Among a particular set of travelers, there is an understanding that the harder a place is to reach, the better. Let the masses remain in the gates, one thinks. If we continue with a new flight (or run or ferry), the benefits will be great. At least the bragging rights are.
By this logic, I would have passed right through São Miguel, the largest and most populous island in Portugal’s Azores (and one that welcomes cheap and international flights, also from North America). In fact, I did it last year when I went to Terceira and Pico in search of the “real” Azores.
But it turns out that São Miguel is very much a destination in itself, not just a stopover on the way to a place that is less traveled. And while it is true that there were some cruise ships and package tours before the pandemic, it was never a place for mass tourism.
“São Miguel is a place you travel when you know why you want to go there,” Triin Medeiros said as she led me along the breathtakingly beautiful hiking trails of Sete Cidades (“seven cities” in Portuguese, but actually seven volcanic craters and lakes covered by other world vegetation) and Lagoa Azul (“blue lagoon”, probably the most photographed place on the island). Medeiros, a well-traveled Estonian who has lived in São Miguel for decades, is a guide to her husband’s adorable, discreetly named adventure trips. Fun activities, and she has a pretty good idea about the people who come to her island.
They are not people who book a flight to a place they cannot pronounce just because there is a promotion. (The Portuguese spelling, Açores, is a head scraper.) They are not people whose idea of an island vacation lies on a sandy beach in the sun. They are not people who are afraid of getting muddy or wet. (This is one of those places where travel guides and hoteliers like to trot out that cliché about four seasons in one day.)
Natural wonders and wonderful nature
Rather, the people who appreciate nature in its most jurassic, technicolor and surreal (and people who own hiking boots and rain pants). Blue and green lagoons and mountain sides are almost electrically charged – so vibrant that they almost hurt your eyes. Seagulls build their nests in the lush vegetation, especially around the island’s other famous crater lake, Lagoa do Fogo. Candy-colored hydrangeas line the winding roads as a practical matter (their strong roots defend against erosion), and in the spring everything lights up pink with azaleas.
Thanks to all the rain, there are waterfalls at every turn. A fun activity rappers them down. Triin’s husband, Paulo Medeiros, leads canyon excursions around the islands, starting with the beginner-friendly half day at Ribeira dos Caldeirões (“hot springs”) a relatively easy downstream path with some rock slides and and small jumps. It’s cold, even with the top quality thick wetsuits they deliver, but a great way to warm up is the second half of one of their adventure days, an e-bike ride across the undeveloped northeast corner of the island.
Some of the people who visit São Miguel are also people who really like sea mammals. With their almost abandoned location in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, the Azores have a front row seat for hiking various types of whales, and their nautical ecosystem is a comfortable home for bottlenecks and common dolphins. It leaves companies happy Futurism boast of their walks to see “Three native species in one day!”
Smart places to stay
But for people who know why they want to go to the Azores, this absurd nature is not the only reason. There are also some awfully cozy places to stay. My trip was organized by a Portuguese tour operator called We Love Small Hotels. I have previously written about how it is a curious name for a company that focuses on hiking and adventure travel, but they have excellent taste and connections in the world of small Portuguese hotels.
On São Miguel, it meant an introduction to the lovely new Senhora da Rosa hotel, a passion project from an islander who returned to the island midway through a successful international hotel career to rehabilitate his parents’ hospitality project and overnight stays at. white (the property that brought the smart, minimalist design hotel concept to the Azores) and Furnas Boutique Hotel, a modern reinvention of an old thermal water hotel where people used to go in hopes of being cured of a variety of ailments. (You can still taste 22 kinds of medicinal thermal water right outside the property – ask Experience Manager Nuno Fevereiro for a ride.)
And excellent things to eat
This is Portugal and the other main reason to visit is the food. There is not a huge variety (especially for people like me who do not eat meat), but most of the Azores’ best restaurants are in São Miguel, including homestyle In Tasca in the center of Ponta Delgada, the noisy seafood hall Application 20 in São Roque and the sushi places Otaka and the restaurant on Santa Barbara beach hotel.
But the best things to eat are not in restaurants. An initiative of a Portuguese Food Communication Agency, the art of tasting Portugal introduces visitors to top chefs across the country and also to their producers and suppliers. What started as a client show has become somewhat more soulful.
In São Miguel, their ambassador is Cláudio Pontes, the head chef at the Azor Hotel. Together with sommelier João Couto, Pontes takes guests on a cultural heritage tour around the island with stops at the organic farm and the social project Kairos, which supplies vegetables to many of the best restaurants; the geothermal cooking pits near Furnas, where traditional meat stew (or in my case cake-like bread) is slowly cooked for hours underground; Gorreana tea plantations; and then a stop in the fishing village of Ponto Formoso.
There, Pontes picks up some fish that almost still breathe and come to work. Guests can choose a guided tour along the mountain tops or a cruise around the bay on a working fishing boat. (It is also possible to organize the day differently and go out at sunrise to catch fish with the local fishermen.)
They end up in a private home where a table is set up on the lawn overlooking the bay and the beautiful church and then stacked high with local cheese, volcanic bread, mackerel ceviche and fresh salads. Pontes and his team make everything outside, over fire, and the procession of dishes that come out is impressive: stews, local seafood (limpets), tuna steaks and sweets. Couto pours wines from Pico, and the party lasts for hours. It is wise not to plan any afternoon activity that day.
It’s an experience unlike anything else, and all the more reason not to skip São Miguel.
On the way: SATA Azores Airlines has frequent service from Lisbon and Porto to São Miguel (approx. two hours) and regular service from Boston, Toronto and Montreal (approx. five hours).