São Miguel, Azores, Portugal
After all these years and after becoming conversational in Portuguese, somehow I’ve never been to Portugal, a pretty popular place in its own right. It’s right next to Spain, too. So… Let me just skip right over it (insert meme song here) and fly to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean instead. Sounds logical, right?
Well, the Azores are still Portugal. Maybe not the first thing that comes to mind though, since they’re an autonomous region. Even some of the mainland Portuguese visitors I encountered slipped up and called it “going abroad.”
I’ve been fascinated by these little dots on the map ever since I saw the largest city, Ponta Delgada, had relatively short direct flights from Boston, home to a large Azorean diaspora. Though I never took the opportunity to go while I lived in Boston, they’ve stuck in my mind ever since. Why are these little isolated islands so inhabited? How’d they become part of Portugal?
Nearing the end of tourist season, with unstable weather and fewer air/ferry links between islands, I reluctantly opted to stay in Ponta Delgada for a week, using it as a base to explore São Miguel, the largest of the nine islands albeit still relatively small. By the end of the week though, a week felt like barely enough, and I rued not taking even more time to visit another island or two. Not just that, but I could have spent my entire time in Portugal just in the Azores!
As I needed to work remotely the first two days, I was pretty limited to just walking around the city after-hours. While not exactly spectacular compared to other Portuguese cities, the city center is fairly picturesque, containing some signature national hallmarks — that is to say, a ton of tiles and churches and tiled churches — and history dating back to the 1400s. And then it’s a few good restaurants, a small market, a university, and a whole lot of tourist infrastructure! Aside from two botanical gardens and a nice waterfront, it wasn’t easy to get a sense of place, though one church situated on a hill east of center gave a hint, once the frequent clouds cleared up.
An even bigger hint came when I decided to walk an hour after a rainy workday, reaching the edge of São Roque just in time for sunset: the hills and coastline glowing in the sun, revealing odd formations and green, green hills.
Most visitors rent a car. With five more days free, wanting the freedom to wander but unable to drive stick, unwilling to shell out for an expensive automatic, and feeling restricted by a limited bus schedule, my hostel’s owner hooked me up with a scooter rental. Perhaps this was a little more precarious: the weather’s temperamental, it’s pretty hard (and a little terrifying!) to drive at highway speeds, and a scooter is much slower than a car to get across the island. But it was just what I needed, and I’m glad I was so easily swayed — this was immediately clear to me, after I missed a turn and saw this in Lagoa.
Missing turns was a very, very frequent occurrence. Without a phone mount on my scooter, I could only look at directions when stopped. Memorizing them was one thing, but as soon as I got off the well-signed highways and into the towns, visible street names (usually displayed on those famed Portuguese tiles) were few and far between. Missing one turn often meant lengthy detours down narrow, bumpy one-way streets just to return to where I was.
And without sufficient rain protection on an island full of microclimates, my next five days became an exercise in refreshing live webcams (an invaluable official resource covering many spots on all Azorean islands) and either chasing the sun or fleeing the rain. Any time I was unlucky enough to be in a sudden heavy shower, I would stop and wait in a restaurant or under a tree…hey, perhaps I was lucky, everything worked out just fine.
Combined, this injected an element of spontaneity every day in both where I planned to go and where I ended up going. More than once, a quick stop for directions or rain led to an accidental discovery or an impromptu choice to hike a random trail. Even if everything was going well, I was unable to resist stopping at most of the many, many miradouros (viewpoints) set along the twisty mountain roads I encountered. While the Azores have been getting an increasing amount of tourism and crowds, it surprised me that most of the large miradouros were more often used by locals, barbecuing in front of jaw-dropping mountain vistas or fishing and preparing their catch along the rugged coastal ones.
With so much nature at hand, I only made one “educational” stop at the Emigration Museum in Ribeira Grande — the name of which already brings up those questions from before: how did these dots in the middle of the Atlantic get so populated in the first place, and how come so many people have left this gorgeous place?
Turns out that these islands were discovered in the late 1300s and… ignored?… until the Portuguese decided to claim it and settle it themselves in the 1400s, naming it after the açor (goshawk), which… they probably mistook another bird for, since goshawks don’t frequent the islands. Yeah, I didn’t find much information there.
I’ve heard the Azores described by multiple people as a cross between Ireland and Hawaii. They’re not wrong: the islands, or at least São Miguel, are ridiculously green and agricultural, and Azorean dairy and beef are actually a significant export to mainland Europe. And like Hawaii, the islands are also of volcanic origin, with craters and calderas and hot springs to show for it; almost tropical despite being rather far north, with frequent and fleeting rainfall but consistently warm temperature year-round; and surrounded by seas that provide their abundant seafood. To me, this is an island paradise.
Yet as the Emigration Museum points out, there are more Azoreans outside of the Azores and Portugal than in it. Nearly every Portuguese community in North America has a majority-Azorean component, surprisingly lopsided given how much more of the whole Portuguese population is from the mainland. (Currently, around 230,000 people live on the Azores, compared to some 10 million on the mainland — or “continental Portugal,” as they call it.) In particular, Canada’s Portuguese population is 70% Azorean!
Canadian-Portuguese ties run deep, starting all the way back in the 1500s from the era of explorers and fishermen — and it’s likely them that gave Labrador its name too. Over the centuries, eastern Canada became one of many global destinations for fleeing Azoreans, convenient already due to Azorean boats heading there for fishing. (Other prominent destinations include the US, Brazil, Uruguay, Venezuela, and Bermuda.) A poor economy and overpopulation, natural disasters, and a military draft for wars the Portuguese fought in their far-off African colonies were some of the myriad reasons people left.
It makes me wonder how the islands are doing nowadays. Tourism is now possibly the largest industry. And though I drove past many dairy farms, once I got to the smaller towns, things felt a little… quiet? While beautiful and quaint, often with seniors hanging out in the plazas in front of the requisite church, aside from a bunch of vacation properties, there seemed to be few businesses and few younger people. It’s something I wish I could have dug into a little bit more.
There’s definitely a lot of tourists now though, particularly at the crater lakes, and I can see why. Sete Cidades is probably the crown jewel of São Miguel: the town is nothing special, but it’s squeezed in by two gorgeous lakes, one blue and one green, all in the middle of a crater. My first trip up to see it was obscured by clouds, and so after more obsessive webcam refreshing, I went up those slippery, windy roads a second day to the Vista do Rei (King’s View) — which absolutely lives up to its name. Even half-obscured, it was mesmerizing to watch the clouds form over the crater ridge and pass by. But there’s just nothing like seeing it with a clear, blue sky! It’s also a jarring juxtaposition to the decrepit, abandoned hotel that overlooks it — a luxury resort that was only open for 18 months in the late 1980s, and closed likely because few would want to go so far out of their way to a place with absolutely nothing around other than a view that’s probably shrouded in clouds most of the time.
Lagoa do Fogo (Lake of Fire) is the other popular crater lake, which I would have loved to hike if the weather didn’t start turning the minute I got there. And while Furnas has its own lake, its main attraction is the hot springs — not only in the form of the orange-coloured pool to take a relaxing dip in, but also as a means to prepare a cozido, a very heavy meat stew whose local variant is cooked geothermally in large pots buried underground by the smoking calderas in town.
There’s so much more past the big three too: over the rest of my days with the scooter, I managed to hit the natural pools of Mosteiros and the rugged west coast, the incredible hilltop terraced church overlooking Vila Franca do Campo, waterfalls like Salto de Rosal and Ribeira dos Caldeirões, Europe’s only tea plantation located in Gorreana, and go for a swim at black sand beaches like the surfer hotspot Praia de Santa Barbara and the cliff-surrounded Praia dos Moinhos. With so much variety (and lots that I still didn’t manage to hit, on just this island alone), every day felt like a different world.
From town to town, I enjoyed finding odd local treats like grilled limpets, Furnas’ bonbons (cheese-chocolates with sweet fillings), Vila Franca’s queijadas (sweet and dense “cheese tarts” that don’t actually contain cheese), and Povoaçao’s fofas (fennel-cream éclair), and having meals ranging from traditional food in a simple restaurant to a bifana shack (serving delicious sliced pork sandwiches) overlooking the sea. I made a very long stop at that tea plantation too, enjoying unlimited amounts of tea with a view straight out of India or Sri Lanka.
But what sticks out most to me were all the in-between moments, and despite the packed days, I somehow found time to slow down. Basking under blue skies or braced for wind and rain, the sensation of cruising along gorgeous hydrangea-lined roads, fields of cows, into and out of clouds, up and down mountain-sides, all in ever-changing light… it was all so much to bear that I’d literally stop, take off my helmet, and pinch myself at any pullout on the side of the road. Then I’d look at the view and pinch myself again.
And then… another beautiful distraction. Wherever I was going in the first place, I could always take the long way there.