July 4, 2013

A Ilha Verde: The Green Island of the Azores

Every now and then one should try something new. For me this means a new destination -  preferably one that is a little unknown, a little remote, a little undiscovered.

It's not always easy, as the more unknown and remote, generally the harder it is to get to and
more costly. However we found a gem of an island. Not that remote (plenty of flights from the Americas and Europe) but generally unknown to the South African traveller.

We decided on the beautiful islands of the Azores, situated in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean between Europe and North America. A small archipelago of nine volcanic islands, these Portuguese Islands were found by Christopher Columbus when he sailed by them thinking he had reached America. The islands consist of different communities with diverse marine life, crater lakes and volcanoes, and definitely some of the most stunning scenery I have ever seen.


We chose São Miguel Island - “a ilha verde” or the Green Island - also the largest of the archipelago to visit.  To discover the island of São Miguel is to discover nature itself. It is to gaze in wonder at the exuberant landscape. It is to view multiple shades of green, merging into the deep blue of the Atlantic Ocean, framed by the blue of the sky.

When visiting the Azores, and in particular S
ão Miguel Island, one can expect to view numerous scenic outlooks, locally referred to as “Miradouros.” These offer dazzling views of the rugged coastline, which is a mixture of sheer cliffs dropping directly into the sea, sheltered coves, volcanic beaches, small ports, and then tranquil valleys with lush vegetation, breathtakingly beautiful lakes with the craters of extinct volcanoes, geysers and hot water springs.

There are numerous places on the island to see the natural “Funas” where the hot water still boils to the top. There are even places to swim in the naturally warm “volcanic water”. I did wonder, at some point when watching the boiling water and sulphur smoke from the “funas” rising from the earth, just how extinct the volcanoes actually are!

These islands are a photographers dream destination due to the absolute lack of pollution, which enables the natural shades and colours of the landscape to be captured. 

The Azores has a gentle climate, therefore any time of the year is ideal to visit. We visited in June, which was a perfect time of the year to visit. Not only are the days warm, around 25-28 degrees Celsius, with no rain or wind, but also the abundance of hydrangeas that grow naturally all over, and I mean ALL over the island, are in full bloom then. This island is also rated as one of the most “floral” islands in the world!

How to get there?
We travelled from Cape Town via Dubai, on Emirates Airlines, to Lisbon, Portugal. Then a quick two hour flight from Lisbon to S
ão Miguel Island. You can basically take any connection to Europe and then take a local flight to the Azores from there. Good options are Lisbon and Amsterdam, as well as the UK which has direct flights from Gatwick.

How to get around?
There are some local buses available which will get you to most parts of the island, however the best advice is to hire a car. We booked our car hire here in SA, all prepaid, picked the car up upon arrival, grabbed a map at the tourist stand and off we went.

The island is really small and one can travel from one side to the other easily in a day. However there is no rush in a place like this, and there is plenty to do to keep you visually stimulated. The maps are really well marked and the different types of roads are indicated. 

There is a major, relatively new, highway that crosses the island from the north to the south -  you would use this either getting to Nordeste (the North) or from Nordeste to the Funas and the Sete Cidades lakes in the south of the island. However, I suggest that you only take the highway when you absolutely need to as you really must take the roads and secondary roads that hug the coastline right around the island. It is there that you see the magic and wonder of the nature of this island.

As I was navigating (which is very brave of my husband as I have the worst sense of direction ever) we ended up taking some very, very secondary roads! We ended up on dirt back roads and very narrow tracks (not made for cars I don't think) but what fun. We ended up at forests and lakes with views that can only be described as breathtaking.

Where to stay?
We started our stay in the north “Noordeste” and travelled around from there as we could choose to go a different way around the island each day. Noordeste also has the most scenic areas of the whole island. Avoid the central city of Ponta Delgada, as this is the bustling port for the cruise ships and business centre. However it is nothing compared to our city life.

Places to see
Well there really are too many to mention, and just driving around the island is an experience in itself. Some must see’s though are:

1) Funas: Site of the natural hot springs.

2) The various lakes such as Lake de Fogo, Lake Verde and Lake Santiago.

3) One of the main attractions and a must see: Sete Cidades with its blue and green lakes on opposite sides of the bridge.

4) And the beautiful scenery of the north of course:

 Bear in mind when travelling here:
1) This is a rustic, natural, rural island. There is very little WiFi etc. There are no modern adventure parks for children. The entertainment is hiking and nature.
2) The pace is very laid back. Cows have right of way on the roads and you may sit behind them on a rural road for quite a while, but relax, breathe and take in the beautiful trees, flowers and clean crisp air.
3) There are no fancy shopping malls, and apart from little mini-macardos (basic little town shops) in a few towns, there are no shops.
4) Restaurants are open at meal times, but not all day. Therefore lunch between 12h00 and 13h00, then dinner from say 19h00-22h00. So plan your day well.
5) The island is Portuguese, but locals in restaurants and hotels speak very good English.
6) There is no “made in china" junk (yay!) to buy and very little souvenirs etc.
7) Accommodation and meals are very affordable on the island, and the “plate of the day” is normally outstanding value.
8) Tea and pineapples are the local exports. Stop by a tea plantation if you can; the tea is wonderful.
9) The beaches are volcanic, very rocky, sharp and jagged. This is not a sunbathing, lie on the beach type of holiday, this is a get out and explore holiday.
10) Lastly, get a car with a powerful engine. Some of the steep inclines are very, very hard to get back up from the sea to the top of the road again. Trust me!

Add this destination to your travel bucket list, and don't forget to pack your camera!

Abigail absolutely loves to travel and is extremely passionate about the travel industry as well as technology. She loves all things digital and is a definite gadget girl! There is only one continent that she hasn’t been to yet, but her travel list is still very long! Her favourite destinations so far are Croatia, Italy, Portugal, the Azores and the USA (nothing beats the rides at Universal!).


Thank you Abigail for sharing - i have heard so much about the Azore island and not cannot wait to go..

You must go OJ - You will love it!!

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