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.

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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.

Tips:

  • 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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

Tips:

  • 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.

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Ermida de Nossa Senhora da Paz

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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

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.


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Azores: What to Eat in Sao Miguel if You Don’t Eat Seafood

Even Beyoncé Can’t Bribe Me

I’m deprived, uncultured, basic even. At least, everyone who hears I hate seafood–literally anything from the sea (except canned tuna!)–tells me I’m missing out. Indeed, going to an island in the Atlantic Ocean known for its fishing img_4885industry makes for some dining difficulties.

Because of this barrier, I was driven less by yelp recommendations lauding the fresh catch of the day and more by hunger and curiosity during my short three day layover in Sao Miguel, the largest of the nine Azorean Islands. I was making my way to remote Graciosa, the Azorean island my great-great-grandparents came from, and the only way from either the U.S. or mainland Portugal was to pass through Sao Miguel Island first. With only two flights to Graciosa from Sao Miguel per week, both of which require flying 20 minutes to Terceira Island to either hop a ferry or a connector flight, I decided to allow myself a few days to discover Sao Miguel’s natural wonders. Overall, my taste buds weren’t overly impressed with anything specific (except the pineapples!), so I amused myself with engrossing conversations, learning about distinctive cooking processes, and getting myself into some ridiculous situations.


Bad vegetarian

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baguette and Sao Jorge cheese
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passionfruit soda

I was hungry for a light meal after landing and yelp told me the vegetarian spot Rotas da Ilha Verde was nearby. I trounced over around 3pm, but it was closed. A café was open next door, but only serving espresso and cigarette smoke. Lesson 1: Most places close at 3pm and reopen for dinner at 7pm. So I wandered and came upon a blue-tiled restaurant called Casa de Pasto Taveres. It was open, but empty.

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bife de vaca

From a hand-written menu I chose bife de vaca (beefsteak) and maracuja (passionfruit) soda made in Sao Miguel. Chunks of passionfruit floated in the glass.

The bife de vaca was hearty, stewed in garlic, onions and red pepper. Over the next week, it would become my go to meal when I couldn’t decipher anything else on the menu and wasn’t feeling adventurous.

The table, like every other in the Azores and Portugal, came set with crusty bakery-fresh white bread and cheese that was an additional, not included, charge. It’s always worth it, and I hope you set your carb-free dairy-free deliciousness-free diet aside. From the sobremesas (desert) menu, I chose “um café.” Lesson 2: Coffee is always an espresso in the Azores and Portugal.


Chocolate Salami

One of my favorite things to do when traveling is to go to the grocery store. Knowing nothing of how it tastes, this was the most incredible item I found.

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Volcanic Hot Spring Stew: Cozido das Furnas

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Not a grave!

A perk of living on a volcanic island is that you can let the Earth do the cooking for you!

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As simple as Blue Apron?

Fill a pot with cabbage, carrots, beef shoulder, pork shanks, blood sausage, yam, and potatoes, bury it in the ground, let it sit for 6 hours in volcanic steam vents, and viola! You’ve got cozido das furnas, “hot-spring stew.”

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“Boiled meat” doesn’t sound as appetizing as “cozido das furnas.”

Cozido das furnas at Restaurante Banhos Ferreos cost me a pretty $16, and as person suspicious of that much meat, it was surprisingly delicious! I even ate the blood sausage, which may have been my favorite of the meats!

The story continues past the meal…in typical Sao Miguelian fashion, my parking spot was narrow and steep. In trying to turn the car around in a 16 point turn, I got stuck between the building and a raised platform, revving the engine while I attempted to ramp up backwards without sling-shotting too far forward.

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Apparently I was quite loud and annoying during my ordeal. A waitresses came out and asked me, “Is it a normal car?” I stared at her deadpan, on the verge of laughter, wondering if she meant to insult me. I said, “No, it’s stick!” She smiled and responded, “Yes, so normal for me. Can I help?” I had been working at it for at least four minutes, had just began to sweat with frustration, so I gladly accepted her offer. She turned that sucker around in less than 30 seconds! While I was relieved, I chided myself for underestimating a woman who was “merely” a waitress…and for not shooting a video of her extraordinary feat.


All in Flavor, Say Aye!

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Merely four food trucks lined the pier in Ponta Delgada at sunset. You could say the industrious couple cornered the market on fresh, local ingredients; the other trucks served hot dogs, pizza, and soft-serve ice cream. Tonight’s special at Areguinha (The Sweet One) was simple: fava beans with carmelized onions, an “ancient recipe with spices from Morocco brought back by the pirates…I’m trying to make you into a pirate,” said the chef, winking. If that’ll help me on the road to owning a boat, then bring on those fava beans.

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Opening just a month ago, the couple meticulously put together a fruit salad for me, complete with Sao Miguel’s ubiquitious pineapples, while I waited for my fava beans. The unhurried locals and tourists walking along the pier to enjoy the cool breeze occupied my imagination while I impatiently waited 25 minutes for a bowl of favas.

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I kept my musings to myself, for fear of distracting the chef and further delaying his painstaking process. Served in a biodegradable bowl, with a fork of the same material, the fava beans were worth the wait, and I was happy to support the first hipster food truck in Sao Miguel.


A Farmer’s Market and Fresh-Squeezed Juice

Mercado da Graca is a good stop to pick up fresh ingredients to cook at home/your AirBnb. It’s a covered open-air farmer’s market selling local fruit, vegetables, cheese and all kinds of locally caught fish. Pineapples might as img_4905well be on Sao Miguel’s flag they’re so ubiquitous (and more succulent than the average). It’s here you can buy the buttery, tangy Sao Jorge cheese, made in the neighboring Azorean Island of the same name. I lived on this cheese! With a soft local-style English muffin called bolo levedo and a locally made tangy maracuja jam that I’ve never seen in the U.S, it was my go-to road trip snack for my day-adventuring.

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One of my favorite finds at Mercado da Graca is Sabores Local Foods, where I stopped to get a freshly squeezed pineapple juice from Ricardo, the head-honcho. The ingredients are different everyday, depending on what’s fresh in the market. Strangely enough, I literally ran into Ricardo on Terceira Island a few days later, and he shared his insights on island comparative politics.


Desperation

One evening, I returned to Ponta Delgada late from adventuring around the island all day. I was hungry, impatient, and desperate, so a bland queijo tostada (cheese toastie) on white bread from what can be best described as a outdoor corner store shamefully came to be what I chose to put into my body that evening. The exciting part was when the local biker gang started to gather nearby. I found myself wondering like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, “Are you a good witch/biker club, or a bad witch/biker gang?”

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Leftovers

Associacao Agricola, on the northern shore, is decent for a dinner after a day at Caldeira Velha (the natural hotsprings), but I wouldn’t make a special trip for it. I had their acclaimed steak, but wasn’t impressed, and it’s quite expensive by Azorean standards. On the plus side, their bread was luscious and I tasted vinho verde for the first time. Highly recommended! It’s crisp, light and summery, and pairs well with dinner in the Azores!


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Restaurants, cafes and bars line the pier in Ponta Delgada.

What and where did you eat in Sao Miguel? What do you avoid eating at all costs when you travel?

Iceland: Reykjavik, Snaefellsnes & Godafoss

I went to Iceland to be alone. I wanted to wallow in melancholy, to eavesdrop but not engage, to pretend the Northern Lights were a supernatural show curated just for me.

In the spirit of independence and grit, I rented a GoCamper in Reykjavik. Not only was it how I would get from the Snæfellsnes peninsula to the hot springs of Mývatn, the golden cliffs of Egilsstaðir and the Jökulsárlón lagoon, but it would be my home for the next nine days, where I’d sleep and eat most meals.

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Cheese, tomatoes and spicy mustard on rye flatbread, with Icelandic yogurt (Skyr) and bananas make for a seriously delicious camper’s lunch

The Ring Road loops the country in it’s entirety. I had plenty of time for side trips to surreal landscapes in those nine days, but I raced against the setting sun each day, with only eight hours of light. Driving in the dark in Iceland is like going to an art museum with an eye mask on–there’s majesty everywhere, and what a waste to pass it without oogling it’s grandeur (evidence below).

 

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Night also induced in me a fear of meeting a troll. If otherworldly fairytales are what we need to believe to respect and protect the environment, then please tell me a story. When volcanoes and glaciers are raging all around you, magma bubbling below your feet, shifting the Earth, melting hundreds of thousands of years of ice, clouding the sky, grinding flights to a halt for weeks, it’s quite logical to anthropomorphize that power into a troll, eliciting a healthy fear of environmental imbalance.


Reykjavik: The Smoky Bay

I arrived on the bus from the airport to Reykjavik at 5am on a chilly November morning and was dropped off in the plaza of the Iceland 055Hallgrimskirkja, an imposing and futuristic looking church, complete with a statue of Leif Erikson, the full moon casting a mysterious glow upon the city.

I wandered the cold, dark streets, and finally ducked into the Grai Kotturinn (the Gray Cat). It was the heartiest breakfast of my life, so simple, so delicious, so comforting.

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Laser-cut horse hair shoes by Halldora Eydis

Reykjavik is small enough to be walkable, yet incredibly cosmopolitan. Everyone is an artist, even if she’s a plumber by day. The high-fashion shops on Laugavegur and Skolavordustigur are inspired by nature (laser-cut horse-hair shoes! iridescent fish skin purses! volcanic ash pendant necklaces!) while the more practical are stocked with clothing to fend off the same elements. And of course, you can find lopapeysa everywhere. The lambs’ wool sweaters are made locally and repel the rain and cold, hence their ubiquity as a national uniform. Too itchy for me, but the unique patterns in each lopapeysa keep folk art alive and thriving in a very practical way.

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I love fashion because it’s wearable art; it makes my daily life joyful. Each day I get to choose what to project and what I repel. There are days I choose sexiness or class, days I choose laziness and sloppiness to repel attention, days dedicated to amplifying my rough edges with studs and spikes I’ve sewn onto my jackets, and coins from the countries I’ve visited. I am the architect of my image; I use it as a powerful spell to chase away a childhood of hand-me-downs that I didn’t choose myself. Still thrift shop threads are often the most interesting finds, and Reykjavik has those too.

Reykjavik Quickies:

Whether you research in advance or just wander the streets, it’s easy to find good food, drinks and live music in Reykjavik, so I’ll give you a bit of the places I enjoyed.

Food:

  • Café Roma for breakfast or afternoon snack. Look at that pastry. My mouth is watering.

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Bizzare fun:

Shopping

If you’re window browsing or at that baller status, you are guaranteed to find something uniquely Icelandic. I liked:

  • Kiosk. Local designers, but quite the pretty penny.
  • Geysir: full of warm wools, beautifully crafted. I got some slouchy chartreuse knee-high wool socks.
  • KronKron: because the shoes are frickin outlandish.
  • Rakel Bloom: a local designer whose current line looks like bad-ass stained glass windows.

Alas, I came to this island to bask in nature, not city life. I picked up my camper, stalled in the parking lot, got lost trying to get out of Reykjavik, but eventually got found and headed toward Snaefellsnes. (Reminds me of Snuffleupagus–anyone?)


Snæfellsnes

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There was a mountain; it’s texture reminded me of the Wooly Willy toy. Fog and rain made for low visibility, and during an hour’s driving I passed only one other car.  Loneliness. Green moss blanketing bulging black lava rock. Big sky. A rainbow. All for me. All mine. Iceland 167

I slept just off the side of the road in a pull-off the first night. A house was lit up on the mountain, but the rest of my surroundings were pitch black, and I didn’t see the other two houses until the sun rose the next morning. I woke, put together a cheese and flatbread sandwich, brushed my teeth on the side of the road, and made my way on to Akureyri and Mývatn. Roughing it, fine, but it was only night one.


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The road between Akureyri and Mývatn yielded the spectacular Góðafoss waterfall. Though winter hadn’t come, it looked like a scene out of Frozen. In fact, I sent a whimsical postcard featuring Góðafoss to my niece, told her I saw Elsa peek her head from underneath the falls. I wanted to create for her some of the magic and wonder I felt. I hope I succeeded.

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Next up on Iceland: Mývatn, the jewel of the north…even if it does mean Gnat Lake.