- May 18, Thursday: Fly to Lisbon, Portugal
- May 19, Friday: Explore Lisbon
- May 20, Saturday: Explore Belem and fly to Sao Miguel, Azores
- May 21-24, Sunday-Wednesday: Explore island of Sao Miguel
- Day 1 – Sete Cidades and surrounds; Ponta de Ferraria
- Day 2 – Whale watching, Sanguinho hike, Furnas
- Day 3 – Vila Franca do Campo, Gorreana Tea Plantation
- Day 4 – Lago do Congro, Lago do Fogo, Caldeira Velha
- May 25, Thursday: Fly back to Lisbon, drive to Sintra and Evora
- May 26, Friday: Tour Evora, Obidos and overnight in Nazare
- May 27, Saturday: Tour Alcobaca, Batalha and Fatima and overnight in Coimbra
- May 28, Sunday: Tour Coimbra and drive back to Lisbon
- May 29, Monday: Fly back to US
Dates: May 18-29, 2017
After our whirlwind day and a half in Lisbon, we flew to the Azores on Saturday afternoon. It was about a 3 hour flight west from Lisbon – back towards the US – so it feels much like you’re leaving Portugal altogether. The Azores are one of the only remaining areas claimed during Portugal’s age of exploration that is still part of Portugal today. Today they are an autonomous region that is still technically Portugal but largely independent. And very remote. The cluster of islands don’t really have much else around their space in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
I hadn’t even heard of the Azores (beyond just a general knowledge that a place of this name existed somewhere in the world) before starting to research our Portuguese honeymoon plans. I came across a few blog posts about the amazing nature views, hiking and slow pace of life on the islands and decided to fit it into our plans. After all, Tim and I have loved every remote nature experience we’ve had – from Antarctica, to Svalbard, to Tasmania.
We landed mid-afternoon into the Sao Miguel airport. Being short on time, we chose this island as our home base for the five nights we would be there since it is the largest in the Azores, had cheap-ish direct flights from Lisbon, and had the most information available online in terms of planning a visit. Before heading to our Airbnb, on the central south coast of the island, we headed west in our rental car to Sete Cidades.
Sete Cidades is a beautiful lake nestled within the volcanic hills of the western part of the island, and is probably the most prolific site of the island – this is what is shown in tourist ads and postcards. However, it is very difficult to get a good view of it; not because of a lake of vista points (there are many right along the road), but because of the crazy weather the Azores are prone to. Basically, Sete Cidades sits in a cloud most of the time, so chances are, when you go to visit it, you will only see fog. And this was the case for our afternoon visit, despite relatively sunny and clear skies at lower elevations. The drive out of the way was not for naught, however, since we got to experience driving through the veritable cloud forest surrounded by lush tropical vegetation and the bright pink flowers typical of the Azores, as well as find an old abandoned hotel that I’d heard was great for exploring (though not technically encouraged).
It was just 30 minutes to our Airbnb in the town of Ribeira Das Tainhas. Driving through the towns of Sao Miguel really makes you feel like you’ve gone back in time. The roads are all super narrow (not designed for cars), so for two cars to pass each other, they are literally mere inches away. Combined with hills and curves and it makes for pretty crazy driving. When we got to our place, our host came outside to greet us and show us around. We had the lower level of the house, which was fully equipped with bedrooms, a bathroom, living room, dining room and kitchen. The home sat on the top of a hill, with a sloping corn field separating it from the rocky shore, a perfect example of how dramatic the topography of the island is. All across the island, the terrain is hilly and the hills are steep. It resembled a landscape out of a Dr. Seuss book (oh, the places you’ll go…). As it turns out, the Azores are actually the tops of the tallest mountain chain in the world. It’s just that the base of these volcanic mountains sit on the ocean floor.
Enamored with our home for the next 5 nights, we settled in and got to bed.
The next day, we woke up leisurely and explored the grounds around our place. Our door opened up to a large terraced yard overlooking the cornfield and the ocean. A makeshift path through the cornfield led us down to the ocean where waves crashed against rocks where local fishermen balanced with their lines cast. Oh and also to our private natural swimming hole and patio. The water was way too cold to jump in, but the fact that this perfect little spot exists made my heart happy.
Since it was a clear day, we decided to try our luck at a better view of Sete Cidades. We packed some sandwiches and headed out to the same spot we stopped at the evening prior. We were delighted to see that the clouds had lifted and the sun was shining down onto the view that the island is best known for. What makes this lake so unique is that it appears as though it is two lakes, one green and one blue – but it is actually just one, and the variation and color is an illusion that comes from a strip of land between the two sections and the reflection of the different types of foliage on either side. Crazy!
As with many beautiful things in nature, there is also a bit of folklore around this lake. In this old tale, a grumpy widower King, who was obsessed with his daughter, forbade his daughter from talking with anyone other than him. Not wanting to live in such captivity, she managed to escape into the local hills while the king slept after his lunch. It was on one such escapade that she met a young shepherd. They continued to meet and fell in love. The boy proposed to her, and they excitedly returned to the castle to speak with the King to ask his permission. Of course, he angrily refused and forbade his daughter from ever seeing the boy again. The princess and the shepherd cried all afternoon and their tears formed the twin lakes – one green, the color of the princess’ eyes, and one blue, the color of the shepherd’s.
We took some pictures at the Miradouro do Rei (viewpoint) and then walked over to the abandoned hotel that had beckoned to us the night before. The Hotel Monte Palace was built in the 1980s to draw tourists to the scenic lake, but it turns out no one really wants to spend their vacation clouded in fog so after only a little over a year of being in operation, it closed its doors. Now, it stands abandoned and accessible to anyone bold enough to venture into its empty courtyards, hallways and rooms. We loved exploring the creepy remains of the luxury resort with its peeling wallpaper, graffiti and blocked-off elevator shafts. I’d never been anywhere like it before in my life – a place so large, so decadent and so empty and decrepit.
After we had our fill of this probably-haunted venue, we made our way to the Miradouro da Boca do Inferno, where we had read there was an amazing view over other volcanic lakes. After a wrong turn (we almost drove up a dirt walking trail on a hill because our driving instructions said to follow a dirt road, and only turned back when it was clear our little car wasn’t going to make it), we made it to the correct parking area. After a short hike up a steep trail, we arrived at quite possibly the most magical view on the island. Overlooking two volcanic lakes and their surrounding hills, the view somehow manages to create an explosion of color with a very small palate of blues, greens and browns. Inexplicably, the scene captures the rainbow and conjures up a feeling of traveling on the yellow brick road to Oz. It was, simply, a perfect spot.
After eating sandwiches Tim had packed for us, we pulled ourselves away from the magic and headed back to the car to make our way to the Ponta de Ferraria. I’ve mentioned a few times now that the island is highly volcanic, and thus is very geothermal. Ponta de Ferraria is one of the more unique spots on the island for experiencing Sao Miguel’s thermal waters, because the hot springs flow out into the ocean. This creates a mix of hot and cold water, swirling around you as the waves bring in cold ocean water into the small swimming cove, then, as the waves pull away, leave hot water from the springs among the rocks. This was a really interesting place to swim, though not exactly relaxing – the waves were pretty rough so we had to hold ourselves in place using the ropes that served as the boundary between the swimming hole and the ocean. After about an hour we climbed out and dried off on the hot rocks above, then made our way back towards our home.
Our hostess had informed us of a grocery store nearby so we had done a bit of grocery shopping to be able to cook dinner and make sandwiches every day. We also stocked up on port wine (both red and white!) now that we knew how much we liked it! When Tim and I cook on the road, it’s typically one of a few things: 1. burgers and fried potatoes 2. some kind of stir fry 3. some kind of pasta 4. some kind of leftover stir fry mixed with some kind of pasta. Normally, we are very successful with these basic staples because you can pretty readily identify the ingredients in a grocery store in any country without needing to know the language. This got us into a bit of trouble later in the week, which I will come back to…
The next day we were up fairly early as we had booked a whale watching tour from Vila Franca. The Azores are known for their fantastic cetacean viewing opportunities. While we did not see any whales, we did see many bottlenose and risso’s dolphins, the latter of which I’d never seen before! We also saw a few Portuguese man o’wars which were exciting to observe floating by, so innocent-seeming. Before returning to the shore, our boat took us around the Vila Franca Islet, a small, circular rocky island just off shore that is popular for summer sunbathing.
Our tour wrapped up just before lunch so we headed back to the house to eat and then set out by car to a trailhead in the town of Faial de Terra for the Sanguinho hike. The 4.5 km trail meanders uphill by farms and through forest to the waterfall Salto do Prego. On the way up, we ran into a rooster trotting down a side path towards the main trail. We stopped to watch him for a few minutes and take pictures (as tourists who find free-roaming chickens to be a novelty are wont to do). To our surprise, two hens then came marching down the trail to join him. Could this be a chicken love triangle? We took some more pictures of our cute new friends and set off on our way down the trail. We thought we were leaving them behind, but when we turned around, our trail buddies were prancing along behind us, seemingly eager to keep up. What were these chickens doing?? Were they seriously hiking this trail with us? They continued on right at our heels for 15 minutes or so before we had to cross over a small stream. That was the end of the road for our little pals, who turned around and went back to doing chicken things.
Soon we reached the waterfall, hidden deep and secluded in the forest. We stopped here for a break and enjoyed the solitude of the place, the sound of crashing water, and the humble vibrancy of the lush green foliage around us.
The hike out of the forest took us a different way than how we’d come, this time bringing us to an abandoned old village of fairytale-perfect cottages. Apparently the village is being restored, though I am inclined to think they should keep it exactly as is – the air of mystery shrouding the rooftops sits like a fog over these empty homes, and I can’t help but think something precious would be lost if they revived the village.
After our hike we carried on to the town of Furnas, which we had driven by to get to Faial de Terra. Furnas, like its name suggests, is known for its many hot springs, geysers and fumaroles. It also smells like rotten eggs, which is expected in such a geothermally active area. We walked around to see the geysers and then decided to reward ourselves after our hike with a dip in the hot springs at the Parque Terra Nostra, a resort in Furnas with a large hot pool, a few smaller ones and many walking paths through their gardens. The temperature of the larger pool is very inviting, but the mud brown color of the water is less so. Even so, this place has become known for the dirty color of their water, in a good way, and it doesn’t seem to deter anyone (including us!). We swam around the waters, stood under the water spouts delivering fresh hot water and generally relaxed for about an hour. We then checked out the smaller pools, which had clearer (and warmer) water, and a bit more privacy and comfortable seating areas. We ended our visit with a walk around the gardens to cool off followed by dinner at their restaurant.
While pricey, dinner was absolutely worth it. We even had a stew that was cooked underground by the heat from the hot springs.
That night we were exhausted from our busy day, so it was a good thing we didn’t have much planned aside from relaxing for our third full day on the island.
We slept in the next morning and leisurely made plans for the day – which included stopping by a famous chapel and then touring a tea plantation.
The first thing you should know about the Vila Franca do Campo chapel is that it is easy to see up on the hilltop overlooking the town, but very hard to drive to. Google Maps has no clue how to get there and will send you in crazy directions if you take its word for it. We eventually made a turn on to a street that had a decrepit sign pointing the way and followed the makeshift markers up to the chapel. The second thing you should know is that it was built on this hard to reach spot because it is believed to be the site of a miracle. The third thing you should know is that you really won’t find much more information about it than that. There isn’t really anything online, and the plaque at the church just explains the story around the miracle.
What I can tell you, though, is that this is the prettiest chapel I’ve ever seen. Perfectly symmetrical stairs lead up to the chapel entrance, and every few steps it levels off at a small terrace with a blue and white tiled image depicting the story. Set among the rolling hills of the island with a view overlooking the town below and the ocean beyond, it is supremely picturesque.
After visiting the chapel we drove north on the island to the only tea plantation in Europe – Gorreana Tea Plantation. Visitors can freely roam the production and packing areas as well as the fields of tea plants via a walking trail. The scenic path goes through the rows of tea, up hills and down, with views across the plantation and the ocean. They also give away free samples of their black and green teas, which you can sip while observing the staff manually picking out the tea leaves – I was surprised by the amount of work done by hand here.
That night Tim and I planned a delicious pasta meal. We bought a red sauce at the store and had lots of veggies and cheeses to accompany our meal. While we were cooking everything, we tasted the sauce we had bought. It was oddly pungent and sharp – not like a tomato sauce we’d had before. But, we figured, with the cheese and pasta and veggies it would probably be fine. So we combined everything in the bowl and set it to simmer. Maybe some of the kick would cook off, we thought. We gave the pasta another taste. We both tried to convince ourselves it wasn’t so bad, until finally I said, “I cannot eat this – but I think we can save it.” I put the pasta dish into a colander and ran it under water until all the sauce was washed off, while Tim got his shoes on to drive back to the store to buy actual tomato sauce. In the end our meal was delicious, but it goes to show that when you’re grocery shopping in a foreign country, you may accidentally end up with unfamiliar ingredients you don’t like very much. We still don’t know what kind of sauce that was – maybe an onion, garlic paprika sauce? In any case, if you travel to Portugal and the Azores and plan to make pasta, be mindful of what sauce you get!
That night after our satisfying meal and some port wine (our evening tradition at this point), we got to bed. While reading on my tablet, I saw a black shape scurry across the bedding between my face and my tablet screen. I leapt out of bed yelling that I saw something, still not sure what it was or if it had only been my imagination. Then I saw him on the bed – a house centipede. I dare you to Google Image it, and then imagine my terror at being in bed with one. Tim squashed him (sorry little guy), but I was too shook up to comfortably crawl back into bed. I paced around the house in anxiety, not wanting to be startled by such a creature again. The good news is there are harmless animals, and we read that they tend to come into the house via drains, so we plugged all the drains in the bathroom and shut the door, hoping this would keep any more from coming in. Reluctantly we got back to bed.
The next morning, we wrote our Airbnb host to let her know about the bug. We realized she probably couldn’t really do anything about it and accepted that this is just the price you pay for remote island life, but figured if she had any ideas, we’d be all for them!
This was our last day on the island as we’d be flying back to Lisbon early the next morning, and the theme for the day was lakes and hot springs! We started with a visit to Lagoa do Congro, which sits nestled among a forest, reflecting the vibrant green of the leaves in its waters. I’ve never seen such a perfectly green-looking lake.
Then, a bit of a drive away, we visited Lagoa do Fogo, which sits among the island’s dramatic hills. On a clear day, from the viewpoints overlooking the lake, you can see the ocean on either side of you as you look to the north and the south parts of the island. The view is simply awe-inspiring and we spent about an hour just sitting at the top of one of the hills resting and eating lunch. We also had one hilarious attempt at a selfie using the self-timer on Tim’s camera that resulted in a very silly sequence of 4 photos in which we initially were not prepared, then angled wrong, then the camera tipped over, and lastly we just couldn’t stop laughing.
Our next stop was my least favorite thing on the whole island – the Parque Natural da Ribeira dos Caldeiros. It’s a park with some short trails and around a hydroelectric facility and some waterfalls. It’s “fine” – but very small, not very natural and nothing to go out of your way for, in my opinion. Shockingly, one travel blogger I’d read had said this was one of her favorite places in all of the Azores.
Afterwards we ventured to the Caldeira Velha, a very natural and almost prehistoric-feeling hot springs spa. The spa is really more of a lush garden with a few hot pools and walking trails. It’s truly beautiful and very relaxing to be in an environment that didn’t feel built up or altered for commercial purposes.
We ended our day laying out at the private swimming hole at our Airbnb. It was still too cold to swim, but laying there with the waves crashing on the rocks around us felt like such a perfect way to end our Azorean adventure. We spent the evening unwinding and repacking, gearing up for our road trip around Portugal that we’d start the next day!