The first thing I did when my sister asked if I wanted to visit Azores for our big trip this year was to look up exactly where these islands were. I confess, I kind of thought they were somewhere around South America. My 11th grade geography teacher would be devastated, as I had labeled them on my world map in his class back in…Well, we won’t talk about how long ago that was. They are actually a part of Portugal and are volcanic islands similar to Hawaii in formation. Unlike Hawaii, however, the Azores weather is somewhat changeable. You are likely to find yourself exploring in rainy, cloudy weather on at least a part of your trip.
The itinerary we planned is pretty packed, but we left an entire day open for anything awesome we discovered to do once we were on the islands or for revisiting some spot we really loved. Time is a wonderful luxury on a vacation. I think it is important to not pack your itinerary too full. Keep a little time to squander however you want in some spur of the moment fashion. (If you are interested in seeing how we laid out our trip, here is our itinerary. We ended up rearranging some things once we were actually on the island – whale watching was bumped to the next morning, we took the afternoon for a leisurely re-exploration of a little cove the kids liked, and day 5’s explorations moved to day 6. We also skipped one of the natural parks on day 6 in favor of a beautiful garden we discovered.)
Where to Stay – Pedras do Mar Resort and Spa
We booked rooms at this newer hotel for our entire stay. It turned out to be the perfect option, as it was
pretty centrally located and getting home involved driving down a fairly straight road. (That is not always the case in Sao Miguel!!) Overall, we really enjoyed our stay and would choose to stay at Pedras do Mar again if we made a future trip to this lovely Portuguese island.
Top Five Must See Spots in Sao Miguel
If you are only on Sao Miguel for a day or two during your visit to the Azores, the Lagoa das Furnas and the gardens of Terra Nostra are definitely places you want to add to your agenda. We are all interested in things like alternative energy, so seeing people using geothermal methods for cooking was maybe a little more exciting for us than for the majority of travelers, but it was still fascinating for the kids, too. And the gardens? Beautiful. They are also the home of a heated mineral water pool that is straight up orange from the iron in the water. The other three must see spots you’ll want to add to your agenda?
- Vila Franca do Campo – the islet where the international cliff diving competitions take place
- Cha Gorreana – one of two tea plantations throughout all of Europe. The other is also on Sao Miguel and is also beautiful, but has a historic museum. Cha Gorreana has an actual operating tea factory you can tour.
- Ribeira dos Caldeirões Park – a massive waterfall and the historic corn mill across the street.
Of course, there were a good dozen overlooks and smaller spots we visited and loved, but we had six days to explore the island. I really do recommend staying as long as you can and trying to visit every one of the spots on our longer itinerary, as well as the Jardim do Miradouro da Ponta do Sossego, a beautiful garden we came across on our way out of Nordeste.
Top Three Fine Dining Spots in Sao Miguel
Our favorite place to eat, Porto Das Baleias, was a little Italian restaurant. It has the nicest family running it and the fried calamari is outstanding. We went back three times for meals during our stay. It has a cozy, family feel and is great for a relaxing lunch or dinner on your way back from the beach. If you are looking for a more formal fine dining experience, I recommend:
- Terra Nostra Restaurant – Elegant dining experience with superb food. We actually ordered the traditional Cozido, (I went with the vegetarian option.) but there was an extensive menu.
- 4 Platanos – Seafood rice and a variety of other dishes. They have a really awesome upstairs deck.
- Restaurante Bar Cais 20 – Incredible food.
Tips for Your Visit to the Azores
We left for home wishing we had just a few more days to visit this beautiful island and that we had time to explore a few of the other islands in this beautiful place. My top tip for your visit? Stay as long as you can. We didn’t have time to take the ferry to any of the other islands and there were spots we wanted to visit a second time. A few more tips to help you get the most out of your visit:
- Know how to drive a car with a manual transmission – Seriously. Many of these roads are TERRIFYING. Very narrow and often incredibly steep with hairpin turns. If you can barely drive a car with a manual transmission up a slightly steep hill on a very wide road in your home town, consider looking into a tour bus or taxi service for your stay in the Azores.
- Don’t plan to depend on your credit card – I found that very few places we visited accepted Mastercard or Visa. However, there are ATM machines all over, especially in gas stations and larger grocery stores. It is pretty easy to use an ATM card to withdraw the Euros you need. (I had contacted both my banks before traveling to let them know I was coming to the Azores and I brought along some cash in US dollars just in case I had a problem with my cards.)
- Learn a few important words in Portuguese – Portuguese is not Spanish. I was able to figure out a lot of things because I do know Spanish, but many common words are completely different. Most the people speak at least some English, but not everyone does.
- Use common sense – You’ll see people swimming in spots that are downright dangerous if you don’t know about the suck hole, the way the sea suddenly leaps through a hole in a wall and fills the formerly shallow pool with water, or the massive amount of Portuguese Man of War jellyfish in the next tidal pool over. They’ve lived there their whole lives and know what to avoid and when. Talk to the lifeguard before you swim.