Sao Miguel Island
08/27/2008 - 09/05/2008
Our trip to Europe is now officially underway. We decided to do a stopover in London on our way to Portugal. Steve has been to London on several occasions for business, but Ann hadn't been there since she was a child. We took a quick tour of the city, a mad dash on the underground (mind the gap!), and visited a few of the more popular tourist sites...Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, and Parliament.
Our next stop was Lisbon in order to catch a connecting flight to The Azores. The Azores are comprised of nine volcanic islands, located 950 miles west of Portugal, in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean. The local economy is primarily supported by agriculture, dairy products, and fishing.
We arrived on the island of Sao Miguel, and then met up with some good friends who flew in from Boston the following day: Kyle, Dolly, Andreas, and Mandy. Mandy’s grandparents are originally from the Azores, and she wanted to see the island where they came from. Steve, Kyle, and Andreas all went to high school together, and have been close friends for more than 20 years.
We rented a very nice cottage overlooking the ocean. It was surrounded by lush, green pastures, and even came complete with its own cow! The rooms were comfortable, and the house made for a perfect base from which to explore the island.
Mandy was a great tour guide, and had every day planned out with a detailed itinerary. On the first day, we spent most of our time walking around the main town on the island, Ponta Delgada. The entrance to the town from the port is through Portas da Cidades, or the “city gates”. The three arches of the gateway display both the royal and city crests.
Our walking tour took us to Sao Sebastiao, which is the town’s main church. Many of the buildings here are of a classic Portuguese design, whitewashed with dark stone accents. Several other churches can also be found along the winding cobblestone streets.
Many cafes are located along the waterfront, a short distance from Forte de Sao Bras. The fort was constructed during the renaissance period in 1552 to defend against pirates. Currently, the fort is used as a lookout point and also holds a military museum.
After some great seafood, and catching up on sleep after the long flights, we toured the southern half of the island. The coastal road took us through some very picturesque villages. We stopped in the town of Lagoa, which is one of the oldest settlements on the island. It has beautiful oceans views and fabulous lookout points (Miradouras).
Even though the main industry is agriculture, The Azores are also famous for ceramics. We stopped and visited a ceramics pottery factory, and watched the artisans at work. The pieces are very beautiful, with classic blue and white designs.
We then drove along the coast to the town of Vila Franca do Campo, which has several beautiful beaches that are covered in black sand due to the volcanic nature of the island. On the hilltop overlooking the town, we visited the shrine of Ermida da Senhora da Paz. The walkway to the chapel features ceramic mosaics depicting the life of Jesus. At the top of the steps, there is an excellent view of the coastal village below.
Later in the evening, we stayed to watch the Festas Bom Jesus da Pedra (Jesus of the Stone). This is a religious processional which signifies a persons faith. The town was full of people, and the streets were lined with colorful flower carpets.
On the following day, we drove around the eastern half of the island. This area has high mountains, deep valleys, waterfalls, and incredible views. The coast line is dotted with small whitewashed villages, surrounded by green pastures. There are also several garden miradouras on this part of the island. The flowers are absolutely gorgeous.
We then visited the town of Furnas, which is considered one of the richest hydrological areas in Europe. It has 22 thermal springs and geysers, along with two rivers that merge (one hot and one cold). We also stopped at the lake area, Lagoa das Furnas, to view the Gothic church Ermida Jose do Canto.
The "Caldeiras" (Hot Springs) are at the opposite side of the lake, and serve as a natural thermal kitchen. Local restaurants and families cook traditional "cozido" meals here by burying large pots filled with Portuguese meats and vegetables. The pots are placed in the ground at 4AM and removed around Noon. It made for a tasty lunch.
After lunch, we visited the Terra Nostra Garden, filled with century old trees, colorful exotic flowers, and a large thermal pool. It is considered one of the most beautiful parks in Sao Miguel.
We then explored the northwest part of the island. The coastline, by the town of Ponta dos Mosteiros, was formed by lava flows and contains many rock pools. We went swimming in a natural wave pool further along the coast at Ponta da Ferraria.
Further inland, we visited Sete Cidades (seven cities). The two main lakes in this area, Lagoa Azul and Lagoa Verde, are spectacular. There are a total of seven crater lakes in the area, but these are the only two that are connected. It makes for an unusual sight, given that one lake is blue and the other is green.
On our final day, we visited a pineapple plantation in Ponta Delgada, and a fruit liquor factory in Ribeira Grande. We also spent some time at Caldeira Velha, which has natural hot springs and a warm waterfall. We ended the day with dinner at a restaurant run by the local agricultural association. It was hard to find, and we had to ask several people for directions. In the end, we finally found it on the outskirts of town behind some cattle barns. The steaks were excellent.
There are not many tourists that visit The Azores. However, after a weeks stay, we both feel that it is a hidden gem, and one of the most beautiful places that we have ever visited.
Tomorrow, we depart on a Mediterranean cruise. We will be sailing abroad the NCL Gem, a brand new ship that was launched in May of this year. We will be visiting Malta, Italy, France, and Spain.
Steve & Ann