Words by Mairead Finlay
Nine vividly beautiful islands undeniably distinct from one another, yet all equally painterly in their landscapes, make up the pieces of the North Atlantic jigsaw puzzle that is the Azores. The Portuguese archipelago (located between Lisbon and, perhaps rather unexpectedly, New York) is a place where nature is virtuously unspoilt, and crowds remain relatively few.
But it is on the largest island of São Miguel, characterised by its gentle ambience and dramatic volcanic wonders, where one can really enjoy a barefoot style of luxury. Having undergone significant investment in the past decade, it is by far the most developed in the Azores. Comparatively, take Terceira, where more dappled cows roam the verdant island than people do.
Head to São Miguel to marvel at its wild, elemental terrain, where tea fields roll down to the sea and its waters also just so happen to be the refuge of a number of journeying blue whales and bottlenose dolphins. Feel cleansed by the island’s bubbling, breeze-ruffled rock pools and savour the highly diverse edible bounty.
Thanks to the Azores’ unique microclimate, the island is as much of a haven for tuna, octopus and a plethora of rare fish, as it is for cattle and sheep: who contently graze against a backdrop of trees laden with passionfruit, bananas and guavas.
By far the most glitzy, cosmopolitan offering in the Azores is the five-star Azor Hotel. Opening its doors in 2016, the hotel boasts a prime location with staff who proudly take care of every possible whim you may have.
Overlooking the glittering marina of Ponta Delgada (São Miguel’s more urbanised capital) you’ll find plenty of opportunities to luxuriate in its dreamy panoramas, whether it’s from your own private balcony or at the sleek, black-stone panorama rooftop pool and bar. The Azor Hotel is also home to a cheese shop, which is actually less surprising than you might think.
The award-winning products come directly from the cows who graze on the lush pastures of São Miguel, and where more than 50% of cheese in mainland Portugal is sourced from. That’s because the cattle produce the goldilocks of cheeses – a little salty, yet neither strong nor weak. Sample with an Azorean wine and you’ll be in heaven.
Furnas Boutique Hotel
The Azor Hotel’s sister retreat in Furnas, surrounded by a vast blanket of emerald forest and where huge clouds of vapour rise intermittently from the town’s softly hissing thermal springs, is an idyllic getaway. Designed by the iconic Portuguese designer Nini Andrade Silva, the hotel fully harnesses the heritage of the island in almost every conceivable way.
Once a public bath, it has been thoughtfully refurbished as a luxury wellness spot complete with indoor and outdoor thermal swimming pools, a hydromassage centre and sauna: and all enriched with Furnas’s healing thermal spring waters. Staff are also always on hand to arrange anything your heart desires in the Azores, from canyoning to swimming with dolphins.
Local’s huddle outside every lunchtime to nab a spot inside and devour its mounds of seafood practically dripping straight from the ocean. Opt for the smoked horse mackerel, grilled octopus or the freshly caught limpets that swim in a buttery garlic sauce. Located in Ponta Delgada, it would be almost criminal to not try this Azorean favourite whilst meandering here.
Cozido das Furnas
This stew is a central part of São Miguel’s heritage and you must try it when exploring Furnas, after all, how often can you say you had your dinner cooked by a volcano? Inserted into a one-metre-deep hole (or taken down directly to the Furnas lake) the stew, which is a concoction typically consisting of chicken, blood sausage or salt cod, plus vegetables, then marinades and cooks slowly for more than six hours at 100°C. You’ll need to request this dish in advance at most restaurants, such as at the excellent Caldeiras and Vulcões.
São Miguel’s crater lakes
To point out picturesque spots in São Miguel seems almost superfluous, the island is brimming with stunning vistas. But at a push, the one that reigns supreme would have to be Sete Cidades. This volcanic caldera is gorgeously flanked by the bobbing, violet heads of hydrangea bushes that line the winding paths down to the sprawling crater lake: a glistening swirl of jade and turquoise.
For more breathtakingly beautiful crater lakes on the island (yes, there is more!) you must also venture to Lagoa de Fogo.
On an island teeming with geothermal energy, you aren’t short of options when it comes to bathing in mineral-rich, cleansing waters. For a luxuriously refreshing dip, opt for the Termas Ferraria Spa which is also close to a free lava rock pool that is well-worth visiting when it’s low tide. Tightly grip onto the ropes as the waters lap over and above your head for an invigorating, though admittedly not an altogether relaxing experience. For something a little calmer, immerse yourself in the scenic thermal pools at the exquisite Parque Terra Nostra Botanical Gardens.
Indeed, São Miguel truly imbues pastoral charm at every turn: it’s hard not to be captivated by its timeless beauty.