The Mystic Island of São Miguel
The Azores islands are a destination for intrepid explorers. Eager to get the insider track on how to tame an island that is spectacularly wild, our Head of Portugal Rachel ventured out at the end of summer on her own trailblazing adventure.
It’s the beginning of October. Stepping off the plane I am blasted with that warm tropical, sticky heat of a destination that is high in its humidity.
How far did I travel? Two hours directly west of Lisbon to a drop in the middle of the Atlantic ocean was all it took to be greeted with such a change of scenery. Stepping away from the colourful tile-littered streets of Portugal’s capital, I headed to the green and lush island of São Miguel, one of the nine archipelagoes that dominate the Azores islands.
Just my luck, after disembarking the plane we are immediately greeted with a hefty, but brief shower…that metallic aroma of a fresh rainfall fills the air, it has been a while since I’ve experienced this after three months of heavy heat on the mainland. Passing through customs is smooth, you must test before arriving to the islands but they have the process nailed here. Within fifteen minutes of leaving the plane, I was already walking towards my hire car. By this point, the sun is blazing, its heat enveloping and intense, the ground is already dry from the past fleeting rainfall.
To all those that have wondered if the pictures of São Miguel are a trick of clever contrast editing, you are wrong, it is as verdant as the images reveal it to be, even more vibrant and beguiling in person. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around such a unique newfound beauty as I embarked on my short journey across to the other side of the island from Ponta Delgada to Ribeira Grande. It’s worth noting that in the fifteen-minute period that it takes you to travel from south to north, the skies opened up again to heavy and aggressive rainfall. Yet by the time I arrived at the black volcanic sands of Santa Barbara beach, a surfers paradise, the sun was already blazing out onto the horizon. Once again I was engulfed with a sticky, but blanketing and heavenly warmth.
I don’t think I have ever seen water that is such a deep shade of blue, a cutting contrast against the white foams of the ocean’s swell, and the sun’s afternoon rays danced off it perfectly. After speaking to some local surfers who told me my next destination was guaranteed to be stormy (need I mention they identified this by pointing to the north-eastern edge of the island, completely encased in a black storm cloud). I sacked off my afternoon plans and stuck to the sunshine, instead exploring the small fisherman town of Ribeira Grande.
Traveling to São Miguel requires you to travel without inhibition. You must let the Azores guide you, the weather is as volatile as magazines say and if you try to travel with an action day-by-day plan, it will become a logistical nightmare. That being said, there is something compelling about waking up each morning, checking out the cams and following the sun. It takes practice, and there’s a knack to the know-how, luckily I had some affable local guides helping me out along the way and Epic can sort this out for you.
On my second day I met with Sergio and Natacha who had kindly offered to help me tackle the island. Sergio and Natacha are local pros when it comes to exploring the Azores both on land and out into the wild intrepid coastal waters, having both grown up with the nine archipelagos and the Atlantic sea as their playground. This was clear when we sat down to talk business, the day we had planned was risky due to the weather, instead Sergio set out his map, with an alternative plan, still rich in the spirit of adventure that I was seeking. Feeling more than comfortable in their capable hands, we set out departing from the coastal capital of Ponta Delgada east, towards the fisherman town of Vila Franca do Campo.
Fun facts? Sergio and Natacha are full of them when it comes to the São Miguel, adding to the mystic charm that engulfs the island as you explore its lands. Did you know that for every one person there are two cows? It is why they have an excess of dairy here, but you can’t beat fresh Azorean cheese. Another corker, if you’re caught drink driving more than three times on São Miguel then you must go to prison.
“We refer to our prison as a hotel,”
Natacha tells me with a wry smile as we pass by the coastal hostage on the outskirts of Ponta Delgada.
“It’s got one of the best sea views in town, they feed you three meals a day using fresh island produce, and you only have to attend on the weekend, because on the island, we appreciate that you need to work on the week-days.”
It’s bonkers logic. But that’s the beauty of the Azores.
Sergio and Natacha have an ‘out of the box’ approach and with a 4X4 giving us an unlimited scope to explore we steamed past stuck-in-the-mud hire cars off-piste carving tracks on dirt roads and riding way up into the hydrangeas-littered hills to hit the uncharted gems. You couldn’t discover this without their expertise, their scope goes way beyond the 28 trails of São Miguel you can find online.
We stop in what appears to be the middle of nowhere on a dirt track and Sergio gets out his hiking poles, it’s time to explore.
Down we hike past the Japanese ginger-lily bushes that have plagued the island. Despite its flowering beauty, the plant is an invasive species that is fast becoming a problem in São Miguel. The further down the valley we wind, the scenery gets lusher and a musky dampness fills the air, we must be approaching water. As the vegetation clears we are greeted by an emerald-green lake reflecting the colours of the tropical vegetation that surrounds its banks. São Miguel, the island that is 50 shades of green, became a recurring joke for the rest of our day exploring. The small buzz of the lake glitters against the sun as it peeks through the Japanese cedar trees like a priceless emerald jewel.
A wild carp flicks its tail across the water invading our serene and it’s huge. Suddenly, I see them everywhere, the lake is full of them! I ask Sergio, a big-game fishing pro and co-owner of SeaAzores, if he ever fishes in the fresh lakes.
“Why would I fish here when we are surrounded by the Atlantic ocean filled with blue marlins, yellowfin tuna and barracudas? If you ever see someone fishing in the lakes, then they are not a local Azorean.”
All this talk of fish was working up an appetite, it was time for lunch.
Cantinho do Cais is a small restaurant in the town of Porto Formoso, unassuming most would drive past it, oblivious that the real beauty is what lies inside. Family run, they call the owner Senhor Jorge, and you have not tasted a truly authentic Azorean dish until you have sampled his Caldeira do Peixe (fish stew). Served on a hand-painted blue and white dish, the best part is that Senhor Jorge himself serves you the finest pieces of today’s catch, soaked in a sumptuous stew brimming with fresh vegetables and grilled bread to soak up every last inch of its lip-smacking sauce. Watching him pick through the stew was like an art form, he took his time too, teasing the knowledge that we were growing more ravenous by the second.
“It is the only dish he serves directly to the table,” Natacha, informed me. “It is his greatest pride and joy, you have to finish every last drop otherwise he will be offended!”
With flavours like that, it certainly wasn’t a challenging feat. Obrigada Senhor Jorge.
Sergio and Natacha’s ethical approach to guiding is perhaps what I am most fond of. If they take you out on the water to catch some fish, they immediately return them back if they are in good enough condition, unless it is a small catch you can grill fresh for lunch. They do not chase dolphins or whales, they work with small producers and take you to parts of the island that haven’t been over-run or at risk of being so by tourists. I ended the day full of knowledge, tips on how to tackle the rest of my time and cherished knowing that on this island I had made new friends and epic clients would be left in capable hands.
Like an intrepid explorer short on time, I trailblazed on with my Azores island adventure solo, it was time to head west to the cloudy and wet peaks of Sete Cidade.
Off the top of my head, I counted at least eight rainbows over the course of the six days I spent on the island, one across a lake, one stretching from one hill to another, the other seemed to flow straight out of the ocean. The pot of gold no doubt being nature’s bountiful reward. I hiked across the crater of Sete Cidade on a gloomy day, only to be greeted with tantalizing breaks along the way, giving view to the blue and green lakes that sparkled below. Furnas was completely engulfed in a damp fog for the two days I spent there, the gloom making its haunting spell all the more enchanting. The sulphuric smell of the boiling water at the lakes geothermal area was certainly an assault to the senses, but not quite as bad as the tanneries of Fes and the fresh cedar trees did well to mask the smell when the wind changed direction.
I didn’t go to the Boco do Inferno, nor did I venture to Lagoa do Fogo and I never wandered to the lost village of Sanguinho to see the Salto do Prego waterfall. Let the Azores guide you, there is no doubt that whatever it is that you see, the result will leave you feeling thoroughly enchanted.
Perhaps my fondest moment came after making a spontaneous trip west, I headed to the beach of Mosteiros trusting the cams hint that on my final day I was in for a beautiful sunset. Following the signs I let myself be guided to the natural pool at Ponta da Ferraria, located in Ginetes. A small cove by the ocean, the water is warmed by a geothermal natural spring beneath meaning that the pool’s temperatures range from 18-30°C (65-85°F).
The experience is absolutely profounding. The pool is pleasantly warm, but then the waves carry in the tide which breaks just before entering and you are suddenly roused by the cooling Atlantic temperatures. Just before it gets uncomfortable, the tide rides back out and you are engulfed by the warm heat of the geothermal spring. It is like a natural rocking chair, I could have floated there for hours.
I ventured up the steep hill to catch the final rays of sunset. I always love the five minutes that come after the sun says its final farewell and the sky explodes with its deep amber bleeding out to pink hues and violet whisps. Of course, an Azores sunset was not disappointing.
São Miguel island is magical. It is nature in its rawest form.
With our insider know-how and expert local guides, Epic can arrange an action-packed itinerary to São Miguel and the other archipelago islands. Get in touch with one of our expert advisors to find out more through our contact form or by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org