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.)
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.
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.
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.
The pine trees were amongst my favorites.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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?
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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).
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)