Do you ever have one of those days that you just feel AMAZINGLY LUCKY AND HAPPY ALL DAY LONG? The day I visited The Azores Islands in Portugal was one of those days for me.
We’d left the port of Martinique six days ago, and had been sailing across the Atlantic Ocean ever since, ending up at last on this tiny Portuguese chain of islands in the sea. After days of staring out at 360° views of water, stepping foot on land felt like stepping foot on the moon to be honest. At least, what I’d expect stepping foot on the moon to feel like, after being on a space ship in the middle of nothing for ages and ages, you know? Minus the space suits, and plus good food and a blue sky. And a few other things. Like hire cars. With a hire car in a cruise port, my friends, anything is possible!! With only one day to see São Miguel, we made the most of it in as many ways as possible, and even with such limited time to explore, it was enough to work out for sure that The Azores islands are stunning, and definitely a place I need to revisit as soon as possible.
What are The Azores, anyway?
Located in the Atlantic Ocean, The Azores consists of nine islands, the tips of humongous underwater mountains, each one covered in beautiful lush vegetation. There are a grand total of twenty six active volcanos here (eight of which are underwater), although don’t panic guys, it’s not often that these raging infernos decide to explode. Characterised by cute little Portuguese fishing villages, sweeping green hills and flowers in abundance, the Azoreans are hugely proud of the landscape, and do a great job of ensuring that the beauty of the islands is never compromised for big businesses and tourist trap purposes. Each island slightly different to the next, we were docking in São Miguel, the biggest of them all, which is also known as ‘The Green Island.’
Docking at Ponta Delgada
It was still pretty quiet when we arrived in the port of Ponta Delgada, and we left the ship as early as possible to make the most of this one day on land before several more sea days would take us to Ferrol in the North of Spain. Having been in the Caribbean not long before, the weather was decidedly more Spring-like than I had become acclimatized to, but the sun was shining and the birds were twittering and these were all brilliant signs that life is good; so I was well and truly loving it, I tell you. We came to a square paved in classic Portuguese style with beautiful patterns, and some men were putting up some lights on the trees in the centre, ready for a festival at the weekend.
We hung around in the square for a while, sticking to the sunny spots and waiting for our pal Dima, who had gone to deal with something awesome. Dima, who had been to this beautiful place before, had headed to the car hire office to hire a car that we could cruise around in all day long. The countryside on these islands looked incredible and if you want to see it properly, the best way of all is to hire a car and drive straight on into it.
Hire car being hired- we were off, my friends!! Windows down, music on, we headed out of the city and up into the luscious green hills dotted with cotton wool specks of sheep. A mixture of tropical flowers and English country garden walls lined the road as we travelled upwards even higher, the air was so fresh that my lungs were dancing with joy after six days of air-conditioning on the ship, and birds flitted about merrily from tree to tree overhead. It wasn’t all fun and games though pals; I feel like there’s one thing that all Ukrainian drivers have in common (at least, the Ukrainian drivers I’ve met), and that is that they have secret aspirations of being a Formula 1 driver, and like to drive as fast as possible, even on the bendiest of roads. I’m sure Dima knew what he was doing but I was gripping my seatbelt extremely tightly and trying very hard not to let out the odd squeak of ultimate fear every time we rounded a corner.
Eventually the fields and flowers gave way to pine trees and ferns with tightly curled leaves starting to unfurl into a layer of morning dew. You could smell the woody scent of the pine trees, and the higher up we got, the fresher the air became.
Related: What to do in Funchal, Madeira
The abandoned hotel
Eventually, we were so high up that the air around us was damp with mist. Dima pulled into the car park of an ugly-looking concrete structure sitting amongst the trees. I was more than a bit confused. Had Dima brought us there to throw us off a cliff? Was he lost?? Did he need the loo and felt like this building with DANGER KEEP OUT written all over it was the best spot to find some toilet facilities??? He announced ‘Now this is really cool.’ And led us inside.
Well, oh my giddy aunt Nora. Inside, a patchwork of vines, moss, and graffiti covered most available surfaces. The centre of the building opened up to reveal a big lobby area with light creeping in from the various different floors that you could see, with a spiral staircase at one end winding upwards like a snake. Underfoot, the carpet was squishy with damp, and some of the rooms still had their original wallpaper, ripped and peeling dankly at the corners. Upstairs, from a series of ugly concrete balconies, you could stand and look out across the most stunning view I’d seen in a long old while.
The building was once a hotel, which had only actually stayed open for around a year back in the 80s. If ‘The Shining’ were to be remade in Portugal, this would be the perfect setting for it.
The Monte Palace overlooks the Sete Cidades- a volcanic crater which has filled up naturally over time with water, creating twin lakes; one green and one blue. Legend tells of the doomed romance of a shepherd boy and a princess, who cried so much at the fact that they couldn’t be together that they created these colourful pools of water. What a sorry situation for them both, you guys! We were lucky on the day we visited that the air was fairly free of mist, so we could see clearly right down to the lakes and tiny village before we continued our journey to find the best viewpoint that we possibly could to take it all in.
Reaching Boca do Inferno
With a name like ‘Boca do Inferno,’ which roughly translates as ‘Mouth of Hell,’ you’d think the experience of reaching this 360° viewpoint would be somewhat more terrifying than it actually is. We turned off of the main road and ventured down a narrow track, stopping en route at a calm lake sheltered by pine trees, filled with fish swimming in its crystal clear water; it was all a bit Final Fantasy, you know? The nature on São Miguel is so downright abundant that it seemed as if whichever dirt track you ventured down, you’d be met with something new and beautiful to roam around in a mildly dreamlike state.
Lake exploration complete, we drove a little further up to meet the footpath which leads to Boca do Inferno. And oh. Em. Gee.
The landscape from up there is ASTONISHING. Also, I’ve never seen so many varying shades of green in one location before. Pine trees grow in swathes across the mossy-looking slopes of the volcanic crater, intersecting fields dotted with herds of cows, rolling down steeply to those lakes in the distance. It was absolutely breathtaking, I tell ya! A footpath leads to a 360° lookout point from where you can get a perfect view of everything and take in the peacefulness that surrounds you.
Portuguese tarts and Sete Cidades
Our brush with the inferno over, it was time to head down to the lakes and see things up close. We drove across the narrow road which divides the green lake from the blue, gasping in downright astonishment at the peacefulness that surrounded us. I felt like the luckiest person ever to be exploring a place so beautiful, where so few other people tend to visit. Don’t get me wrong, we definitely weren’t the only visitors to São Miguel that day, but its location- a dot in the Atlantic Ocean- means that despite its beauty, this is not a classic tourist hotspot. There were no droves of people competing for the best spot to take a selfie in, know what I’m saying?
We followed a little road as far around one of the lakes as we possibly could, parking right at the end just as the only other people who were there sped back off on their motorbikes, leaving us to roam about in the silence. A few ducks waddled around, a couple of cows grazed up one of the nearby slopes, and we were LOVING LIFE. We mildly regretted not having had the foresight to bring a picnic with us, as this was clearly prime position for picnic activity. When I’m in a wide open, fresh-airy space, I find it rather tricky to resist the urge to run, run as fast as I can. So that’s obv what I did. We found a little stream and followed it through a tunnel, balances our way along a tiny cobbled wall, and discovered a tiny hole in the hillside which looked as though it would be a really great home for a small troll. Maybe there are trolls in the Azores as well as mythical shepherds and princesses. Who knows?
The village of Sete Cidades, which we drove back to after our gallivant to the lake, is small but really really pretty. We tucked in to a round of pastel de natas (I mean, when you’re in Portugal, it would be a crime not to, wouldn’t it?), at a cafe by the lakeside, and then wandered around the olde worlde village, filled with crumbly grey and white buildings and stunning views of the surrounding farmland and pine trees in the crater. You can tell that the pace of life in this village is slow, and that is part of why I loved it so much. What a gem.
The lighthouse and a car on a cliff top
Eventually it was time to drive onwards, so Dima declared that he would like to return via the scenic route; we were all down for that, so on we went, to discover a lighthouse that we could see on our iPhones. Good old iPhones.
The Farol da Ponta da Ferraria is a very Wes Anderson-esque lighthouse perched on a cliff top on the SouthWestern edge of the island of São Miguel; as far as I know you can’t go inside it, but the scenery is absolutely stunning in a majestically desolate way. For some reason Dima decided the best way to approach it would be at full speed, passing it completely and heading beyond, downhill towards the cliff edge. Good one. Naturally this meant that when he decided it was ok to stop and drive back up towards the road, the wheels did not want to budge one bit.
So there we were pals, stuck on a very beautiful green clifftop in the Azores, car unable to go and not another soul to be seen. Others might have panicked at this stage, but we found it absolutely hilarious. We collectively decided that the only option would be to push it uphill while Dima sat inside laughing hysterically and attempting to accelerate the wheels into action. Eventually it worked, and we were back off hurtling through the exceedingly pretty countryside, this time weaving our way around the edge of the island, being met with view upon view of stunning little villages, low clouds over the sea, rocks jutting out below us. I didn’t really want to go back to the ship at all, but what can ya do when you’re actually only in a place because of your work? Alas!
A Portuguese platter
With a couple of extra hours to kill before we needed to be back on board, we decided to stroll around the city of Ponta Delgada and locate some food to fill up on in addition to the tarts we’d gorged on by the lakes.
Cafe Central was the spot we chose, in a beautiful square overlooked by an old church, and it was the perfect place to wind down after an absolutely awesome day of exploring. Local wine, cheeses, jams, and the best bread I ever tasted all combined to make this one of the most simple but affective culinary times I’d had in a long old while! Three months of Caribbean food had been great, but there’s nothing quite like the mouthwatering joy of the Mediterranean countries of the world. Oh Lordy lordy!
The island of São Miguel is an absolute stunner of a place, and I barely even managed to scrape the surface of what it has to offer. The majority of people who visit are here for the nature, which makes perfect sense; it’s truly one of the most exquisitely beautiful places I’ve ever been lucky enough to visit, and without a shadow of a doubt I absolutely 100% need to revisit and immerse myself in this place all over again.
- Currency is euros- and prices here are very much decent ones, pals!
- All international flights to the Azores land in Ponta Delgada, on São Miguel- which is around a 4 hour flight from mainland Portugal.
- Local flights then connect the nine islands to each other, as well as sporadic ferries.
- It’s also possible to get a ferry from here to the Portuguese island of Madeira, located a little closer to Africa and the Canary Islands.