There’s nothing but ocean for hours. White light and heat beat down through the plane window. Then shapes appear on the horizon. Two volcano-peaked islands rise out of the water like knees in a bathtub: Santa Maria and São Miguel, the easternmost of the Azores. This archipelago is part of Portugal, but its location – in the middle of the Atlantic – is so remote that arriving here feels like entering the Bermuda Triangle.
The Azores are possibly Europe’s most exotic islands. They are the secret gardens of the Atlantic – lush and green, thick with temperate forests which feel almost like rainforest, alive with birds and a rich wildlife. The scenery is beautiful and dramatic: rugged coastlines and empty beaches crashing with waves, which draw in-the-know surfers and Lisboas and few other people, though the Azores islands stay warm all year round.
The largest of the nine islands, São Miguel, is a place of secrets. Agricultural scenes belie hidden crater lakes, steaming hot springs, perfect ocean swells and heart-stopping views. Both landscape and weather are unpredictable, changing every 15 minutes. From the capital of Ponta Delgada, I drive through blazing sunshine to the hot-spring town of Furnas, located in the valley of a volcano. The temperature cools, roads become cobbled, light filters through pine and eucalyptus trees. I pass molten clay bubbling ferociously at the edge of a pale-green lake. Sulphuric steam drifts up towards the treetops. The earth here is so hot it’s become a place of gastronomic pilgrimage: locals bake a stew, colzido das Furnas, in this hot earth for five hours, hoisting it from the ground at midday for lunch service in the village restaurants.
I follow hot springs that gush through the village and find forest pathways meandering around Furnas lake. As heavy purple clouds descend, where better to head than somewhere warm and inviting? Soon I am neck-deep in the 39ºC Poça da Dona Beija natural thermal baths. A friend from Japan once told me about the youth-giving qualities of splashing thermal waters on your skin; I see a lady take this one step further and smear her face with orange sulphuric mud, which helps stimulate collagen production. In pursuit of glowing skin, I follow suit. Cool tropical rain falls through lush greenery. Languid crickets chirp in the fresh mountain air. I’m weightless and as warm as toast.
There are more thermal pools nearby, at Furnas Boutique Hotel where I am staying. It was once a public bath, and has been newly restored and refurbished with indoor and outdoor thermal swimming pools, plus a wellness centre and spa. Floor-to-ceiling windows in each room are designed to emphasise the beauty of the surrounding forest and gardens. Everything centres around the grand lobby with its minimal dark-wood bar and the grocery store, which sells locally made products in beautiful jars and packaging. That night, in the hotel’s À Terra restaurant, I dine on warm vichyssoise, cheese from neighbouring São Jorge island and baked yams. Coddled in wine and warmth, I sleep deeply.
The next day I hit the winding road and head for Vila Franco do Campo, a sleepy fishing town on the south coast and a jump-off point for divers, whale-watchers and kayakers. Worth a peek is the town’s Convento de São Francisco, a convent-turned-hotel that has hardly changed since its holy days in the 17th century. It’s a labyrinthine place, gloriously unmodernised. Heavy doors line long corridors, behind which lie vast rooms with four-posters, antique chairs and wood-burning stoves. Walls are weathered by time and salty air. Downstairs is an eccentric lounge beneath stone arches, complete with altar, red-velvet upholstery and oil paintings of Saint Francis. A vast hall with an enormous fireplace and absolutely nothing else is calling out for a lavish party, à la Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty.
Down at Vila Franca marina I’m met by divemaster Pedro. We don full wetsuits and jump into a red speedboat, holding on tight as we hurtle across the Atlantic. Our destination is the half-pitched volcanic crater sticking out of the water just a few miles away. In high summer this is a pleasure dome: a place for daytrippers to swim in the crater pool and bask on its rocky edges. Off-season, it’s a wild, brutal face of auburn rock washed in churning white swell. I fall backwards over the side of the boat into the seemingly bottomless water, and find myself surrounded by shoals of glistening silver fish, flitting between shafts of light. Is this Atlantis embodied, I wonder, or am I entering a Bond villain HQ? As we drive back I do feel like a Bond girl, wetsuit to the waist, riding high, boat smacking the waves.
A drive along the island’s north coast takes me through tea plantations and surf beaches. Sitting alone on a clifftop is the Santa Bárbara Eco-Beach Resort: a chic hotel focused on the surf, mountains and nature of the Azores, there are 14 glass-fronted cabins that have uninterrupted sea views. The architecture blends seamlessly with the volcanic landscape. The spacious restaurant, with its petrified-wood and traditional-cork interior, is said to have the best sashimi on the island. With the Atlantic on São Miguel’s doorstep, here chefs have the pick of the catch: one day’s haul includes freshly foraged limpets on coiled seabass with butterfish and fresh tamarillo.
As I sip my café dublo in the modernist bar looking out to sea, I’m met by Jorge Valério. He is a São Miguel local who knows the island inside out. Along with his business partner, Lisa Moreira, he runs Holistika, a bespoke Azores islands tour specialist. Valério decides what I need to find most on São Miguel is a waterfall, a view and a good glass of wine. Sounds about right. We hit the road, chatting about liberation and landscape, his positivity compelling. Inching down a terrifyingly steep track we find a hidden waterfall. The force of the water has carved sleek sports-car curves into the rock face. On dry days you can swim here, letting the weight of the water pummel your shoulders. Above the cascade, hikers follow knee-tremblingly narrow walkways across the rocks, over volcanic peaks to the sea.
Time and again on this island there’s the feeling of passing through a veil, one world to another. Through gaps in the clouds we glimpse the stunning Lagoa do Fogo – a lake in a crater, one minute emerald green, the next azure blue. Empty white sandy beaches wink at me from the shore. As quickly as the view appears, it disappears again: cloudy curtains drawn. We press on up winding roads – time for a sundowner. On the south coast Bar Caloura, just 15 minutes drive from the lake, is a favourite with locals and visitors in-the-know. Next to the bar are steps down into the ocean. People come for a salty dip before a glass of wine and plate of fried horse mackerel, or fresh cheese with chilli sauce.
Over on the west side of the island is Sete Cidades. These two adjacent lakes, one blue and one green, were formed, as the legend goes, from the tears of separated heartbroken lovers, one with blue eyes and the other with green. Sete Cidades Lake Lodge is a place to retreat and recharge, pure cabin porn: three wooden hideaways set in gardens of marigolds and lemon trees, like super-luxe bird hides. With wood burners and huge windows looking out onto a lake or forest, the design is minimal and environmentally sensitive.
A 10-minute drive away, down another impossibly steep road, is the awe-inspiring Termas da Ferraria: thermal baths tucked below a towering cliff. There are two pools, one man-made with warm thermal waters and the other right in the very surf of the Atlantic. Although the sea is rough, I can’t say no to a pool literally in the middle of the ocean. There is only one other swimmer. He’s chest-deep in the sea, clinging to the iron steps as waves break around his head. Ropes are hooked up to hang onto: the game here is to tether yourself as you’re pushed and pulled about by the swell. It’s both terrifying and fabulous – a bit like an incredibly painful massage – and leaves me feeling light-headed, relaxed and courageous. I can’t decide if I’m in Atlantis, The Secret Garden or an Ian Fleming novel. I wind my way back up the cliff, pausing for the view, and realise I’m in all three.
WHERE TO STAY IN SÃO MIGUEL
Contemporary and cosmopolitan, this is a brand-new, five-star landmark hotel in the city centre overlooking the marina. By day hang out at the black-stone panorama rooftop pool and bar; by night sample cheese and wine at the lobby Market Bar. Rooms are wood-panelled with Bluetooth speaker systems, leather sofas and private balconies that have uninterrupted views across the harbour.
Address: Azor Hotel, Avenida Dr João Bosco Mota Amaral, Ponta Delgada, São Miguel, Azores, Portugal Telephone: +351 296 249 900 Website: azorhotel.com Price: Doubles from about £115
Furnas Boutique Hotel
Up in the volcanic hills, this wellness retreat is the sister property of Azor Hotel. Star of the show here is the black-stone, indoor thermal pool, housed in the original bathhouse atrium with an adjacent sauna, gym, hammam and treatment rooms. Interiors are crisp, fresh and minimal, inspired by the nature of the Azores. Rooms are done up in dark wood panelling with vast windows looking over the hotel gardens. Breakfast at the À Terra restaurant for island cheese, pasteis de nata and local bolo lêvedo sweet muffins. Friendly staff can organise fishing, canyoning, hiking, whale-watching or swimming with dolphins.
Address: Furnas Boutique Hotel, Avenida Dr Manuel de Arriaga, Furnas, São Miguel, Azores, Portugal Telephone: +351 296 249 200 Website: furnasboutiquehotel.com Price: Doubles from about £171
Convento de São Francisco
Vila Franca do Campo
Wander the cloisters of this 17th-century convent and dine at the communal friars’ table. There are 10 en-suite rooms, each with its own wood-burning stove. The renovated interiors are sophisticated and austere: exposed beams, timber floors, antique furniture. A thrilling place to spend the night before a diving or whale-watching trip. Be sure to grab a pastry from the queijadas de Vila Franca on your way out of town.
Address: Convento de São Francisco, Avenida da Liberdade, Rotunda dos Frades, São Miguel, Azores, Portugal Telephone: +351 296 583 532 Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org Price: Doubles from about £90
Sete Cidades Lake Lodge
This hideaway comprises three self-catering lake-side cabins set in a garden of lemon trees and marigolds. Each is furnished with crisp linens, wood-burning stoves and huge windows with views of the forest or a lake. Ask owner André Augusto for hiking trails, canoe rental and the best picnic spots on the shore.
Address: Sete Cidades Lake Lodge, 2 Rua das Lavadeiras, Sete Cidades, São Miguel, Azores, Portugal Telephone: +351 918 304 014 Website: 7cidadeslakelodge.com Price: Doubles from about £80
WHERE TO EAT IN SÃO MIGUEL
If you’re in Ponta Delgada for lunch, Mané Cigano is a must. A local favourite for traditional Azorean seafood. It’s open for lunch, so get there early or jostle with the regulars for a table. Try the horse mackerel with beans.
Address: Mané Cigano, 1 Rua Engenheiro Jose Cordeiro, São Miguel, Azores, Portugal Telephone: +351 296 285 765 Contact: email@example.com
This is a cosy place right by the sea wall, serving some of the best fish in the Azores. It’s a 10-minute drive from Ponta Delgada – or hike there along the cliffs to build up an appetite. Reservations necessary.
Address: Taberna Saca-Rolhas, 3 Rua da Corujeira, Relva, Ponta Delgada, São Miguel, Azores, Portugal Telephone: +351 296 716 747 Website: facebook.com/Taberna-Saca-Rolhas
À Terra Fornaria at Azor Hotel
The restaurant at Ponta Delgada’s best hotel is famous for its contemporary take on Azorean dishes and glorious marina views. Try the fresh succulent sardines baked in pastry with a cold glass of Azorean white wine.
Address: À Terra Fornaria at Azor Hotel, Avenida Dr João Bosco Mota Amaral, Ponta Delgada, São Miguel, Azores, Portugal Telephone: +351 296 249 900 Website: azorhotel.com
À Terra at Furnas Boutique Hotel
People regularly make the 40-minute drive here from the capital. The young, dynamic team is putting Azorean cuisine on the map using local ingredients and cooking methods. Try cheese from São Jorge, fish baked on hot stones, fresh and unusual salads or fantastic pizza straight from their wood-fired oven.
Address: À Terra at Furnas Boutique Hotel, Avenida Dr Manuel de Arriaga, Furnas, São Miguel, Azores, Portugal Telephone: +351 296 249 200 Website: furnasboutiquehotel.com
Quinta dos Sabores
Rabo de Peixe
Seek out this wonderful farm-to-table restaurant, where most of what is on the menu is grown or reared on site. Knock on the barn door and you’ll be warmly greeted by hosts and owners Paulo and Inês. Expect a five-course tasting menu at a reasonable price. Vegetarians and special diets accommodated.
Address: Quinta dos Sabores, Rua Caminho Da Selada, 10, Rabo de Peixe, São Miguel, Azores, Portugal Telephone: +351 296 493 700 Website: quinta-sabores.co.uk Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Terra Nostra Garden Restaurant
For colzido das Furnas baked in the earth, book lunch at this Art Deco hotel restaurant with views across the botanical gardens.
Address: Terra Nostra Garden Restaurant, 5 Rua Padre José Jacinto Botelho, Furnas, São Miguel, Azores, Portugal Telephone: +351 296 549 090 Website: bensaude.pt
Santa Bárbara Eco-Beach Resort
Modern, sustainable, surf-chic restaurant on the north coast, famous for sashimi, surfing and sea views. Natural stone and glass interior with drift-wood decor, hanging log-burner and long suede sofas for nightcaps. Reservations mandatory for Friday and Saturday nights, though it’s a lazy lunch spot at any other time.
Address: Santa Bárbara Eco-Beach Resort, Estrada Regional 1, 1 Morro de Baixo, Ribeira Seca, Ribeira Grande, São Miguel, Azores, Portugal Telephone: +351 296 470 360 Website: santabarbaraazores.com
Low-key bar for sundowners. This south-coast spot is the place to gather for sunset swims in the adjacent ocean pool before settling in for wine and snacks. Great place to try a local vinho verde with deep-fried mackerel.
Address: Bar Caloura, 20 Rua da Caloura, Água de Pau, Lagoa, São Miguel, Azores, Portugal Telephone: +351 296 913 283 Website: barcaloura.com
THINGS TO DO IN SÃO MIGUEL
Take a dip in Termas da Ferraria thermal and ocean baths (Rua Ilha Sabrina, Ginetes, São Miguel Azores, Portugal; +351 296 295 669; termasferraria.com) or Poça da Dona Beija hot springs (Lomba Das Barracas, Furnas, Azores, Portugal; +351 296 584 256).
The Azores Sub Dive Centre runs trips to some of the world’s best dive sites. (Loja 6, Marina de Vila Franca do Campo, São Miguel, Azores, Portugal; +351 296 583 999; azoressub.com).
Have a massage up a mountain, reiki on the beach, or discover São Miguel’s secret nature spots with Jorge and Lisa at Holistika (+351 914 284 480; holistika.pt).
Tour and taste Europe’s only tea plantation at Gorreana (Plantações de Chá Gorreana, Maia, São Miguel, Azores, Portugal; +351 296 442 349; gorreana.pt).