Despite spending the longest amount of time on São Miguel, it is ironically the island I saw the least of. The largest of the Azorean islands, with the largest population, it is also the most popular island for tourists to visit. If I am completely honest, I do not think I gave São Miguel enough of a chance to charm me – the first thing I saw as I was leaving the airport was a Decathlon banner and I immediately felt irritated. This is not because I do not like Decathlon, but because until now the Azores had felt utterly untouched by these multinational corporations and this somehow felt wrong and incoherent.
São Miguel offers a huge variety of things to see and hikes to do, although a lot of the hot spots are higher up on the island which in my experience at least ruled them out on the cloudy days. This is a place of fantastic nature and outdoor activity potential. Regrettably, I missed the main sites due to inclement weather. This had the upshot of me focusing on certain perhaps less well visited spots which I do not regret. Below is what I got up to on the island, including some of the less conventional bits. As we did not do the main sites this is more useful if you find yourself on the island with truly foggy cloudy weather.
Surfing São Roque
Ok, so the first days weren’t that cloudy!
We took an Airbnb in São Roque for the entire week which is essentially a suburb of Ponta Delgada – a 30 minute walk from the centre of the main city. The weather being what it was on our trip, this spot turned out to be the only surfing place on the entire island. The south of the island does not normally catch any waves and it was sheer luck that the swell and wind turned the local beach into a perfect little beach break. All the surfers of the island congregated at the tiny parking – the rest of the island being unsurfably violent – carrying a lot of home-shaped boards and happy to stop and have a little chat on their way into the water. The spot was only surfable for the two hours either side of low tide and the waves were breaking very close to the shore making the runs extremely short but it was nonetheless fun to get into water that was clear blue, the sand black underneath our bootie-less feet. The water felt warmer than we had been experiencing on mainland Portugal and we were lucky enough to get a sunny surf.
São Roque is a pretty spot. The walk from Ponta Delgada is along the coast and very beautiful so if you wanted to wander out of the city or needed a space to go for a run this would be an ideal location.
Because São Miguel is an island right in the middle of the Atlantic, weather changes fast and a rainy day on one part of the island does not mean a rainy day everywhere on the island. As a result, there is a website called spotazores that allows you to check the weather at different spots from live webcams. This is rather genius as avoids you traipsing to the top of a large mountain only to see nothing. It is thanks to this ingenious website that I arrived in Furnas. Furnas is definitely a touristy destination, about an hours drive from Ponta Delgada on roads that are gobsmackingly beautiful, through a tea plantation and along steep sunspeckled cliffs. I had chosen a 9.5 km trail to walk that runs around the lake at Furnas, marked as easy. Furnas is famous for its hot water springs and the stew that is cooked in holes dug into the ground. This is a place where, as the name might suggest, the central furnace of the earth churns underneath your feet. As a result the area is warmer than some other spots on the island, making the vegetation feel very tropical.
An absolute highlight of the trip was the hot springs at Caldeira Velha. These springs lie in what feels like a mythical jungle, with a waterfall that cascades warm water (note I say warm not hot – this is definitely not shower temperature). The Caldeira Velha costs 8 euro per person to visit, this is in an effort to reduce the number of visitors there are as the pools in themselves are not actually that big. There are three main pools with three different temperatures, the waterfall pool being the coolest at roughly 24 degrees. We went here at lunchtime and were lucky to find them relatively empty, although as the afternoon went on they filled steadily. I think to feel the full effective of this place it is worth coming when there are as few people as possible. There was something unbelievably magic about lying in naturally occurring hot water, looking up at tropical green foliage. This is a place for your troubles to melt into the hot water and be washed away.
Rota da Água – Janela do Inferno trail
This trail is one of the more random ones I did on one of the last days on the island. The clouds were extremely low and there was no visibility to speak of. I picked the trail because it didn’t go terribly high in altitude (I think the highest point was just over 400 metres above sea level) and because I was intrigued by the tunnels mentioned in the trail description. The trail is marked as being 7.6 km long and medium difficulty. I began the trail in a fog so dense it was almost impossible to see where I was going, a fog which lifted marginally but was always just present enough to give the trail a rather eerie feel. This trail runs along abandoned waterworks that have been succesfully reclaimed by the lush vibrant forest. It is the mixture of abandoned buildings and wonderfully green overgrown leaves that creates a rather unusual atmosphere. You go through three tunnels in total on the trail, the first of which is long, narrow and low and just long enough that you start to feel uncomfortable. I used the light on my iPhone as a torch but it was not bright enough and all I could think of was rodents nipping my heels (there were no rodents that I saw – this was just my imagination going a little wild). The trail is not one of the more famous ones available, but I believe even more special because of that. It is well marked and while there was some slippy bits and uneven steps was quite an easy and very pleasant stroll. It felt like a sneak peek at a different part of São Miguel from the more shiny polished sites and for that reason, I loved it.
São Miguel Takeaways
- Don’t forget your rain jacket
- Be flexible and check spotazores before you head out for the day. Even if it is bright at sea level the mountain areas can be very cloudy
- Go hiking – it is the most surefire way to experience the island in all its glory
- Ponta Delgada is a very pretty city to while away a pleasant sunny afternoon
- Rent a car
- Don’t forget your swimsuit for the hot springs, and flip flops for that matter!