The Azores are a beautiful destination for anyone who enjoys the outdoors and a little adventure without an overly “touristy” feel. I can best describe it as a semi-tropical version of Ireland, complete with a temperate climate and breath-taking scenery. My wife and I were very happy in our choice of destination for our 20th anniversary and only wish we had more time there.
Based on our experiences, I’ve listed my top 6 things to do in the Azores, specifically the island of Sao Miguel.
1. Tea Time at the Gorreana Tea Plantation
The Gorreana Tea Plantation was actually our first stop on the island while we waited for check-in time at the hotel. It features a beautiful walk amongst the tea fields–did you know the leaves were picked by hand?–as well as the chance to view the entire process from harvest to packaging and sample their wares in a nice little tea and gift shop. They also serve excellent gelato. We showed up relatively early and had the entire walk without another soul on the trail. It was our first experience with the lush vegetation of the island and the masses of wild flowers, including the Azores signature hydrangeas.
2. Canoe in a Volcano at Lagoa Sete Cidades
Lagoa Seta Cidades (literally lagoon of the seven cities) is a twin lake inside a dormant volcanic crater. The view from the highway lookout is stunning. Bike and walking trails (long walking trails) are also available around the perimiter of the caldera. Nestled by the lakes is a little village that has a handful of places to eat. Kayaks, canoes, and paddle boards are available for rent at the Lagoa Azul or “blue” lake as a way to spend a relaxing afternoon.
3. Whale Watching at Vila Franca do Campo
There are various whale watching tours departing from different parts of the island, but my favorite was . . . well . . . none of them. I get desperately sea sick. However, while I happily sat at a cafe and got 4000 words written for my latest novel, my wife went whale watching with a tour from Terra Azul. Based on the observations from spotters, you are shuttled out in what looks like a giant zodiac boat to spot both whales and dolphins. The dolphins are supposed to be obscenely common (my wife saw lots), but you are also able to see whales about 70% of the time (my wife saw one species). There’s a little island nearby with good snorkeling if you care to make a day of it. While there, be sure to take a short walk to Queijadas of Vila Franca, a cute little shop where they make delicious cheese tarts.
4. Work Up a Sweat Hiking All Over
Although I can appreciate a beautiful building, I prefer places I can be out in the wilderness. Sao Miguel has a glorious collection of walking trails that are extremely well-marked and easy to find. None of them were crowded–we barely saw anyone–and many offer spectacular vistas. Be aware, however, that there are two types of terrain in Sao Miguel: up and down. Truly. Very rarely did a trail have any significant flat section. This means you need shoes with very good traction. With the exception of a hiccup where my wife thought a little trail was about 100m to a lake–it turned out to be a 12 km loop–we didn’t have any trouble navigating the paths. One of my favorites was Serra Devassa, which takes you to one of the highest points of Sao Miguel and gives an unobstructed view of the entire island. As far as bugs go–and I can’t speak to other times of the year–they were almost non-existent. I think I ended up with one mosquito bite on my leg.
5. Get Your Aventure on by Rapeling Down a Waterfall
The formation of Sao Miguel naturally produces these stunning canyons and gorges that plunge deeply into earth. A variety of canyoning opportunities are available for you to cliff dive and rapel your way down rivers and waterfalls while surrounded by gorgeous scenery. It was truly a highlight of thetrip. We used Fun Activities – Azores Adventure for our guides and they were really great. My understanding is that they have options for different levels of difficulty. The only part that wasn’t good was the walk back up the road to the top in the wet suit!
6. Wind Down with the Thermal Pools at Terra Nostra
Terra Nostra was our hotel in the town of Furnas, but it is so much more than a place to stay. The amenities themselves are great–the rooms are comfortable, clean, and elegant; the restaurant food was the best we had on the island; and there are great facilities for groups in the form of spacious lounging area–but the real gem is the grounds behind the hotel. Acres of manicured gardens with winding walking trails, ponds, and secluded grottos provide a peaceful walk. Best of all, since Furnas is also in the bottom of a volcano, the hotel sits on natural hot springs that are harnessed into thermal pools the temperature of a hot bath. The largest pool is insane and at least as big as an olympic swimming pool, but smaller pools are also available in their own little secluded garden areas. After 6pm, the gardens and pools are restricted to hotel guests only, but surprisingly few people took advantage of the evening opportunity for a long soak. Most times, my wife and I had a little pool to ourselves and sometimes the big pool as well–the hotel even provided complementary robes and flip-flops for outside.
If the hotel restaurant isn’t your thing, and you want some variety, Terra Nostra is a quick walk away from several restaurants and small shops. I recommend walking to see the other hot springs around the town, some boiling hot. In fact, there is a local food called Cozido das Furnas, which is several meats and vegetables boiled underground. Not really my thing taste-wise, but how could I miss the opportunity to say I ate food cooked by a volcano?
Terra Nostra provided the perfect base of operations for our trip. With the island being as small as it is, it was nothing to drive anywhere else for our daily excursions. It felt like my own little paradise.
One last note on the topic of driving. Like the hiking trails, the roads are either going up or down, climbing or descending one of the many island mountains. If you are prone to car sickness, you might want to take that into consideration. The cities are old and the streets super narrow with many blind corners just like a lot of the older places in Europe. If you aren’t comfortable with a manual transmission, you may wish to consider paying for the upgrade to get an automatic.
So, that’s my Azores experience in a nutshell. I would highly recommend it for people who love the outdoors but don’t want all the heat. Now my wife an I need to decide where we are going for our 25th anniversary. Any suggestions?