The Azores: Closer Than You Think
Updated: Feb 1, 2022
Until recently, there have been virtually no direct flights from the U.S. to the Azores. Travelers previously had to add a layover in Lisbon, Portugal to their itinerary for the Azores islands. Now, you can purchase a non-stop flight to the islands departing from a major international airport along the U.S. east coast. Approximately half way between Eastern U.S. and Western Europe, the Azores islands are a perfect destination for a quick getaway, or a long relaxing vacation.
So, where are the Azores exactly? They are situated in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean, about 1,500 miles west from mainland Portugal and about 1,500 miles east of northeast U.S. There are 9 islands that make up the Azores, Sao Miguel being the largest with the capital of Ponta Delgada, the location of the island chain's international airport. The other 8 islands, Santa Maria, Terceira, San Jorge, Pico, Graciosa, Faial, Flores, and Corvo can be reached by small aircraft, public ferries, or private boat tours.
The best time of year to go to the Azores is during the summer months. The weather in the mid-Atlantic is more favorable in the summer than during the winter. We went for the first week of March in 2020, and although the weather was mild, (average 60 degrees Fahrenheit) we didn't see much sun.
Getting to the Azores:
If you're traveling from the U.S., plan for an overnight flight with an early morning arrival in Ponta Delgada. Once at the airport, be prepared to wait for any checked luggage for quite a while. You're on island time now, and no one hurries for anything here. When we arrived in Ponta Delgada at 6:00 am local time, we waited over an hour for the baggage handlers to get our luggage off the plane. If you can, go with carry-on luggage for this trip.
Getting around Sao Miguel:
Car rentals are easy on Sao Miguel. The rental kiosks are right inside the airport and getting around the island is a breeze. Like any other European country, there are some narrow, windy country roads and lots of one-way, cobblestone streets in the cities. We rented a small, 2WD VW hatchback and we had no problem getting around the island, even while navigating the switchbacks that wind up the mountains. However, the gas prices leave much to be desired. I think that's typical for an island, though.
Places to stay on Sao Miguel:
The Hotel Marina Atlantico is where we stayed for our 5-day visit to Sao Miguel. It is conveniently located in Ponta Delgada among several other hotels, right on the water and close to the main square where you'll find all of the city's restaurants and shops. To the west of the hotel there is a casino and to the east is the center of town, all within walking distance.
I really wasn't kidding about 'island time'. The Azores are known for the relaxing feel of being on an island with their subtropical climate and beautiful landscapes. The local businesses have limited operating hours during the day, especially restaurants. If you can find a cafe that's open, prepare ahead and grab a meal to go. You may not find an open restaurant the next time you're hungry. We stumbled upon Ned Kelly's Irish pub one day while out exploring the town of Vila Fraca do Campo. Surprised that it was open, we seized the opportunity to grab lunch and rest for a little while. When he greeted us, the restaurant owner commented on the laid-back vibe of the island and stated that he purposely stays open all day to serve hungry tourists in between the island's regular meal times.
Even the cows on Sao Miguel have no sense of urgency. Some farms do not have fences to corral the livestock. Curiosity gets the best of them and they wander onto the roads.
One of the highlights on Sao Miguel is the thermal springs. They can be spotted in various locations around the island, but if you want to take a dip and relax in a natural 'hot tub', check out Poca da Dona Beija. The facility is about a 45 minute drive east of Ponta Delgada in the small town of Furnas, and it is open from 10 am to 11 pm daily. Parking is limited and the place gets pretty busy, especially at night. The tiny parking lot fills up fast and the only overflow parking available is on the street around the town. We walked about 10-15 minutes to the entrance from where we found parking on the street. There are changing rooms and lockers located at the facility, and there's a small gift shop. Admission costs 6 Euros, and they encourage guests to stay for only about 90 minutes, but it is not enforced.
We arrived to Poca da Dona Beija just before sunset and it wasn't crowded, but more people started arriving after sunset.
The water of the thermal springs is rich in iron, which gives it the reddish-orange color that you see in the photos. It actually turns your skin and fingernails orange after sitting in the water for a while. It is recommended to remove jewelry before
entering the pools, even if it's metal, because it will change color quickly.
Not all of the thermal springs are accessible. There are signs posted around the springs warning visitors not to touch the water, due to the high temperatures.
This iron-rich water is found in high concentrations around the town of Furnas in streams and lakes as well. As we made our way to the thermal spring facility, we stopped at a few rest areas along the way to see the effects of the orange water on the surrounding vegetation.
The contrasting colors around the thermal springs are remarkable.
The entire island of Sao Miguel is worth exploring. There is really unique vegetation and stunning landscapes to see across all parts. And it is all so easy to access since you can drive across the entire length of the island in only 90 minutes. Even the rest areas along the highways are breathtaking. Between destinations, be sure to stop at a few of these gorgeous gardens situated at strategic lookout points and visit with the cats.
Another area that shouldn't be missed on Sao Miguel is Sete Cidades, an enormous caldera that holds two lakes, one blue and one green. The lakes are surrounded by steep cliffs with beautiful walking trails at the tops which are brimmed with colorful flowers. The weather did not cooperate with us for the week we were on the island, so I did not get to take any pictures of the lakes while we were driving around and above them. I didn't get to see them until we were on the plane flying back to Boston.
After several failed attempts to get a nice view of the lakes from Vista do Rei, we learned that there are outdoor cameras set up for locals to get a look at the Sete Cidades weather before making the 40-minute drive. We'll take that into consideration for our next visit!
Nestled inside the nook of the hairpin turn that is Vista do Rei, sits the abandoned Monte Palace Hotel. The hotel was built in the 1980s to attract tourists to this beautiful location on Sao Miguel. Due to its remote position on the island, the hotel closed and was ultimately abandoned about a year after opening in 1989. The Azores islands experience unpredictable weather, and the fog that lingers around Sete Cidades is often too dense to see through. As you can imagine, visitors were not so happy with the foggy view from the hotel, and being a 40-minute drive from Ponta Delgada.
The hotel ruins are overgrown with vegetation. The balconies have become shelter for small animals and plants. The cement walls that are exposed are covered with graffiti displayed by trespassers brave enough to disobey the "Do Not Enter" signs posted around the property.
Despite the cloudy weather, we made the most of our trip by exploring the island's cities sampling local cuisine and craft brews.
The towns of the Azores resemble those of mainland Portugal where you will find decorated sidewalks and city streets.
The iconic black and white architecture of Portugal can also be seen scattered around the islands and it contrasts so well with the other bright island colors.
The Azores have half as many cows as human inhabitants, and 75% of those 125,000 cows are dairy cows. This makes the Azores an excellent destination for you turophiles, or cheese-lovers, out there.
Cheese is served everywhere, and on virtually everything. At a cafe in Ponta Delgada, the steak I ordered for dinner was served to me swimming in a baking dish filled with liquid cheese with a big slice of hard cheese to top it off. #NotComplaining
Wherever I travel, I ask the locals where I can find a traditional meal that I would not necessarily be able to try at home. A few locals recommended the Cozido das Furnas. It is a meat stew that is buried underground and cooked using the natural heat of the thermal springs. On Sao Miguel, you're in for a rare treat if you try it because this is the only location where you can find Cozido das Furnas cooked by a volcano.
If you want to venture out to the other islands of the Azores, you'll need to add a domestic flight or a boat ride to your itinerary. Since we visited during March, the weather was not cooperative so we were confined to Sao Miguel for the week. Looking back, I am glad that we focused our time on this island because we were able to explore most of it and we were not rushed at all. Although, I would have loved to see some of the marine life that is known to migrate to this area of the Atlantic. Sightings in the ocean around the 9 islands include 5 species of dolphin, as well as humpback, blue, and sperm whales.
The Azores make the perfect island adventure where there is something exciting everywhere you look. I will definitely be back!
"I travel not to cross countries off a list, but to ignite passionate affairs with destinations."
- Nyssa P. Chopra