In pursuit of adventure, travel and the natural world...

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Pineapples, praias and peaks: my Azores adventures

I've just returned from the most amazing week on São Miguel Island. I've shared some of our adventures below for anyone planning a trip there and looking for inspiration on what to to...

Palms at Terra Nosta Gardens
Palms at Terra Nosta gardens

Where are the Azores?

When we told friends where we were heading on our holiday this year we were met with a lot of blank faces. The islands of the Azores are situated off the coast of mainland Portugal and are about five hours from London Gatwick.

I found the Azores by chance when I was looking on Google maps at the coast of Portugal. I zoomed out and spotted some small islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. When I checked them out on Google images they looked a lot like Jurassic Park…three months later we were on a flight to São Miguel.

Caloura village
The horizon over Caloura village

Stuff to know before you go

I carried out a lot of research before I went and read quite a few travel blogs and guides. The island has lots of activities but they are mostly geared towards sporty outdoorsy pursuits. A party island it isn't.

The Nordeste coastline

I read a lot of comments saying that the island wasn't a beach resort - whilst it isn't solely geared around this, we did find lots of unbelievably beautiful black sandy beaches dotted around the coast, perfect for spending an afternoon with your head in a book or jumping waves. Some of them have facilities such as beach bars, surf lessons and showers, whilst others are completely free of anything but mother nature - rocky and ferocious waves - a big attraction for the local surfers.

Praia des Moine
Praia dos Moinhos

I would recommend looking at different excursions and booking some before you go. We booked kayaking and whale watching before we went and didn't have to pay until we arrived so if you have a change of plan when you get there it’s pretty flexible. We tried to book a boat trip from the marina in Ponta Delgada on our last day and it was fully booked so if you do plan on booking on arrival, visit the tour operator a few days before to get tickets. This wasn’t because the island is busy; there are just limited tour operators so less spaces available on trips.

I think the key draw for this destination is that it’s still a bit of a hidden treasure. It isn't too touristy and we found that it was mostly Portuguese mainlanders that holiday here. You kind of feel like you're in on a bit of a secret by even being there. I hope it can remain like this and just focus its tourism on eco activities.

Hiking trail from Furnas Lake
Hiking trail from Furnas Lake

Where to stay

I debated staying in Ponta Delgada (the biggest town) but we wanted to get away from anywhere busy and built-up so we opted for Caloura in Agua De Pau. It’s a village on the south coast and is in the centre of the island, making it perfect for getting around. 

We were walking distance from two small, quiet beaches and also had a local fishery nearby where you could go for a swim and enjoy the catch of the day at the restaurant overlooking the ocean - the scene could have been taken straight from a Wes Anderson film.

Caloura fishery
Caloura fishery

We booked our apartment through Air BnB and our hosts were wonderful, they even invited us for dinner on our last night, which was delicious. They gave us the sweetest pineapple (grown locally) for dessert. We couldn’t have asked for more from our stay. Their dog Simon was a real character as well (Garfunkel had run away sadly).

What to do if you have a week in São Miguel

First of all, I would highly recommend renting a car and picking it up from the airport. The island is small but there are so many beautiful drives and it saves you the hassle of waiting around for buses. We discussed renting bikes to get around but now that I've been I wouldn't recommend it. The island is incredibly mountainous and even the car struggled on some of the slopes.

We squeezed in lots of exploring and adventures during our week on the island. I've shared some of our experiences below for anyone who is visiting the island and wants to know what there is to do.

1. Lagoa do Fogo

Lagoa do Fogo

The fire lake was my favourite of all the lakes. To get there you descend into a volcanic crater which you can access from the lookout point. There are some steps to guide you but it’s a steep climb so wear trainers. It took us about 20 minutes to get down…maybe a little longer to climb back up as we had to stop to catch our breath.

When you get to the bottom you are surrounded by green covered rock face, beautiful clear waters and white sandy beaches. There were hardly any other people down there and if you follow the beaches around the crater you can find a secluded spot to yourself. We went for a swim in the crystal clears waters to cool down - its was heavenly.

We were lucky as it wasn’t too cloudy when we went Although I don’t think this would affect your visit apart from the view from the top. Also, take food and water with you as there isn't anything but mother nature when you get  down there.

2. Snorkelling on Ilheu da Vila

Ilheu da Vila
The view of the island from Vila Franca do Campo

The island is 10 minutes boat ride from the marina at Vila Franca do Campo (look out for the tour operator stand where you buy tickets). We took our snorkels and flippers with us, as well as towels and packed lunches/water. The island is a nature reserve and there is a limit to how many people can visit per day so I would recommend setting off early to avoid the crowds. In the centre of the island is a natural swimming pool which is pretty shallow but you can see lots of fish if you stick to the rocks around the edges.

Ilheu da Vila

We swam out of the pool and around the island where there are hundreds of fish! It was really fun but that area isn’t lifeguarded so be careful, the waves and current are super strong.

Ilheu da Vila

The island is beautiful but you have to be careful of the swells around the rocks. We saw some people get knocked over by a huge wave. This was one of my favourite places so make sure its high on your list!

Ilheu da Vila

3. Praia de Santa Barbara

Praia de Santa Barbara

This was the biggest beach out of all that we visited. It has lots of facilities so you can just turn up with your towel – there is a café and showers so you can grab an ice lolly and wash the sand out your pants. The waves tend to fill you swimsuit with handfuls of the stuff!

We had lots of fun jumping waves here – the current is strong so keep an eye on where you were sat on the beach. We also got told one day that there was a shark in the water! All the locals seemed unfazed and carried on swimming around in the sea though. 

This beach is popular with surfers and the week after we left they were hosting a surf tournament (end of Aug). We spent quite a few afternoons here soaking up the sun and watching the surfers ride the waves.

4. Dolphin/whale watching

Sea Colours Azores

We booked with Sea Colours – mainly because they were marine biologists and loved nature.

We had a quick briefing at the marina and then about 10 of us went out on a small inflatable boat – passing the Moby Dicks tour boat which was a lot bigger and full of people. We sped out into the ocean which was a lot of fun bouncing off the waves. Within about ten minutes we were surrounded by common dolphins and given the chance to get in the water with our snorkels to see them. They were beautiful but we didn’t get to see them for too long as they swam past us.

Sea Colours Azores

All the while we were in the boat they were jumping alongside us, leaping out of the water. We went further out into the Atlantic where we found a pod of larger bottlenose dolphins. This time I saw what seemed like hundreds of them swimming by – underneath and either side. It was quite a magical experience.

Sadly we didn’t spot a whale but I would still recommend the tour to anyone visiting. As we were in a small group we got to talk to some cool and interesting people as well. 

4. Furnas

The view from Pico de Ferro

Furnas is cool. It’s a village and it has a big lake nearby. You can’t swim in this one though but they have canoe hire.

In Furnas village head to Terra Nosta gardens for a few hours. It is a beautiful garden with a natural mineral pool that you can swim in. Explore the gardens and you can find a grotto and giant lily pads in the ponds. We also saw some gigantic eucalyptus trees.

The gardens are like a scene from a romantic film and couldn’t be further removed from the landscapes along the coast. It was like visiting a different country entirely.

By Lagoa das Furnas there are bubbles and steam coming up from the volcanic ground which stink of sulphur…it looks like the bog of eternal stench! It was pretty cool to see it bubbling up from deep in the earth. From here follow the hiking trail up to Pico de Ferro for a spectacular view of the lake. The hike is challenging and slippery and took us about 45 minutes. Maybe less on the way down.

Avoid the famous 'costido' stew if you have taste buds. We went to Tony’s to try some and it was pretty awful. Kima is great though and replenished my tastebuds!


5. Sete Cidades

The view from Vista del Rei

These twin lakes – Lagoa Azul and Lagoa Verde – are stunning. We went kayaking here and booked it through a guy called Dioniso (or Didi as he preferred to be called). He turned out to be super helpful and we contacted him throughout the week for recommendations for restaurants, surf shops and activities. We kayaked for a few hours between the two sides of the lake. We found a corner where there was an amazing echo that reverberated around the crater. The backdrop was beautiful and it felt like we could have been surrounded by a tropical rainforest.

Kayaking Sete Cidades

Kayaking Sete Cidades

At the lookout point Vista del Rei there is an abandoned hotel, the Monte Palace. Go and have a look around, its huge and really cool. You also get amazing views of the twin lakes from here.

Monte Palace, Azores

Monte Palace, Azores

Other places worth a visit:

  • Caloura beach – take a BBQ down there in the evening and check out the stars. The Milky Way looked unreal!
  • Bar Caloura – our favourite spot for dinner.
  • Mosteros beach - on the west of the island. 
  • Gorreana Tea Plantation – you get to sample the free tea. We took some of the orange one home with us, it’s so refreshing.
  • Calderia Velha (near Ribeira Grand) – a nature reserve with hot springs and waterfalls to swim in.
  • Nordeste – the drive up the mountains through the forests is spectacular.
  • Praia dos Moinhos in Porto Formoso - small quiet beach with a beach bar and showers//toilets.

Azores shot on a Diana F+ using 120 colour negative film