The Azores are an unbelievably beautiful set of 9 volcanic islands in the mid-Atlantic. This is a first-hand guide to São Miguel Island – lovingly known in the Azores at The Green Island, for its lush vegetation. São Miguel hosts the capital city of the Azores, Ponta Delgada. This is where most international flights arrive on the archipelago. The Azores are technically part of Portugal, and therefore, the European Union. They use the Euro, have European outlets, and speak Portuguese.
This guide is broken into four chapters, outlining the best of our 9-day trip to São Miguel, the Azores, during mid-October 2016:
Part 1: Getting Around São Miguel, The Azores
While the Azores might not seem like an obvious destination, to my husband, Donald, and I, they’ve been a part of our lives for as long as we can remember. We grew up in the corner of America with the largest Azorean populations – Cape Cod and Aquidneck Island. The 60 miles between our hometowns is commonly called the South Coast of Massachusetts, and includes the Azorean communities of New Bedford, Dartmouth, and Fall River. Some say there are more Azoreans along the South Coast than there are in the Azores. After learning about a new non-stop flight from Boston to Sao Miguel, we knew we had to go.
São Miguel is the biggest island of the Azores (but less than 100 miles across!). Even though we spent over a week on this one island, we never ran out of things to do, most of which were free! And the beauty never ended. The hydrangeas, greenery, mineral baths, and lava formations, were so vibrant — we were hard-pressed to take even one bad photo.
This 4-part travel guide includes our general itinerary and is full of personal advice and recommendations based on our adventures on the island. Donald and I had a blast soaking in the culture, trying all the food (and the drinks!), taking in the spectacular views, posting on Instagram, hiking, swimming, exploring, and mingling with locals.
GETTING TO SAO MIGUEL
SATA, (also known as Azores Air) flies direct form Boston, Providence (seasonally), Toronto, Montreal, and San Francisco. From Boston is was a super quick 4.5-hour flight for just $550. It was a red-eye flight — for some reason they served dinner at midnight, then turned off the lights for a couple hours before we landed. Which really messed up our sleep schedule. We still don’t have a good answer, but other than that, it was a great airline.
TRAVELER’S TIP: On SATA, carry-on bags can only weigh about 14 pounds. If it’s over you are required to check them – which is free. NBD, but a heads-up would have been nice.
To save a little extra cash, you can opt book a flight + hotel package with Azores Getaways, a travel & tour service that specializes in authentic Azorean experiences. They can usually save you about 20% off the a-la-carte price, (which is nice, especially since this is something you’ll probably be buying anyway) and they offer tour packages to help you find those off-the-beaten-path experiences, and show the you the best the island has to offer, without the trouble of sifting through the zillions of activities available.
A tour company can also take the logistical hassle out of visiting multiple islands in a short amount of time. Donald and I only stayed on Sao Miguel during our 9-day trip, but if we had booked with Azores Getaways, we could have easily island-hopped without worrying about wasting time, seeing all the sites we wanted to see, transporting bags, or missing ferries/planes.
STAYING ON SAO MIGUEL
Amazing accommodations are super affordable (about $60/night) for a beach front apartment. We stayed in 3 locations on Sao Miguel during our stay: Sao Roque (Air BnB), Furnas (Air BnB), and Caloura (Hotel). I’m glad we stayed in more than one place – it gave us a chance to focus on both sides of the oblong island independently, and cut down on driving times. Though I wouldn’t have stayed in Furnas longer than a night or two – it’s more touristy. It was also chilly and damp when we were there and our bathing suits and towels from the hot springs stayed wet for days. Staying in a quaint fishing town might have been a more unique experience (like Povoacao).
TRAVELER’S TIP about hotel food: Opt for fresh local options instead of sub-par hotel food at 3x the price. While the hotels are beautiful and are set I beautiful locations, the food is overpriced and often not as good, or as fresh, as local options.
Azoreans are extremely hospitable. Everyone was incredibly nice and helpful wherever we went. Our AirBnB host even served us a full Azorean breakfast when we arrived. I was reluctant/delirious after being awake for over 24 hours, but the cheese, butter and Portuguese sweetbread was such a warm welcome to the country!
PORTUGUESE LANGUAGE IN THE AZORES
It was also a nice surprise that everyone knew at least a little English. Our Portuguese abilities were pretty much non-existent. We got by on Olá (Hello), Obrigado/a (Thank you), Praia? (Beach?), Inglês? (English?). Knowing another romance language helped a lot with the basics of understanding signage in Portuguese — my French and Spanglish background were just enough to keep us out of trouble.
TRAVELR’S TIP: The Google Translate app’s camera translation feature, is something straight out of a Harry Potter book. Complete wizardry. Hold it up to something written in a foreign language, and the camera translated it right before your eyes.
DRIVING & ROADS ON SAO MIGUEL
I’d highly recommend booking a rental car through Autatlantis – they have multiple locations around the island, including the airport. If you are traveling with two people, or solo, the Smart ForTwo car is the one you’ll want – at 20 euro per day, with unlimited mileage, it’s a steal. And most of them are automatic (and surprisingly fun to drive!). Make sure you email them to reserve an automatic if you aren’t incredibly familiar with stick shift. The hills are killer and we really needed that automatic. The Smart Car just barely fits two American-carry-on-sized bags in the “trunk”, so pack accordingly! No big luggage here.
TRAVELER’S TIP: We also found out that you can download areas on Google Maps for offline access on our iPhones, so we could use regular navigation around the island instead of navigating by Google Map screen shots. This feature has probably been around forever, but it was news to us and made life much easier!
If you aren’t into navigating by phone, don’t worry. We ultimately decided we could have gotten everywhere without Google Maps since everything was so well labeled with street signs.
WALKING AROUND SAO MIGUEL & PONTA DELGADA
The island is incredibly clean and is full of amenities – just when you think are “off the beaten path” and about to go on a big adventure through the jungle, the trails end up being well marked and maintained. Everywhere on the island also felt very safe. We saw no panhandling, and lots of people cleaning the streets, beaches and public areas.
We walked around Ponta Delgada quite a bit while staying in Sao Roque – the cobblestone sidewalks are works of art. I’m glad I brought good walking boots, any fancy heels would have been destroyed by the choppy stones.
While the city is gorgeous, you can get more history and context about the beautiful patterns in the sidewalks, architecture, and Azorean folklore if you opt for a guided tour of Ponta Delgada. Donald and I resisted tours for a long time, thinking they were “too touristy” – but now we make sure we do at least one tour at every destination so we have a better understanding of the place, it’s people, and the culture. A tour is always well worth it, and city walking tours are some of our favorites.
Keep reading about the Azores…
PART 1: Getting Around
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