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.
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.
Getting around in the Azores
We landed at Ponta Delgada’s modern Nordela Airport after a comfortable 2-hour flight from Porto. We had decided to rent a car for our 3-day stay since I’d read it was the best way to get around the island. Public transportation is limited and São Miguel’s best sights are scattered across the island so having our own wheels was definitely the best choice.
We found it very easy to navigate and drive all over the island. The roads were 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 was the recent opening of the Azor Hotel, part of the Starwood hotel chain (my favorite). I was researching hotel options using points in mainland Portugal and noticed this sleek, modern hotel that had 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 was the icing on the cake. Located right on the waterfront in Ponta Delgada, the hotel had panoramic views of both the Atlantic Ocean and the town.
We arrived at the Azor Hotel and took advantage of their free valet parking before checking into our room. We were upgraded to an ocean-view deluxe room on the top floor right next to the rooftop Whale Watching Bar and pool.
The front desk agent gave us a local map and helped us plan out our itinerary for our two full days on the island. She recommended visits to the hot springs in the town of Furnas, the lakes at Sete Cidades, Lagoa do Fogo and several other sights worth visiting between them all.
After settling into our room, we headed next door to the Whale Watching Bar to grab a bite and determine a course of action for the next day that would make the best use of our short time on the island.
We decided to let the weather chart our course for the next day. If we woke up to sunshine, we would head to Sete Cidades (the spot I most wanted to see). If not, we would start our exploration with the hot springs of Furnas.
We slept in a bit and awoke 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 took a little over an hour and we arrived in the heart of town just before noon.
We followed the signs to the “Caldeiras” and easily spotted steam emanating from the landscape around us. The smell of sulphur filled the air as we emerged from the car and walked over to the bubbling caldeiras near the town center.
They were astonishing. One boiling, steaming caldeira after the other, just a few hundred feet from homes and businesses. The last time I’d seen 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 were totally amazed, but we still hadn’t found exactly what we had come in search of.
Cozido das Furnas
The evening before, the front desk agent had told us all about the most popular dining experience in Furnas, 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 but they 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 5am and dug up by the local restaurants at noon. Since we arrived in town just before noon, we had hoped to watch the process. Unfortunately, we had gone 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. We hopped in the car and headed over but most of the pots were gone by the time we arrived. We were able to easily spot the fumaroles, though. Each hole (and there were dozens) was clearly marked with a sign for a local restaurant.
Most of the restaurants had several and we saw quite a few for Tony’s Restaurant, which we’d spotted on the way into town with a long line outside. The hotel had told us that reservations were needed in order to be sure you could get in to one of the restaurants.
We didn’t have a reservation but thought maybe if we waited out the lunch crowd we could 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, 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.
After buying an admission ticket to the park (8 euro), we hit the changing rooms and then headed straight for the main thermal pool. We practically had the giant pool to ourselves with only a handful of other bathers nearby and it was magical.
We relaxed 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 wandered the grounds of the intricately manicured park and botanical gardens before heading back to the car. It was nearing mid-afternoon by then and we were famished so we decided to try our luck at Tony’s.
Amazingly, we got right in with no waiting and they still had plenty of Cozido left! It’s a hearty stew to say the least so we shared one order and it was plenty. It was also delicious and I’m so glad we got to try it!
With our bellies full (no dinner needed that night) we headed back in the direction of Ponta Delgada to check out some of the southern coastline that our hotel had recommended.
My favorite stop along the coast was Caloura, a seaside fishing village known for its 16th century convent and a marvelous natural seawater swimming pool jutting out into the ocean.
The natural pool was overlooked by a small restaurant with amazing smells emanating from the kitchen. Unfortunately, it would have been impossible to eat another bite at that point so we continued on.
With clearing skies and plenty of daylight left, we arrived back in Ponta Delgada with 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 was easy to appreciate on foot and the tile work in the main square was a sight unto itself. We stopped 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 was still on the cloudy side but with only one day left we had no choice but to head for Sete Cidades and hope for the best. We got a slightly earlier start since there were several stops on our itinerary for the day.
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, it was 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 was much more subtle. Despite that, the views of the lakes from above were nothing short of marvelous.
Everything on this island is so incredibly green and lush. The more we drove, the more we were amazed by the brightly colored flowers and verdant green pastures surrounding us at every turn.
Lagoa do Fogo
From Sete Cidades, we headed back to the center of the island to see the other popular lake, Lagoa do Fogo.
The landscape on this part of the island changed a bit as we got higher in altitude and 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 made the loop around the lake taking in every lovely vantage point before heading 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 didn’t want to!) we couldn’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 also 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 enjoyed one final relaxing soak and it was the perfect way to end our last day on this wonderful island.
With another full day of exploration winding down, we headed 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 was a pretty incredible two days and we definitely wish that we could have stayed much longer. Dave, especially, was 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 looked around during our drives, taking in the expanse of countryside, I couldn’t help but be reminded more of Ireland than Iceland. Or perhaps even New Zealand.
It’s. Just. So. Green.
As gorgeous as São Miguel was, 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. That means we can pop back over for a visit any time we’d 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, the Algarve!