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Inside: With dazzling blue lakes, emerald pastures, and bubbling hot springs, the volcanic islands of the Azores are the perfect adventure getaway.
Situated in the middle of the North Atlantic, 850 miles off the coast of mainland Portugal, the Azores archipelago is made up of nine lush, volcanic islands.
Known for its verdant landscapes and abundant volcanic springs, the Azores are one of the “hottest” (pun intended) island destinations to emerge on the tourism scene since Iceland.
Read More: Iceland: Geothermal Wonderland
You may not have heard much about this remote island chain yet, but with international flights on the rise and new, hip hotel openings, it’s likely you soon will.
My advice? Get there before everyone else does.
The Azores are one of two Autonomous Regions of Portugal (the other is Madeira). The autonomous regions were established to recognize the islands’ distinct geographical, economic and cultural differences from continental Portugal.
In 2009, UNESCO designated several of the islands (Flores, Graciosa and Corvo) as Biosphere Reserves for their impeccable preservation. From dazzling blue lakes and emerald pastures, to bubbling hot springs and volcanic caverns, the islands of the Azores make a pretty good case for heaven on earth.
Of the nine islands that make up the archipelago, the main island of São Miguel (with its capital city of Ponta Delgada) is the most visited. Also popular with visitors are Pico, Flores and Graciosa, which can be reached via short inter-island flights.
How to get to the Azores
From Porto, Ryan Air offers a convenient and affordable direct flight to Ponta Delgada. There are also a variety of budget-priced fares from Lisbon offered by TAP Air Portugal and SATA Azores Airlines (which we flew back to Lisbon).
A number of international airlines also offer flights to São Miguel from other parts of Europe. My favorite airline, Delta, recently started flights to Ponta Delgada from New York which is likely to increase U.S. visitors in the coming months.
And once those visitors discover how much these islands have to offer, there’s no doubt they’ll keep coming back. And tell their friends.
My husband Dave and I land at Ponta Delgada’s modern Nordela Airport after a comfortable 2-hour flight from our last stop in Porto.
Read More: Porto, Portugal: A Travel Guide
Do I need a rental car in the Azores?
My research revealed that, yes, renting a car is by far the best way to get around the island. Public transportation is limited and São Miguel’s best sights are scattered across the island. So we rented a car through RentalCars.com in Ponta Delgada for our 3-day stay and I’m so glad we did.
We discover it’s very easy to navigate and drive all over the island. The roads are in excellent condition and often meticulously landscaped with rows of hydrangeas and azaleas.
I’ve honestly never seen such beautiful roads anywhere else in the world. It’s obvious the people of the Azores cherish their islands and take pride in keeping them pristine.
The drive from the airport to our hotel in downtown Ponta Delgada was a quick 10 minutes.
Where to stay in the Azores
One of the reasons the Azores entered my travel radar in the first place is the recent opening of the Azor Hotel, part of the Marriott hotel chain (my favorite).
While researching hotel options using points in mainland Portugal, I noticed this sleek, modern hotel that recently opened in the Azores.
I started researching the Azores and I didn’t get past the first few pictures before I knew I simply had to add it to our Portugal itinerary.
The new Azor Hotel is just the icing on the cake. Located right on the waterfront in Ponta Delgada, the hotel has panoramic views of both the Atlantic Ocean and the town.
We arrive at the Azor Hotel and take advantage of their free valet parking before checking into our room. We’re upgraded to an ocean-view deluxe room on the top floor right next to the rooftop Whale Watching Bar and pool. It’s totally fabulous.
Things to do in the Azores
The front desk agent offers a local map and some helpful advice to plan out our itinerary. We have two full days on the island and we plan to make the most of it.
She recommends visiting the hot springs in the town of Furnas, the lakes at Sete Cidades, Lagoa do Fogo, and several other sights worth a visit between them all.
After settling into our room, we head next door to the Whale Watching Bar to grab a bite and determine a course of action for tomorrow to make the best use of our short time on the island.
We decide to let the weather chart our course for tomorrow. If we wake up to sunshine, we’ll head to Sete Cidades (the spot I most want to see). If not, we’ll start our exploration with the hot springs of Furnas.
Day 1 – Furnas, Cozido & Hot Springs
We awake to a cloudy morning. So, after a decadent breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant, we hit the road bound for the hot springs of Furnas.
The drive takes a little over an hour and we arrive in the heart of town just before noon.
We follow the signs to the “Caldeiras” and easily spot steam emanating from the landscape around us. The smell of sulfur fills the air as we emerge from the car and walk over to the bubbling caldeiras near the town center.
They are astonishing.
One boiling, steaming caldeira after the other, just a few hundred feet from homes and businesses. The last time I saw anything like it was in Iceland.
But there, the geothermal activity is a little further afield. Here in Furnas, it’s everywhere you look. We are totally amazed, but we still haven’t found exactly what we came in search of.
Cozido das Furnas
The evening before, the front desk agent told us all about the most popular dining experience in Furnas. It’s a type of spiced meat stew cooked daily by local restaurants called Cozido das Furnas.
What makes Cozido a coveted dining experience isn’t just the ingredients. It’s the way the stew is cooked – underground with natural volcanic heat.
Cozido has been cooked in the islands for hundreds of years. The recipe varies by restaurant but typically includes pork, beef, chicken, carrots, cabbage and sweet potatoes.
In the early morning hours, the local restaurants in Furnas prepare the ingredients in giant pots and bury them in heated openings in the earth’s crust called fumaroles. Then the earth’s sulphuric steam does the rest.
The pots are buried each morning around 5:00am and dug up by the local restaurants at noon. Since we arrived in town just before noon, we hoped to watch the process. Unfortunately, we went to the wrong set of caldeiras (an easy mistake in this bubbly town).
The caldeiras used by the restaurants actually line the banks of the Lagoa das Furnas, a nearby lake.
Lagoa das Furnas
We hop in the car and head over but most of the pots are gone by the time we arrive. But we are able to easily spot the fumaroles. Each hole (and there are dozens) is clearly marked with a sign for a local restaurant.
Most of the restaurants have several and we see quite a few for Tony’s Restaurant, which we spotted on the way into town with a long line outside. The hotel told us that reservations were needed in order to be sure you could get in to one of the restaurants.
We didn’t make a reservation but thought maybe if we wait out the lunch crowd we can get a seat mid-afternoon.
So, we headed on to our next stop to kill a little time before lunch.
Terra Nostra Park & Thermal Water Pool
One of the Azores’ top sights, the Thermal Water Pool of Terra Nostra was built in 1780 by Thomas Hickling. Hickling was a Bostonian merchant and the American consul who originally conceived the idea for Terra Nostra Park.
Set against the backdrop of Hickling’s holiday house, Yankee Hall, the Thermal Water Pool is fed by thermal springs that keep the water at a constant temperature between 95°F and 104°F. Saturated with essential minerals, the thermal waters promote relaxation and rejuvenation to visitors in an idyllic natural setting.
Surrounding the main pool are a handful of natural Jacuzzis encircled by the park’s abundant flora and fauna. It is truly a dream-like setting.
And if you can’t get enough, you can opt to stay at the luxurious Terra Nostra Garden Hotel. One of the perks of staying at the hotel is the 24-hour access to the pools, long after the park has closed.
We purchase an admission ticket to the park for 8 EUR and then hit the changing rooms. First up, the main thermal pool. We practically have the giant pool to ourselves with only a handful of other bathers nearby and it is magical.
We relax there for a while before moving on to the smaller jacuzzis. Truly a blissful way to spend a few hours.
After changing back to our street clothes, we wander the grounds of the intricately manicured park and botanical gardens before heading back to the car.
Cozido at Tony’s
It’s nearing mid-afternoon by now and we are famished. So we decide to try our luck at Tony’s.
Amazingly, we get right in with no waiting and they still have plenty of Cozido left! It’s a hearty stew, to say the least, so we share one order and it is plenty. It’s also delicious and I’m so glad we got to try it!
With our bellies full (no dinner needed tonight) we head back in the direction of Ponta Delgada. I want to check out some of the southern coastline that our hotel concierge recommended.
My favorite stop along the coast is Caloura, a seaside fishing village known for its 16th century convent and a marvelous natural seawater swimming pool jutting out into the ocean.
Overlooking the natural pool is a small restaurant with amazing smells emanating from the kitchen. Unfortunately, it’s literally impossible to eat another bite at that point so we continue on.
With clearing skies and plenty of daylight left, we arrive back in Ponta Delgada. We still have enough time to explore the historic city center and the arched “Portas da Cidade” or town gates in the main square.
The waterfront town center is easy to appreciate on foot and the mosaic tile work in the main square is a beautiful sight unto itself. We stop in a cafe for a drink and to people-watch for a bit before heading back to the Azor Hotel for the night.
Day 2 – Lakes, lakes and more hot springs!
The next day, the weather is still on the cloudy side. But with only one day left we have no choice but to head for Sete Cidades and hope for the best. We head out early since there are several stops on our itinerary for today.
Ponta da Ferraria
First up, a quick stop in Ponta da Ferraria on the western tip of the island to check out Sao Miguel’s only natural saltwater thermal pool.
Set amongst jagged volcanic rocks, the baths at Ferraria are considered especially unique due to the existence of thermal salt water with a high sulphur content. In addition to relaxation, the waters are also used to treat rheumatism.
At the entrance to the wooden-planked path to the pool, you’ll also find a modern, luxury thermal spa called Termas da Ferraria which offers a variety of spa treatments highlighting the island’s natural minerals.
From Ferraria, we’re off to Sete Cidades!
One of the most popular images of the Azores, the town of Sete Cidades is situated in the crater of a dormant volcano and set against the twin lakes of Lagoa Azul (blue) and Lagoa Verde (green), which are separated by a narrow strait.
In the right lighting, the color difference between the two lakes creates a stunning visual effect. Unfortunately, with the overcast skies on the day of our visit, the color contrast is much more subtle.
Despite that, the views of the lakes from above are nothing short of marvelous.
Everything on this island is so incredibly green and lush. The more we drive, the more we are amazed by the brightly colored flowers and verdant green pastures surrounding us at every turn.
Lagoa do Fogo
From Sete Cidades, we head back to the center of the island to see the other popular lake, Lagoa do Fogo.
The landscape on this part of the island changes a bit as we get higher in altitude. It reminded me so much of our drive through the Conor Pass on Ireland’s Dingle Peninsula last summer.
The volcanic crater lake of Lagoa do Fogo is the island’s highest lake and is protected by a government regulation against construction in the area.
Thanks to this regulation, the lake is pure, natural unspoiled beauty and the vistas as you drive around the lake are sensational.
We make the loop around the lake taking in every lovely vantage point. Then we head down the opposite side of the mountain in search of one last caldeira on our wish list.
Before leaving the Azores (and believe me, by this point, we don’t want to!) we can’t resist hitting one more hot spring.
Caldeira Velha is a protected area classified as a geosite of Azores UNESCO Global Geopark.
Within the park, it’s possible to observe a fumarola and a hot spring that feeds two natural pools. One of the pools has a waterfall, with water kept at about 79°F and the other small pool is more jacuzzi-like with water at 100°F.
As a protected area and a geosite, the park has an Environmental Interpretation Centre with information about the volcanic origin of the islands. The center also has details on the geodiversity and biodiversity of the Azores and even a geothermal power plant.
We enjoy one final relaxing soak and it’s the perfect way to end our last day on this wonderful island.
With another full day of exploration winding down, we head back to Ponta Delgada to enjoy one last cocktail with a view at the Azor Hotel’s Whale Watching Bar.
Wrapping up the Azores
It’s been a pretty incredible two days and we definitely wish we could stay much longer. Dave, especially, is reluctant to leave.
The Azores have been referred to as “the new Iceland” in recent travel magazines and I can certainly appreciate the similarities. But as I look around during our drives, taking in the expanse of countryside, I can’t help but be reminded more of Ireland than Iceland.
Or perhaps even New Zealand.
Read More: Pure New Zealand Beauty: The Bay of Islands
It’s. Just. So. Green.
As gorgeous as São Miguel is, I can only image what the smaller and less populated islands must have to offer. You can bet that someday soon we’ll be back to find out.
But as sad as we are to leave these beautiful islands, we are comforted by the fact that they are such a short distance from our home in the eastern U.S. Which means we can pop back over for a visit any time we like. (And I know that we will!)
With one full week now behind us on this Portugal trip, we still have one more stop to make before heading home. And it’s a region that has been on my Bucket List for years.
Next stop, three days in the Algarve!