By Michaela Trimble
February 11, 2020
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Credit: Michaela Trimble

With an abundance of banana fields, pineapple greenhouses, and one of the most underrated cheese- and tea-producing settlements in Europe, São Miguel is the undisputed gem of the Azores, a nine-island archipelago over 900 miles west of Lisbon. Formed by the convergence of three tectonic plates, São Miguel was first discovered by Portuguese explorers in 1427. What they found was a purely wild land, home to no native population or living mammals, yet teeming with vivid waterfalls, birds, and volcanic mountains.

Credit: Michaela Trimble
Credit: Michaela Trimble

For hundreds of years, São Miguel served as a stop for these explorers and sailors to refuel and collect supplies; now, the island appears much more cosmopolitan, home to boutique hotels and thriving restaurants, yet it remains brilliantly verdant outside the Ponta Delgada city limits. Known for its splendid garden roads lined with bright hydrangeas and azaleas, São Miguel is an adventurer’s paradise, too, attracting today’s explorers to its labyrinth of lakes and canyons.

Credit: Michaela Trimble

Things to Do in São Miguel

Credit: Michaela Trimble

The best time to visit the Azores is from June to September; the weather is warm and the rain stays at bay, granting you safe and clear access to the natural wonders of São Miguel. To make your trip as seamless as possible, opt to work with a local operator like Azores Getaways. They check nearly every item off your to-do list: car rentals, flights, hotels, and experiences. If you would first like to orient yourself with the island’s topography, opt for a full-day exploration of eastern São Miguel with Pure Azores, followed by a tour of the island’s western icons; then, it’s time to travel at your own pace, discovering why the island is an adventurer’s paradise.

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Beginning in the east, make your first stop in Vila Franca do Campo at Nossa Senhora da Paz, a hilltop church home to one of the best views on the island. Climbing the many steps to the top of the church, peer out over the town. Just beyond the terracotta-shingled houses (and less than a mile away by boat) is Ilhéu de Vila Franca do Campo, a crater comprised of two islets formed from an ancient submerged volcano. As one of the island’s protected nature reserves, the site has an array of birdlife and a lake attracting divers and swimmers alike. The translucent waters are flanked by lush vegetation along the crater’s basalt rock walls, and boat access is granted by a single channel connecting the lake to the sea.

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Further to the east, beyond a cobblestone road lined with sycamore trees, explore Lagoa das Furnas, a lake where locals congregate for lunch to enjoy traditional Cozido das Furnas, a feast prepared by submerging a vessel of meat, vegetables, and potatoes into the ground. Cooked naturally by the thermal waters of the volcano, the meal takes an average of six hours to prepare; local chefs bury their pots around 6 a.m. to ensure lunch is ready by mid-day.

After, take a refreshing dip in the thermal pools at Poça da Dona Beija or Terra Nostra Park before driving to Pico do Ferro, a viewpoint with sweeping panoramas of Lagoa das Furnas. Next, go waterfall spotting and canoyning at Ribeira Dos Caldeirões Natural Park before enjoying afternoon tea at Chá Gorreana, a tea plantation established in 1883. Originally brought to the Azores in the 1600s, tea wasn’t cultivated until 1878, when an expert from China arrived to educate locals on the medicinal qualities of the plant. At the only tea plantations in Europe, enjoy trying black teas like orange pekoe and herbal green tea with jasmine.

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Before venturing to São Miguel’s western lakes, stop in Ponta Delgada for an introduction to Azorean art at Miolo, an artist-owned shop featuring works – photographs, paintings, and poetry – from the island’s most prolific artists. Just a 15-minute drive away is Cerâmica Vieira, a family-owned ceramic factory established in 1862 to honor one of the oldest crafts in São Miguel. Watch as craftsmen prepare the blue and white pottery and tiles for which the island is famous, and browse a selection of pots inspired by both Moorish and Spanish designs.

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Further west, drive to Lagoa do Fogo. The main lookout point is marked with a trail which descends for about 30 minutes through an area with larger-than-life ferns and wooden ladders and steps, ending at the base of the lake. Revel in the serene views of the towering cliffs, watch as birds sweep in and out of the basin and layers of clouds and fog move in a dramatic cadence over the water. Just a short drive away are the twin lakes of Lagoa das Sete Cidades, another of São Miguel’s most famous natural sights and the main source of fresh water for the entire Azorean archipelago. Starting at the Miradouro da Boca do Inferno lookout, climb a wooden pathway to view Lagoa Verde and Lagoa Azul, lakes formed at the center of a volcanic crater that extends nearly three miles across. At the base of Sete Cidades, visit Igreja de Sao Nicolau, a gothic church built in 1857, before driving São Miguel’s northwest coast, stopping at one of the most photographed points on the island, Miradouro da Ponta do Escalvado. Here, enjoy the pounding waves against the towering cliffs, before cruising through the lighthouse and windmill clad town of Ponta dos Mosteiros.

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Finally, trade São Miguel for the open seas with Futurismo. Enjoy a day at sea with local biologists, who will detail how the archipelago transformed from whale-hunting to whale-watching. Thanks to São Miguel’s location between North America and Portugal, this island naturally attracts a bevy of whale and dolphin species, all seeking refuge from their long, transatlantic journeys. Expect to see a mix of sperm whales, dolphins, pilot whales, and blue whales.

Credit: Michaela Trimble
Credit: Michaela Trimble

Where to Stay in São Miguel

When deciding where to stay in São Miguel, you need only choose between the eastern half of the island or the western half; both offer plenty of options, and you can even do a mix of the two. Set directly in front of Portas do Mar (Ponta Delgada’s marina) and within easy walking distance of downtown is Azor Hotel, a modern-meets-rustic property erected in 2016. In addition to the rooftop pool and bar, the property’s best allure is its cheese shop, offering up famous made-in-São-Miguel varieties of cheese. If you prefer your sea views with solitude, opt for a stay at Pedras do Mar, a property on the opposite side of the coast in sleepy Fenais da Luz, just 15 minutes from Ponta Delgada. Select one of 92 rooms, complete with sea views and balconies; spend your days soaking up spa treatments and doing laps in the property’s outdoor infinity pool.

Credit: Michaela Trimble
Credit: Michaela Trimble

On the western half of the island, hotel options revolve around the town of Furnas, home to the largest concentration of thermal pools in all of Europe. Less than an hour's drive away from Ponta Delgada and just a five-minute stroll from the shores of Furnas Lake is Furnas Lake Villas, a collection of ten Scandinavian-style villas and one traditional Azorean stone cottage. Located in the island’s central highlands, views of the emerald terrain are endless; you will likely enjoy experiences with the da Camara family, who owns the property, like jam making, sampling honey from the family’s bees, horseback riding, and canoeing through hidden lagoons.

For the ultimate wellness stay, book one of 55 rooms at Furnas Boutique Hotel, an oasis with indoor and outdoor pools, created to honor the natural bounty of the island. Adjacent to the botanical gardens of Terra Nostra, the property offers intimate access to the island’s volcanic basin – it’s in easy reach of bubbling, healing waters, where you can swim and soak to your delight. Once renewed, be sure to browse Azorean delicacies in the hotel’s lobby market.

Credit: Michaela Trimble
Credit: Michaela Trimble

Where to Eat in São Miguel

Beyond the eateries lining Ponta Delgada’s marina, through a maze of cobblestone alleyways, is Supléxio, one of São Miguel’s best new restaurants. Casual and sandwich-forward, this outpost serves local wine, beer, and juices – arguably the best way to wash down hamburgers topped with loads of melted Azorean cheese. Adjacent to Supléxio is Rotas da Ilha Verde, the island’s beloved vegetarian oasis. Although São Miguel is home to free-roaming, ethically-raised cows, this meat-free eatery is almost always packed. Book ahead to enjoy delicacies like pumpkin and berry cheesecake and spreads of Azores cheese with fig and lemon chutneys.

Credit: Michaela Trimble

For a carnivorous feast, opt for an evening at Associação Agrícola de São Miguel. Begin with a small plate of blood sausage and Azorean pineapple, followed with a hearty meal of beef steak (the best version is topped with a fried egg). If you prefer to sample São Miguel’s fresh catch, venture to Ponda do Garajau in Riberia Quente. Dishes showcase the island’s bounty: octopus, tuna, and mackerel. Before you depart, visit Pastelaria Atlântida for Azorean sweets like pasteis de nata (custard pastries) and donuts stuffed with hazelnut and cream.

Credit: Michaela Trimble
Credit: Michaela Trimble

How to Get There

If you’re traveling directly from North America, choose from nonstop flights on Azores Airlines from cities like Boston, Oakland, Toronto, and Montreal. A trip to the Azores is also a great addition during a trip to mainland Portugal. Direct flights are available from Lisbon.

Credit: Michaela Trimble
Credit: Michaela Trimble