Azores: Exploring Sao Miguel

The streets of Ponta Delgada in Sao Miguel are lively, but I suspect most people come to Sao Miguel for the natural beauty, plenty of which you’ll find below.


I’ve written on what to eat and what you need to know about renting and driving a car because duh, food is good, and driving is the most efficient way to get to all the otherworldly places in Sao Miguel, from the hot springs to the hilltop church to the hiking trails and back into town to sing along with traditional dancers.

Caldeira Velha

Between Ribeira Grande and Lagoa do Fogo (the Lake of Fire) sits Caldeira Velha, naturally heated hot springs in the middle of a tropical forest. It’s a img_0295 visual feast for the eyes: rich green plants and rust colored boulders span the hot springs, while birdsong echoes throughout the jungle. Absorbing this surreal scene from a pool of hot thermal water is curative for body and soul.


  • The official parking lot is small, so use your parallel parking skills, and finagle a spot along the steep switchback curve of the mountain.
  • Entry is super cheap: only 2 Euros. It’s worth much more.
  • Changing rooms and showers are available, but there aren’t any lockers. They provide a basket to carry your items between the two springs. I had to remind my NYC state of mind that I was in the Azores, and it was highly unlikely someone would steal my stuff while I soaked.
  • There are two pools-one hot, one warm (and more photogenic because it has waterfalls, but I preferred the hot one).
  • Wear a dark colored bathing suit. The water’s minerals stain light colored suits.
  • Take a waterproof camera.
  • Caldeira Velha is very touristy, but it’s unlike any place I’ve every visited, a tropical rendition of Myvatn hot springs in Iceland.


Vila Franca Do Campo

Vila Franca Do Campo was the most developed town on the island until the 1522 earthquake destroyed it and buried thousands of locals alive in a landslide. The rebuilding efforts were slow to advance, so the capital was transferred to the current seat in Ponta Delgada. Today, Vila Franca Do Campo is known for two incredible landmarks: a hilltop church, and a surreal volcanic islet just off the town’s shore.


Ilheu do Vila Franca

The islet was immediately visible when I pulled up along the waterfront. I’d never seen such a magical landmass, and have never had occasion to use the word “islet.” It’s fitting. The islet is a tiny volcanic island off the coast of Sao Miguel Island, centered around a crater lagoon where a volcano imploded and collapsed in on itself. Radical!


Ilheu do Vila Franca is perfect for an afternoon of snorkeling in the crater lagoon and picnicking on the narrow beach. You can rent snorkel gear along the waterfront. A ferry leaves the pier every hour, though I was supremely unlucky: Hurricane Gaston was headed towards the Azores, making the water choppy and rough, and the ferry was cancelled. Enjoying the weather from under a tree near the pier, a tan, rotund, shirtless man wearing a gold chain offered his opinion that it would be at least two days until the sea would be calm enough for the ferry to cross. I’d be gone by then, having moved on to Graciosa Island. I was so disappointed, but that’s the thing about the Azores–the weather can dash your best laid plans.


  • If you like to plan ahead, you can buy the ticket online for six Euros.
  • You’ll need to bring all your own food and beach supplies, as there are no amenities. Like much of the Azores, the charm can be found in the tranquility of nature.
  • Snorkel gear is for rent along the waterfront.
  • Check out videos of the Red Bull Cliff Diving Championships to virtually explore the majesty of the cliffs.


Ermida de Nossa Senhora da Paz


Visible from the center of town, Ermida de Nossa Senhora da Paz (the Chapel of Our Lady of Peace) sits on a mountaintop over looking Vila Franca. I set off to walk (the New Yorker in me wasn’t used to all this lazy driving), but I soon realized the sun was too hot and the road too steep to do so without a hat, sunscreen, or water, so I went back to the car and drove up. Good thing, because the road was steeper and longer than I suspected, perfectly designed to hermit religious scholars away from the villagers and temptations below.img_6670

The parking lot is bursting with hydrangeas, a bouquet of gratitude to the holy woman who exemplifies peace. Ten flights of stairs before the entrance to the church symbolize the Hail Mary prayer and the tilework (azulejos) depicts the mysteries of the rosary. The view is amazing, and so worth the pilgrimage up the mountain.

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Furnas is a town in the eastern section of Sao Miguel Island. The area boasts a chartreuse colored lake, an enchanting mossy forest, volcanic vents that shoot boiling water and mud to the surface of the earth, and a relaxing hot spring.


The lake, Lagoa das Furnas, sits on the edge of the main attraction, the Caldeiras das Furnas. Steam emanates from cracks in the Earth’s surface and the bubbling mud, boiling water and smell of sulfur is a reminder that I’m walking on a volatile volcano. Why would people live here?! It’s fantastic and mind-boggling.

Thirty minutes at the caldeiras will do, and if you’re hungry afterwards, get yourself a plate of cozido das furnas, the local stew. Curious about the cooking process and ingredients? Check out my post here.

Poca de Dona Beija

The more hot springs, the better! Poca de Dona Beija hot springs aren’t as wild or natural as Caldeira Velha, but they’re still soothing after a day of hiking.img_0329 Amenities include a parking lot, changing rooms and lockers, and at 4 Euros for the entry fee, it’s a bargain spa experience. The sulfur will stain your bathing suit orange, so wear an old or dark one. Five different hot pots offer a range of temperatures, from hot to warm, while artificial waterfalls massage your aching neck. There’s also a gift shop with artsy jewelry, a rarity aside from the airport shops. They’re open until 11pm, and if you don’t have a towel, you can rent one there.


I visited at night, after a day of hiking. I would have gotten better photos during the day, especially of the rust colored rocks, but bathing outdoors at night is so romantic, and I prefer romance to evidence.

Salto do Prego hiking trail

Roca de Velha

If you’ve ever wished Avatar was real life, this trail is for you. Moss shrouds thick sinewy roots while leaves as large as my torso, thick and deep green, sway in the light breeze. I breathe in the unfamiliar perfume of Roca  de Velha. In yet another nod to Portuguese exploration, the flower is endemic to India. Since it’s arrival in the Azores, it’s become an invasive species. img_5730

Like a crescendo, the trail rose and the roaring, soothing sound of falling water became unmistakable. The forest opened up to spaciousness, to a jungle amphitheater, the star of the show a picturesque waterfall above a chilly rock bottom pond.img_5912

Point your GPS to the village of  Faial Da Terra. It’s a relatively easy hike, only 30 minutes to the waterfall, and under two hours roundtrip if you swim or have a picnic, though it is steep at sections and can be muddy.

Traditional dancing

After dinner one night, I heard music in the open air plaza of Igreja Matriz de Sao Sebastian, the Church of Saint Sebastian in the middle of town. Rows of locals sat in chairs facing a raised stage where traditional dancers in white shirts, the men in tweed pants, the women in bright pink and blue woven skirts, twirled in a complicated partner dance. The women’s hair was covered by blue woven fabric, looking very “Girl with the Pearl Earring.” Azoreans are incredibly ethnically mixed as roving bands of sailors stopped over in the islands, and these outfits were reminiscent of their Flemish heritage.

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Some songs were joyful, others measured and tempered. The song that resonated most deeply with me was full of saudade, a word that cannot be fully translated into English. It is simultaneously melancholy and nostalgic, somewhere between our romantic notions and salty reality. As thousands of immigrants, like my great-great-grandparents, left the nine volcanic islands in the Atlantic Ocean and made a home in the USA, they certainly must have felt saudade at the distance between homeland and adopted home, not just in geography, but in yearning for lush jungles, verdant vistas, fresh sardines for dinner, and a shared history and language.

116 years, 5 generations and 4 planes later, I was making my way to tiny, remote Graciosa, my ancestral homeland.




Iceland: The Blue Lagoon

Have you been to Disney World, a manufactured magical land where Sleeping Beauty’s castle echoes it’s German inspiration and Epcot imitates worldliness?

The Blue Lagoon is like that. Given all the incredible natural formations across Iceland, from fjords to lava fields to lagoons and waterfalls, it’s easy to believe the Blue Lagoon is one of them. Alas, a look behind the curtain reveals the Svartsengi power plant pumping hot geothermal water to the Blue Lagoon, and thousands of homes in the region.

So, is it worth enduring the chaotic crowds, long lines, and excessive commercialism just to soak in a power plant’s runoff?

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YES! The Blue Lagoon’s milky teal 102 degree mineral rich water, proven to cure psoriasis and leave your skin as soft as a newborn’s bum is something to experience at least once.

Here’s what you need to know:

Hot Waters, Cold Cash

Silica mask


There are four entry packages to choose from. Each package offers a different level of amenities, the minimum being just the entry ticket, the most luxurious including a reserved table at the restaurant. I opted for the “Comfort package” for 50 Euros. It included entry into the lagoon, a towel, robe, sample size silica mud mask, and a drink at the lagoonside bar (that I didn’t get because I was short on time).


  • Comfort package: 50 Euros
  • In-water massage: 50 Euros.
  • The bus to get there was $25 and I bought the ticket from Go Camper’s office.
  • Luggage storage at the Blue Lagoon: $5
  • Total: $140

Getting There

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View from the bus of mossy lava fields

Many people recommend a visit to the Blue Lagoon before or after a flight because it’s only 23km from the airport. I booked my visit for 9am the morning of my 4pm flight home. I found this time constraint added to the chaotic feel of my experience. I dropped off the camper car at 7am, and waited an hour outside for the bus, my toes eventually numbing to the freezing cold. Not pleasant. The bus only comes once an hour, so if you’re waiting from inside your hotel, you’ll be much better off. Make sure to check what time your bus leaves to head back to the airport from the lagoon, so you don’t miss your flight! Driving to the Blue Lagoon is an also option, and will help you avoid the line to check your luggage (more below) if you leave it in your car.

Lines vs. queues

Buy your entry ticket online! It will save you time. Same if you’d like a massage (more below). There are two separate lines/queues to enter: a longer, slower one for those who need to buy entry tickets, and a shorter, quicker one for those who bought their tickets online. Which one do you want to be in?


As soon as you get off the bus, there’s a line/queue to check your luggage. If you took the advice to visit the Blue Lagoon directly before or after a flight, join your fellow bus riding globetrotters in an annoyingly long line/queue. In fact, I was late to my massage due to this line/queue, and almost missed the bus on the way out as I waited to pick up my luggage. I hope this is something they improve on, because it was way too stressful for a place that touts itself as “an oasis of relaxation.”

How to Hotpot


Upon checking in, I was given a robe, towel, and a key bracelet and directed to the locker rooms. Please do your fellow lagooners a favor, and shower with the complimentary soap before you enter the lagoon. It’s smart to condition your hair (don’t rinse!), tie it up, or use a swimming cap, because the same minerals that are great for your skin will leave you looking like a Medusa. There’s an overpriced swim up bar, pots of silica mud for use as a face mask, and towel racks stationed around the lagoon to hang your towel (though I don’t know how you’ll know which is yours–they’re all white!).


I treated myself to an in-water massage, floating on a mat in the lagoon, my head held above water by an air pillow. It was relaxing, but a bit disorienting as the masseuse moved me through the water. She was kind enough to consistently pull warm water onto the “blanket” that covered me. It was a unique experience, but underwhelming. If you’re determined to experience this, you’ll need to make a reservation about a month in advance to negotiate your time slot.

To bring the Blue Lagoon home with you, there’s a store on site with expensive Blue Lagoon skin and hair care products, good for gifts or souvenirs if you’re willing to dish out the dough.

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Overall Experience

I’m happy I went, because the Blue Lagoon truly is visually stunning. The steam rising from milky aqua waters surrounded by moss covered lava fields really is otherworldly. But, once was enough, and I don’t need to go back. It certainly wasn’t relaxing; too many lines, which cut down on the time I could have spent soaking. I recommend visiting other lagoons so you get a variety of experiences, like the Myvatn Nature Baths and Fludir’s Secret Lagoon, both of which satisfied my desire for relaxation more than the Blue Lagoon. Happy hotpotting!

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Iceland: Flúðir and the Secret Lagoon


I had been yearning to head inland from the coast, to land so rugged that it was inaccessible for hundreds of years to all but outlaws and bandits who fled the law, nature’s brutality their best protection. These days, it offers a way inland without necessitating a 4WD, and with a population of less than 400, it maintains its quaint romanticism. Besides, the promise of a hot spring, a secret hot spring, was enough to beckon me to Flúðir.

Will stop for fish skin

On the way to Flúðir I stopped to refill the gas tank at a cross-roads called Hvolsvöllur. Across the street was a colorful barn with free wifi called Una, selling all kinds of local Icelandic products. img_2825-2 I had been wanting a fish skin purse, but they were too damn expensive, so I opted for the skin itself, still paying too much (43,000 krona/$38). One thing Iceland is not: economical. Anyway, it’s a nice stop, with locally sourced and handmade items.

Gamla Laugin (Shhhh, the Secret Lagoon)

Before travelling to Iceland, “hotpot” was my favorite type of Chinese restaurant. In Iceland, hotpots became a sanctuary of warmth and restoration, conjuring childlike wonder as I floated in unbelievably earthy depths.


The Gamla Laugin is Iceland’s oldest swimming pool, and costs 2,500 krona ($23) to enter. The man at the front desk had a very Icelandic pastime, which he offered casually, as if to say he knitted scarves in his free time: he was part of a volunteer search and rescue team, saving about 10 tourists a year (!) from their hubris while climbing mountains and glaciers. (On that note, always check the weather forecast, and wear layers!)


There are locker facilities to store your clothes, and you get your own key. Be sure to follow Icelandic etiquette by washing with soap before you enter. The lagoon’s minerals leave your skin soft like a baby’s bottom, but iceland-602your hair like a banshee, so slather it in conditioner and tie it up, or if you’re really concerned, use a swimming cap. And if you’re sleeping in your camper car like me, bask in this opportunity to shower!  I even shaved my armpits! To this day I am really curious if that was a good move. Doesn’t hair keep you warm? Seriously wondering.


After my soak at Gramla Laugin I stepped into the Kaffihus Grund, a cozy restaurant attached to a guest house. I arrived only a few minutes before they closed, but they welcomed me anyway. I ordered the lamb chops; ironic after I chased two sheep behind the cliffs of Skogafoss waterfall to get a good picture.

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It was only the second hot meal I had in six days, the first one being the burger and salty fries at the gas station in Egilsstaðir three days prior. The lamb didn’t stand a chance. I ate every last crumb. Every last bit of salad (avocado in Iceland?! One point for globalization!). All the hot veggies. Each chop of lamb. The Viking Christmas beer. The. whole. thing.


As I ate, I felt something that had been alluding me…warmth. My Spartan accommodations accentuated the essential nature of warmth–a steamy shower, hot food, a warm place to sleep–to feeling whole and healthy. Warmth is comfort. I was grateful for this meal and for the home I had to return to after this adventure was over.

Like futuristic fireflies, geothermal greenhouses dotted the dark hills of Flúðir, growing fresh veggies year round. I had Icelandic ingenuity, balancing respect for the environment and harnessing the Earth’s energy to thank for my plate full of veggies.

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Fresh veggies from geothermal greenhouse to table.

That night I fell asleep alongside a gravel road with warm bones and a full belly. A massage therapist once asked me what type of work I was in after giving me a face massage and noticing tension around my jaw. I’ll succinctly describe it as diplomacy, requiring I bite my tongue and swallow my naturally cynical responses on a regular basis. As I fell asleep I realized I had spoken so little over the past few days alone, holding nothing back in my thoughts and behavior. There was no one I had to cajole or convince, no one to explain myself to. It was liberating. My jaw felt loose, not tense or tight as during an average work week. The Secret Lagoon had worked its magic.

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Up next on The Noble Bee: The Blue Lagoon