It isn’t often Dustin and I indulge in guided tours for the places we visit. Matter-of-fact we try our hardest to avoid being herded around in a group of strangers at all cost. Think about it, who really wants all of five seconds to snap a picture that truly needs a bit of patience and timing to capture the beauty. Okay okay, so maybe I’m being a bit harsh, but these repeating elements are reasons we have avoided them at any cost.
Nevertheless, I digress. So as the two of us pondered over our dining room table, as we do on many late evenings before our trips on what to do, we were approached by a wonderful tour group, FUNtastic Azores tours. They seemed to offer a more intimate experience, So we decided to give it a go.
Also, be sure to watch our video to see how magical this place truly is!
Our biggest priority, So Miguel Azores Attractions!
What was there to see? To do? The Azores archipelago had so much to offer! So for those of you looking for the perfect Sao Miguel Itinerary, look no further, FUNtastic Azores tours has it all!
We meet our guide and owner of FUNtastic Azores tours, Paulo, bright and early the second morning of our trip. Immediately you could get the feeling that he was a warm friendly person, someone you could easily get along with. It definitely put an ease to the beginning of our day.
After a quick meet and greet Paulo pulled out his trusty map of the island. Before getting on the road he briefed us on the many Sao Miguel Azores Attractions he would be taking us on that day. From the renown Queijada (cheesecake pastries) de Vila Franca do Campo to one of the many Sao Miguel hot springs located in the town of Furnas. We quickly realized our day would be full of otherworldly experiences.
Now before I start, I’m only briefly going to talk about the points we visited. If you want the full run down and history of these amazing locations please check out FUNtastic Azores tours whenever you finally make the trip to this beautiful place. Paulo and his team have extensive knowledge and history about Sao Miguel and everything you could want in an Azores Excursion they can provide! Besides, why would I want to give all the juicy details away!
As we started our drive Paulo began with a brief history of the island. Everything from pirates, religious ceremonies, to Sao Miguel Cheese and other dairy products which they proudly boast as their largest export. On the journey to our first stop he pointed out some of his favorite beach hot spots, regular and black sand beaches alike.
Our first stop the town of Caloura which is considered one of the more expensive parts of the island. Upon getting out of the van we were greeted by a cliff eclipsed shore line and man made pool greeting the ocean at the end of the pier. It was only the begging of the trip, but the the mesmerizing view of the ocean meeting this dramatic landscape could make anyone hope for more. Interestingly, at the time, there was a red algae bloom in this specific area that gave the water a cool effect. We also got an spectacular view of the bay from the cliffs above.
Vila Franca do Campo
Next was the town of Vila Franca do Campo, the original capital of Sao Miguel until the unfortunate disastrous earthquake of 1522 that led to the permanent relocation of the capital to Ponta Delgada. This town has so much beautiful history attached to it.
Wedged between the ocean and many of the islands organic pineapple-greenhouse farms it was one the quieter towns we visited during our stay. Granted, this may be due to the fact that we visited during off season. Though this may not be the best time to visit the Azores, as unfortunately we missed the beautiful bloom of the hydrangeas, it was totally amazing to experience everything with no interference from crowds of other tourists.
About their Pastries...
First and foremost, our first try at some of the amazing Sao Miguels cheeses! Alright so it's a bit of a reach but we were able to visit the famous Queijadas de Vila Franca do Campo do Morgado. I mean who doesn't love cheesecake!! Of course, not like your typical New York style cheesecake, these little pastries with the simple ingredients of flour, cheese, milk and sugar could make anyone plea for seconds. The care and preparations behind these little delicacies are mind blowing. During your visit you can even have the opportunity of watching the townswomen make each and every pastry, from beginning to end. As their FB page says:
“From the divine hands of the ancient nuns of the Saint André's Convent, back in the XVI century, came the unique and delicious "Queijadas da Vila", which secrets and recipe were wisely kept throughout the years. But, as nothing last forever, the secret came out through the big walls of the Convent, and the original recipe came to the hands of Eduíno Morgado Medeiros's family, who, through persistence and dedication, kept them alive and authentic.”
Via Queijadas da Vila Franca do Campo do Morgado facebook
And wow! We couldn’t agree more. After having our first few bites, which were basically melt in your mouth, we bought our first hand wrapped box of six. Lets just say we came back for another six and then another six at the Ponta Delgada airport before taking off to our next destination. If you’re looking for a quaint cafe vibe paired with a shot of espresso, this is the place for you. The history is in the taste!
On a side note Sao Miguel cheeses are to die for! Make sure to give them a try!
Our next stop was actually a bit of a detour. Paulo was happy to diverge from the plan just a tad so we could get a look at the famous islet of Vila Franca do Campo. Another awesome thing about our tour experience. Paulo is happy to get you just about anywhere! Most tours you’re stuck to the exact itinerary and it was refreshing to see him just as excited as us to take a small detour. After all, it's an adventure right?!?!
After a small trudge through some bamboo stocks and a picturesque green field we reached the shore line across from the beautiful islet. Unfortunately, due to the time of year there weren’t any ferries running to and from the islet which otherwise is a heavily populated tourist attraction. Mainly due to the recent Red Bull Cliff Diving Championships. Featuring one of many natural Sao Miguel lakes located in the center with beautiful beaches surrounding it, we could definitely agree, it's a place you should visit during the summer season. Luckily for us, Dustin pulled out his drone and went to getting some beautiful shots allowing us a chance to see its beauty.
Nossa Senhora da Paz
And our last stop for this part of the tour the Nossa Senhora da Paz because what European adventure is complete without at least one religious landmark visit. A beautiful flight of stairs lead you past blue mosaic tiles pristenly kept to the church sitting soft above the town. The immaculate gardens around the stairs are usually flooded with the islands familiar hydrangea and lilies. We are 100% coming back to see summer-bloom in full flair. Once you reach the top you have a stunning view of the town below leading to the port and out to the ocean.
The story behind the church graces the walls of its structure and a marvelous tale indeed, but I’ll leave that to Paulo! His knowledge of the island is astounding. We found listening to him is like listening to a fairytale or bedtime story you never want to actually fall asleep too. A far different experience from the monotonous service announcements we found with most tour guides.
We spent too much time snapping photos from this beautiful view.
After departing the area the next thing on our Sao Miguel itinerary was the town of Furnas. Nestled in the valley of one of the three remaining active volcanoes on the island it is commonly known for its fumaroles and many Sao Miguel hot springs.
Unlike your typical geysers that spout water into the air this particular volcanic activity causes surface holes that have continuous boiling water which allows steam to rise from the ground. At some points because of their size you could feel the ground move and low gurgling sound. It was pretty wild!
We made a stop before actually reaching the main town at the crater lake, Lagoa das Furnas. On the south side sits the beautiful chapel de Nossa Senhora das Vitórias and across the lake debatably the hottest fumaroles on the island. Pun intended. This is the place we got to see our lunch made. When I say this I don’t mean a little restaurant or cafe nestled along the natural volcanic area that you’re allowed to visit for a small fee. What I mean is that our lunch, an amazing stew by way of old Portuguese tradition, was Cozido das Furnas (cooked by fumaroles)! Totally incredible!!! Barely three feet underground by the very steam of the volcanoes that make up this beautiful island.
Cooked for about seven hours, multiple restaurants had their own places claimed along the fragile volcanic ecosystem. The stew consists simply of multiple types of pork, beef and chicken paired with carrots, sweet potatoes, yams and cabbage. After witnessing the volcanic steam do its work it was time for lunch.
Paulo took us into town to his restaurant of choice Restaurante Banhos Ferreos. Definitely the most intriguing dining experience to date. This was also our first time trying the delicious Kima beverage, basically passion fruit soda. It was soooo nom! If you didn’t know, Dustin is the foody and I’m the... bevy? Haha, pass me a delicious drink any day and I’m set! After we had fully stuffed ourselves with this amazing Portuguese meal we headed onward to explore the actual city of Furnas.
In the center of the city there are also multiple fumeros and even natural streams which you could drink from. The history behind this place was just as phenomenal, but I’ll save the history for our good friend Paulo. Did I mention how amazing of a history teller he is? Book him! Just DO IT!
Anywho, haha, the natural water directly in the city has a very strong iron taste and just about everything it came it contact with undoubtedly held that rust color. Outside of the restaurant from earlier there was even a drinkable water fountain labeled “fart water”! Labeled this way to get a good laugh, many of the natural waters in Furnas were also naturally carbonated. Let me tell you, it's the strangest thing to drink water straight out of the earth that's texture resembles sparkling water.
As we explored Paulo shared a story about the a certain fumarole called Caldeira De Pero Botelho. We stayed and admired this one for quite awhile. The story is that at its discoverance it was thought to be the gateway to hell. Steam bellows from its depth and to be honest, this was probably this most haunting fumarole of all. The low gurgling growl bellowed from deep under the earth. We could easily see why this story came to be.
Now the sulfur smell is definitely not for the faint of heart. I couldn’t imagine being one of the townspeople that actually lived only feet away from one of these holes leading to the earth's depths, but Paulo made a good point. After living amongst something for so long you just become accustomed to it, your nose no longer picking up the smell.
The Hot Springs...
Next was probably our favorite part of the tour. Paulo promptly took us to one of the many Azore’s hot springs, Poca Da Dona Beija. Did I mention the Azores has the one of largest concentration of hot springs per square kilometer in the entire world! WOW! For a small fee of 4€ each we got to enjoy a total of five hot springs. (Take note this fee may be taken care of in your tour package depending on the itinerary you plan with FUNtastic Azores tours.)
Let me tell you, if you don’t do anything else, visit this place! Paulo gave us an hour to sooth away our stresses and worries (though who really has those in a beautiful place like this?). Due to the Azores climate the best time to visit would surely be summer, warm beach weather and beautiful flowers galore! Yet, this one trip we were super glad we came during off season. We basically had the place to ourselves and since the weather was on the cooler side (a whopping 62F) the hot temperatures of the hotsprings couldn’t be any more perfect.
Reluctantly, but with hopes of seeing more gorgeous sites, we dried off and hopped back into the van with Paulo and headed to our last destination.
The tea plantations of Gorreana and Porto Formoso. The oldest and currently ONLY tea plantations in all of Europe and this was the best way to end the day. So says the bevy! Dustin and I loooovve tea! We drink tea daily and days can be a drag if we miss our daily dose. We were both very excited about this stop. Family owned and operated since 1883, 100% organic and free of pesticides the plant processes the tea from start to finish, everything being done in house our out in the fields.
At first we got out and had a photo session as the daylight was fading and Dustin wanted to get a few drone shots. Paulo enriched us with the history of the fields before leading us inside to teach us about the drying and sorting process. Get this, the plant has its own tours naturally and I assumed we would be waiting on someone to help us through, but to my surprise Paulo is also a grade A tea expert. How about that? Machines dating back to before I was even born still graced the tiny rooms where the smell of tea wafted around you with each step.
After we learned all we could, finally, tea! They had free samples and of course a small shop with pastries, souvenirs and why of course tea! We bought two bags worth! We sat down and enjoyed our teas with a view over the tea fields to the ocean. It was rather charming.
A Perfect Day...
This day had been the best. An amazing way to start our 3 week journey. All the wealth of informations and stories Paulo was able to share with us, nothing could compare. We enjoyed our tour so much that Paulo actually invited us to come back for round two the next day. We were so excited we promptly agreed. Yet, this is the end to day one, we’ll save day two for another article.
All in all we don’t regret taking this awesome tour! If you ever find yourself visiting Sao Miguel, Azores please hit up FUNtastic Azores tours, you won't regret it! They have many options from day tours, half day tours, to dinner for two paired with a romantic dip in the hot springs. We probably could have taken a full week of tours and still not seen it all.
Remember as I mentioned before, the best time to visit the Azores is definitely late spring to late summer with the Azores climate ranging from 50F-85F most of the year, but this place truly could be appreciated any time of the year! This place is definitely one of our new favorite destinations in the world and reminded us of a mix of the California coast, Costa Rica, and Germany!
If you're not already, we highly recommend following FUNtastic Azores on Instagram for some beautiful Azores trip inspiration!
Thanks again Paulo!!