Frankly, I’ll be a little surprised if you have even heard of São Miguel Island. I’d be even more surprised if you were thinking of exploring São Miguel island yourself.
Admit it. You don’t know where it is, do you?
This isn’t me trying to be rude, or patronising you. São Miguel is a relatively unknown island in the Azores. I consider myself pretty well versed with geography, and I had no idea it existed until six months ago. That is, until Matt decided we should visit.
I was pleasantly surprised!
Where exactly is São Miguel?
It’s in the Azores Islands, located approximately about 1,300 west of Portugal, and about 2000 km southeast of Canada. Or as I like to call it – the middle of nowhere.
How many islands are in the Azores?
São Miguel is the largest island of the Azores, and is home to about 140,000 people. It is also the main centre of tourism, and the most developed island in the group. In saying that, there are still signs next to the motorway warning you not to use your tractor, or horse and cart, to venture into town.
The Azores archipelago is made up of nine different volcano islands. These are separated into three groups – the eastern (Sao Miguel and Santa Maria islands), the central (Terceira, Graciosa, Sao Jorge, Pico and Faial islands), and the western (Flores and Corvo islands). You can fly, or catch a ferry, between the islands.
Lonely Planet has an excellent guide for island hopping in the Azores, if you want to visit more than one.
How did the islands form?
The islands are located, roughly, in the centre of the Atlantic. They were formed by tectonic activity along the centre of the ocean floor, near the triple junction of the Eurasian, American and African plates. This tectonic activity has resulted in a gorgeous, green landscape of craters and lush forests. The volcanoes are still doing their thing, too. There are 26 active volcanoes in the Azores, eight of them underwater.
How do I get there?
Unless you fancy a long sea voyage from the mainland, air travel is the way to go. The main airport is Ponta Delgada. We flew with TAP Portugal one way, and Azores Airlines (SATA) the other. Both flights were of a good quality, with helpful check-in staff and comfortable seats. We received a small snack on board each flight. We flew from Lisbon to the Azores, and back into Porto.
What is the weather like?
Located in a Northern Hemisphere temperate zone, the Azores have a mild climate throughout the year. Clouds and rain are a possibility any time of the year – and we saw quite a bit, interspersed with high temperatures. In the summer months – between June and September/October – there are generally longer periods of sunshine and higher temperatures. The temperature is between 13 and 22°C throughout the whole year. We visited in June, and it was about 17 – 20°C during our stay, with periods of sun and cloud.
What can I see in São Miguel?
To me, São Miguel is the perfect, sleepy little island. Ponta Delgada, the main town, is actually rather well developed, with a fair bit of tourism infrastructure. It never felt that busy at any of the ‘touristy’ spots, but you’ll need to remember your numberplate – it seems like every rental car on the island is the same make and colour!
We wanted to stay out of the “city”, so rented a car and took up residence in Lagoa, a small town of around 10,000 people. One day, as we relaxed on the balcony drinking cider, a procession from the local church paraded up our street. It’s that kind of place.
We rented a car for our stay in the Azores, which I would highly recommend to anyone wanting to visit. The villages are fairly well spaced out, and you’ll need some form of transport to get in between them. We spent most of our week there driving around to various scenic spots, and ended up almost circling the whole island! I’ve listed some of our picks below.
Furnas – at least the area surrounding the lake – reminds me of Rotorua. It’s an area of high geothermal activity, complete with the very sulfuric smell you might expect. The area is focused around a crater lake – the Lagoa das Furnas – one of three crater lakes on the island. The beautiful lakeside park costs only 1 euro per person to enter, and you can leave your car there all day – take some lunch with you, as it’s the perfect spot for a picnic.
Near the lake, you can wander around the geothermal areas, and see the local people pulling cooked Cozido das Furnas from the earth – meat stew cooked underground (much like a hangi!). If you want to try it out, there is a small food truck offering it for sale, or you can sample it in one of the local restaurants.
There is also a strange mixture of local geese and waterfowl that make their home at the lake, and lots of ice cream vendors. Don’t miss the lovely lady selling orange and pineapple juice out of actual pineapples. It’s the best!
Whale and Dolphin Watching with Moby Dick Tours
The Azores are known for being one of the best places in the world to see whales. April to September is prime whale watching time, with spring and early summer the best time to spot the elusive blue whale. There are plenty of others to see too – more than 24 different types of cetacean are present in the waters of the Azores. If you want to know what some of the more commonly spotted whales are, you can check out this helpful guide.
We decided to go with Moby Dick Tours, a slightly smaller operator working out of Ponta Delgada. While it was quite a long trip, we really enjoyed it. Captain Jose told us that, when commercial whaling was commonplace on the islands, various spotting points (vigias) were located along the coast. From these locations, powerful binoculars were used to scan the ocean, letting boat crews know when a whale was sighted. Commercial whaling ceased in the 1980s. These days, the spotting sites are for whale watching purposes only – and they can signal the boat captains with a cellphone, rather than the elaborate white sheet system used in the past!
While we weren’t super lucky with the sightings on our trip, we still got to see a family of Humpback whales – with a wee baby whale hidden in between them. They played in the water alongside the boat for about 30 minutes. That was pretty incredible! We also got to see lots and lots of dolphins. Seeing them darting around the boat was lovely, and it reminded me of my time sailing in Gibraltar. Personally, I think whale and dolphin watching is one of the must-dos for any trip to the Azores.
Av. Infante Dom Henrique, Ponta Delgada, Portugal
We didn’t spend too much time around Ponta Delgada, but we wandered around the city after we had finished our boat trip. After enjoying a delicious sandwich on the waterfront, we went for a walk and admired the city gates (Portas da Cidade), the best known monuments of Ponta Delgada. When sea travel was the only way to access the island, these three 17th-century arches were the first sight they saw.
You can also visit the old armory, the Museu Militar dos Azores, or visit the pretty little town. If you’re interested in nightlife, apparently this is the only place on the island that has any!
Hiking Trails and the great outdoors
We spent a fair bit of time just wandering around the Azores, enjoying the scenery! There are plenty of hiking tracks for you to enjoy. I’ve written a post about our hike around the Quatro fábricas da Luz walking trail, and there are links to several other walking hikes on that page.
Even though the weather wasn’t amazing when we visited, make sure you check out the miradouru (viewpoint) da Vista do Rei. This looks out over the Lagoa das Setes Cicades, the second of the three volcanic craters. You can hike up, but we took the world’s windiest, bumpiest and dustiest road to get to the top! Once you’ve admired the view, head down to the bottom and you can walk around the actual lake.
You can also visit the beautiful, moody black sand beach at Mosteiros, and explore the tidal pools located in its rocks. Ginetes, not far from Mosteiros, offers amazing views out over the ocean and surrounding cliff faces, with lots of birdlife circling.
Lastly, one must-visit destination is the Serra da Barrosa viewpoint located in Vila Franca do Campo. Located about 850m above the Lagoa do Fogo, the third of the crater lakes, you can walk the last few hundred meters up to the top of the hill to enjoy amazing views over both the lake, and the coastline. We took a picnic and ate it while admiring the view!
Other Places to Visit
- Chá Gorreana has been growing tea since 1883, and is one of the original 19th-century Azorean tea producers. It’s free to enter and try the local brew, and you can take some tea away with you. It’s only 1.50 euros!
- Vigia Da Baleia is a popular whale watching spot – but we didn’t manage to spy any.
- We didn’t visit ourselves, but we did see the spa at Termas da Ferraria – and it looked pretty nice.
- The Fábrica de Licores Mulher de Capote is a neat little distillery and liquor shop where you can sample various local liquors – and even purchase a ceramic cow full of booze to take home! (this was clearly right up my alley)
- If you want to buy any local meat and cheese to take back home with you, the Continente supermarket at Lagoa has a great selection.