Eco Vacation to the Azores

Lagoa do Fogo in the Azores

H and I just got back from our amazing summer vacation to the Azores (although I’m sure it seems like we’re still there based on pictures I’m still posting to Instagram!). We stayed on São Miguel Island, the largest of the nine islands that make up the Azores, and after we spent our first weekend relaxing at the Hotel Azor in the lovely port town of Ponta Delgada, we would hop in the car each day and drive on mountain roads, lined with the Azores’ signature blue hydrangeas, to spots around the island where we could hike along waterfalls, explore volcanic crater lakes, and swim in hot springs.

Getting There

We took the train from DC to New York to catch an overnight flight to Ponta Delgada. Due to my deep distrust of Amtrak, I booked a train that would arrive in New York seven hours before the flight left, so by the time we actually boarded the plane after three delays I felt like we had taken up residence in the international terminal at JFK. I didn’t sleep much on the flight, but I was so excited to be in the Azores on Saturday morning that I didn’t mind. We picked up our rental car at the airport and were off to the Hotel Azor.

Our room at the Hotel Azor wasn’t ready until 3:30, which was tragic for everyone within smelling distance because at that point we’d been in the same clothes for ~30 hours. We ambled off to lunch on the pier and then sat by the hotel pool, which had a gorgeous view of the harbor, until we could check in (cue sunburn #1 of the trip, since my sunscreen was in the bag that the front desk was holding for me).

The harbor at Ponta Delgada in the Azores

The room was beautiful and modern, with polished wood floors, a balcony looking out over the water, and a sleek black marble bathroom. Exhausted from the flight, we both napped that afternoon and then wandered upstairs for a casual dinner at the Whale Watching Bar on the top floor of the hotel.

Sunday – Forte de São Brás

Forta de Sao Bras

Sunday morning it was raining steadily, so we lingered over mimosas and baguettes at the fabulous Hotel Azor breakfast, then walked down the Avenida to the Forte de São Brás, a historic Portuguese fort and military museum. The fort has been active since 1552 and the museum featured an array of military vehicles and weapons. I loved that we could climb out on the battlements to get a birds-eye view of Ponta Delgada and the harbor—I felt like an extra in Pirates of the Caribbean! We were soaked after the walk back in the rain (both of us declared that we’re getting new raincoats after this trip), and the earliest reservation we could get at the hotel restaurant, À Terra, was at 9:30, so we went for a swim in the rooftop pool before our late dinner.

Rooftop pool at Hotel Azor

Monday – Lagoa do Fogo

On Monday, we were checking out of the Hotel Azor and checking in to Casa Ateneu, the Airbnb in Ponta Delgada where we would stay for the rest of the week. Naturally we overslept, packed in a panic, got to Casa Ateneu and found out our room wouldn’t be ready until two, and ended up at a cafe, eating brunch.

Pico da Barrosa viewpoint Azores

After we checked in at Casa Ateneu, we left Ponta Delgada and drove to the Pico da Barrosa viewpoint, one of the highest points on the island. We hiked along a ridge on what was probably a cow path but felt like the filming location of the Lord of the Rings movies for a view through the clouds of the northern coast of São Miguel. On a clearer day, we might have seen the southern coast as well! Then, we drove down to the crater lake below, Lagoa do Fogo. After a steep, muddy hike down, we emerged at the crystal clear lake surrounded by walls of lush greenery. We headed back to Ponta Delgada after a walk along the lakeshore, tired from our first day of hiking, and had dinner at Boca de Cena, which we loved so much we made a reservation for Friday night.

Lagoa do Fogo lakeshore in the Azores

Tuesday – Salto do Prego and Salto do Cabrito

Salto do Prego hike in the Azores

Tuesday was our sunniest day yet, perfect for our drive down the coast to hike to Salto do Prego, a beautiful waterfall in the southeast of São Miguel. We found a parking lot (of sorts) at the trailhead in Faial Da Terra and hiked half an hour to Salto do Prego. I felt like a jungle explorer, crossing over streams where they intersected with the trail, squeezing between giant ferns, and even seeing a few chickens! The waterfall was enormous—we could feel the mist from the cascade even from a safe viewpoint, and the stream below it was churning rapids.

Salto do Prego waterfall in the Azores

 

Next, we drove to Ribeira Grande, near where we were the day before, to our next waterfall, Salto do Cabrito. We walked down a steep road to the waterfall, where the stream fell through a notch in the cinnamon-colored ledge above to form a pool where people were swimming—no one had been swimming in the rapids of Salto do Prego! We changed into our swimsuits and jumped in the cold water, which was refreshing after our sweaty hike.

Salto do Cabrito in the Azores

Our last stop of the day was Caldeira Velha, a nature preserve where we could swim in hot springs. The warm water on my hiking-sore legs felt amazing, although the orange stains from the mineral-y water on my swimsuit were less amazing. Once we had practically fallen asleep in the hot springs, we drove back to Ponta Delgada for a late dinner at Tasquinha Vieira.

Wednesday – Sete Cidades

I (incorrectly) assessed the weather and decided Wednesday would be the best day to visit Sete Cidades, the region with the most iconic views in the Azores. Our first stop was Vista do Rei, a viewpoint over the famous blue and green lakes of Sete Cidades. All we saw was a thick blanket of clouds, although we did take some good Jurassic Park-esque pictures of the wire fence and “Keep Out” signs around the abandoned Monte Palace Hotel across the street. Next, we went to Canario Lake, where we walked through a forest clouded with fog to the lakeshore.

Vista do Rei viewpoint in the Azores

We decided to skip the Boca do Inferno viewpoint above Canario Lake, since it was still so cloudy, and drove to the town of Sete Cidades, where we rented a canoe and paddled around the blue and green lakes. Canoeing was a fun way to explore the lakes even in the rain, and neither of us wanted to hike around the lakes since we had logged so many miles on Tuesday!

Swimming at Ferraria in the Azores

 

As we got close to our next destination, the seaside town of Ferraria, the fog and rain magically cleared away to reveal rocky cliffs down to the ocean. We parked at the top of a cliff and walked down the steep road to a natural swimming pool formed from black volcanic rock that jutted into the ocean. Tons of other tourists were swimming in the mix of cold ocean water and hot water from an underground spring. We jumped in and bobbed in the salty, hot-and-cold water, then, as the pool cooled down with the rising tide, we got out and explored the nearby tidal pools—they were like touch tanks, but with fish I was actively trying to avoid touching. We walked back up the steep cliff road to the car, exhausted and ready for some carbs after our day of canoeing and swimming, and had a casual dinner at Pizzaria Donatello once we got back to Ponta Delgada.

Thursday – Furnas and Nordeste

Lagoa das Furnas in the Azores

Thursday we explored the resort town of Furnas, which we had already driven by on our way to Salto do Prego, and Nordeste, the northern region of São Miguel. We started the day at the Lagoa das Furnas, where we walked along the foggy lakeshore to the Nossa Senhora das Vitorias, a spooky neo-Gothic chapel. Next, we went to the town of Furnas, which is famous for its geothermal activity. We walked through Caldeira das Furnas, the park in the center of town, to see the mudpots that were bubbling and spewing fart-scented smoke. We ogled the Cozido das Furnas, a meat stew, that was cooking in the caldeiras, but weren’t brave enough to try any. (When the wind changed and the smoke from one of the caldeiras engulfed me, trust me, I ran away as fast as I could.)

The caldeiras at Furnas in the Azores

We passed on the Terra Nostra Park, since we had soaked in hot springs on Tuesday, and drove to Nordeste, where we stopped at two viewpoints, Miradouro da Ponta do Sossego and Miradouro da Ponta da Madrugada, to see the craggy northern coast of the island. Both viewpoints also had friendly resident cats! Next, we hiked down a winding cliffside road to the Farol do Arnel lighthouse. We kept walking past the lighthouse and a waterfall that cascaded into the ocean until we got to the boat launch, where the waves crashed spectacularly against the black rocks of the jetty.

Farol do Arnel in the Azores

On the way back to Ponta Delgada, we stopped at Ribeira dos Caldeirões, a hydrangea-studded valley with a river that meanders through it to form three picturesque waterfalls, bringing our total Azores waterfall count up to seven. The park looked like the real-life inspiration for every pirate-themed mini golf course! The sun had come out, so we got ice cream at the park cafe and enjoyed the beautiful view. Thursday night, we trekked over to the Restaurante Gastrónomo for a fabulous dinner and walked back along the ocean.

Ribeira dos Caldeiros

Friday

Friday was our beach day in Vila Franca do Campo. I had been checking the forecast hourly to make sure the weather would cooperate. We bought a ticket at the marina for a tiny motorboat to take us to the Vila Franca islet, which looked like a huge rock in the ocean, but was actually an atoll, an almost-full circle of volcanic crater walls around a beautiful lagoon. (Can you tell that this trip was like a pop quiz for the Earth Science class I took in eighth grade?)

Vila Franca do Campo Islet in the Azores

At the islet, we spread out our towels on one of the rock platforms and alternated between swimming in the lagoon, which was delightfully shallow with a soft, sandy floor, and lying out in the sun. Once we were ready to head back, seemingly everyone else on the islet was ready to go home as well, so we all lined up on the pier waiting for the little boat. I looked like Lawrence of Arabia, wrapped in towels to keep off the sun (we ran out of sunscreen around eleven, causing sunburn #2). We were so sunburned, sleepy, and salt-encrusted that we decided to forego the castle and lake we had planned to see that afternoon and regroup at Casa Ateneu before dinner.

Swimming at the Vila Franca Islet

That night we went back for our reservation at Boca do Cena, which was just as delicious the second time, and sat at a table with a beautiful view of downtown Ponta Delgada as the sun set.

Saturday

Saturday I woke up early and explored Ponta Delgada. I loved walking through Mercado da Graça, the farmer’s market, which has every type of fruit, vegetable, and cheese imaginable—Azoreans love their cheese. I checked out the city gates in the center of town, which date back to Ponta Delgada’s days as a whaling port, and Iglesia Matriz de São Sebastião, the 16thcentury church nearby, which looks like every church in the Azores, with white walls and black trim, but fancier.

City Gates in Ponta Delgada, Azores

To wrap up our time in the Azores, we toured Gorreana Tea Plantation, the only tea plantation in Europe. It was raining nonstop, so we didn’t walk around the plantation, but we went on a tour and learned about how they cultivate and process the tea. The guide told us the difference between the processes to make green and black tea, but, like at wineries where they tell me how they make red and white wine, I forgot immediately. Afterwards, we checked out the nearby volcanic beach at Porto Formoso, a tiny fishing town on the north side of the island. Our plan was to stop at one last viewpoint, Miradouro de Santa Iria, but when we drove by it was clouded over. For our last night in Ponta Delgada, we had tapas at Tã Gente.

Gorreana tea plantation in the Azores

Sunday

On Sunday we said goodbye to the Azores and flew back to the U.S. We had a long travel day, although we did catch an earlier train out of New York than the one we booked, which made it much shorter, so it felt good to get home!

Our trip to the Azores was an amazing vacation. I would definitely recommend it, especially if you are looking for a destination with lots of outdoor activities. I loved the variety—we had days where we hiked for miles to experience waterfalls in the jungle, hot springs in the ocean, colorful volcanic lakes, and gorgeous views of the island, and a few days where we lazed by the beach or pool. Staying in Ponta Delgada let us experience the culture and food of a vibrant European city as well.

Would you go on an eco vacation? Have you been to the Azores, or do you want to go? Let me know in the comments!

 

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