Words and Photographs by Emma Lavelle
Earlier this year, my feet began to itch and I found myself desperate to explore somewhere a little off the beaten track. My previous summer’s adventures in Iceland were still fresh in my memory and I craved empty roads, isolated hot springs and dramatic landscapes. With the budget tight I spent days searching for European destinations that offered everything I needed - and then I saw a friend's Instagram photo and knew instantly where I was heading: the Azores.
If you haven’t come across this island chain before, I'm not surprised. Situated smack bang in the middle of the Atlantic, over two hours by plane from Portugal, they’re pretty isolated. As hopping between individual islands isn’t exactly cheap (or easy) I concentrated on the largest isle, São Miguel. The perfect juxtaposition of the geothermal landscapes of Iceland and a tropical, Lost World paradise, São Miguel appears like a mirage in the grey Atlantic. Filled with cloud-covered peaks, hot springs, dense greenery and waterfalls, it's like nowhere else in Europe.
Hiring a car, my boyfriend and I based ourselves in the capital, Ponta Delgada, and split the island into easily digestible chunks to be explored over four days. Our adventures began in the island's west, driving up steep roads in search of the elusive views of the Sete Cidades Lakes. Elusive because of the relentless mist, not for the lack of places to pull over and admire the scene. The twin lakes lie in a gigantic volcanic crater and local legend says that they were formed from the tears of a blue-eyed princess and her green-eyed lover, shed when her father would not allow them to marry. On a clear day, the lakes do indeed appear to be different colours, despite actually being one body of water divided by a road. Also worth admiring is Vista do Rei, where the ruins of a brutalist concrete hotel greets you through the mist. Then there's the utterly sublime Boca do Inferno viewpoint, where the view of the crater, lakes and coastline in the distance is nothing short of spectacular.
A short journey from the lakes takes you to one of the island's most alluring hot springs, Ponta da Ferraria, which is the only São Miguel hot spring found in the sea. A pink path leads first to a modernist changing hut, then down to a black volcanic beach where a ladder descends into a rock pool. As waves crash into the pool, visitors can hold a rope to steady themselves, enjoying the change in temperature as cold water rushes in to meet the warm.
Looking for the perfect end to a day exploring the west of the island? Visit the small coastal town of Mosteiro to feast on the seafood that São Miguel is famed for. My top tip: always order the octopus.
We also make a stop at Furnas, a geothermal town situated inside a volcanic crater. There are two areas boasting hot springs here - Poça da Dona Beija offers a series of small, relaxing natural jacuzzis, but it’s Parque Terra Nostra that shouldn’t be missed. Situated inside these majestic tropical gardens is a huge yellow-hued geothermal lake perfect for swimming. Furnas also offers a collection of smouldering caldeiras and anyone interested in local cuisine should head to the lake to see how traditional stew is made by burying pots underground for several hours. The earth steams here and the smell of sulphur seems to rise up into the thick mist enveloping the mountains above.
The final hot springs of São Miguel are found at the protected Caldeira Velha, where you must venture along a harrowing road and wander through thick tropical forest to reach the pools. Climb the hill to find a couple of small wooden changing huts before plunging, admiring a small waterfall trickling down from the cliff above.
Across the island lie a network of hiking trails; those that snake along the numerous crater lakes are perhaps the most dramatic but don’t underestimate how strenuous these routes can be. If you prefer to admire the scenery from the comfort of a car, the drive along the coastal road that winds along the east coast is unmissable. Perhaps the most perilous and slowest road to navigate on São Miguel, the views of the ocean and towering cliffs are as dramatic as they get.
How to end a trip to São Miguel? Whale watching was at the top of our agenda but, alas, high winds thwarted our plans. If you visit during calmer weather conditions don’t miss a chance to take to the sea as these Atlantic islands are one of the best places in the world to spot a wide array of cetacean species including sperm whales, blue whales and dolphins. Other highlights for landlubbers include visiting the tea and pineapple and plantations, the latter featuring on almost all of the island's restaurant menus.
São Miguel is like nowhere else in Europe. Hot springs, luscious forests, towering cliffs, crater lakes, tea plantations and cascading waterfalls all collide to create an otherworldly landscape. My advice? Take a punt on an island not yet on the tourist trail - for there’s something rather magical about having a hot spring in the forest all to yourself.
Be sure to check out more of Emma's work here