moderate temperature (because it’s further north) and less commercialized (we saw one Apple store that was essentially the size of our bedroom, a McDonalds and Burger King in the biggest city on the island, but nothing else that we recognized as being “name brand”). Cafes were predominant, no Starbucks, and the restaurants were small. Best of all, puddle jumpers, it’s a direct 4-hour flight from Boston, betcha didn’t know that.

I have a really lot of photos to show you. We took over 2,400 total using our iPhones, our Canon G12, our Canon Rebel, and Pete’s new GoPro. The ones in this post weren’t actually edited, just selectively chosen and scaled down to load more quickly on the blog. I haven’t had a chance to run all of them through the Photoshop machine. Most importantly: remember that you can click on all photos in this post to enlarge them and see a caption of the photo.

Sao Miguel, Azores.

It was “wintertime” on the island–a balmy 60 degrees every day–which meant that we encountered hardly any other tourists on our travels. São Miguel is the largest of the islands, and during the spring and summer months ferries run between neighboring islands that sit 60-100 miles away. It was really nice to sight see and explore the island without feeling like tourists everywhere we went, it ended up being very private and quiet. The foliage and gardens are world-renown, but in January everything is pruned back. The roadways, for example, were lined with the largest, most impressive hydrangeas we’ve ever seen, and had they been full and lush they would have served as a barrier of sorts. Without them, we drove around roads with no visual blockade and looked down over rolling hills and down steep cliffs.

Looking out from a miradour in the Azores.

The pine trees were amongst my favorites.

Pine trees in Sao Miguel.

You can’t tell so much in that picture, but the needles are short and soft with a little natural ombre action. And the variety of pines was amazing, this was just one of many species.

Pine trees in Sao Miguel.

It wasn’t warm enough to swim, and we’ve read that that part of the ocean never gets warm enough to be considered a sunbathing destination, but that wasn’t enough to keep us from exploring every black sand beach that we found.

Our original plan had been to rent scooters to explore the island, but a car seemed like a better bet upon arrival on a rainy day at 7am, and in hindsight with all of the hills, rough roads, and hairpin turns, we really appreciated having our little Peugeot to get us around. Pete will tell you that we only got into 4th gear once, on the island’s new “highway,” and it was only for about 10 minutes. The rest of the island’s roadways were narrow and often bumpy; one road looped all around the coast of the island and through each village. There were other roads too, but not many, it would have been hard to get lost.

We found ourselves in more than one cowjam, parked still on the road for upwards of a half-hour as farmers moved their herds from pasture to pasture. Cows, believe it or not, were everywhere on the island, herds covering almost every green pasture, cows way up on steep cliffs, cows eating innocently next to the road.

Cowjam, yo. (There were several tour busses on these narrow, bumpy dirt roads but we rarely saw other tourists outside of our hotel).

We brought one of Julia’s LEGO guys, we call him Elvis, and took pictures of him all over the island so that she could see where he traveled too. We also wrote daily postcards to her to help document out travels.

The first half of our vacation was overcast and foggy, but the second half was perfectly sunny, so our photos showcase two very different islands. This miradouro (overlook) in Ponta do Cintrao is a good representation of the impact of the weather on  the island’s beauty:

Cloudy day in the Azores.

When we came back to that point a few days later, the sky was so blue, but the ocean was enraged. And it’s forever etched in my mind.

Beautiful day in the Azores.

The whole coast had pockets of cliffs. This was another one that stopped us in our path.

We could have stood and watched the ocean break on the cliffs all day, but instead we explored, touring the island by car each day we were there, dropping in on different villages, checking out each overlook, daring to venture down each secondary road only suited for cattle and tractors.

On occassion, we’d find little hidden stairwells down unmarked paths towards the ocean. They were usually really pretty, the pathways often damaged by landslides, but gave way to this kind of preserved beauty that can be so hard to find.

We ventured to the top of Pico de Barrosa twice during our trip. The first time, there was nothing to enjoy; the fog was so thick that we couldn’t see 10 feet in any direction outside of our car, not even to realize that we were driving blindly on the edge of the highest point in the island with no guard rails. We were lucky to be up there on a clear day, what we saw amazing:

In one direction from the highest point on the island, a cascading hill towards the coastline. We were above some low clouds at this altitude, we couldn't actually see to the water. In the other direction, the brilliant crater lake Lagoa do Fogo (Lake of Fire).

Pico de Barrosa, Sao Miguel, Azores with my honey.

Sunny or not, we came across some really beautiful mirodouros as we toured around the island. Some were immaculately landscaped, as made-for-tourists as I think the island catered. This one was exceptional, with ornate details every which way. How about that scale, those were some huge bushes?

Inside a beautiful mirodouro, with Pete.

We saw a lot of beautiful homes in our travels. Had I been in the position to buy one, this might have been our next DIY project. It was for sale, after all:

Our next DIY project? Renovating shells of homes on the Azorean coast. Oceanfront view in Mosteiros.

We learned (from our friend The Bartender at our hotel bar) that Azores aren’t islands of wealth, and most families don’t get the opportunity to leave or explore mainland North America or Europe. He said they’re always “on vacation” though, earning enough to make ends meet, making cheese, drinking coffee, not bad. The biggest employers include the government (who is also responsible for tourism and island maintenance) and SATA airlines which exclusively lands in Sao Miguel. Their homes, as you might expect, I was obsessed with and photographed secretly during our entire trip. See the captions for more detail:

Along with the homes, the roadways and sidewalks were ever-impressive. Basalt (volcanic) rocks are used throughout the island, formed as tiles, cobblestones, and endlessly unique mosaics weaving through each village.

Basalt Mosaic Sidewalks in the Azores.

Every sidewalk was unique:

We played with phone and camera features that we don’t often get the opportunity to mess with, one being the iPhone panoramic setting. I’m actually standing at an overlook with a round wall surrounding it, weird effect but I like it:

Emily, in the Azores.

And, if you’re able to see it, notice the swimming pool built into lava rocks in this next picture (that family must own the airline?). The view was beautiful, even if it was a cloudy day.

Note the swimming pool built into the lava rocks.

I also played with the miniature effect, which I’m rarely at a high enough position enough to take advantage of. It’s a certain look that some people like and others don’t, and maybe it’s some cliche, but I thought it was great considering we took lots of normal photos of these overlooks too. Artsy fartsy.

Walking to a black sand beach. // miniature effect

We spent a lot of time exploring a few specific beaches. Our favorites were in Mosteiros and Ponta de Ferraria. They were mostly vacant (no locals were exploring the beach during the “winter” and there were no tourists). We met a dog though, he was groomed so we assumed he wasn’t a stray. We named him Niko and then almost smuggled him home in my backpack. He followed us around on one beach for an hour, let us hug him, and chased oranges that had washed ashore (right, lots of fruit washing onto the beaches).

Puppy in the Azores.

Also on the beaches, lots of Portuguese Man-of-wars, most of which Pete tried to save by launching them back into the ocean with bamboo chopsticks. The ones we saw were never much longer than the length of our hand, but we know they can get mighty big. Crazy-weird looking things in person, too. All of the driftwood was weathered bamboo, and there was glass. Lots of beautiful glass, deserving of its own post as a matter of fact.

The homes weren’t the only thing infused with color, many of the streets in the villages were home to colorful street art. Also, silos and the sides of otherwise unsightly buildings were often beautified. These were some of my favorites:

Azorean art, Sao Miguel

The art was purposeful, sometimes graffitiesque, but always signed by the artist. We saw the same few represented around the island. Here are some more of my favorites:

One of the most well-known and well-promoted parts of Sao Miguel is in the village of Furnas, where caldeiras expel heat from deep within the earth (hello, we’re on a volcano) and have, 24/7, for hundreds or thousands or lots of years.

It was in Furnas that we saw our first thermal springs/hot springs. The ones in this picture were marked, each vent surrounded by rocks and labeled by name, but the thing about the hot springs is that they just appear anywhere, like, driving along the road, all of a sudden there would be steam expelling from between the weeds.

Caldieras in Furnas.

The island has created some touristy diversions for people who want to see the hot springs up close, but again, no real warning signs and yes, boiling water coming straight out of a puddle. Curious if it was actually boiling? We were too. It was.

Yes, that's Pete kneeling next to a puddle of boiling spring water. Always boiling.

The caldeiras smelled heavily of sulfur, but it was always amazing to see this natural phenom. It was really interesting to see how the island provided its residents with space to make use of the natural heat – in this park-like atmosphere in Furnas were large holes dug into the ground with cylindrical cement surrounds, where families could come, bring their meat and potatoes wrapped up, and deposit their raw foods into the hole for the day to cook off of the earth’s heat. The hole would get covered first by a large metal plate, and then the plate would get covered with a large pile of gravel. It smelled like cooking stew, and it was amazing.

Caldeiras in Furnas. The lumps of dirt indicate where people were cooking meals.

The rest of the park was pretty too. We caught snippets of it on an Anthony Bourdain special not long before we left, but in those clips the whole park was filled with curious tourists. This time, there were no roped off areas, there were no other people, actually.

The Village of Furnas made use of the hot springs by diverting spring water as it flowed hot down the hillside into a series of pools. The muddy color you see isn’t actually mud, it’s actually iron/rust from the earth, but the water was hot – jacuzzi hot.

Hot spring diverting into pools in Furnas, Azores.

We did eventually change into bathing suits and get into the waist deep pools, only for a few minutes to say that we had. It was a cooler drizzly day and it was great.

Hot spring pools in Furnas, Azores.

Most days, we started our mornings off in one of the many cafes within walking distance of our hotel – coffee with milk and pastries cost next to nothing. On our travels, we stopped into grocery stores (there were three sizable stores of the same chain) and stocked up on car snacks and perused what random flavors the Portuguese were enjoying. Each night, we enjoyed dinner in the city we stayed in – Ponta Delgada – and tasted local cuisine that usually consisted of steak or seafood. Our favorite restaurant, however, was a vegetarian place called Rotas that come to find was rated #1 on Tripadvisor. We ate there twice, and then liked the hell out of them on Facebook. There were only about 7 tables in the restaurant, which was actually the first floor of the owner’s house, and it was decorated in a really cute way, very etsy-handmade style. Most restaurants offered menus in both Portuguese and English, presumably more often for the British travelers, so it wasn’t too difficult to communicate, but that didn’t mean we always quite knew what to expect (for dinner in other restaurants, we ordered a meal and it came with assorted sides or sauces that we didn’t know to expect).

It was on the way home from dinner at Rotas one evening that we saw this baby, the Honda ZOOMER! It’s the Portuguese version of our Honda Ruckus! Scooter dorks.

SCOOTER. A Honda Zoomer! The Portuguese name for the Ruckus!

And finally, because I finally feel as though I covered the highlights of our dear honeymoon, a few other photos that I liked that weren’t already included. Are you sick of us yet?

Happy weekend, friends. I hope you have sweet daydreams of vacationing here someday, and then find a Groupon to help make it happen.

(P.S. We returned to the island in spring of 2014, this time with kids in tow. You can see more from that trip in this post.)

  • John @ Our Home from Scratch
    5 years ago - Reply

    Amazing! What an adventure. I hope to make it there one day myself. Only 4 hours from Boston is pretty nice too. I was around an 8 hours flight to Lisbon when we went to Portugal, so shaving off half that flight would be cool. Obrigado!

    • Emily
      5 years ago -

      We were pretty surprised by how short the flight was too. The bad part was that it was a redeye, so we landed at what was 7AM after only getting about an hour of sleep on the plane, and then proceeded with our whole first day without catching a nap at the hotel. The flight home was closer to 6.5 hours, although we were told there were strong headwinds. Still, it was great to just drop in on the island without having to go all the way to Lisbon and then backtrack.

      Also, the Groupon was actually through SATA, the airline. Neither our flight coming or going were full by any means, lucky if 1/2 to capacity. I’m sure the timing of the offer was just to help full seats to avoid cancelled flights. I’ve heard that the deal has been up once or twice since we went, so keep an eye out if you’re looking for a getaway. And if you want to go during the prime season, we were told that late summer (July – September) is warm, flowery, and perfect.

  • Harper
    5 years ago - Reply

    I’m not sure life gets much better than this!

  • Sara Aaserud
    5 years ago - Reply

    Gorgeous pictures! I can’t get over how awesome those sidewalks are!!

  • Michelle
    5 years ago - Reply

    Amazing post! Thanks for all those gorgeous pics! I’m glad you guys had such a great trip.

    • Emily
      5 years ago -

      Glad you enjoyed them as much as we do!

  • Staci @ My Friend Staci
    5 years ago - Reply

    I’m in awe! I had never heard of this place until you mentioned it before, and now I’ve added it onto the long list of destinations I have got to visit! Looks like paradise. It’s so nice visiting places during the off-season, too… it’s much more special, like your own private island!

  • Rob B (
    5 years ago - Reply

    Love this page! I lived vicariously through you as I read it. I have never noticed those silos in my trips to Sao Miguel. I wonder how I have missed them!

    Pico do Barrosa is always hit and miss due to fog and clouds. Glad you caught the views. There is great hiking and mountain biking there too.

    Love your picture of the wooden stairs at Santana.

    Thanks for sharing the wonderful pictures!

    Regards – Rob

  • Annabel Vita
    5 years ago - Reply

    I just got back from visiting Madeira with a friend, which is another Portuguese island but it’s off the coast of Morocco. It was also out of season, which was nice, and seems like it has a lot of similarities to the Azores. The basalt pavements for one! Also, the crazy changeable weather! In Madeira the mountains create micro-climates so our pictures all look like we covered four seasons in one day (we did!).

    PS. Portuguese pastries – omg, right?!

    • Emily
      5 years ago -

      I’m always surprised to hear of a place I’ve never once known of, and Madeira’s officially one of those. I just looked it up, it’s beautiful, and as you say has so many similarities to the Azores. I’m sure you had an amazing time, what a unique experience!

      Think the Canaries south of Madeira are similar too? They’ve long been on my wish list.

  • Paulo Alfaro
    5 years ago - Reply

    Great article and amazing photos! Congrats! U missed “Parque Atlântico”, the only shopping center, worthy of that name, in Ponta Delgada. There u can find another Burguer King and a Pizza Hut :) And I think u also missed one pit half-filled with lava of an ancient eruption in Ribeira Seca of Ribeira Grande. Maybe next time!!! :)

    • Emily
      5 years ago -

      Ooh, you know what, we might have been there (there was a cafe off the main street that ran beside the ocean that had a back entryway from the “mall”). Pizza Hut? For real?

      As for the half-filled lava pit, I will need to go back to see that. I know there must be so much we missed – we drove up and down several roads 2, 3, 4 times and each time caught a glimpse of something new. I love exploring!

    • Emily
      5 years ago -

      Oh, wait, we just looked up that mall and are surprised to find that it was a block from our hotel. Who knew!! We missed it.

  • Ruth
    5 years ago - Reply

    Love the pics! This place is now on my list of places to go :) Thanks for sharing!

    • Emily
      5 years ago -

      It’s on my list of places to go back to :) Hope you make it there.

  • casacaudill
    5 years ago - Reply

    What a great recap. The Azores look beautiful. (I am a sucker for off season travel for all of the positives you experienced.) Thanks for sharing.

    Before I go … um, WHAT IS WITH THAT MAN O WAR?! I’m so disturbed on so many levels. :-)

    • Emily
      5 years ago -

      Yay, so glad you liked it! They’re similar to jellyfish, except the float inflated on top of the water with their tentacles dangling beneath. Youngin’ creatures washed ashore at every beach and it’s not like they were crawling around stinging anything, they were there to die, but they are amazingly colored and wildly crazy looking things, aren’t they? I took some pretty macro photos of them and kept my distance otherwise, but Pete tried to fling them back into the ocean by holding driftwood like a shovel.

  • Paula
    5 years ago - Reply

    I absolutely love finding travel posts to places that are uncommon. My parents were actually born in Sao Miguel and moved to Canada as teenagers. My first visit to Sao Miguel was in 1999 and it was unforgettable! I forgot just how beautiful the islands of Portugal are. You said it perfectly that it may not be the wealthiest area of Portugal, but they really do understand the importance of life – family, friendship, and good food :)

    • Emily
      5 years ago -

      I’ve heard that there’s quite a community of Portuguese in Canada! How often do you get back? It was an incredible experience, and I think I’d be more inclined to take a short flight back there during the warmer months instead of trek across the country to reach Hawaii. Now that I’ve seen it in winter, I’d love to see it in full bloom. Thank you for the nice comment, I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

  • Rob B (
    5 years ago - Reply

    You are correct, there are alot of Azorean Portuguese in Canada. I was born, and live, in Canada. My father emigrated from the Azores as a teenager and took me for the first time in 1988 (or89) and I go quite often now. I’d love to take a sabbatical from work and live there for a time, and maybe even retire there…

    I like this page so much that I am putting a link to it in my next e-newsletter that goes out in the next day or two

  • Jess
    4 years ago - Reply

    Your pictures are gorgeous! I stumbled upon them because I am honeymooning there this fall. My parents are from mainland Portugal, and I have always wanted to visit the Azores. We found a direct flight into Terceira, and out of Sao Miguel. So, we’re staying two nights in Terceira and three in Sao Miguel. Any suggestions of what to do and see in a short visit to Sao Miguel?

    • Emily
      4 years ago -

      You’re going to love it, Jess!! I wish we could have seen Terceira, but Sao Miguel was wonderful. Of all of the places we visited on that island, a few still come to mind as places we want to go back to. Mosteiros and Sete Cidades were both great (try and hit up Sete Cidades on a clear, non-foggy day for a view from the top of the island). Ginetes had a great beach for exploring too. In general, we loved taking a car all the way around the perimeter of the island and enjoying every overlook. Don’t miss Furnas, and be sure to look for the hot spring water public swimming pool. In Ponta Delgada, make dinner reservations at ROTAS! It’s vegetarian and the best food we ate (and I’m not even vegetarian!) We definitely want to go back.

      Happy wedding and honeymooning!

  • Lulu
    4 years ago - Reply

    Gorgeous pictures – I love the waterfall pic and beach with the wood staircase. My mother is from Sao Miguel and I love going there. Glad you enjoyed it even in the winter. You talked about the miradouro being immaculately kept for tourists, there is hardly any tourism to the Azores. Most people who travel there are visiting family or German. A lot of the people have family in the US or Canada, some have even lived there. (Others have gone to Bermuda to work so many know English.) Keeping the island clean is in part cultural, you will often see people washing and cleaning the sidewalk in front of their house. My mother said it was the first thing her grandma would do in the morning. Mark Twain visited the Azores on the way to Europe and wrote about how dirty the people were but clean the island was. In picture 13, the ruined house, that area is called Lombadas. The building was a factory where they bottled naturally carbonated mineral water. The factory was destroyed in a mudslide but the spring water should still flow out of the wall. You can bring a bottle, fill it up, and drink it. Carbonated spring water pours out of a fountain in a wall in Furnas also. (You can also hike to Lagoa do Fogo from Lombadas and actually many people hike down into the crater from the miradouro you were at in another photo). I would recommend if you return to see the Tea Factory, Cha Gorreana, and Ilheu, the little sunken in volcano off the coast in Vila Franca do Campo which is a natural pool in the ocean only open in the summer. There are lots of hikes and small waterfalls too and eat cozido in Furnas cooked in the earth. I have not heard of Rotas but if I go back, I will be eating there. Happy travels, congratulations on your wedding.

    • Emily
      4 years ago -

      Lulu – we loved reading your comment. It took us right back to the island, and tells us so much. Interesting about the lack of tourism! We had heard that it was mostly Europeans (some of whom had houses on the island as vacation homes). The groupon is back as of yesterday and we are excitedly considering a return trip. Thank you for sharing your knowledge of the island!

  • leah
    4 years ago - Reply

    hello! a deal came up on Groupon, and i was curious to see if anyone had done a review having taken a similar trip. i was happy to find your website; thanks for such a thorough review of your time on the island. would you recommend renting a car? if we do not, do you think we will be missing out? we are in Boston, so it sounds like a short flight :) thanks!

    • Emily
      4 years ago -

      Awesome!We saw the deal reappear too and are actually considering a return trip. I would absolutely rent a car, I do not recall it being very expensive. If not, you will be limited to traveling by foot around the city, which is not that big, and pricier tour busses that I suspect do not readily stop to let you explore beaches and villages. We rented when we landed at the airport, which was easy, and would do it again (as in, we didn’t bother to secure the rental before our trip). The roads are narrow and windy and locals drive fast (!) but it was definitely worth it, being able to get around easily. Have fun!

  • Lulu
    4 years ago - Reply

    Sorry, I kind of misspoke. Multiple ideas got squished in my brain. The Europeans are definitely more likely to consider it a vacation spot and do make up the majority of the tourists. From my experience, most are German and it’s not uncommon to meet a German who has retired to the island. I’ve encountered several Spaniards and Scandinavians also. Surprisingly, I haven’t met many British people. I meant the majority of Americans or Canadians who travel to the Azores are visiting family but because of this, they often blend in and some don’t do the touristy things.

    • Emily
      4 years ago -

      We were surprised in our travels that we encountered very few tourist groups. I’m sure this was partially due to it being the off-season, but your rationale makes sense too. Beautiful place, I can’t wait to appreciate it more next time we visit.

  • Kitty
    3 years ago - Reply

    amazing for an island in the middle of an ocean!

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