As I made my way up the trail, the weather shifted. Dense fog descended; I could barely see five feet in front of me. As the fog rolled in, seemingly, so did the silence. It was eerily quiet, save for the singing bird or the soft rustle of leaves in the wind. I couldn’t help but think if I had gotten there 20 minutes earlier, maybe I would’ve seen it. I guess that’s life on an island. Your days are at the mercy of the bipolar weather.
Maybe I should rewind a bit.
Every year I try to take a solo trip somewhere in the world. Don’t get me wrong, I love traveling with friends. But the uninhibited freedom, breaking out of your comfort zone, and taking the time to reflect on life is much more suited to solo travel. For my solo trip last March, I decided to take on all that Portugal had to offer. From Lisbon to Porto, Portugal is one of the most beautiful countries I’ve been to. Making my trip slightly more unconventional, however, I decided to visit the Azores, a tiny Portuguese archipelago.
I didn’t know much about these islands. To be honest, I hadn’t even heard of them until I started to do some due diligence before my trip. The Azores are a series of nine volcanic islands off the coast of Portugal, about a three-hour flight from the mainland. Each island offers something different. As I only had three nights here, I figured I should stick to the largest island, São Miguel. So I packed my bag and set course.
Before my trip, I read about the best ways to tackle the island. São Miguel is small and easily navigable, so the consensus seemed to be picking a spot and taking day trips. The capital, Ponta Delgada, is centrally located, so it makes a perfect base camp for visiting the island. I booked a room at Out of the Blue hostel, and it was honestly the best experience I’ve ever had in my life (review coming soon), setting the stage for the trip.
After a bit of meandering the downtown area, I check into my hostel. I know you might have quivered at the word “hostel,” but this was one of the best accommodations I’ve had – hostel, hotel, and Airbnb included. A pleasant check-in, drop my stuff off, and it’s time to explore. Since it’s later in the afternoon, I didn’t plan on any intense hiking today, just a casual drive around the island to take in the scenery.
Driving on São Miguel is simple, there’s one main road that circumvents the island, “EN1-1A”, and then a few smaller roads that will get you to some of the more popular “miradouros,” or viewpoints in Portuguese. The most challenging part of driving is the view. Seriously. Fortunately, these are clearly marked. Unfortunately, you’re going to want to pull over for every single one of them. Prepare for your drives to take 5x longer than you initially expected.
After a couple of hours, it’s time to head back to the town for some grub. I tried to get a seat at A Tasca, but alas, no tables. So, option B is Taberna Açor. It was a lovely menu with a fantastic selection of local Azorean staples, from the wine grown on Pico Island to sausage from farms on São Miguel. The ambiance was also pleasant and cozy. I ended up striking up a conversation with a girl sitting at the table next to me, who was a formal child star from London. Her company includes some Starks from Game of Thrones…no big deal.
An early start to today to take on the many hikes around the island. But first, breakfast. Which brings me back to Out of the Blue. The hostel has a beautiful rooftop garden area, fully equipped with a kitchen, fire pit, hot tub & brick pizza oven. It has communal breakfasts and dinners each night. Breakfasts are free, but dinners are 10 Euros. And I know what you’re thinking, plenty of hostels offer free breakfast. But do all breakfasts have fresh pancakes, yogurt, granola, coffee, fruits, and toast with lox and goat cheese? Didn’t think so.
Anyway, today is about hiking. Island weather is notoriously fickle, especially during the shoulder seasons. So you have to be flexible with your plans and learn to take what you’re given. Fortunately, there’s a website with live webcams that show you what the weather is at a particular hike/viewpoint (https://www.visitazores.com/en/webcams). This should be your starting point each day, but take it with a grain of salt because the weather can shift within minutes.
The highlight of my agenda today was to see the Miradouro da Boca do Inferno. Definitely the most famous of the viewpoints, you’ve likely seen this on Instagram. It’s one of the highest points on the island, and you can see a good chunk of the west side of the island, spanning two lakes, a mountain, and the ocean. Unfortunately for me, I got hoodwinked by fog…dense fog. I could barely see a few feet in front of me. It was eerie, serene, and incredibly peaceful. Though I didn’t get to see the immaculate view, this was also a memorable experience. So I took a seat and had some lunch.
Next up, swimming in a thermal hot spring, baby. Ponta de Ferraria is about as far west on the island as you can go. It’s a thermal spa and bathing site with therapeutic water springs that have been used since the fifteenth century. Different from other hot springs, it’s actually the confluence of hot thermal water and cold ocean water, which makes for a pretty cool sensation. It wasn’t the optimal time, so the water was a bit chilly, and the tides a little precarious. They had a few ropes throughout in the water, so you could hang on to prevent the riptide from taking you out to sea. Some other tourists were checking out the area, but only a few brave (stupid?) enough to take the plunge.
After a day of hiking and swimming, it’s time for a beer. I stumbled upon this little cart selling beer and snacks on the side of the road near Mosterios. The beer was good, cheap, and under a euro for half a liter. So there I was beer in hand, watching the most beautiful auburn sunsets I’ve ever witnessed.
My last full day on the island. Another early start. On the agenda today? More hiking, of course. First up is Lagoa do Fogo. Right in the middle of the island, Lagoa do Fogo is a crater lake and one of the largest bodies of water in the Azores. There is also a fantastic hike that goes along the rim of the volcano. The weather favored me a bit more today, so I got a few good scenes.
After hiking, I’m famished. The Azores are home to a ton of agriculture, from cows, fruit, and even wine (grown on a volcano!). In fact, the agriculture association of the Azores opened a restaurant to showcase some of the goods. Fortunately, they didn’t bat an eye at my disheveled clothes and hiking boots, graciously letting me crush a melt-in-your-mouth steak and a beer.
Now I have to work off the big meal with… more hiking. I head to Furnas, a little village located inside the volcanic crater that erupted in 1630. The town is another famous basecamp because there are a few resorts and thermal spas here that sound relaxing. If you drive in with your windows down, you might smell the sulfur from the furmolas, or geothermal steam holes. They are…potent. Fun fact, cozido de Furnas, is a traditional stew cooked in these steam holes. Stew cooked in a volcano….I didn’t get the chance to try it but heard it’s pretty dope.
I walked around Furnas lake for a bit, a much more casual stroll than the first few hikes. My legs were pretty toasted, so I didn’t mind the reprieve. There were also some old ruins around the lake, including a dramatic-looking church to some old abandoned mansions, so it made for excellent sightseeing.
Being my last night in the Azores, my body is tired. Remember those thermal spas I mentioned in Furnas? You’re damn right I took advantage. I went to Poça da Dona Beija, one of the thermal baths not associated with a hotel. I think it was bout 10 euro for an unlimited amount of time in the spa, which had 7 or so different baths.
After an hour or so at the spa, I’m refreshed and it’s time for dinner back at the hostel. On the communal menu tonight, wood-fired pizza…did I mention this was paradise?
Back to the mainland, where I finish my Portugal trip in Porto.
Every now and then, you find a place that captivates you. For me, the Azores is this place. From the dramatic vistas to the warm company, this visiting the Azores will always hold a special place in my heart. I don’t know why I chose to go to there on my trip, and I’m honestly shocked it isn’t more popular. I wrestled with myself about writing this article. Half of me wanted to share the beauty with others, and the other half, the more selfish half, wanted to hide it from the world so I can pretend it’s my little secret.
Stay tuned for notes from Lisbon & Porto.