São Miguel, Portugal, the largest island in the Azores Archipelago, was our last of three islands to visit. The inter-island flight from Terceira took us—my husband and I and our friends--back to the Ponta Delgada Airport where we had landed from the United States before beginning our island-hopping adventure. (Azores Getaways arranged our flights, hotels, and rental cars and did an excellent job!)
Our first stop, after checking into the Grand Hotel Acores Atlantico, was Sete Cidades. Unfortunately, the high winds did not blow away the fog that hid the majestic view of the lakes below. We did stop at the aqueduct for pictures, but we opted to do only one overlook (miradouro) because of weather. Thankfully, the Miradouro do Cerrado das Freiras overlook gave us a brief view of the two lakes which, on sunny days, show off their two colors: one is blue while the other is green due to algae.
We were disappointed that the fog was so thick. In fact, we didn’t go up on the roof of the abandoned Monte Palace Hotel. The hotel, which was abandoned shortly after it opened, is officially closed to the public but, unofficially, the rooftop provides visitors with the best view of the lakes—if the fog isn’t in residence.
Nevertheless, the drive was scenic. Hydrangeas lined the road like colorful purple, blue, and pink fences. Even though the flowers were past their prime—April is probably the best month to experience their full colors—they were splendid.
We drove down into the caldera that contains the town of Sete Cidades. The quaint whitewashed Igreja de São Nicolau church stands watch over the city. (If you need a rest stop, the cafe across the street has clean facilities—just buy a snack or drink. We didn’t see any other options for food or facilities which probably explains why this stop is so popular.)
(A few notes: Rent a car or take tours to see the island. Public transportation is not an option. Check the webcams at www.spotazores.com to judge the weather at various locations on the islands. Standard weather apps only tell the weather inside towns and the weather can change quickly. Throughout our visit to São Miguel, we checked the app to see if the fog had lifted, but Sete Cidades was always hidden by a thick veil. We were disappointed that we couldn’t see the two lakes displaying their glorious colors, but there is always another trip and other sights to see.)
Images from Ponta Delgada
We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring Ponta Delgada with a visit inside the Igreja Matriz, the city gates, and many winding streets. (Another day we wandered through the market which was full of fish, cheeses, and produce.) Ponta Delgada highlights the typical Portuguese artistic sidewalks that are always beautiful and creative. We topped off the evening with dinner at São Pedro, which was located near our hotel and across the street from the casino. (We didn’t visit the casino so I can’t provide any details about it.) Food and service were very good, but the lighting was off putting.
We had set off early the next day to fit in a six-mile hike around Lagoa das Furnas before our lunch at Terra Nostra Restaurant. (Reservations are a must at the restaurant which is famous for its cozido. (Cozido is a traditional meal that is slow cooked in the steam vents of the volcanoes.) Unfortunately, we missed the turn to get to the hike, so we ended up in town at a pastry shop which had excellent cappuccino and pastries. (You may notice that eating was a major part of this trip with great foods and wine, always at very reasonable prices.) After our break we tried again, this time successfully, to find the hike. (Watch carefully for the exit.) You pay for parking and the area can be very busy with tourists—all of whom come to see the Fumarolas Lagoa das Furnas venting and their restaurant’s cozido removed from the hot steam vents where it has been cooking for approximately 7 1/2 hours. (I don’t envy the people who get up very early every morning to put the large pots in the ground and cover them with ashes.)
We hiked around the lake, but we were only able to do about two miles in and two out because of time constraints. Serendipitously, we arrived at the fumarolas just as the cozidos were being plucked from the vent, so we could almost follow the van headed to our restaurant for lunch.
Visitors cannot share the huge portions of cozido at Terra Nostra but can order more of anything they want. (None of us finished our plates nor ordered more!) The plates— containing four cuts of pork, one portion of beef, two types of sausage, kale, cabbage, carrots, taro, white potato, and sweet potato—were excellent. The slow cooking of this famous dish made the food extremely tender and, in general, juicy.
After lunch, we received a nice surprise—tickets to the adjacent Terra Nostra Gardens and Hot Springs, which were on our to-do list, but we didn’t realize they were so close. The hot spring is a giant reddish pool that is heated by geothermal springs. (The brownish-red color is due to the iron.) The warm water was relaxing, but too deep for me to totally relax. (I’m 5’3 1/2” and I stood on my tiptoes the entire time!)
After the springs, we walked quickly through the gardens. We were too late for a fantastic crop of hydrangeas and too early to experience the camellias, but the glimpses of what had been and what was to be were charming and the natural scenery surrounding us was amazing.
Some of the Beautiful Scenes from Terra Nostra Gardens
The drive from Furnas to Ponta Delgada gave us a little time to regroup as we passed more scenic countryside. We finished another wonderful day with dinner—this time at Restaurante Bom Pesqueiro, which was on the docks. The excellent food and customer service made the experience fabulous. Seldom is it obvious that people love their jobs as much as the servers here. They even infused their enthusiasm into the description of the fish choices for the day and the preparation of them.
We used this final day to explore more of the island, beginning with the fascinating pineapple plantation, A Arruda. On São Miguel, pineapples are grown in whitewashed, glass greenhouses to provide the constant temperatures needed for the fruits. The plantation lets you walk through on a free, self-guided tour of the greenhouses, each of which demonstrates a different stage of the pineapples’ 18-24-month growth. (Watch the video first to gain a good overview of the process.)
The gift shop has all things pineapple and other local souvenirs while the snack bar serves up luscious pineapple products including piña coladas and pineapple cake.
Feeling fortified, we headed for the waterfalls at Parque da Ribeira dos Caldeirões.
Thankfully, serendipity stepped in, and we spotted the Chá Gorreana tea plantation along the road. (Chá is tea in Portuguese, so I guess that’s a litttle redundant.) The self-guided tour of the plantation, the largest and oldest in Europe, doesn’t take long, probably 30 minutes max. Visitors learn the different stages the tea undergoes from growth to market and are then allowed to taste the finished product and watch a video that explains the process.
The day still held more serendipitous moments as we drove onward to Ribeiro do Caldeirões. The parking lot overlooks a magnificent gorge containing beautiful waterfalls, pathways, late-blooming hydrangeas, lush greenery, and old stone buildings that had become part of the landscape.
The first waterfall can be seen from the road, but the view is even better for visitors who follow the paths to get a closer look. On the other side of the bridge is a longer walk leading to another large waterfall.
Ribeiro do Caldeirões
Along the way, we passed a historic water mill and pig corral. (Thankfully, the pig corral has lost its original odor.) Everywhere the flowers were still colorful and gave a glimpse of the awe-inspiring view that spring must hold. (I took so many pictures of hydrangeas during this off season that I can’t imagine how many I would have taken during a spring visit.) We ended our exploration at the little cafe hidden inside the gorge. Ham and cheese sandwiches have seldom tasted as good as they did here on either rustic on Portuguese bread!
Then back on the road to our hotel with one amazing stop along the way at the Miradouro de Santa Iria to see the towering cliffs and crashing waters below. (The overlooks can be found in GPS, but there isn’t much warning as you approach them.) The day, and our trip, had a perfect ending with dinner at A Tasca with excellent service, atmosphere, and food.
And then...home after a wonderful adventure! We would love to return and visit more of the islands. Azores Airlines allows a stopover which would be a fun way to get a visit in on the way to mainland Portugal.
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