We are home, and somewhat settled back into our day to day routine. Have to admit, we miss vacation, and are already planning our next adventure! As you may remember, we went to the motherland, where it all started for Lenny, back in August. This said motherland would be Sao Miguel, Azores, where his family is from. His parents came to Boston about 46 years ago, shortly after his sister was born. This was his first trip back there in fourteen years, and it was my first.
If you are not familiar with the Azores, let me fill you in a bit. The Azores are a region of Portugal, and are made up of nine volcanic islands which are located about 900 miles off of continental Portugal. Even today, the main industry is still agriculture, particularly dairy farming, livestock and fishing. The islands are truly beautiful; not tropical per se but very lush and green. The nine islands are grouped together in three groups. Western islands are Flores, Corvo, and Graciosa, Terceira, Sao Jorge, Pico and Faial in the center and Sao Miguel, Santa Maria and the Formigas Reef are east. Each island is completely unique of each other from what we have read and been told. It is sad that the government is not trying to build up the tourism, as there is truly an adventurous lifestyle there from hiking, fishing, biking and surfing.
Unfortunately, our time was only spent on two of the islands, Sao Miguel and Terceira. That being said as this was a family holiday, most of our time on Sao Miguel, was spent with family, with some traveling the two of us to Terceira. I feel this may not be the best travel review, but I will give you my honest two cents worth of what we did see, and how we could have done it differently. Most of our time was spent taking in the sights, eating and drinking. Cannot complain as those of are three of our favorite things to do. Neither of us are shoppers, which was good as there was not much to shop for besides trinkets. We did find a ceramics maker that we loved, as well as a wine shop where we purchased and sampled some amazing Portuguese wines that were new to us.
Sao Miguel is the largest island, and is dotted with rolling green hills, and is lush with pine trees, ferns and palms as well as gorgeous hydrangeas are everywhere. Our trip on Sao Miguel was centered around Ribeira Grande, where Lenny’s family is from and where aunts and cousins still live. Ribeira Grande is a north coastal town, and is named after the river that flows through it. Back in the days, the town was set up for milling of grain and wood. Today it is the second largest town on Sao Miguel but with limited resources. There were few restaurants, worth mentioning, as the food did not stand out or was average at most places. We did tend to eat a lot of fresh fish which was very good as well as the beef, which tended to be grass-fed and from the area. We did have a couple good meals that stood our, and are recommended below.
Sites that we saw on Sao Miguel are:
Ponta Delgada – use to be a sleepy fishing village, and gained importance after the earthquake in Vila Franca do Campo back in the 1500s. Now it is what would be considered a “large city” with towering buildings, big hotels, and malls. It is lovely as it overlooks the bay, and is dotted with churches and parks. The city is easily walkable, and you can take in the main attractions in half a day. Definitely is lively with many restaurants, bars and cafes; I would center a trip to Sao Miguel from this area as everything is easily accessible with the new highway system.
Sete Cidades – simply amazing lakes that were formed in two craters. Legend has it that a princess fell in love with a shepherd, and they kept their love a secret for years. They finally told her father, and he forbid the union. They continued the romance, and once again approached the father, and he said no. The hapless couple walked out into the crater, and wept; the shepherd with green eyes, wept tears that created the green lake. The princess, whose eyes were blue, wept tears to make the much larger blue lake. Definitely worth visiting.
Lagoa das Furnas – we dubbed this area the Old Faithful of Sao Miguel. There are many furnas around this area, bubbling hot water and steam. Many of the restaurants serve a meal that is cooked in the furnas, as well there are street people selling corn that was boiled in them. We weren’t a fan of the meal or the corn; but, don’t let that change your mind from trying it out. Definitely take a walk, and enjoy the caldrons of steamy water, as the area is really beautiful.
Lagoa do Fogo – Lake of Fire. Gorgeous lake, with sandy white beaches. We only saw it from the top of the crater, and had wished that we had brought our hiking gear. We heard that it is worth the 8 mile roundtrip hike to the sandy beaches. Would have been great to take a picnic, swim and spend the day.
Lagoa – small village that is known for the ceramics. Spent a morning at Ceramica Vieira, which was a highlight, not only for the shopping. Great self guided tour through the facility, where you can watch the lovely ladies making ceramics. Worth a stop.
Vila Franca do Campo – a coastal village that was the first capital of Sao Miguel, and is currently one of the main tourist areas. The village was formed around 1472, and was the power house of the village until 1522 when an earthquake buried the village. Today the village is know for the fine pottery that is produced in dark clay (we could not find a shop). The Ilheu da Vila Franca is a crater off of the coast that is now a nature Reserve. There is boat service from Vila Franca, and they allow 400 people a day to visit.
Caldeiras da Ribeira Grande – a short drive from Ribeira Grande lies a bubbling good time! I really enjoyed this area that is filled with thermal pools you can lounge in. It is a bit more rustic, lush and tropical than the other thermal pools we visited. You can walk up in the mountains, then sit in the pools amongst palms, ferns and ginger lilies. It is also less crowded, and there are really clean restrooms and showers.
Nordeste – is a beautiful coastal town about 45 minutes from Ribeira Grande. One of the largest bridges is located in this area, as well as the beautiful St. George’s church. We were there on a Saturday, and it was rather sleepy, but heard if you visit during the week it is more lively. There are some beautiful gardens located further up the road from the main town, and worth the drive.
Ceramics – Ceramica Vieira, definitely worth taking the walking tour through the facility as it is really interesting to see how they make the ceramics, and the ladies there are a joy. Don’t forget to pick up a few pieces to bring home!
Picos de Aventura – adventure tours, we wish we would have done one but didn’t have time. They looked like a lot of fun.
Tuka Tula – a bit more modernized than I prefer when traveling in Europe; but the food was consistently good, the view was outstanding. They make a great gin and tonic, which seems to be the popular drink in Europe these days.
Adega Pinheiro – hands down the best meal we had. Lenny and I had been walking by this place almost daily, and finally on our last day there stopped in with his sister and her family. The bartender immediately sat us at a table, brought over cold beers and began bringing us dishes of Portuguese food; all family style, all amazing! We were bummed that we waited that long to try it out, as we would have eaten there a few more times.
Vila Franca do Campo
Estrela do Mar – great little seafood restaurant overlooking the harbor. The fish was very fresh, and prepared well.
How would I do this trip differently? After talking with a few folks on our flight back, I would definitely break it up, and island hop.
- I would stay no more than 3 days at each island, this would be plenty of time to take in the sights and gain a good sense of the individual cultures of each island.
- I would rent either a car or scooter to tour around the islands. Unless, I was planning on taking organized tours of the sights.
- In each city, I would stay in the largest city, to have more options available. Especially if you are relying on your feet and public transportation as a way of getting around.
- Rent an apartment on AirBnb; great way to feel more like a local. We like to have breakfast in our apartment in the morning, it is a great way to leisurely get ready without housekeeping knocking at your door first thing in the morning. As well, you can save a lot of money.
- Stay away from restaurants with tourist menus outside. This is the only way you well really get an authentic Portuguese/Azorean meal. Ask for the local menu for dessert or you will be given the generic dessert menu that every restaurant seems to have in Europe now, and it is filled with the frozen desserts. Boring.
Overall, we had a great time touring around the island, taking in sites and spending time with family. Highlights for us were lazy afternoons at the house, sitting on the deck enjoying wine and watching the sunset. Keep an open mind when traveling there, have patience, enjoy the culture and have fun!
More Photos to enjoy, as well as another trip planner written by our friend David Leite who is from Sao Miguel. He has a wealth of restaurants listed, unfortunately, we did not get a chance to try them this trip as they were either closed when we went by or did not work with our schedule. Next time!