Not gonna lie, I was in São Miguel for one whole day before I decided that I liked it more than anything I’d done previously. Don’t get me wrong, I’m really glad that I saw Lisboa & Porto, and I’m going to carry those memories with me forever, but I also don’t think I’ll ever go back, and I’m already starting to think about how I can visit all of the Açores.
Day nine: March 27
Yoga & Flight to São Miguel!
I don’t have any pictures for today. I honestly, well and truly, did nothing. I ended up waking up pretty late, and I didn’t really get out of bed for a while. I did a lot of blogging in the morning, so I think the first time I ever put pants on was when I finally got up to do yoga around 11AM. It was really nice to take the whole morning to just relax and recuperate before I was headed on my first flight out to the islands. I hadn’t done yoga at all since landing in Lisboa, and it was a really good way to break up the two weeks, resetting my body after a grueling first week of walking uphill constantly.
After yoga, I packed my dirty clothes up and headed out to the self-service laundromat down the street. It’s such a clean, easy-to-use place, and it was nice to be able to run a second load before I headed out to São Miguel. I popped over to BOP Café for lunch, where I had an excellent black bean burger and fries, before I switched out my laundry, did a bit of reading, and then headed back to the Airbnb. My flight was at 7:15PM, and I planned on leaving the Airbnb around 4PM, so I watched an episode of Locke & Key while I packed everything up, which I’ve become an expert in, and then just kind of putzed around until it was finally time to leave.
Porto’s airport is beautiful and really easy to navigate, and I just flew through everything, which is good because I ended up having to run to my gate because they switched it last minute. And this is about as eventful as this day gets. My flight out to São Miguel was a little over two hours long, but the sun had set by the time I landed, so all I really saw was the airport and the back of a taxi. It was my first time ever riding in a taxi, though, so that was pretty neat, and I’m glad it was super easy to figure out.
My host was amazing and met me at the Airbnb even though it was nearly 9:30PM. And that was about it! I took a shower, collapsed into bed, and immediately fell asleep.
Day ten: March 28
Santa Iria, Furnas, Parque Terra Nostra, Ribeira dos Caldeirões, Nordeste
I only had three full days in São Miguel, and I had a lot to do. Pretty much immediately into the beginning of today’s trip, I realized that I should have gone to the islands longer than I went to the mainland, and I think I easily could have cut both Lisboa & Porto a day short each, and I really wish I had. That said, now I know, and when I go back to Portugal, I will be visiting the Açores only. São Miguel was absolutely stunning. I was staying in Ponta Delgada because it was a pretty easy jumping point for everything I wanted to do, and it offered me the most options in terms of restaurants, but today’s trip was out to the east side of the island.
My pickup wasn’t until 9AM, so I headed out to Central Café, which was about five minutes from my Airbnb, and about five minutes more until the pickup meeting point. I will say that, while I didn’t dislike the bagel with lox that I got, I don’t really love lox, and it wasn’t a great start. I thought that the food was going to be pretty similar to the mainland, where I was going to end up spending near an hour every day trying to figure out where I could eat, but this opinion goes away by dinnertime because holy moly, but the islands are way easier for me to eat than the mainland. There are vegetables everywhere–I FINALLY GOT BROCCOLI!!!–there’s always a vegetarian option, and there’s a ton of fruit. It was so hard for me to find anything that wasn’t meat or fish maybe with a side of potatoes, so I was really excited about literally everything I ate on the island.
My guide, Fernando, was fantastic for the day, and we headed out with a German family to go explore the eastern side of the island. Our first stop was the Santa Iria lookout, which was about when I realized that I should have spent my entire two weeks in the islands, haha. I mean, look at that view! There’s nothing quite like driving up to the top of a mountain and seeing not more mountains below you, but the curve of an island and the cliffs that plunge into the sea. Everywhere I looked, I was amazed by some new sight, and I could have just stayed up there for hours and breathed in the fresh air.
After that, it was off to Furnas, where we’d spend the bulk of our day. We started at the very top of the mountains surrounding Furnas so that we could see the lake from above, and it was such an interesting perspective because the town looked so small from above. It was wild, too, to be able to see the entire lake while knowing that I wouldn’t be able to see all of it at once when I was at its level. The landscape was truly incredible, and while it was sometimes familiar to the New England mountains, it was also very different. A lot of their trees look similar to ours, but the great swathes of farmland just a short distance from bubbling thermal pools with a town smack in the middle is definitely not something you’d see in the US.
We made our way down into Furnas itself with two options–to either explore the thermal pools toward the back of the town or to visit Parque Terra Nostra, which was both a botanical garden and offered thermal. pools. I wanted to go in the thermal pool so bad because when am I next going to be able to experience something like that, but there were a lot of people, and I only had an hour, so I chose visiting the botanical garden over swimming in the thermal pool. I’m not bummed out about this decision because I did get to pet my first cat, and it was very much needed. I 100% sat down in the dirt for about ten minutes and just played with and pet the cat in the garden, and it was delightful.
The botanical garden was beautiful, and I really enjoyed the flower sections. This isn’t surprising to me because I’m always drawn to flowers, but a lot of these species of flowers are endemic to the Açores, and that was pretty cool to see. We still had more to see, though, so we headed off to the geothermal fields at the far side of Furnas, nestled into the mountains, and this was definitely something. i’m never going to expect. One of the fun, and a bit terrifying, parts of the geothermal fields was learning that the volcanoes of São Miguel are proven active because of the activity in the geothermal fields. If they were dormant, the volcano would be, too, but given that they’re still very much active, so is the volcano. Which, yeah, not a fun thought to be carrying around, but also part & parcel of going to an island.
This is also where we saw our lunch getting made. (Well, everyone else’s, it was mostly sausage, beef, and pork.). I can’t remember the name of the restaurant that we went to, but it had great views of the mountains, though both my guide & I agreed that it could have been much better if they just made the whole wall a window. While everyone else had cozido, I had a delicious vegetarian meal, and there is absolutely no sarcasm in that because oh my gosh if I could find more of that kind of food, I was going to be a-okay on the island. Honest to goodness, when I saw steamed broccoli on my plate, I almost cried, I was so happy. I also got split pea meatballs, a salad, and roasted potatoes, and it was just so damn good. And though I didn’t eat the cozido, I do want to tell you about it because it’s hella cool, and if you’re ever on São Miguel and have the opportunity to go to Furnas, you need to get cozido.
In the less active parts of the geothermal fields, where there’s no water, but the ground is still insanely hot, they dig huge holes into the ground, fill giant pots with meat, vegetables, and potatoes, and lower the pots down into the holes. They then cover them up with wood, pile them with dirt, and leave them to cook for upwards of 6-7 hours. The only seasoning that they put in is a little salt, and there’s absolutely no water, so it’s completely down to the geothermal heat to do the work, and holy moly, but it smelled amazing, and the rest of my group was fangirling hard about it. If you’re a meat eater, make this a necessary stop.
Our next stop was Ribeira dos Caldeirões, which my guide called a noisy stream, and I was like bro that’s a waterfall. He warned us not to get too close because the water is super cold, but I’m from New England, and it was really not that bad. Can confirm that the water is nice in the Açores, too, because I swam in the ocean, and it was very mild compared to New England freezing at all times water. The waterfall was on the side of a road that overlooked a valley where several water mills and a tiny village had settled, and it wa sa very peaceful stop.
Peaceful is honestly the perfect word to describe São Miguel. Our last stop of the day was a garden overlooking Nordeste, and it was just so quiet and gentle up there. Despite the incredible cliffs and the ocean crashing against the side of the island, and the fact that you’re standing on several active volcanoes–São Miguel is a place of peace, and it was really lovely to visit. I could have stayed in that garden above Nordeste all day, and not even because I got to pet a second cat. It was just a place where you could move slowly and be at ease, and it was wonderful.
Admittedly, I was starting to wind down about my vacation in its entirety, so I was pretty wiped by the time I got back to my Airbnb. This is not to say that I didn’t have a fantastic time in São Miguel because I really, really did, but two weeks is a longggggg time. I’m glad that I’m doing the second week on the islands because I’m not sure I would have survived being on the mainland at the end of my trip. Once I was back to my Airbnb, I swapped out my backpack for my book and headed back out into the streets to find Colmeia, a nearby Asian restaurant. It was way fancier than I was expecting, and it was a little hilarious to walk in wearing my purple leggings, neon blue sneakers, and orange fanny pack. This was definitely one of my favorite stops, though, because not only did I get miso soup, but they had vegetarian ramen, which I struggle to find where I live in the US, and it was fantastic. I did also get sushi, but they deep fried it, and I wasn’t really in love with it, though the idea of sushi on the Açores is pretty amazing because the ocean is literally right there no matter where you are on the island.
I didn’t stay out too late because I had a crazy morning planned for my birthday, so after dinner, it was back to the Airbnb where I read a bit before zonking out, and I’m so glad I got a good night sleep because whewwwwww boy, but my birthday was an adventure.
Day eleven: March 29
Ilhéu de Vila Franca do Campo
I delayed posting my adventures in São Miguel until later in the day rather than the morning in the hopes that I would have pictures for today’s adventure, but I still haven’t received them, and I’m so bummed. I am going to be updating this post once I receive the pictures, so keep your eyes peeled for that, and they should start here:
I have a very deep fear of the ocean, and I think it’s pretty reasonable, not gonna lie. The ocean is scary! There are parts of it that we’ve never explored because we can’t manage to get that deep into the ocean, and there are whole species of animals that we know nothing about. That just sounds terrifying, and unlike space, where I was able to get over my fear probably largely in part because I’m never going to go there (never say never, I’m going to be an astronaut in my next life), I can very easily swim in the ocean, and this fear was apparently something I wanted to tackle while 900 miles off the nearest continental coast.
There’s a little islet off of São Miguel, Ilhéu de Vila Franco do Campo, and while you can take a ferry out to it in the summer, they don’t offer that in the winter because there’s not enough demand (lies, I saw three boats while I was out there), but you can kayak out to it, and that apparently sounded like fun to me. I really wanted to get to the islet somehow because, again, when else am I ever going to experience something like this? I booked a guided tour out to the islet where I would be paired with a licensed kayaker? Is that a thing? The tour company that I got paired with does outdoor activities all over the island–bike riding, canyoning, hiking, rock climbing, kayaking, you name it. I had two guides, an older man that had very clearly been doing this his entire life and a young student studying abroad from Spain. They picked me up early in the morning, and we headed out to the marina in Vila Franco do Campo where the other person for the tour, a French woman named Tamara, was going to meet us.
I had my cute new bathing suit on, I’d already told my guides that I was scared, but I was going to give it my all, and I was terrified, but ready. I got paired with the younger guide, and I’m so mad at myself that I can’t remember his name, but it was a very trying morning, so you’ll have to forgive me that. I’ve kayaked several times before on lakes, and I’m a strong swimmer, so I had no fear in terms of the actual event, it’s just the damn ocean. If we tipped over in that kayak in the middle of the ocean, I was going to die from straight up fear of whales. It doesn’t matter that the whales don’t come anywhere near enough to the shore to even see them, the irrational part of my fear said that they would scent me in the water and, I don’t know, swim at hyper speed to come snatch me up. I’m aware none of it makes sense.
My guides said the water was pretty calm, and I very quickly realized that calm to an islander is a much different thing than calm to someone who lives on a continent, because that ocean was choppy as heck, and it felt like kayaking with speed boats continuously zipping by, but we managed. Honestly, we more than managed, and I am never going to forget this experience.
(wouldn’t some pictures be great to break this up right now?)
The islet is about 15 minutes away as the kayak rows, but we circled around the outer edge of the island before going into the middle, so we were probably kayaking for about 30 minutes straight. It was utterly terrifying to look all around and see that I was just surrounded by deep ocean with only two islands quite a ways away from me, but my guide kept hyping me up, and he kept me distracted on the way over by talking about Lord of the Rings, so I really appreciated that. There are three different caves on the outer edge of the island, and the older guide said no way to the first one because the ocean looked pretty angry, but then he paused in front of the second one and said, “Let me just watch for a little bit.” He stared at the ocean for about five minutes, assessing how it was moving, before he finally said it was good, but to wait until he went through and gave us the signal. A few minutes later, he held a thumb up, so we kayaked in after him, and I don’t even have words for what that was like.
The cave was small enough that we could only fit our two kayaks in there, and the ocean was wild enough that day that the two kayaks kept rising and falling like the ocean was breathing inside of the cave, and it was magical. Kayaking around the outer edge and listening to the ocean breathe inside the cave reminded me so much of this How to Train Your Dragon scene.
We headed back out along the outer edge, where we saw a heck ton of navy blue crabs with red only in their pincers, and we kept on until we’d reached the mouth of the islet, where we kayaked in and over to a tiny little sandbar. The older guide said that, during the summer ocean, the sandbar is about half the islet, but the winter ocean is much fuller, and there was only a space small enough for the two kayaks that he said would disappear in about ten minutes, so we quickly got to work changing out of our life vests and into our snorkeling gear so that we could walk a trail that led around the top of the islet and over to the dock that boats used.
Gonna be real, I didn’t want to snorkel. There is no part of me that thinks that sounds fun, and I was 100% correct because I did not enjoy it at all, but I was really trying to push myself to do it, and my guide told me he’d stay with me the whole time and make sure I was safe, so ya girl literally jumped off a rock wall into the deep ocean where she had just seen some pretty gnarly sized fish, and it was awful, but I did it. We swam away from the islet a bit to snorkel, and I promised my guide that if I started yelling, it was because I saw something very chill in the water, but I was very not chill about the whole thing, and I would actually yell help if I needed it. He laughed, but then whipped his head over at me when I did exactly that. “It was a tiny fish!” I yelped once because NO THANKS.
I’m pretty proud to say that I snorkeled for quite a bit, right up until I looked back and realized we’d gone pretty far from the islet, and it was way too far from me, so I shouted that I was all done and started swimming back. My guide gave me a thumbs up from where he was hovering with Tamara, and that was about when things started to go sideways. At the time, I didn’t know what was going on, but Tamara had started panicking because she couldn’t figure out how to move in her wetsuit or breathe through the snorkel, and it was freaking her out. It got bad enough that, between treading water in deep ocean and not being able to breathe or move well, she exhausted herself so much that she couldn’t swim anymore. Finally, I noticed that Tamara was floating on her back while our guide was pulling her with him. I shouted to see if they needed help, and a few minutes later, I was swimming out to meet them. We each took one of her hands and swam her back toward the island, which was awful for her, but kind of good for me because then I had no choice but to focus on her and not the fish. It was still terrifying, and I still really hated it, but I’m glad I was out there to help her.
We ended up swimming all the way back through the lagoon in the islet because Tamara wasn’t going to be able to get back up onto the dock, and I was exhausted by the time my feet finally hit sand again. The depth of the lagoon was around 13 feet, so I’m assuming away from the lagoon quickly brought us up to 20-25 feet deep or more. Thus, it was a long while before I could stand again on the sandbar that’d mostly disappeared, and I was eager to get the heck out of there.
After a short rest, we hopped back into the kayaks, and I was definitely in my “hiking down the mountain” phase where I just want the activity to be done, so I was paddling hard.
(pretend there are pictures here)
Overall, it was a scary, but really fun experience, and while I’m not sure I’ll ever do it again–certainly not snorkeling, never–I’m glad that I did it. It was a huge challenge for me to meet that fear head-on, and it was such a wild, magical way to spend my birthday. But celebrations weren’t over! After we docked in the marina and cleaned everything off, we headed back to Ponta Delgada, where I took a lightning fast shower because the vegetarian restaurant I wanted to go to for lunch was about to close. Rotas does a lunch box option, so I got vegetable gravy soup, veggie lasagna with Azorean cheese, and a quinoa salad with homemade feta. There was also tea on tap, which is just about the greatest thing I’ve ever heard of. I was completely wiped by then, though, so I headed back to my Airbnb to crash for a couple hours before it was back out for dinner, and y’all. This was probably the best meal I’ve had my entire trip.
I went to Louvre Michaelsense, which was just around the corner from me, and got a passionfruit lemonade that they made look like a mocktail, an Azorean cheese plate with five cheeses from three different islands (São Jorge was my favorite), an assortment of grilled veggies, veggie samosas, a chocolate brownie with a caramel & meringue layer, and white tea grown in the crater that I was going to visit the following day. It was a truly spectacular night on top of an already incredible day, and I don’t think I could have spent my birthday in any other way and been as happy. Well, that’s a lie, if I’d had Lily & Grace, everything would have been infinitely better, obviously. I was unsure what it was going to be like turning thirty alone while I was abroad, but I had such a wonderful day.
Day twelve: March 30
Salto do Cabrito, Lagoa do Fogo, Sete Cidades, Mosteiros
Today was my last day in São Miguel, and I’m so sad to leave the island behind, but it was definitely a fantastic day to end. I booked an east & a west tour to try to see as much of the island as I could in the small amount of time that I had on it. I was hopeful that I’d end up with the same guide I had before, but alas, the stars did not align, and while the guide I did have, Felipe, was fantastic, the people I was with were not. There were an older British couple, and although the tour had included descriptions about walking along some trails, the man was not capable of doing so, and the tour had to be adjusted at every single stop. He was also pretty misogynistic, and he thought very highly of himself, so that was fun. But I digress.
We started with a viewpoint on our view to our first stop, the Ribeira Grande waterfall, to check out the views of the cliffs off in the distance. I think this might be my favorite part of getting to experience these astonishing views, too, because we just don’t have things like giant cliffs sheared off into the water in the States, and I don’t think I’d ever get bored of seeing this incredible landscape. They make me feel so small, but so big at the same time, and it’s a very strange feeling that I can’t quite put into words.
After that, we continued to make our way down into Ribeira Grande where we’d get an up close look at the waterfall, Salto do Cabrito. There were a bunch of people there, but I managed to squeeze past them and onto the rocks so I could get an unobstructed view and just stand there listening to the roar of the water for a bit. I don’t think it was captured well in the picture, either, but there was a main source of water up higher and set back in the rocks, and it was really interesting to see how the water moved from the cave and out into the pool below.
Just yesterday, when I was kayaking, my guides had said that Lagoa do Fogo, or Fire Lake, was one of the hardest things to see on São Miguel because it was almost always covered in fog, and you had to time it just right, but also not know what the right time could possibly be. The morning was super clear when we started out on our tour, though, so we were feeling pretty confident about our chances, and when I tell you that we got there in the literal nick of time, damn.
We were probably at the viewpoint for about fifteen minutes when a massive landscape of cloud & fog rolled in, and the entire lake just about disappeared in under five minutes. It was wild to see happen because although I’d been told that was a highly common occurrence, actually seeing the lake disappear was pretty damn cool. Thankfully, though, we were able to see all of it under a clear blue sky for several minutes before the clouds started to roll in, and it really is such a magnificent crater to witness. You can see a little of the fog in the third picture above, too, as it started to roll in and completely obscure everything, so much so that we had to skip past our next viewpoint because the mountain was just enveloped in clouds.
And then it was time for another crater lake! Now, bear with me, we all know that I’m a little behind when it comes to common sense, and I didn’t quite know how a crater lake had been formed until we were standing in Sete Cidades, the twin green & blue lakes of São Miguel, and my guide started talking about where the volcano had originally erupted and where it had continued to erupt over time until the Sete Cidades lakes were formed. I don’t think I’d connected the dots to the fact that, once the cone of the volcano exploded, everything beneath it collapsed in on itself, and the ridge that we were standing on as we looked down at the Sete Cidades lakes was the literal rim of the top of the volcano, and I am just–it’s so big. Y’all. The crater that the Sete Cidades lake sits in is just over three miles across. The freaking landing strip at Madeira’s airport is less than two miles! What!
Lunch was, unfortunately, not as good as previous days as I was served an entire godsdamn fish with his eyeballs still intact, deep fried, and when I cut it open, there was a whole spine to get around, and I had a real moment of “well, this might be the last time I ever eat fish” because that was a whole lot of nope. Still, I ate what I could and just carried on with the tour because we still had two more stops in Mosteiros, one at sea level to walk along the rocky beach and listen to the legend of the monastery rock towers in the ocean, and one higher up, where we were able to see down toward the western most part of São Miguel, which is the only place in the world to have a naturally occurring geothermal pool inside the ocean.
It was a long, but good day, and I ended it with pizza because I was really starting to have a bit of a meltdown over not being able to eat at so many places and just wanting to be home, so pizza was exactly what I needed. I definitely wish I’d spent more time in the Açores than I did on the mainland, but now I know for next time, and I can’t wait to start planning a trip to return to the Açores and visit even more of them.