Last month I flew out to São Miguel, the Azores, for seven days with my boyfriend, Stu.
Prior to booking neither of us really knew much about the Azores, apart from the fact that it looked like an incredible part of the world we were eager to explore. Everything looked lush and green, there were lakes, volcanoes, thermal pools and hot springs, and charming little Portuguese villages dotted amidst these amazing landscapes. Having subsequently read a few posts from bloggers who’d visited Azores, this Portuguese archipeligo immediately got added to my 2018 wish list.
And then, serendipitously, what should appear in my inbox from Secret Flying over the Christmas period?
It was meant to be!
In the height of summer this price is nearer to £300.
Yes, we knew the weather could potentially be very unpredictable (and wet!), that several of the island’s attractions may be closed for winter, that some activities may not be running, and that we’d be restricted to exploring São Miguel (as the boats to the other islands only run from May to September; there are flights but they’re ridiculously expensive). But, even taking all that into account, we found it difficult to justify not going when the flights were so damn cheap!
After all, I travelled to India last year during their dry season and only experienced two dry days out of 12, so I’ve learned not to base my travel choices on what the weather should be like.
And it turns out that January/February can be a wonderful time of year to visit the Azores. Daytime temperatures fluctuated between around 13 and 17 degrees and the sun shined somewhere on the island (we often found that cloud started forming as we moved inland; something to do with topographic lift according to Stu!) every single day. If it was raining up in the mountains, we could be down on the coast within half an hour, basking in sunshine.
I’m going to be writing a full post (or several) about my experiences on São Miguel (including what to see, where to see it and how much it costs) shortly, but in the meantime I thought I’d enlighten you with 10 fun facts about the island that you probably didn’t know beforehand.
#1 São Miguel is the largest of a total of nine islands that make up the Azorean archipelago
The island measures 62.1 km in length and 15.8 km in width at its widest point, and with a total area of 744.7 square kilometres, making it a similar sort of size to Anglesey in Wales, here in the United Kingdom. More than half the population of the archipelago live in São Miguel (137.856 inhabitants in 2011 – the latest figure I can find online).
The Azores lie roughly 1500 kilometres west of Lisbon and are actually the westernmost point of Europe.
#2 São Miguel is the only place in the world where pineapples are grown in greenhouses
At least, that’s what it says on their information leaflet! Pineapples were introduced to the island around 1850, as a replacement crop for oranges. However, as the Azores were not warm enough for their outdoor cultivation, they were grown in glasshouses. A unique technique known locally as “fumo” (leaves and branches are burnt in old oil drums placed inside the glasshouses, creating a dense smoke which forces the plants to flower at the same time) means that the pineapples can be harvested a lot quicker than would otherwise be possible. It takes around 18 months to produce a ripe fruit, weighing in at 1.5-2 kilograms.
It’s possible to visit the Arruda Açores pineapple plantation (which is almost 100 years old) in Fajã de Baixo, just outside Ponta Delgada.
#3 São Miguel is home to the only tea plantation in Europe
Ok, so it’s got nothing on Kerala, but that’s still a pretty impressive claim to fame. Tea was another of the crops that was introduced to the island following the demise of the production of oranges. The first records of tea growing in the archipelago date from towards the end of the 18th century (it is believed that Portuguese ships passed through the Azores on their return from Asia), and the island’s largest tea estate, Gorreana, was founded in 1883.
Gorreana is still in business 135 years later, producing some 30 tonnes of tea annually.
It’s possible to visit the factory throughout the year, but unfortunately you’ll only be able to see it in operation from Monday to Friday, between April and September.
#4 There are web cams dotted around the island so you can do live weather checks via the “Spot Azores” app
Our host at The Nook Hostel actually told us about this app and we used it all the time. Much like Iceland – where the regularly used slogan is “if you don’t like the weather here, wait five minutes” – the Azores are renowned for experiencing four seasons in one day.
In fact, as we discovered, it’s not unusual to experience two seasons in 10 minutes. The first photo was taken when we arrived at Miradoura da Barrosa and the second was taken when we left.
For this reason, you can’t simply check the weather forecast for somewhere in the morning and expect it to stay much the same throughout the day. The weather changes quickly in São Miguel, and quite dramatically sometimes in an incredibly short space of time.
As I’m on Vodafone here in the UK, I get to ‘roam free’ in 40 European countries, and Portugal is one of them. This meant that I could use my UK minutes, texts and data on São Miguel. However, if you’re picking up a local sim card here, you’ll also be able to use data fairly inexpensively, in order to connect to the app.
#5 You can try “cozido nas caldeiras” – a traditional dish that’s cooked in volcanic heat for seven hours, one metre below ground
Down by the north side of Furnas lake, south of town, amidst an area of geothermal activity, are the caldeiras (volcanic craters), where for generations people have come to cook the famous cozido nas caldeiras. It’s a dish that contains various different meats, sausage and vegetables (mainly cabbage, kale and potatoes), and the stew is cooked underground for around seven hours.
The only liquid used is the juices that are produced by all the ingredients, and the idea is that the meats are cooked perfectly evenly and that all the juices produced are retained, which adds to the flavour of the dish.
Being a non-meat eater, I didn’t actually try cozido nas caldeiras for myself, but I have since learned that it is possible to bring your own food to be cooked for an additional fee of €3. Not sure I agree with that surcharge, considering that I would already have paid extra to supply my own food, but if you don’t eat meat yet are still keen to try the whole volcanic culinary experience, you do have that option available to you.
#6 On a Wednesday you can rock up at any one of the island’s lighthouses and get a free guided tour – from the Lighthouse Keeper himself
We discovered this fact completely by accident. But it was a rather serendipitous accident – at least, as far as Stu was concerned. He loves anything to to with the coast and the ocean and is fascinated by science and engineering, so our guided tour of Farol do Arnel (Arnel Point Lighthouse) was one of the highlights of the trip for him. But even for me – someone who doesn’t have much of an understanding of either science or engineering – it was still a really unique and interesting experience.
A word of warning though: if you plan to visit Farol do Arnel, park your car at the top and walk down – unless you’re a very competent driver or have an addiction to adrenaline and danger. Stu is a competent driver but even he nearly rolled the car back down the hill on the way back up, when we had to stop for a group of people walking down and then subsequently make a hill start. The road down to the lighthouse (and onwards towards the harbour) is STEEP!!
#7 There is an abandoned 5-star hotel perched on an isolated mountaintop, which makes for some great urban exploration
Hotel Monte Palace opened its doors on 15 April 1989. The grand 5-star hotel had 88 rooms, two restaurants, a bar, a bank, a hairdressers, three conference rooms, and a nightclub. However, it closed just nineteen months later due to high running cots and low occupancy.
For the next twenty years the empty halls were patrolled by security guards and dogs, until the funding finally ran dry, and nobody could afford to pay them anymore.
Even now, in its poor state of disarray, there are still many details visible that hint at its previous grandeur…a cavernous indoor courtyard, spiral staircases, and elegantly-tiled bathrooms.
As the hotel is located above the Vista do Rei viewpoint, the 360 degree panoramic views from its rooftops really are something else.
According to our host at The Nook Hostel in Ponta Delgada, rumour has it that the hotel has now been purchased by Chinese developers, so if you want to take a peek inside, you may not have too much time left in which to do so.
#8 If you love cats, head to one of the island’s miradouros (viewpoints)
Being a cat lover I was rather dismayed that we’d seen none of them on our wander around Ponta Delgada on the first day of our trip. However, as soon as we picked up our rental car and arrived at our first miradouro, there they all were! At every miradouro on São Miguel you’ll find a clowder (yes that is the actual collective noun!) of cats hungry for the contents of your picnic basket.
#9 You’ll find some incredible street art in Ponta Delgada
Just like Tarapoto in northern Peru, Ponta Delgado was not somewhere I expected to find street art, let alone pieces that were so creative, quirky and unique.
If you follow the self-guided walking tour in the Bradt travel guide to the Azores, you’ll pass quite a few of the pieces I had the opportunity to photograph.
#10 São Miguel has been manufacturing pottery since 1862. You can tour the factory and showrooms in Lagoa
At Ceramica Vieira is the family-run business, currently in its fifth generation. Crockery, pots, bowls, vases and other items in traditional signs and colours are made here.
It’s free to enter and you can poke around the factory and showrooms at your leisure. We saw one lady throwing pots, and other workers hand-painting the final pieces. It’s also possible to purchase items made at the factory, in its attached shop.
If you’ve enjoyed my fun facts and you’d like to find out more about this beautiful, relatively unknown part of the world, stay tuned for my upcoming posts over the next few weeks!
Have you visited the Azores? If so, do you have any more fun facts and interesting titbits of information to add to my list?
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