Last summer, I spent a week in the Azores. A few months before departing, I had never even heard of the islands of Portugal, and initially discovered them while searching for a place in Europe where I could swim with wild dolphins. A week later, my flight was booked.
The Azores are a well-hidden haven from our modern world. A piece of ancient, natural history that has somehow survived mankind. If you’re in search of nature free from tourists and the buzz of humanity, this may be exactly what you’re looking for. I can’t count the number of times I simply gasped at the intense beauty of what I was seeing. And that’s not even taking into account the life-changing experience of swimming with wild dolphins.
Ways to get around Sao Miguel Island
There is much to explore on Sao Miguel Island. However, public transport is almost non-existent, so there are two options for exploring:
- Rent a car or a motorbike
- Pay for group tours and day trips
We opted for option 1, renting a small motorbike to get us around. It was easy to find most places, but if I were to go again, I may opt for group tours on some of the days at least, as a lot of places are not easy to get to, and there are some steep climbs that felt a little scary on the bike (especially for two women!). The advantage of course was experiencing the breathtaking scenery with the fresh, crisp air blowing right over us. And stopping to gasp. We did a lot of that.
Things to do in The Azores (Sao Miguel Island)
Swimming with Dolphins
We chose ‘Sao Miguel Island’, the largest out of the islands of the Azores, and booked our hotel as a package deal with a company that also provided three dolphin-swimming excursions. We were given a basic introduction, before being taken out by boat and literally thrown into an ocean of deep blue. Only two people were allowed in the water at a time, so everyone got a chance to have some ‘personal’ time with the dolphins.
On the first day, we saw ‘regular’ dolphins. These were beautiful, but did not compare to the spotted dolphins we swam with on day 2. The spotted dolphins were truly incredible, highly spiritual creatures. Seeing and hearing them in the water around us is an experience I will never forget.
On day 3, we saw some bottle-nosed dolphins and pilot whale dolphins. These were incredible, but again nothing can compare to the spotted dolphins.
There is also a whale-watching option if you are interested in seeing whales, but it is forbidden to swim with them, which is why we opted for the dolphins instead.
Sete de Cidades
This is a MUST see on this island. The best viewpoint is, strangely enough, from the top of an old, abandoned hotel, Monte Palace. So not only do you get to walk through ghost-town, but once you get to the top…. you won’t believe your eyes….
You can then head down into sete de cidades and hike around these gorgeous twin lakes. (Which are actually one lake, although they look like two due to the contrasting colours on either side!) Or, even better, rent a bicycle from the local village (I believe it cost 8 euro per bike for the day) and cycle round. On a clear and sunny day, this is a gorgeous adventure, and we spent most of the day cycling round and stopping to admire the scenery. We brought a picnic, and there were plenty of places to stop and enjoy our food. For me, this was the most powerful and beautiful place we visited. I felt the energy of the place very strongly, and did not want to leave. There was a sense of something truly ancient, something prehistoric about this place that moved me like no other place ever has.
We also stumbled across a beautiful little church in the village (st. Nicolas), lots of ducks, geese and swans, and a few cows. As for people, we saw very few. It being the middle of August, this was pleasantly surprising.
Ponta de Ferraria
On our way back from Sete de Cidades, we stopped at this volcanic beach where allegedly the water is warmed by the rocks. This was not the case, the water was just as cold as anywhere else! However it was a very beautiful place to swim, with a gorgeous natural pool full of little fish that you could dive directly into, and being surrounded by volcanic rock (which can easily be collected for a free souvenir!) was an exciting and unique experience. This was a lovely end to a beautiful day.
Lagoa do Fogo
Another worthy day-trip is to this gorgeous lake, with many viewpoints as you drive up the mountain and then down into the crater to see the lake up close. An excellent opportunity for hiking, with many trail options, and opportunities to swim as well. This lake is probably the closest landmark to the town we were staying at, Ponta Delgada, and therefore easy to access for a half-day trip as well.
Furnas was another extremely exciting experience, with many more surprises than we had originally expected to see! For starters, we drove up to yet another lake (Furnas Lake), this one truly warmed by the volcanic activity surrounding this entire area. There is a long (roughly 3h if I remember correctly) hike around it, if you opt to take the detour (do opt!) and head into the woods, where you will find hundred year old sequoia trees and a waterfall! There is a small fee to pay to enter this area, but it’s well worth it. The fee also allows access to an old Gothic church, and the lady selling tickets was kind enough to come in with us and give us a little history on it. A little further down… a bamboo forest! Whatever next? Geysers. Next, we encountered the geysers; hot furnaces with strong-smelling sulfur oozing out of the earth! The most exciting part was finding a man that was selling corn that had been cooked inside these furnaces! This had a strange but quite delicious taste. I’d read about entire meals being cooked in these holes in the ground, but the restaurant in the area was closed. In any case… I doubt we would have found a vegan option, so we were happy to settle for the corn!
We then headed into ‘Furnas’, the village we had originally planned to visit, one of several places on the island where you can bathe in natural hot springs. Again, there was a small entrance fee here (4 euros) but this was another visit that was well worth our time and money. After all that walking, we were more than happy to soak in the hot waters, known for their healing qualities. There were several pools with varying temperatures, and the rocks surrounding the baths had a very ‘Flintstones’ aesthetic to them!
While this was all we had time (and energy) for, it would have been easy to take advantage of many more exciting sites we had read about on the island. Among these, we had hoped to visit a green tea farm, as well as reaching the farther places on the island which we did not venture into. Overall, it was an incredible adventure, which I highly recommend to anyone looking for a more remote escape.